Andrew Kay explains that applying for an academic position and on-line dating in the 21st century dehumanize the pursuer in very similar ways.
I minimized OkCupid and returned to my cover letter. I felt afresh the silliness of the undertaking: to make an earnest bid for any job in which youâ€™re one of perhaps three hundred highly qualified applicants, in a field where twenty such jobs might come along in a given year, requires a degree of moxie bordering on self-delusion. Both the academic job market and online dating, I was coming to realize, involve their participants in economies of excess, superabundance. You enter each world laden with the knowledge that you are one agent in a vast and hyper-competitive ecosystem surging with rivals; that, having captured the curiosity of a person or institution of your desiring, youâ€™re but one of a dozen prospects they are likely entertaining alongside you. Make a false moveâ€”or simply come off as averageâ€”and risk being swept aside.
Like the OkCupid profile, the academic job letter reduces the multi-chromatic splendor of a self to a single beige that it shares with everyone else. Here are inner worldsâ€”rococo architectures fashioned over years of contemplationâ€”broken down into a short opening paragraph wherein you introduce yourself, indicating your home institution and the title of your dissertation, as well as the job you seek (MY SELF SUMMARY and WHAT Iâ€™M LOOKING FOR); two paragraphs in which you sum up your dissertation, articles and research interests (WHAT Iâ€™M DOING WITH MY LIFE and I SPEND A LOT OF TIME THINKING ABOUT); a couple of paragraphs in which you dramatize your strengths as a teacher and convey the myriad things you offer in the way of department service (Iâ€™M REALLY GOOD AT); a closing paragraph in which you say, in effect, â€œIâ€™d love an interview; if youâ€™re interested, hereâ€™s how to contact meâ€ (YOU SHOULD MESSAGE ME IF).
Somehow, within the confines of this form, I had to capture hiring committeesâ€™ attention. This meant gussying up the raw material of my scholarship in language that was sexy, piquant, certain to leave them wanting more. English academics, I should explain, occupy a peculiar relation to their ideas and the language in which these are housed. Many display an erotic responsiveness to the terms trending in their field: the aptly chosen theoretical catchword, or charismatic articulation of a (preferably anarchic) thought. (I once asked a colleague whether she and her partner spent much time talking about their research together. â€œThatâ€™s called foreplay, Andrew,â€ she responded.)