On Academic Jobs & Doctorates

(This is a version of a previous post I wrote for the FMRSI, and intended as an introduction to the marvels and joys of our world, in its worldly aspects; plus a cheeky little guide for prospective PhDs – and maybe even current ones and their supervisers. Hopefully useful.)


A ROUGH GUIDE TO THE JOB MARKET

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Or, on the approximate procedure for getting into the profession (and moving around within it). Depicted above: an artist’s impression of the job market, and its process. Being the more polite version. I couldn’t find any attractive manuscript images of meat markets – of a sort that wouldn’t put one off one’s dinner, let alone every venturing into the world of academic employment. Matters aren’t always necessarily that bad, but given that the job market’s usual motile state is currently exacerbated by Present Economic Circumstances, it may be best – for preserving one’s physical and mental health – to maintain a cynical stance and a degree of wariness.
See also: JOB INFORMATION SOURCES ONLINE; some offer a sign-up service, whereby you may receive email notifications of new information (generally in the form of daily or weekly summaries, or selections by area or keyword).

On the worldwide job market for the first time? Have a look at this advice on the job market: written for doctoral students in philosophy, but applicable for postgraduates in Medieval and/or Renaissance studies (substituting the AHA, APA, and MLA for the American Philosophical Association).

What follows below is a broad guide to The Regular Modus Operandi. There are variations from area to area: for example, some (and some universities and countries) still operate by a “placement” system (and this is regarded as entirely above board and normal).  Obrienatrix sadly only knows how such routes work by hearsay from older colleagues on how things used to work back in the day, contemporaries in those fields where the placement route is still in operation. So here’s The Regular Order of Things.

  • The main round starts in the autumn of the year before a potential job would start;
    • applications being due through October-November;
    • first interviews at the big conferences at the end of December;
    • second interviews and campus visits in January-March;
    • then decisions etc.
  • There’s a second main round in February-April, for jobs being vacated by people moving on to other jobs via round 1 above.
  • And a third round in April-July (sometimes even later, through August, in Europe):
    • often temporary jobs, one-year posts replacing people on research, sabbatical, maternity, or other leave;
    • some re-hirable (if universities are deploying a hiring policy of one-year contracts, for budgetary and tenure reasons);
    • some “lucky dip” jobs

While many universities worldwide (i.e. not just North America) participate in the big annual job market fairs, they do not necessarily follow the same schedule. Best advice here is to do some further research if set on working in one particular country: websites of individual universities, national or regional professional bodies, and  advertising sources (online and print). In the UK and Ireland, for example, the job market will run year-round. Temporary jobs may be advertised at quite short notice, and all timings may depend on somewhat idiosyncratic (or quaintly historical) administrative and council calendars. For Irish and UK professional bodies, for example see Ireland: Guilds on the FMRSI. Most jobs are advertised on Jobs.ac.uk (academic jobs in the UK but also abroad): one may search for jobs on this site, and subscribe to Jobs by Email for vacancies in universities, FE colleges, research institutions, commercial & public sector bodies, schools & charities. See also: national newspapers (e.g. paper edition of The Irish Times on Fridays – their electronic edition is not entirely fiable for job searches), and the websites of individual universities, colleges, schools, and other institutions – here in Ireland and abroad. If there is no obvious “vacancies” / “job opportunities” link on an institution’s home page, go to “administration” > “human resources.” A word of warning: some institutions (e.g. certain Oxford and Cambridge colleges) advertise posts first (and sometimes only) on their own websites.

Factors in getting a job:

