Day 101: tis the season

WARNING: if you wish to read neither about my experiences on the dating market nor on the academic job market, you may wish to skip this post.

Something that people say about the academic job market is: “it’s kind of like dating.” That was never helpful advice for me, because I had never really dated before six months ago. Before I met H-W-M-B-P, when I was 22, all of my “romantic” encounters (if you are reading this out loud, to your cat, perhaps, be sure to make the air quotes around “romantic” obnoxiously exaggerated and mannered) essentially consisted of someone within my circle of friends getting drunk within a certain radius of me, and us then more or less accidentally falling on top of each other. [1]

Now, however, that I have gone out on a large number of dates, I will hazard the following claim: dating is kind of like the academic job market.

This observation is based on my experiences of the last four months, during which time I’ve been out with (I counted ‘em) sixteen men. I would like to be clear that I went out with all of these men because I wanted to go out with them, not as some kind of perverse pseudo-anthropological social experiment.

Parallel 1: rapid disenchantment.

My first year applying for academic jobs I landed four or five great MLA interviews. I wasn’t terribly surprised or terribly anxious about them. I went out on the job market with the blithe self-assurance that only an ingénue possesses. I mostly enjoyed the interviews. I felt pretty bloody confident that I was dazzling everyone with my charm and intelligence. I was, frankly, deeply shocked when I wasn’t invited for a campus visit by each and every institution.

After that first year, things went downhill. The problem was the memory of the previous year’s poor showing haunted every new interview. Even if things seemed to be going well—in fact, especially if they seemed to be going well—a vertiginous feeling would come over me, and I would think “you thought it was going well last time; ipso facto it is probably actually going disastrously. Like, SUPER DISASTROUSLY.” And then, in the middle of uttering a sentence that began something like, “my dissertation’s central claim is—” I would have the disconcerting feeling that I was floating outside my body hearing myself begin the sentence and the part of me that was floating outside myself would suddenly become aware that the only way it could think of to finish said sentence was with the words “la la la.” This sensation would inevitably have a deleterious effect on my physically present self’s ability to finish said sentence in a coherent manner.

The first parallel between the academic job market and dating lies in this phenomenon of rapid disenchantment.

A few weeks ago, feeling depressed and home alone, I decided I needed to read a book to distract myself. Somewhat perversely, I chose to download Aziz Ansari’s recent non-fiction book about dating, Modern Romance. Ha!

It turned out actually not to be such a bad choice. Although in some ways depressing, it is also, for someone who has recently gone on a lot of dates, deeply comforting because it validates certain vague hunches that I’ve been harboring as based in fact or at least common experience.

Parallel 2: uncertainty leads to attraction.

The first hunch, and the second parallel that I wish to draw between interviewing for academic jobs and dating is: uncertainty leads to attraction. Does this idea sound familiar at all to you? Because it does to me. I actually wrote a whole book about it – about how uncertainty rivets the attention. Does it sound interesting to you? You can buy it here for about $3000. My concern, in that book, is with how literature engrosses its readers but it makes a lot of sense that this same phenomenon applies to human attraction — whether one’s attractiveness as a job candidate or as a romantic prospect.

In The Passions of the Soul Descartes says that we wonder at an object before we know whether something is … well, the word he uses is “convenable,” and it gets translated in various ways, which is why I hesitate, but I think he means something like: we wonder at an object before we know whether it is suitable to us, or befitting. I think this is especially true of an object of desire; the uncertainty, the potential for it to be suitable, is incredibly alluring. And that potential can be sustained so long as the object remains at a distance. It can also be maintained, even if the object is brought closer, and if it is itself a desiring subject (as opposed to, say, a slab of bacon or a pair of golden boots) if its orientation towards the first desiring subject remains inscrutable.

In other words, if you are unsure whether someone likes you, that very uncertainty makes that person more desirable to you. I think this is true and also deeply infuriating. I also think it means that I should have skipped the monograph and written a book about wonder and attraction that could have made me a bestselling author on the NYTimes Advice, How-to & Miscellaneous list.

Instead, Aziz Ansari wrote that book, or at least, part of his book about modern dating describes the phenomenon whereby uncertainty leads to attraction as in the case of the suitor who doesn’t text you back being the one who gets most under your skin.

Let’s take for example’s sake someone I went out with a few times a few months ago. We got on reasonably well partly because we had a lot in common: we’re about the same age; he is divorced and could thus empathize with my recent separation; we are both academics; we both live in the same neighborhood. It was easy. We were both extremely blunt about what we were seeking, which was pretty much the same thing, and boiled down to “someone tolerable to have sex with.” By “tolerable,” we both meant some combination of “sufficiently attractive” and “sufficiently un-annoying.”

I soon realized that my upfrontness had an interesting effect. Because I was a sure thing, my suitor never made himself available at normal times like a Friday evening but only on, I dunno, a Saturday afternoon between 1 and 3, or on a Friday night after 12am; you know, before or after his REAL DATE that evening with a hot yoga instructor. I didn’t really mind, but I was also curious: was it that he liked these other women better than he liked me? No, but, as he explained, he had to go on these dates with them in order to possibly eventually win the opportunity to have sex with them.

