Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Silly—And Sobering—History of MLA Job Ads

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What can we learn about the history of the academic job market from job advertisements alone? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Jonathan Goodwin, an associate professor of English at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, knows this best: For the last year, he’s been reading through 50 years’ worth of job advertisements posted to the Modern Language Association’s Job Information List as part of an independent research project.

As part of that ongoing project, Goodwin is mapping the frequency of keywords like “Shakespeare,” “literary theory,” and “feminist” in the advertisements. He plans eventually to create a database that tracks how often certain specialties have been advertised over time.

Goodwin had planned to present his findings at the annual MLA conference in Vancouver last weekend, but, alas, he fell ill. So he shared his work online instead. And he took to Twitter, posting excerpts from individual ads that struck him as particularly enlightening or entertaining. In short order, his feed became the talk of the online academic community.

“I was pleased that other academics found these as interesting as I did,” he said in an email. “There have been many expressions of wonder and amusement.”

Goodwin’s project started when the MLA posted a complete archive of job advertisements, dating back to 1965. Jim Ridolfo, an assistant professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital studies at the University of Kentucky, used optical character recognition software to make the ads searchable, and that inspired Goodwin to do more with the available data.

“I'm interested in the history of the discipline, and these job advertisements are an important primary document,” he said. “Like many scholars in English-related fields, I was on the market for several years, and I was genuinely curious to read ads from a different era than the ones I was familiar with.”

He started by using keyword searches to find patterns. Then he began to read the thousands of advertisements sequentially. Today, he’s up to about 1990. “It has taken longer than I want to say,” he wrote. “Rewarding, though.”

What has Goodwin learned from his journey through the archive? For one thing, he says, job ads have undergone a major tonal change. The older listings, he said, are often marked by “informality of tone, overt sexism, and many other cultural markers of the essentially guild-like atmosphere prevalent in mid-’60s.”

Many of the ads he’s been posting are, in that vein, amusing. Goodwin points to one of his favorites—an advertisement from a community college in Arizona that touts cosmetology and silversmithing as its main areas of instruction.

Others have been sobering. “The beleaguered tone that many chairs took when the MLA began in the early 1970s to list messages from every department whether they were hiring or not was also notable,” Goodwin said.

There’s a fair amount of gallows humor, but “this was a consequence of the emerging job crisis,” he wrote, “which is not funny at all.”

In some instances, he recalled, chairs wrote that not only did they not have any jobs to advertise, they were losing theirs, too. “I was a bit shocked by those,” Goodwin said.

So frustrated job seekers should take heed: The often-discussed labor crisis in the humanities isn’t entirely unprecedented. “I knew in an abstract sense from reading histories of the discipline that the job market began to crash in the early 1970s,” Goodwin says. “Seeing the outright panic and dawning horror in many of the advertisements made me realize even more that it's been a perpetual disaster as long as I've been alive.”

With that cheerful notion in mind, let’s take a look at some of Goodwin’s best finds:

'That’s a First': New Titles, Terms, and Fields

'You Want Me to Have What?' Requirements, Onerous and Otherwise

'Sorry, No Jobs Here ...'

'... and the Ones We Do Have Aren't Much Good.'

'Stay on Your Side of the Mason-Dixon' and Other Geographical Matters

The Old Boys Club: Ads That Don't Seem EEOC-Compliant

The full sample is on Twitter: @joncgoodwin. Give it a look.

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