  • Properly presented application
    • with all the requisite materials;
    • without errors or ommissions (of substance or form);
    • ticking all the boxes: covering all the specs in the Further Particulars;
    • showing some research has been done into the institution in question, i.e. that one is interested and cares;
    • without anything that could constitute a turn-off for a reasonable person: good (but not too good) stationery, plain white paper & black ink, pleasant fonts (but not too fancy), nice and clear mise en page (but not too precious or designer).
  • Research:
    • completed PhD: in some fields, it is acceptable for the PhD being close to completion and a date set for the viva/defence later that academic year; this used to be more generally the case;
    • some kind of publication record (or at least in progress);
    • a writing sample: an article or a dissertation chapter: The Received Wisdom = around 20 pages, good, clear, and comprehensible to an intelligent non-specialist;
    • plans for future research;
    • [for the next stage] (a) job talk(s).
  • Teaching:
    • training;
    • experience;
    • a portfolio: courses taught, student feedback, sample course outlines, Statement/Philosophy;
    • plans for future teaching;
    • [for the next stage] teaching samples: usually set nearer the time of 2nd interview, but worth thinking about beforehand.
  • Extras:
    • other work and relevant experience;
    • administrative (ex. sitting on committees), organisation, and “service” (ex. running interdisciplinary societies, colloquia, reading-groups);
    • work on group research projects;
    • successful grant applications;
    • organising and running conferences and journals.
  • X-Factors:
    • references;
    • referees’ contacts;
    • your own contacts;
    • unpredictable individual subjective responses to your application;
    • the same with regard to your person, in interview;
    • interviews – moods and impressions On The Day, on all sides;
    • external factors beyond your control, such as other candidates, internal candidates, and pre-selected favourites;
    • how Dame Fortune feels on the day. And from minute to minute through the day. And through succeeding days.

The main job market conferences:

The American Historical Association (AHA): its annual meeting is the largest annual gathering of historians in North America, and includes the main international job market (including major European universities). The Association provides a clearing-house for information on history careers, compiles directories of historians and historical programs, publishes pamphlets on professional issues, sponsors four small grant-in-aid programs, and cosponsors two fellowship competitions.

The American Philological Association (APA, the principal learned society in North America for the study of ancient Greek and Roman languages, literatures, and civilizations): resources on their site include information for job-seekers – their Annual Meeting is also the main international job market (including major European universities) in Classical litt. hum., extending up to the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The Modern Language Association (MLA; US-based; the main international organization for the literary humanities – English, all foreign languages, and comparative literature): the Job Information List comes out every Friday, and may be subscribed to and then searched; the MLA Annual Convention is – besides being the biggest conference of its kind worldwide – the principal international job market (including major European universities); also online international bibliography (1926- is now fully digitized), style guides (MLA being one of the standard styles for publications). Most of these subscriptions are through institutions. The big issues of the Job Information List appear from about 15 October – 15 November (for posts that will have interviews at the December MLA Convention); there is a second big wave around 1 March – 15 April.

If you’re on the global market and doing background research on universities: the Times Higher Education – QS World University Rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universitites (ARWU) (compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Institute of Higher Education), Webometrics Ranking of World Universities, and assorted other university rankings.

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JOB INFORMATION SOURCES ONLINE

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Or, resources for news about jobs and research opportunities: websites, listserves, and advertisements by email.

The American Historical Association (AHA): its annual meeting is the largest annual gathering of historians in North America, and includes the main international job market (including major European universities). The Association provides a clearinghouse for information on history careers, compiles directories of historians and historical programs, publishes pamphlets on professional issues, sponsors four small grant-in-aid programs, and cosponsors two fellowship competitions.

The American Philological Association (APA, the principal learned society in North America for the study of ancient Greek and Roman languages, literatures, and civilizations): resources on their site include information for job-seekers – their Annual Meeting is also the main international job market (including major European universities) in Classical litt. hum., extending up to the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The Chronicle for Higher Education (US-based; international academic job market and general academic matters): one may search for jobs, post up one’s C.V. and cover letter(s), and create a custom search agent to receive email updates of new job postings; articles and a discussion forum are also available.

The College Art Association supports all practitioners and interpreters of visual art and culture, including artists and scholars, who join together to cultivate the ongoing understanding of art as a fundamental form of human expression. Representing its members’ professional needs, CAA is committed to the highest professional and ethical standards of scholarship, creativity, connoisseurship, criticism, and teaching. Excellent website for job listings, support and advocacy,  and the splendid CAA News.

Digital Medievalist (international web-based Community of Practice for medievalists working with digital media): some jobs are listed in the “News” section. <dm-l> is the Digital Medievalist electronic mailing list. Members use the list to ask for advice, discuss problems, and share information.

Fabula, la recherche en littérature (the main site for French and Francophone linguistic and literary academic matters worldwide): maintains a webpage of job listings and postgraduate and postdoctoral fundins opportunities (and calls for papers). One may also sign up for their email newsletter (for all news…).