The thing that was confusing to me was that he seemed to have a bad time on the dates to the extent that he would sometimes text me during them because he was bored. The reason he often didn’t enjoy his dates, I came to understand, was because he chose the women he dated solely based on their pictures. He literally never read anybody’s profile. He would simply date the hottest-looking women who would agree to go out with him regardless of what inanities they spouted in their self-descriptions.

Fair enough. Maybe that’s what I would do too if I were a straight man living in a sea of pilates instructors and aspiring actresses. The problem, though, was that although he chose women to go out with as if he only cared about their looks, in fact he had a very low threshold for people who did not meet his standards of intelligence or political acumen. (His example was a model he went out with who had never heard the term “water-boarding.”)

I, on the contrary, read people’s profiles quite carefully, and no matter how good-looking a person is, there are certain red flags that will torpedo his chances with me. For example, if a man suggests that we exchange “our favorite guided meditations,” or explains earnestly that he loves to “eat clean,” it doesn’t matter how good-looking he is. He has automatically failed to fulfill the “not annoying” part of my criteria. Being not annoying is by far my most important criterion, and I tend to take it fairly seriously.

But I’ve digressed. The point is that my local academic friend had no uncertainty about me, but he was extremely uncertain about the hot models and this only intensified their natural yogallure. It was a captivating form of play to see if he could get the hottest women to sleep with him.

Here, as with, possibly, everything in life, it all comes back to the Hogarthian line of beauty: the S-shaped line is seductive because what is around the bend is out of sight. It wasn’t merely the women’s (toned) curves that allured him; it was also the epistemological curve of some prospect that was tantalizingly inaccessible.

I was able to take advantage of this uncertainty-leads-to-attraction phenomenon when I was on the job market. I clearly remember playing my cards very close to my chest during my campus visit at my current institution. I was purposefully vague when it came to all sorts of things, including how inclined I would be to leave my current position as a postdoc (where I had two more years of funding remaining) and whether I had other campus visits. After I got the job and was well into my first year a grad student asked me if I had had many campus visits the year I was competing for my current job. I burst out laughing: “no, that was my only one!” I declared, somewhat gleefully. One of my senior colleagues overheard me and murmured somewhat acidly, “yes, but we didn’t realize that.”

My insouciant suitor’s approach to dating jibes with David Hume’s account of how we typically approach games of all sorts: the player, Hume says, has two points of focus; first, a desired “end” (in this case the prospect of sleeping with the very attractive woman) which, even if artificial, is necessary to secure our attention “in the heat of the action,” and second, the gameplay itself—“the difficulty, variety, and sudden reverses of fortune”—in which consists “our satisfaction.” So, in the case of my suitor, the “end” was sleeping with the hot yoga lady and the “gameplay” was the messaging, cocktail-drinking, etc. required to achieve this end. The end for him was in a sense artificial because he did not unequivocally want what he was seeking. But the “gameplay” would have not been pleasurable (indeed, it would have mere labor) without the prospect of this end. As Hume says, “we can have no enjoyment” in such challenges without the desired endpoint that secures our initial interest in the game (HN, p. 452).

Was I offended by his privileging of the yoga instructors over me? No, I wasn’t, not really, because I wasn’t especially enthralled by him either. We went out a few times and then it petered out. For a while we tried half-heartedly to make plans but we both had busy schedules and nothing ever seemed to work out. I was like, “oh well, we’ll figure something out eventually,” and didn’t think much more about it.

Parallel 3: the scarcity principle

And then something interesting happened: all of a sudden, he wanted to pin down a date. He kept texting me. Why? I think it was simply that as soon I was less readily available, I became more attractive to him. This again is familiar to me as a phenomenon from the job market. I think I even implied when I was scheduling my campus visit at my current institution that it was going to be terribly difficult for me to fit it into my calendar because I just had such a busy January. I wanted to create the impression that I was in high demand. This tactic is very similar to Ansari’s description of the scarcity principle as it applies in dating: if you text someone infrequently, “you are, in effect, creating a scarcity of you and making yourself more attractive.”

This is, obviously, duh, not a new observation. Ovid says as much in Book 2 of the Ars Amatoria, observing that Demophoon, Ulysses, and Protesilaus all kept their ladies lusting after them by making themselves scarce. (Though, of course, Ovid warns, this tactic needs to be used in moderation in order to achieve the desired result; used excessively, it has the opposite effect: out of sight, out of mind).

Both romantic and academic job pursuit can feel like an endless game, but the worst sort of game, the compulsory kind, like sports day at school (do you have this in America? It is a loathsome annual occasion of ritual humiliation involving beanbags and fiendish obstacle courses which I detested as a child to an extent that I cannot overstate), that is to say, a game that is not truly a form of free play because it’s a game that you don’t feel at liberty to withdraw from.

How does one inure oneself to the frustrations and disappointment endemic to pursuing both someone tolerable to kiss and an institution tolerable to teach at? I turn, in closing, back to Ovid, since he wrote not only the handbook on the art of love but also the manual on how to cure it: “He who can counterfeit sanity will be sane,” he writes. Just so, only by practicing indifference is desire unlearnt. [2]



[1] N.B. I maintain that this is how all relationships in the U.K. begin.

[2] Ovid, from “The Remedies to Love” trans. J. H. Mozley. Loeb Classical Library, 1929.


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