Interview with Julia Simon
Interview by Loic Bourdeau
In order to continue the discussion about the state of academia and graduate studies, The Grad Caucus Chronicle invited Professor Julia Simon (French, University of California, Davis) to share her views in response to the “Inaugural Issue.” We are grateful to Rebecca Schuman for providing us with her own thought-provoking insights, which serve as a springboard for this interview. Julia Simon is a dedicated professor, mentor, department chair, as well as a bass guitar player (among her many appointments), who has witnessed significant changes in the humanities during her career. She kindly agreed to tell us about her experiences as a graduate student and a faculty member to give us further insight into the workings of our field. This interview aims to provide another new perspective on some key issues inherent to graduate school.
GCC: In "Thesis Hatement", Rebecca Schuman shared her experience in academia and on the job market after getting her PhD in German at UCI. She received a lot of negative responses. In the inaugural issue of The Grad Caucus Chronicle, she discusses these responses: “there’s no way to know how the job market will affect you. But I think it’s a natural mechanism to attempt to banish negative energy about it, to just radiate job-market positivity". Could you comment on this?
Simon: When you sent me that question, it brought me back to being accepted into the PhD program at San Diego. So, I get this acceptance letter and it’s telling me:
“Congratulations, you’ve been accepted in this program; however, we would like to warn you that the job market in French is terrible and we don’t anticipate it getting better and we just want to warn you upfront that your chances of actually becoming an academic are really bad.”
Seriously, this is the welcome to graduate school letter; they called me up later to offer me a fellowship and I said yes. Interestingly, that message didn’t really sink in. It was like, I get that they are warning me but, this will either work or it won’t work. In retrospect, when I think about that warning I think yes, we could issue a warning to everybody. But how many people would see that warning and choose not to pursue a PhD? Not that many, right? Because people do this in the hopes obviously of getting a job but usually because they’re passionate about what it is that they’re doing. They think this is the right path for them. I think there’s an interesting psychology in all of this and I do think it’s good to be realistic about the job market, to think about the market in serious ways, to be realistic about the possible outcomes but at the same time I wonder what good it would really do to be negative about the job market all the time from the beginning.
GCC: Should departments be more upfront and also present non-academic alternatives to graduate studies?
Simon: Possibly. When we do professional training we should be thinking about the various possibilities for our students, not just a job at a Research 1 institution , but also other places. I think graduate studies could lead to positions in publishing or at a private school, for example. But I do think that people who are driven to get a PhD — especially in something like French — who know that the job market isn't great … I’m not sure that warning them would necessary make them shy away and not pursue graduate studies.
GCC: How do you explain the seeming fetishization of tenure-track positions?
Simon: I think the piece of the truth needs to be communicated that the likelihood of getting a really good tenure-track job as your first job is just not there anymore, that you’re much more likely to get either a post-doc for a year or two years, or that you’re likely to get a temporary position that turns into a tenure-track position. It may be that you get a tenure-track that you’re not really crazy about and you stay in it for a few years, you publish, and you move out of that job before you come up for tenure.
As far as the publishing record is concerned: a recruitment committee oftentimes wants to see an agenda that is realistic and that will come to fruition.
A series of mediocre publications versus a project that’s looking pretty exciting to a committee that looks like it has a lot of promise sometimes has more impact. It’s not so much a proven publication as it is how they’re evaluating the project as a whole that is important. I don’t think the hiring people could stray so easily from what type of candidate they are supposed to be looking for at a public university. There would be some mechanism in place to prevent that. At a lot of private universities, some of those mechanisms aren’t in place and so they all of a sudden get excited about one candidate in the pool that ought to be eliminated because it is not really what they're searching for and they just sort of go crazy. What I have witnessed in a number of departments is that the faculty search tends to be a pretty contentious time for a department. A lot of judgments are being made. People are kind of putting on the line what they value and what they don’t value; there’s a kind of ranking and hierarchization that goes on when you’re looking for candidates and if the department has internal fractures to begin with, it’s really going to become clear when you’re trying to choose a new colleague. It’s a pretty contentious operation for most departments.
GCC: Is there a way for applicants to prepare for such potential tensions?
Simon: In some sense, you can’t always anticipate what is going to happen when you get out there, and you want to stay true to who you are and what you want. You don’t want to present something that you’re not going to be comfortable with when you’re there. But on the other hand if you do look at your future department’s website, look at the profiles, and look at the kind of research being undertaken by faculty, you could probably start to perceive if there’s a generational rift in the department or if there is a kind of ideological divide in a department.