Francofil is the main UK listserve for French and Francophone matters, including job announcements (not just UK); one may search the archives and subscribe to the list to receive updates.

H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online (link to Academic Announcements); subscribable listserve.

Jobs.ac.uk (academic jobs in the UK and abroad – one of the main sites for the advertisement of all academic jobs worldwide): one may search for jobs on this site, and subscribe to Jobs by Email for vacancies in universities, FE colleges, research institutions, commercial & public sector bodies, schools & charities.

The Modern Language Association (MLA; US-based; the main international organization for the literary humanities – English, all foreign languages, and comparative literature): the Job Information List comes out every Friday, and may be subscribed to and then searched; the MLA Annual Convention is – besides being the biggest conference of its kind worldwide – the principal international job market (including major European universities); also online international bibliography (1926- is now fully digitized), style guides (MLA being one of the standard styles for publications). Most of these subscriptions are through institutions. The big issues of the Job Information List appear from about 15 October – 15 November (for posts that will have interviews at the December MLA Convention); there is a second big wave around 1 March – 15 April.

The Times Higher Education Supplement (THE): “The number one destination for higher education jobs, news and resources for university professionals in teaching and research.”

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THE ROUGHEST OF ROUGH GUIDES TO THE PH. D

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It is in the nature of the beast that is the doctorate, a many-splendoured thing in all its infinite possible variety, that it cannot possibly be covered properly here. Nevertheless, here is some basic guidance, which it is hoped might be a useful first step towards your very own personal check-list:

