In 2013 I found myself simultaneously single and on the academic job market for the first time. I was thirty, several years into graduate school and at work on a dissertation about nineteenth-century poetry and pleasure. Literary studies, my dissertation argued, was blighted at its core. It had forsaken pleasure, the very reason most people devote their lives to literature in the first place—and the likes of Shelley and Hopkins were apostles of an enlightened hedonism that promised a way out.
There was, of course, another blight on the profession. I entered graduate school in 2008, at the start of the economic downturn. The story is a many-times-told one: the retreading of the American university into a for-profit institution that runs on adjunct and graduate student labor, and, looming behind it, the disinvestment in the life of the mind by the American public. In 1970, 75 percent of university faculty were tenure stream and 25 percent contingent; by the time I sent in my first application, the two figures had flipped. In 2013, the English academic market featured around twenty tenure-track job vacancies in my specialty area, each of which had between two hundred and three hundred candidates from around the world—many of them already professors—vying for it. The jobs for which I was training hardly existed.
This was a reality that we graduate students banished to the frontiers of our consciousness, for the sake of sanity and self-preservation, as many do the knowledge of their own deaths. Picture a pilgrimage through desert expanses, or Antarctic freeze, over seven years—a trial filled with luminous discoveries, in which, perforce, you band together with your fellow travelers, forging bonds that become the best and deepest of your life—where you know early on that you will likely never make it to your destination. Small wonder that so many of us become at least mildly depressed, while others succumb to more serious forms of mental illness. The brutality of the journey also exacts its toll in more visible ways: I watched as certain of my colleagues gained or lost alarming amounts of weight in short periods. Graduate school is unkind to the body, a time of monastic restraint so vise-like and lasting, your inborn eagerness for touch can dwindle to what William Blake called the “shadow of Desire.”
How to cope with such holistic destitution? If you are kind to yourself and want to retain some semblance of mental and physical health, you seek out oases of sensuality. You go on dates and, if you’re lucky, have sex. The stretches between these can be lengthy and withering, which is why you store them away and, camel-like, subsist on them as long as you can. Like many others, though, I wanted more than oases: I wanted the lasting sustenance of a relationship. Looking for one impelled me into the world of digital dating, made me a pilgrim whose progress in that realm and the academic market unfolded in tandem. Before long, I struggled to tell the two apart.
As everyone knows, applying for academic jobs in the humanities is about as conducive to pleasure as a catheter insertion. In the field of English literature, you begin by writing up a generic cover letter that you then tailor for each school to which you apply; in addition to the letter, all applications require a curriculum vitae, three letters of recommendation, and, typically, one or more of the following: a research statement summing up your scholarship, a teaching philosophy statement, transcripts, a writing sample, and a dissertation abstract. You customize your cover letter for a given job, combine it with the requisite materials, send off the application pack by the deadline (often October 15th or November 1st), and hold your breath.
If a hiring committee takes an interest in you, they usually email you with a request for additional materials—that is, some combination of the above documents that they didn’t require initially. If on reading these they are still interested in you, they contact you for a preliminary interview. Preliminary interviews typically happen at the conference called MLA, an annual shit show swarming with panicky graduate students who’ve traveled to whatever city it happens to be in—this year, Philadelphia—on their own dime, to meet with hiring committees and take their desperate crack at entering the profession. Survive this round and you are contacted for a campus visit, where the school flies you to its campus to present a paper before the department, partake in additional interviewing, and often give a teaching demo. You are one of three finalists, generally, in this case. You often wait an additional several weeks to find out whether you will get an offer. From application to offer, the process takes around five months.
I began, in the spring of 2013, as most everyone does, by drafting my cover letter. Cover letters in my field must conform to a very specific template—an architecture, inviolable, in which each paragraph serves a prescribed purpose and appears at an ordained moment. Despite being so rigidly scripted, though, the letter proved nigh impossible to write. I stared at my laptop screen, which displayed a blank Word document containing only the letterhead and “Dear xxxxxxx.” (The identity of the addressee is frequently left unspecified in the job ad. Is the person a renowned scholar with an endowed chair? An undergraduate hacky-sack aficionado helping out with admin tasks? Does it matter?) How even to begin a thousand-word missive in which every sentence has ramifications for your life and career, and any misstep—a gauche turn of phrase, an awkward deployment of this or that theoretical watchword—could result in your application’s being consigned to the dustbin?
Bored and intimidated, I minimized Word and opened OkCupid. It had been rough going lately: I’d written six singles over the last two weeks, and all six, seeing my message, had visited my profile and decided not to reply. Wondering whether my profile was accounting for these misses, I clicked on it and scanned for weak points. Like all OkCupid profiles, it was organized into the following sections:
WHAT I’M DOING WITH MY LIFE
I’M REALLY GOOD AT
I SPEND A LOT OF TIME THINKING ABOUT
YOU SHOULD MESSAGE ME IF
I squinted at the text I’d written beneath each category. Did any of it hint I was some latter-day Jeffrey Dahmer masquerading as a hip young academic? I was a “chill, big-hearted guy with a waggish sense of humor at work on a Ph.D. in English Lit,” I loved things like Trainspotting and Anna Karenina, I could make cannoli from scratch, I played guitar. So far, so good. My pictures represented me as a sort of poor man’s Don Draper with a dark brown coif and Roman nose, who lit up around family and friends.
In all I felt okay with what I saw. Still, it can be jarring to behold one’s personality broken down into discrete morsels of desirability, to be scrutinized by a stranger on a commuter train. Like most OkCupid users, I’d answered the app’s extensive questionnaire in an effort to find the users most compatible with me. These questions range from the philosophical (Do you believe everything happens for a reason?) to the intimate (Do you enjoy it when someone uses refrigerated items on you during sex?). Once I’d completed the questionnaire, OkCupid transmuted my personality into a bar graph that neatly quantified the most salient elements of who I was: More Literary, Less Optimistic, More Artsy, More Athletic, and, my favorite, Less Suave. Now, when I looked at other users who’d filled out the questionnaire, I could see our compatibility stated as a percentage. The ideal, presumably, was to find a partner with whom you were absolutely compatible. Would this dream scenario amount to dating myself?