GCC: Schuman remarks: “Graduate programs need to […] admit how terrible the market is.” How do you see the market at the moment and what do you do here at UCD to prepare your students for the market? What are some requirements that graduate students should fulfill if they wish to find a good academic position?
Simon: Graduate Studies at UCD runs a number of workshops to prepare students for the market and we do that in the French department, too, with mock interviews and that sort of stuff. I’m not going to say that the market is not bad — but it’s also not that bad; there are jobs out there. One important factor for students is the willingness to move for a job. I think a lot of people from this program have not gotten jobs because they’re not willing to leave Northern California and that’s kind of a limiting factor. There isn’t really any great advice about it except to produce good work and get a good publication record out before you leave. A publication record that you’re proud of, but one that is not too big, because you will need your published works when you’re trying to get tenure. It is also important to have a distinctive profile. When I was on the job market I remember this person telling me that critical theory was crap and asking me why I would waste time with it. I had to defend myself. This helped me get a call back for a second interview, and I was really shocked.
GCC: There is currently some talk about what should happen to the dissertation. Some argue it should be replaced by publication-worthy pieces. What is your opinion on this matter? Is there a better option?
Simon: I actually thought about this question quite a bit when you sent it to me. I was thinking, first of all, for us, this is a book-driven discipline, so now for you to get tenure in most institutions you need a book and I think you need practice. Even if the dissertation isn't going to be exactly your first book, you need the practice of conceiving a larger project, which treats a set of problems, and seeks to answer a set of questions. I think even for non-book-driven disciplines like linguistics, you still need to be able to conceive of a research project in an area that goes beyond the bounds of one article at a time. While I understand this move, I just don't think you're really going to learn what it means to be involved in a sustained project unless you’re forced through this exercise. I’m probably a pretty good example in this regard, because I wrote a dissertation that was not my first book. At the end I looked at it and I said, “It’s not a good book project, there is a theme and it is more or less coherent as a dissertation, but it wouldn’t make a good book,” but at least having gone through the process I knew what was missing; I knew that wasn’t going to work as a book. I also think there is a kind of revolution going on in publishing but I think that publishing is going to persist for a while especially in literary fields. I get asked to do tenure reviews - I do two or three every summer - and all these institutions ask for books and I think that even departments that do not require a book would like to see a series of coherent articles that makes sense instead of a bunch of one-off things on different topics. For me, the project of a dissertation is worthy of a couple years of work.
GCC: Schuman notes that people are afraid to express their opinions and that academia runs on cowardice. How does one negotiate delicate situations that could jeopardize a graduate student's future?
Simon: When I saw the question I thought I was a pretty interesting person to ask about this, because I've always had the opposite point of view — that is, you’re only in trouble when you're not willing to say what you think publicly. If you go on the record with what you said, then there is a record of what you said and people can’t persecute you for it. That doesn’t always work. Particularly at a lot of private institutions there’s an enormous amount of pressure. I was denied tenure at Washington University and when the chair called me in, he said, “It’s not your research and it’s not your teaching and it’s not your service.” So I said, “What is it?” and he said, “You just don’t fit in.” Part of it was because I spoke my mind too often. It was a horrible moment and it was a horrible episode in my career but I kind of survived it in a way because I thought: “well, I will find a place where people are interested in what I have to say or I won’t and I’ll find something else to do with my life.” Since then, I’ve been really committed to this idea. Some colleagues would say “never put this in writing” but I’ve always thought the opposite: “put it in writing and say this is how you feel” … you’re just in much better shape. I’m not the best example of this. I was brave enough to be the chair of the senate committee that investigated the pepper spray incident; there were faculty members who were afraid and would never do this and are afraid that promotion action or merit action would come back to haunt them. I thought: “I dare you to do it anyways.”
Julia Simon received her PhD in French from the University of California, at San Diego. She specializes in 18th-century French literature and culture, particularly the work of the philosophes, with special emphasis on the relevance of Enlightenment social, political, moral, and aesthetic theory today. She is the author of Beyond Contractual Morality: Ethics, Law, and Literature in Eighteenth-Century France and Mass Enlightenment: Critical Studies in Rousseau and Diderot. Her interest in music has also led her to teach classes on the blues. She recently published Rousseau Among the Moderns: Music, Aesthetics, Politics.
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