  • Item 0: ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO DO THIS???
    • Have you thought about this properly? Carefully? Considered all angles, implications, and consequences? Contemplated intensely over a long time? Really truly deeply cogitated? Some things to think about:
    • Beware the Wrath of the Obrienatrix should you dare to think this is just something you walk into or that anyone can do. A PhD is not (only) a way to delay becoming part of the real world c/o joining the labour force. This is a commitment and a vocation. Like the religious life. And like primary- and secondary-school-teaching: though is vocational / devotional / dedicatory / Higher Calling aspect is even more true of them than it is of tertiary-/higher-education.
    • Do not take post-PhD jobs for granted. We are in times of crisis: worse, of interconnected crises: economic, academic, intellectual, political. Bear in mind that in the humanities:
      • Very, very, very, very, very few will have, or have currently, a neatly linear career.
        We can but be nostalgic for the idyllic era of M.R. James, and even the changing times of C.P. Snow, Robertson Davies, David Lodge, and A.S. Byatt.  Though Philip Roth, Neal Stephenson, and Tom Sharpe remain fairly useful preparatory reading, especially for exercising and developing one’s cynical muscles.
        It could be postulated that academic life was in some respects easier and simpler in the Middle Ages. See further: misogynist and anti-meritocratic/democratic comments on recent social history, but–such silliness aside–also recent work on monastic intellectual life, especially if convents are treated as part of an “academy” albeit outside the (pseudo-universal?) universitas.
      • Very, very, very, very few people go straight from a PhD into a tenure-track job in the same area as that of their doctoral research, let alone at the sort of institution they’d have considered applying to themselves for a PhD.
        Of those happy few, many will be in institutions without postgraduate programmes / non-research-intensive universities (this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the category does include liberal arts colleges…).
      • Very, very, very few will find jobs in their immediate fields (ex. French), let alone their research specialization (ex. Medieval French literature).
        Furthermore, most of the teaching will not be in their areas of specialization: given the practical consideration that most of the teaching needing to be done is large lower-level undergraduate courses, especially the rdistribution-requirement and introductory ones (ex. French language, literature survey).
      • Very, very few will end up in a stable permanent job, approximately somewhere in the vicinity of some aspect of their field of postgraduate work, within 10 years of their defence and graduation.
      • Very few will still be in academia at all 25 years later.
      • Few will make enough money to live comfortably, let alone retire at 65.
    • You will probably be selling yourself on other job markets at some point during the doctorate, at some point afterwards, and at some point(s) between jobs–including para-academia (ex. libraries), non-scholarly jobs in universities, and the Big Bad Real World Outside. Much will depend on the state of the job market. Senior people having the good grace to retire, vacancies created being replaced by jobs, one’s field still existing in the view of the Administrators who now run/are The University, etc.. Two repercussions:
      • A doctorate takes at least as much explaining to non-academic employers as does time spent in jail or in a secure hospital. The years spent in post-secondary education add up to an embarrassing gap on the C.V. should one decide to omit all “irrelevant” experience and qualifications that might scare the horses potential non-academic employer. Equivalent to some murder sentences. The Obrienatrix has been there (that sort of non-academic job interview, not said illustrious alternative institutions).
      • Alternatively, rather than perceiving graduate days as a black hole, represented by C.V. erasure: one can instead deploy devious creative thinking and translate into the terms, language, and culture of the Outside World. And lo! Negatives can magically transform into positives. Everything you do and learn in a PhD can be relevant outside its own narrow focus, and even be of great(er?) benefit elsewhere. Transferrable skills, lateral thinking, research, what I’d term “top-level reading and writing.” Add to those: creative thinking, flexibility, cunning; keeping in mind that one might have to be adaptable later and that adaptability might be useful is vital to survival–in real life just as in any good speculative fiction.
    • “Living in interesting times” isn’t necessarily a curse, and could be a blessing in disguise. The awfulness of the academic job market means that the kind of career path that would have been normal and expected a generation or two ago–a straight line, no divergences or tangents or loops–is now (in the humanities, especially the arts/modern-style “liberal arts” end of things) the exception rather than the norm. It is not necessarily expected, de rigueur.
      One may instead consider those deviations from the straight line as assets that make one more interesting, and treat those times of divergence from a linear career as opportunities that make one’s career, and life, more interesting. Interesting times indeed.
      Returning to a previous point: for as long as there have been universities, there have been other forms of para-university intellectual life; and where would Medieval literature be, had certain clever people stayed on at university, or only stuck to the straight-and-narrow of their (academic, para-academic, non-academic) job?
    • To keep your spirits up (but feet on the ground), see A Rough Guide to the Job Market and the Profession for further information on what happens after the PhD, assuming you do end up taking that professional route, at some point along the way.
    • For reality checks, see “So You Want To Get A PhD In The Humanities” and read Piled Higher and Deeper from the beginning (1997-10-27) to the present day.
  • Item 1: get a 1st or a very good 2:1 (or very high GPA, however your system works) for your BA.
    • Bref: be good.
  • Item 2: go for a FUNDED doctorate.
    • This may well mean scholarships, and might mean extra paperwork, and certainly entails Item 1 above.
    • It is FOLLY to borrow lots of money (at any time, frankly), dishonourable not to go for the scholarship route when you can (and if you’re not in a position to do so, it might maybe be an idea to rethink the PhD plan), and–in my experience of every case I’ve ever seen–a seriously bad idea even to think of doing a PhD part-time whilst working full-time.
  • Item 3: do A LOT OF RESEARCH first.
    • Research is good practice for, well, doctoral research. But in this case, on individuals, institutions, and procedures.
    • See next sectiont for where to look …

Some Steps, taken one at a time:

