thinking of applying to a SLAC? start here

As the job market begins in earnest, I thought I would post a few things to consider for those seeking a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college, somewhat mythic places that can seem like romantic idylls or claustrophobic hellholes depending on the novel or film.

First, for newer readers of orgtheory, the comments on this post from 2012 are a fantastic guideline for framing your application in terms of the balance between teaching and research:

how to get those sweet liberal arts jobs

Second, for those not so sure about whether or not to apply, here are some pros (and associated/implied cons) based on my own personal experience of a decade or so:

PRO 1: We’re hiring and investing in faculty. My own institution is advertising for t-t social science jobs in IA, Anthro, Econ, and American politics this year. I count about 15 t-t liberal arts positions advertised on the ASA job board as of early August, many with teaching loads of 2-2 or 3-2 (sometimes 2-2 in the first year). Endowments of private liberal arts colleges have rebounded since 2008. Teaching loads may vary quite a bit, but leave policies, internal research grants, funding for undergrad research assistants, and externally-funded course development initiatives can be generous as well. Grant for integrating choreography into your classroom, anyone? Do your homework on the health of a school’s endowment, its teaching load and leave policies, and its relationships with foundations like Mellon, Teagle, etc. While the research support does not approach an R1 and the grants office may be small, that also means it is not burdened with a lot of red tape. For this reason, my two collaborators at R1s and I ran our joint ASA-NSF grant through my SLAC’s grants office (thanks Nancy!). I can apply for internal funding for small research expenses quickly; this works a lot better for my not-very-expensive research program than spending oodles of time applying for external grants I may or may not get.

PRO 2: If you like teaching, have a short attention span and eclectic interests, you will have lots of opportunities to indulge your curiosity about millennials’ interests in commune birthing practices, ecotourism, etc. I’ve received course development grants for a sociology of biography course, one on environmental utopias, and one on “Democracy 2.0”, and taken students ziplining, to plays, to museums, Occupy Wall Street, etc. You will most certainly end up attending lectures and dinners on topics way afield of your specialty. Seriously consider if that is something that sounds appealing or burdensome to you. But if you want to collaborate or co-teach with an engineering professor or a GIS expert? Live abroad with students in London or Costa Rica for a semester? Have at it. I took this to the limit by living in a faculty apartment in a “scholars’ house” on campus for 3 years (free room and board and bat abatement!)– but you don’t have to take it that far to enjoy the occasional dinner with a playwright. The flipside of this is, of course, service demands way beyond your department before tenure– on anything from the campus master plan to student conduct.

PRO 3: Small college towns in out of the way places can have great quality of life. As in, two-minute walk to the office. Every day is bring your dog to work day. Cheap rent because you aren’t competing with grad students for housing. Affordable home prices and child care. Free, plentiful faculty parking. For those considering rural or suburban liberal arts colleges but thinking, “I’ll live in Nearest City!”, I strongly urge you to consider living close to campus, at least for the first year or two. For a lot of reasons, this is often impossible, but if that’s the case, you will want to consider carefully before applying whether your home/personal/family life will be sustainable or tolerable with a long commute and commitments on campus at night or on weekends– see PRO 2. Get advice from people who have made it work if this is what you are planning.

Finally, in terms of updating the 2012 advice above, candidates interviewing at SLACs this season should prepare to ask/talk about hot topics like: residential life and how much faculty are expected to participate (this is increasing at a lot of places), assessment practices and attendant demands on faculty (social science fac in particular), interdisciplinarity and any advising or teaching expectations for other programs, and community engagement (ditto on social science faculty demands). Most importantly, don’t assume what the students are like based on school reputation. Beyond the outstanding departmental groupies you will be invited to meet, ask as many faculty as you can what the range of students at a particular school are REALLY like in terms of privilege, politics, partying, writing ability, interests, etc. For all their similar marketing, many liberal arts colleges have very distinctive cultures– and a community of 2000 students may be deeply influenced in great ways by small groups of D1 athletes, nontraditional students, or theater buffs. If you are running out of questions or need to catch your breath, ask a senior faculty member how the student body has changed over time.

There’s plenty more I could say here but I’d love to get comments from other faculty on the liberal arts job market and the lived experience of liberal arts jobs, which perhaps more than others, require a love of the absurd ritual, or at least a healthy sense of humor about collegiate pretensions. So commenters, what did I get wrong or right? Best or worst novels or films about the liberal arts experience? Fire away!

Written by carolinewlee

August 9, 2015 at 6:10 pm

Posted in academia

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  1. […] You can read Caroline’s self-introduction, and her past posts about her and others’ research on deliberative democracy here, here, and here, as well as her observations about what it’s like to be a professor at a small liberal arts college (SLAC). […]


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