Flavia has a good post about looking at the MLA job list from the perspective of already having a job you like or mostly like. I too look at the list -- it's a good way to learn about certain patterns in my subfield (which due to curricular, ideological, or funding issues can often get paired with others, or configured in certain ways). It's a good reminder of all the things I really do like about my current position. And it's also a strong reminder of what I still need to do -- thank goodness my dream job wasn't on the list this year, since I'm not ready for that one yet. I still have some preparing, some publishing, some developing to do.
But even though I read the list from the very comfortable perspective of being tenured in a job that's a good fit for me, it still raises up all sorts of anxieties. They're not the real concerns so many people face, about whether they'll get any sort of job, or whether they should stay in the profession. For me I think the list is the clearest reification I encounter of all the hierarchies of the profession: the evaluative terms that pop into my head as I look over the postings, automatically ranking jobs according to the list I internalized 15 years ago of what constituted a great job, a good job, or just a job. Even though I know I wouldn't have been the right person for most of the jobs the profession would consider to be the top of the pile -- never mind the self doubt about my qualifications, I know I wouldn't have played the game in the right sort of way -- reading the list makes me begin to question some of the choices I did make. Some of that questioning is good, but some of it just feels horrible.
If I can stand it, later this season I might read through the entire job list. That's how we used to have to do it back in the olden days when I was on the market: the list came out in paper hard copy format and was mailed to the department in mid-October and then photocopied by the staff for the nervous graduate students. There were only a couple of later updates to the list, which put a lot more pressure on institutions to get all the funding approvals lined up in time for the October release; that pressure is still there today, but mitigated somewhat by the weekly updates to the electronic list. There was no sorting of the list by rank or field or keyword -- typically when I look at the list lately, I just look at the postings in my subfield. But there was something valuable about having to read through the whole darn thing (which was organized by state if I remember correctly) because you did get a sense about the profession more generally, the shifts and patterns that meant one year was strong for medieval and another was strong for eighteenth-century.
Of course, spending too much time trying to interpret the tea leaves that are the job listings isn't necessarily that productive. Like most fortune-telling devices, it tells you much more about your own state of mind going in to the palm reader's or shrink's office rather than any definite information about the future. So, last weekend the JIL told me I think I need to work smarter (not harder; but that's for another post) -- and that's definitely true, whether it leads to a different job or not.