Language Matters

Brian Taylor

November 12, 2012

Last spring I heard a talk by Patricia Williams, the scholar of critical legal studies and columnist for The Nation. In her speech about, among other things, the wackiness of current political discourse, she wondered about the lost art of the subjunctive.

You remember the subjunctive. In most of its forms, it suggests a mood of contingency, uncertainty, or even loss. To put it in grammatical terms, it is anything but indicative. For example, saying "I will go there tomorrow" is indicative. It expresses a certain outcome. But saying "If I were to go there tomorrow, I would ... " suggests there is substantial doubt about whether the speaker will go, and therefore any action that might follow cannot be relied upon to actually occur. It could happen. "I" might go. But there are no guarantees.

Williams brought that all to mind in her talk when she referred to the "wishful immediate" that dominates our public discussions about inequality and discrimination. We speak, she said, of the "postfeminist" or the "postracial" as if each has arrived; the subjunctive has been dropped in American English and, with it, any responsibility for consequences other than ones we wish were true.

As I sat listening to Williams, I recognized how my own mood—disappointed, sullen, self-pitying—was a result of that same lost art of the subjunctive. You see, a few weeks earlier, I was enjoying a visit to a rather wealthy, private university that was seeking a candidate to fill an endowed chair. I had seen the position advertised, but had not even considered applying, since moving my family across the country for a job that resembled the one I already have did not seem in any way worth the trouble.

Sure, the position could mean more money, a fancy title, a nice location. But I was happy where I was. Enjoying a yearlong sabbatical, a recent promotion, the release of my long-awaited (at least by me) book, and a fair amount of acclaim for a grant project I had recently wrapped up, I was doing great. Why should I put myself out for something that was hardly guaranteed?

But two colleagues had suggested my name to a member of the hiring committee who followed me around the national conference and encouraged me to apply. That same committee member nudged me via e-mail. "OK," I relented. "What the heck!" If nothing else, I thought it would be good practice for some future position I might really want. Or, if I were lucky enough to get an offer, perhaps I could use it to extract a few extras from my current dean.

Setting aside my new book project, I began to investigate my potential new employer. First, I found the results of a recent salary survey on the university's Web site, and the $35,000 difference between my salary and the one I would earn there got my attention. I kept digging and discovered a genuine commitment to civic engagement on the campus (a current passion of mine); a number of faculty members with research projects that would ally with my own; and a charismatic president who was also a good fund raiser. In fact, everything about the institution screamed: resources!

What a difference from my current employer, where we are struggling to meet national averages in faculty salaries. I admit it: I swooned, fantasizing about newly presented, possible futures.

My research did reveal a few concerns. Faculty governance seemed to be more about name than deed at this university; the students seemed more homogeneous and money-focused than I was used to; and some revered school "traditions" seemed more retrograde than anything I had ever heard of. But all that was captured in my fantasy under the heading of "new challenges."

The initial Skype interview went well, but was not perfection on my part. I stammered at one point about my intended approach to teaching, of all things, the introductory course. A search-committee member e-mailed with a carefully worded bit of redirection for me. I was grateful and followed her implied advice. I had people in my corner, cheering me on, wanting me to succeed. This was going to be fun.

With my arrival on the campus for a full round of interviews came a succession of not just welcomes but expressions of palpable excitement at my presence. Check-in phone calls at the hotel about nothing in particular, warm greetings with ear-to-ear smiles, and articulations of near disbelief at finally getting to this point in the process. Not that that had anything to do with me. Many of the folks on the search committee were responsible for the fund raising that secured the position's endowment. With a supportive new dean and this newly created position, the members of the long-neglected department were turning a page. My presence as one of three candidates for the chaired position was proof of their progress.

As I started to move through my two-day schedule of meetings, however, I began hearing it—that expression of certainty that we had a future together. It was there in nearly every conversation with the search-committee members: "You will have the choice of teaching [this or that course]," and "We want to make sure you will take a leadership role in [X and Y areas]," and "You should think about where you want to be located," and "Ask for exactly what you want."

