Please Don't Keep Me Informed

May 19, 2004

Academics are stereotyped as uninterested in and immune to criticism. Shielded by tenure, we blithely ignore any negative comments by administrators, students, the public, and Bill O'Reilly.

In truth, we are inundated with critiques: Our students evaluate us in our courses. The articles and books we write are peer-reviewed. Our deans and directors give us yearly reports on our "progress." We disregard any and all of those assessments at our own peril.

The job search, however, is a different animal. More than a few writers on this site have complained about being "uninformed" by hiring committees about the agenda and timetable of the search. Worse, they say, is "not getting good feedback" about their interviews. All they have to show for weeks of work, and days of a charm offensive carried out by mail or in person, is a terse "We received an unusual number of strong applicants but ..." missive, sent months later, if at all.

I prefer an alternative: Please keep me in ignorance about how badly my application fared, and by all means spare me the autopsy details.

Time is one reason. Over the past two years, I applied for a number of deanships, directorships, and senior positions in mass communications. I was a finalist several times, but none of my top choices ended up offering me a job. I don't regret the experience, but I learned that applying for a job is itself a part-time job. Being "fully informed" about the progress of each search would only add to my temporal load: more to put in my "status" file; new notes to write; and, worse, when people asked me "How is it going," I would have to answer at length, not just with an honest and less time-consuming, "I really don't know."

In addition, the job search is energy draining, especially at the level of interviews: After a three-day visit to one campus I practically needed a blood transfusion. To be "up" all the time, to be brimming with enthusiasm, to be dense with detail about future colleagues and their programs, is a synaptical challenge. I don't need a stream of comments and responses and updates to add to my burden.

Once, after an interview, a faculty member sent me a list of "things to demand if you get the job." I scratched my head: Shouldn't the college make me an offer before I start thinking about these? It didn't, so I didn't.

Then there was the head of one search committee -- a friend -- who sent me weekly bulletins. Helpful? Only in the sense of jolting me every Friday to think about something I had hoped to forget.

It's the roller-coaster effect that I think most makes me not want to know how the search is going. A lot of sweat goes into an application and an interview; it is cruel (and thankfully unusual) punishment to ask me to react to regular updates on my future.

Once a faculty member in a school at which I had interviewed sent me a note saying. "You were a big hit!" Well, good. A month later he wrote, "The last candidate they brought in was a big hit, too." Hmm. Do I want to know this? It would be the equivalent of your beloved updating you regularly on the status of your marriage proposal. Just let me know when you make up your mind.

And a special place in academic hell should be reserved for committees that send failed applicants long letters describing the marvels of the person who got the job.

Important also is that we don't live in a cookie-cutter business. Academic jobs are not like civil-service grades or bank-teller slots. Each faculty position on each campus is different, and indeed, the person in the position makes it so.

I think searching for a certain type of job -- in my case, administrative -- has some generic lessons, but over all the experience of one search on one campus doesn't necessarily apply to another. One department may be looking for a dean who is a heavy hand-holder, one for an independent fund raiser. One wants an academic dean (Mr. Inside), one wants somebody to take up the paperwork burden and alumni relations (Ms. Outside). And so on.

That's why "constructive" criticism about why one college turned me down may not be relevant when I apply somewhere else.

In one case, a faculty member told me that I was turned down for a position because I seemed "too focused on fund raising." I made the mistake of toning down that part of my pitch at another interview. Of course, in the exit interview the search-committee director said, "We wanted to hear more about fund raising."

That's one of the biggest problems with feedback. It's often misguided or makes you try to twist yourself into something you're not. An administrator at a unit at which I was planning to apply told me, "Make teaching your emphasis." OK. I get good teaching ratings from my students and I frequently write about teaching, but teaching is not all of who I am -- and I would not like to be at a place that believes teaching is the only priority in a professor's life.

In other cases the response you get is factually wrong. I was told that I was a great candidate for a position but that the faculty had "concerns about how well I was going to mentor their many grad students." Now, I think I have a solid record in that regard but, more important, a friend who actually is a grad student at that school told me that I had "wowed" the students during the interview, and that they, in fact, had voted in favor of hiring me.

Whom should I believe? Then there was the staff person I befriended who told me, "These people won't hire you because you've achieved too much and are too young; you would threaten them." Great, thanks. Should I tone down my CV for future jobs?

In short, much feedback is personal -- the point of view of one individual at one institution -- and therefore hardly constitutes sage advice in response to which you should reinvent yourself.

Most crucial of all, feedback is next to useless for me because I can't change the basics of who I am. Of course, I want to know if there is some universal flaw in my applications: a typo in the first paragraph of my cover letter, a trusted reference who turns out to think I'm a boob.

And, obviously, if the search is over and you've hired somebody, by all means drop me a note. But most everything else falls under the category of "I've gotta be me." I am who I am in research, teaching, service, and personality. If you like it, buy it; if you don't, pass. No job is worth becoming someone else to get.

David D. Perlmutter is a senior fellow at Louisiana State University's Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs and an associate professor of mass communication.