  • talk to your current lecturers, tutors, and supervisors
  • research the application process, in broad terms, so as to produce a timetable incorporating deadlines
  • research–in full detail–funding sources and application procedures
  • find a field (even broadly speaking)
  • research who’s who and who’s where in area of interest. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. When looking for a potential supervisor, do consider the following:
    • Are they currently teaching?
      • teaching at all? Check they’re not going to be away on research leave, or about to leave for another job. Yes, they might still leave–people do these days (see further up re. job market)–but check they will actually be there at least in your first year.
      • taking on new graduate students?
      • in process of retirement or about to retire? This doesn’t necessarily mean anything: after all, someone might be at an institution with no, ahem, fixed cut-off date and continue working, and working brilliantly, long after the formal retirement age. Equally, some brains have been known to take unofficial early retirement as soon as the Great Work has been produced and tenure/permanency acquired. See further below re. intellectual activity.
    • Do you, or will you, get on? 3-5 years (depending on institution and type of PhD) is a long-term relationship.
      • advantage of staying with someone you know, or have met or worked with previously: you must be able to get on.
      • if not, try to find out whether or not you will get on. Talk to people. Google around. Snoop. Don’t stalk, it’s illegal.
    • Are they good?
      • competent in what you’re interested in?
      • competent across quite a wide area? Not least in case your research changes course along the way.
      • are they intellectually active?
      • what’s their track record on publication and conference attendance? and teaching?
      • how do their teaching and research intersect? It’s generally a good sign if an academic is *not* teaching the same old stuff year in, year out; and if their teaching–even, and perhaps especially–at undergraduate level is directly related to their current research.
      • do they discuss their own work in progress, and discuss and share ideas?
        Watch out: this shows not just lively intellect / intellectual life, but a generosity and openness that distinguishes a great academic (and supervisor) from the merely good and competent.
    • Are they well-connected and generally respected?
      In case you need to be “farmed out” to work with someone else along the way, for at least some portion of your research. This also tells you something about them, and about how the working relationship would be.
    • What’s their track record on postgraduate supervision ?
      • ideally: should have supervising experience, and a good track record of students getting their work done on time and well.
        Not spoon-feeding and mollycoddling, but not abandoning you to your own devices, ignoring you, treating you as an encumbrance, … Like choosing a surgeon: you want someone who’s performed this operation many times, successfully.
      • with (depending on the field) a good track record of postgraduate placement:
        i.e. they, and that particular programme, are good at preparing people for professional academia; and they have a good past history of students going into good–or at least stimulating, productive, and pertinent–careers.
        Here’s an exemplary case of a PhD programme (one of the top 3 in that field, worldwide)
        .
      • talk to current supervisees.
        this is where going to postgraduate conferences is very useful indeed. Ideally, a supervisor shouldn’t be so hellish to get on with that they have too few students, unless you’re one of the lucky ones who get on with them, as two individuals. Nor excessively popular and spreading themselves too thin, with too many students.
      • they should be available, attentive, and care.
        You should be able to count on seeing them on average at least every two weeks. Depending on how you work: you’ll need to see people much more often – twice a week – and for longer at certain times in your research; monthly or by email at other times. With the right balance between chasing you up when you need it, and treating you like a responsible adult.
      • they, too, should be responsible:
        keeping in touch, keeping appointments, reading work carefully and attentively, giving feedback in a timely manner. Reliable and trustworthy, and acting as a good example to you.
    • You may also find it useful to download and complete a Professional Trading Card template c/o PhD comics (2011-02-02)
  • research para-doctoral activity: some sort of coherent professionalisation (yes, this is a profession)
    • teaching
      • will there be some sort of training for teaching?
      • opportunities to teach?
    • talks and conferences (and pre-proto-lecturing)
      • preparation for making presentations and writing articles: say, in the form of research colloquia, works-in-progress seminars, interdisciplinary research groups, and reading groups?
      • ideally, this should include events and series at all levels: departmental, university, joint faculty/student groups, and student-only ones
      • how (well) are students prepared for conferences, encouraged to go, and supported in so doing? this will to some extent be a matter of a given institution’s financial condition
    • ditto re. publishing
      • Support and guidance? For preparing postgraduate papers, doctoral work in progress and tangential offshoots, and eventually dissertation chapters for publication as journal articles; and then there’s the whole business of transforming the dissertation into a book (all work in progress on the Obrienatrix front, so I shall leave this as a Point To Ponder).
    • leading to the Big Questions:
      • what’s the intellectual life like at that institution, as a whole?
      • do They Care? That is: your supervisor, but also the larger academic/intellectual community. The department, associated and allied persons and bodies in this social entity that is your future social microcosm for some years. Is it, indeed, a community, society, ecosystem? with a sense of identity, ethos, polis, and bound together by ethical and socio-political ties?
  • consult university websites (for a lot of the above)
    • look particularly carefully at FUNDING and extras: ex. research funding, summer funding, teaching and research assistantships, funding for travel and participation in conferences (inc. to the MLA or other big meat-job-market)
    • see point immediately above: look at available subject-specific and interdisciplinary research seminars (ex. Princeton Medieval Studies), links to and exchanges with other local universities (ex. Delaware Valley Medieval Association)
    • library: most places have their catalogue online.
      • check what’s there and what’s not
      • how good is their inter-library loan service? how much does it cost (if anything)? is there also a local library scheme (ex. Borrow Direct – the north-eastern US university libraries plus NY Public Library and minus H****rd). The less the hassle, the more time you can spend on actual research.
      • check also their electronic resources (ex. do they have the MLA database – and do they have it back to its beginnings? other journal and journal-stable subscriptions?Also, look for digitised resources: the big challenge is the Concordance de l’occitan médiéval CD-ROM; the mammoth challenge is the behemoth Champion electronic Corpus de la littérature médiévale)
  • research application procedures for the institutions concerned
  • request reference letters and academic transcripts in good time – i.e. as soon as possible, and probably as soon as you’ve decided to apply for a Ph.D. It is customary to give a referee at least two weeks, and good practice to give them four
  • for institutions abroad: research any other steps required (the GRE for the U.S.; visas)
  • contact potential supervisers directly
  • and apply! …
  • … ensuring you have given yourself a week at the end for collecting materials together, printing, photocopying, going to the post office if need be, and so on and so forth. Having said that, many applications are online and nicely streamlined, in this day and age. Alas, not all.
  • Advice from other people:

