Notes From the Hiring Season

June 02, 2004

In Plato's Symposium, Aristophanes describes love as an attempt to recapture a lost wholeness: "Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half." The search for an academic job operates in a similar manner.

Departments conducting a search are looking to complete themselves -- often by replacing faculty members lost to retirement, other institutions, or tenure denial -- while job candidates are looking for the match that will complete their lives. The narrative of the academic hire is a romance, as David Lodge's clever Small World illustrated some years ago.

In hiring departments, faculty members at different ranks search for different loves. Junior scholars seek best friends or lovers. Associate professors, who carry the bulk of the department's administrative load, seek mirrors of themselves: competent colleagues who will team up for the greater good of the discipline and the university. Those tenured in years past, with perhaps the greater part of their careers behind them, look for children to complete their family sagas.

For me -- a newly tenured associate professor with great hopes and great fears for the years ahead -- our department's search for four new colleagues was a time of anxiety, despair, and, ultimately, uneasy satisfaction.

It was also a time of genuine self-questioning. I had entered the search process confident in my ability to discern candidates with the requisite quantity and quality of scholarship, candidates who could bring a record of real achievement and a sure-fire promise of future greatness to our research university in the Midwest.

My department did a good job of luring some excellent candidates to the campus, and I am satisfied with the role I played. But I learned that I can't go it alone. Had I been put in charge of hiring the four candidates by myself, I would have bungled things badly. But then I have a few misgivings about the result of our joint decisions, too.

Some of my worries about the hiring process were substantiated over the long course of the hiring season -- from ineffectively worded job ads that betrayed the worst of writing-by-committee to internal philosophical disputes over what constituted a strong hire. Fewer than half of my department's faculty members contributed to the process as members of search committees or meal companions for candidates during their on-campus visits. When it came to voting for our choices, we could barely muster a quorum at the requisite department meeting.

I've played the whole saga out in my mind so many times that it has taken on epic proportions, filled with closely described personal confrontations and long nights of lying awake worrying over whom we should employ. When I tried to record the events of one search, the account ran to 12 boring single-spaced pages. So, rather than offering an account of any or all of our searches, I will confine my comments to a few key phrases that kept cropping up during the hiring season.

"Nice." Our department still believes that it should hire "nice" people. I myself like nice people, and I'm glad when someone comes to the campus who might turn out to be a friend. I like to think I'm nice myself, especially when treated nicely.

But as I had been warned by a few disgruntled senior professors, "nice" is a prime requirement for employment in our department. "Nice" becomes an especially troubling issue when gender is thrown into the mix, as our department has particularly valued "nice" young women. Nice tends to mean "attractive." It also suggests "nonthreatening" when the candidate's work even brushes up against feminism.

One of the candidates we hired this year fits all the criteria of "nice," but all of them fit into that category to some degree.

"Good fit." "Fit" is a word I have grown to despise in conversations about hiring. It's related to "nice," but is directed at specific personal and professional qualities.

More often than not, ascribing "good fit" to a candidate acts as a justification for mediocrity. A candidate who "fits" in our department is often a "well-rounded" person (i.e., someone with a spouse, children, and interesting hobbies) rather than an "academic machine." (The latter might make the rest of us look bad.)

Our department is overwhelmingly married-with-kids, and, as a sarcastic colleague put it to me, we're "heteronormative" -- marching candidates on real-estate tours that focus on family-friendly areas with housing affordable only on two incomes.

Most of the hires we made are apparently coming in the fall with their heterosexual partners, and they felt obliged to make that clear as early as their campus visits. Our department is not without diversity, and it is difficult to lure some people to the middle of the country, but we need to be more careful about making assumptions that unconsciously translate into expectations.

"Tenurable." The word should be struck from conversations related to the hiring process. Of course we should only hire applicants we believe will achieve scholarly success, but "tenurable" sets the bar awfully low. Tenure at our university requires reputable publication in modest quantities. The department has done its duty and has shepherded candidates for tenure through the process professionally and with great support, as it should. But I think we need to spend more time asking, "Will this person be a national leader in her field?" rather than, "Is he tenurable?"

"Quality of mind." One of my most valued colleagues, a scholar and a teacher of impeccable integrity and great intellectual intensity, argued for candidates in the job pool whose "quality of mind" he admired. "Get 'em young," he said to me, putting forward a number of applicants who had just finished -- or had not yet finished -- their Ph.D.'s at top-rated universities.

Some of the candidates who emerged from our national searches had no peer-reviewed scholarly work accepted for publication. I was very uneasy with the "quality of mind" argument, not only because it raises the issue of "tenurability" unnecessarily, but because if academe aspires to meritocracy, we must judge the quality of candidates by what they have measurably achieved.

"Programmatic needs." As the hiring season advanced, I grew even more suspicious of someone saying a candidate met the department's "programmatic needs" than talking about "fit." Because "programmatic needs" seems to describe objectively conditions in the department as a whole, the term became more powerful than any other argument put forward for or against candidates.

One of our searches turned ugly, as several prominent and vocal graduate students lobbied against a candidate favored by many of the faculty members in the department. That candidate's research was deemed by the graduate students to be "too narrow" to meet "our needs." This bloc of graduate students wanted to turn "their" faculty line into -- in effect -- a "service" position. They favored another candidate whose courses would be more conventional, more suited to the (self-perceived) needs of the graduate students than the more methodologically interesting work of the first candidate.

Perhaps it's my curmudgeonly advance into midcareer, but I don't think graduate students should have much say in hiring decisions in a research-oriented department. In this case, the lobbying effort was effective, perhaps because the students spoke for a number of faculty members who also preferred the candidate with the more conventional research interests. We wound up hiring a newly minted Ph.D. who seems to offer what the students want and seemingly won't be a threat to any existing faculty members.

"Narrow interests." The candidate ousted from the search for "narrow interests" was an advanced assistant professor. He had major publications in his field. He had geared his on-campus job talk toward the broad range of intellectual interests in the department.

I favored his candidacy, as he would be in the position I was in several years ago. He could go up for tenure and be ready to lead dissertation committees (once the disgruntled students had moved on). He could serve on department and campus committees. And although he had too much edge to be "nice," I thought he would have been a "good fit" for the department.

We hired just one advanced assistant professor this year, and the other three were new Ph.D.'s. The only candidates who seemed to be accused of overspecialization in their research were those already in tenure-track positions, including one impressive candidate who was labeled "arrogant" because she seemed to take for granted the value of her widely disseminated -- and praised -- scholarship. She had been denied tenure at a top university and had declared an interest in remaining at a research-oriented institution. For a candidate like her, the job search was a tragedy rather than a romance, as she was apparently spurned by other research universities this year and has accepted a position at a middle-tier teaching institution.

I am haunted by her predicament. My career is a narrative of progress, hers one of decline. I was complicit in our department's decision to offer our position in her field to a candidate fresh out of graduate school with nary a publication to his name. The university in which I have achieved tenure is a step up from my previous position in terms of the quality of the students and the support offered for research. I have a strong record, but it is in no way a superior record to hers. We stigmatized her as "arrogant," but that is a label of fear and unwarranted triumph.

I emerge from our hiring season personally chastened but institutionally optimistic. I may criticize some of my colleagues and their decision-making, but I'm grateful to them. As an institution -- and as a profession -- we no longer hire by what my dissertation director called "apostolic succession." As weak-minded or wrong-headed as our categories of judgment may be, we can still discuss them constructively and try to escape our own narrow prejudices, if not our narrow interests.

Frank Midler is the pseudonym of a newly tenured associate professor at a large Midwestern research university. He writes an occasional column on life as a newly tenured faculty member.