I winced a little every time, feeling either slightly embarrassed at the speaker's presumption or confused about why I was being told such things. After all, the department had three candidates. No guarantees were forthcoming for any of us on either end of the process, right?

It's not that I was unmoved by their encouragement. Even as I winced, I also thought, "Wow, they really like me." But at first, I hesitated to take that feeling farther to "They really want me." I had made that mistake 12 years earlier when interviewing for a job. At one point during that interview, I took the department chair's indicative statement—"Your office will be located on this floor"—as some sort of secret code that I had won over the committee. I hadn't, and the offer never came.

Because of that stinging experience, my work on search committees has always included careful wording in interview contexts. No matter how excited I am about a candidate, I do my best to remain uncommitted in how I speak. I encourage others to do the same.

And that is important. When all is said and done, search committees are committees—it's a group decision-making body. There are disputes, successful persuasive efforts, compromises, members who are outvoted, positions that are pulled because of budget shortfalls, and, of course, failed searches.

But even as I steeled myself against overconfidence, my sense of the future was most definitely affected by the committee members' repeated use of the indicative. At first, I responded by recasting their certainties as contingencies: "Well, if I were to be here in the fall, I would ... " or "If offered the position, I think. ... " It seemed to make no difference. For those two days, I was the embodiment of the "wishful immediate" of which Williams spoke, a guarantee for a future that banished the possibility of uncertainty or loss. And who doesn't want that?

The penultimate banishment of uncertainty came when I sat down to lunch with the department members. In the back and forth, someone brought up the dean's offhand remark about the department needing another faculty line. "Think big," prodded the chair of search committee with an inviting smile. Immediately, I understood my assignment: When I met with the dean, I was to ask for a commitment for another tenure-track search next year. And it became clear that they hadn't asked last week's candidate to do their bidding.

At that moment, I felt, well, hired. The hourlong meeting with the dean went great. Getting the guarantee of another tenure-track hire for next year was a breeze. And near the end of the conversation, the dean said: "I will be the one calling you about the position, not the chair of the search committee."

That's when I let down my guard. For the remainder of the day I felt freed up to think of the department's future as if I was to be part of it. As I was about to head home, the chair of the search committee and I stood in the parking lot next to my car and spoke in detail about the fall schedule, running through possible scenarios of the courses I would teach, and marveling at how much there was to be done. At that moment, I allowed myself to share with her a certain future. I drove home happy.

Over the next two days, I followed up with thank-you e-mails. To one member of the committee, I expressed appreciation for her candidness about the institution's strengths and challenges. She replied, "I felt I could be very frank with you and will pledge to do so always." She said "always!"

Then I waited. And waited. Eventually I e-mailed to check in, and the response pretty much said it all: "We are currently in the midst of the final stages of the search process, and you should be hearing more very soon. I hope this is helpful."

No guaranteed future in those words. I was no longer the wishful immediate.

Sour grapes? Sure. Whining? Perhaps. I'm disappointed mostly that, against my own better judgment, I allowed myself to want something that I didn't get. That hurts.

But I should be clear: It's not as if I am in the position that so many others are right now, needing a job to feed their families and pay their mortgage. I am fine, better than fine, actually.

Nevertheless, I wonder if there is a lesson here for all candidates and all hiring committees about the power of language and its ethical use in hiring. How is its influence mobilized in these situations where we choose our colleagues? In the broader context of higher education, where there are more qualified people than jobs, when more and more of our institutions rely on adjuncts who can make very few demands on the ways they are spoken to, what exactly are our obligations to those we entice?

It might be that our language choices—borne of our desired certainties rather than the situation's actual contingencies—allow too many of us with the means to hire others to be redirected to places without their disappointment, without their wanting, a place that guarantees for them their wished-for futures, even as we pass them over.

Correction (11/13/12, 10:53 a.m.): This essay incorrectly referred to the subjunctive as a tense. It's not a tense but a mood. The story has been updated to reflect that.

Elizabeth Duncan is the pseudonym of a professor in an interdisciplinary field at a liberal-arts college in the Midwest.