    • staying on track and planning properly: see this handy PhD annual assessment schedule–regular assessment, monitoring, Code of Practice (University of Cambridge, Department of Modern and Medieval Languages)
    • similarly (University of Cambridge, Department of English): what we expect from youwhat you can expect from uswhat you cannot expect from us
    • for generalities on the harsh realities of PhD life (and a lot of incidental useful information and guidance), have a look at the Stanford-based Piled Higher and Deeper: Life (or the lack thereof) in academia.
    • An Open Letter to New Graduate Students: Brian Croxall, The Chronicle of Higher Education 2010-08-19. Do also read the subsequent comments and further commentary.
    • An Open Letter to Part-Time Graduate Students: Mark Sample, ProfHacker (Chronicle blog) 2010-09-29. Ditto re. commentary.
    • And, indeed, start reading The Chronicle. Two good places to start: their posts on Graduate Education in the Humanities, and on The New Liberal Arts.
    • OK, I know the page title when the following link is clicked will read “stroppy students”: but here is one view of the UK (and other European) student fees issue seen in a longer-term historical context; and with hints at the outsider points of view of parents, academics, and members of the general public. If you’re thinking/wondering/worrying about grad school, or indeed any further studies at all and the point of it all, this might be food for thought. Are students about to find their voice over fees? Sarah Dunant, BBC News 2010-10-10. [I’d also recommend reading up on the history of student unrest, revolt, and strikes in 13th c. Paris. And official responses, reprimands, and other contemporary documents on the point and purpose of a university education. But that’s another story.]
    • Knowledge is power.
      [Francis Bacon: “ipsa scientia potestas est,” Meditationes Sacræ (1597). Also: Prov. 24.5.]
      1. There is lots of good, useful, relevant knowledge out there. Go forth and get it. Most of it is free (or c/o university and/or public libraries). There’s no reason or excuse not to.
      2. Empower yourself. No-one else is going to do it for you; besides, it doesn’t count if they do–being the diametrical opposite of the point.

    Useful research tools and resources:

    Count *a good year* for all this – alongside all your other business as usual. You may need to count a summer + a year after finishing the B.A. (if applying to integrated 5-year M.A.-and-Ph.D programmes), or count on starting the research process in the summer before you start an M.A. (if applying for a 3-year Ph.D.). Further preliminary research time may be needed for other countries, taking into account different deadlines and more hoops such as the GRE and visas.

    Best of luck! A final word of warning: some things about the PhD have not changed since the Middle Ages:

    001ed8

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    2 comments

      1. Nothing wrong with that. It would be harsh and unfair to deny people their masochistic pleasures, after all.

        On a more serious note: there are plenty of counter-balances from the other side, but they never run for long before running out of steam/running scared (if you’ll forgive the unforgivable mixing of metaphors). See for instance this recent mishap of the unfortunate/unlucky Natalie Munroe:
        http://open.salon.com/blog/catherine_forsythe/2011/02/10/natalie_munroe_a_teacher_suspended_for_candid_blog_entries
        plus the tragedy that is the two-comments-worth of
        http://ratemystudents.org/rms/
        There’s still that classic, marvellous while it lasted,
        http://rateyourstudents.blogspot.com/

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