Tell Me What You Want — What You Really, Really, Want: Writing and Placing the Job Advertisement

August 6, 2008, 1:24 pm

I want to begin with some bad news: if you are a search chair, and your ad has not already been placed, you may be up Hiring Creek right now, because important deadlines in many fields have passed. Just saying. And yes, one of your responsibilities as search chair is (was) to know when those deadlines are (were.) An experienced department chair will, of course, remind you of deadlines and help you meet them by facilitating the process I describe below, but as we all know, one of the joys of a successful tenure case can be the unhappy surprise of being informed you are the next chair, so s/he may not be experienced enough to have known this either. That said, let’s get down to brass tacks. How do you write and place an ad?

1. Write the ad for the scholar your department has agreed it wants to hire. This means being as clear about rank and field as you can be. If you are only willing to consider people who do not have any time on a tenure clock anywhere, the phrase you want is “beginning assistant professor;” if you are willing to consider experienced but untenured folk, just say “assistant professor;” if you are willing to consider experienced people, but only those who would not be eligible for tenure immediately, indicate how many years seniority you are willing to consider: “assistant professor who has not progressed beyond the first contract.” Remember, there will be people out there who, through no fault of their own, have not gotten tenure and must apply for assistant level jobs; there are others, again through no fault of their own, who have held a number of visiting positions and accumulated a significant portfolio. These people, frankly, have been through enough, and you shouldn’t encourage them to apply if what you want is someone who will complete a lengthy probationary period by which they reassure their colleagues of their qualifications for tenure (yes, I’m talking to you, liberal arts colleges.) And one thing you must not do is suggest in the ad — if it is a terminal appointment — that it might be converted into a tenure-track line. That’s the kind of news that would surely be welcome at a later date for the lucky winner, but it is false advertising to say that a terminal contract is anything other than a terminal contract.

And as to field, take a good look around your department, see who you have, and whose strengths you would not duplicate in a new hire. Now the wise applicant will do that too, but given the state of the market, candidates should not be expected to guess whether you do — or do not — want a second scholar who specializes in the Civil War. Your ad should have at least one line that indicates exclusions or preferences, if they exist. For example:

“Blinker College invites applications for a beginning, tenure-track position in twentieth century Russian history; scholars whose work focuses on gender and ethnic minorities during the Soviet period are particularly encouraged to apply.” This is the kind of ad I like to see, because it demonstrates not just that there has been a thorough discussion about what kind of Soviet historian is desired, but it also demonstrates how such a person might meet other needs in the department. But check this one out:

“Aardvark University invites applications for a position in Twentieth Century United States history, specialty open.” This is the kind of ad that can — in some circumstances, although not all — be careless, if not borderline unethical. Now, if Aardvark has a big department, if it is an R-1 university, if it is a senior appointment, I would believe them that they are open to anyone. There is enough turnover in such departments at higher levels, enough need for graduate supervision in the twentieth century United States, and enough demand for big surveys, that what they want is to hire someone who is going to win the Bancroft six or seven years down the line, and duplication isn’t an issue. If it is a small department in a big university (State Tech) where there will only be one person covering the field, fine. But if it is a smaller school that is more like a SLAC than an R-1, but with a large history department that employs several Americanists, and that doesn’t hire frequently, this isn’t a good ad! In such a case, I would urge the department to specify a field it does not currently have covered with a specialist. Don’t encourage applications (and false hopes) from scholars who will be taken off the table because of duplication in field.

Finally, the department and the search committee should not be in fundamental disagreement about what they are, or are not, open to. It is an inappropriate compromise to put fields in play that some people in the department will actively oppose during the hiring process, and unethical to put candidates in play who will be ammunition in an internal struggle. Make your compromises now, and keep your word about the agreement you have struck internally.

Conclusion: do not encourage applicants to put the time, effort, expense and emotional capital into an application to your school if, for some reason out of their control, they haven’t got a fair chance of being considered for the job.

2. Be clear about what the application should look like. Do not ask for more materials than you will legitimately consider, and don’t intimate that there is a minimum but you might want more. It is convention in history to ask for a letter of application, curriculum vitae and three letters of reference. I wouldn’t ask for “at least x letters” as some search chairs do, because it suggests that it would be better to have more than x, and sets candidates scrambling unnecessarily to add to a dossier they thought was already complete. It is convention to ask for a writing sample: for a tenure-track job, set your limit at 40 pages because if you ask for less, grad students have to actually cut a dissertation chapter or article to meet an utterly arbitrary standard (I knew some last year who were actually engaged in this process, when it had no other purpose intellectually, and it served no other function but to impede the completion of a dissertation. And save the search committee time in their reading.)

Conclusion: be considerate of the candidates, many of whom are struggling to apply for jobs and finish dissertations simultaneously; many of them will also be teaching full or part time. Ask for what you really need to evaluate their candidacies, with an eye toward what they can give you readily and what they will be asked for by others.

3. Teaching portfolios are useless, particularly at the preliminary stage, unless you actually care more about a commitment to teaching than a commitment to active scholarship. Don’t ask for them. If the Radical were the Drag King of the World, one of the things she would do is outlaw teaching portfolios. I want to say this with the caveat that I probably disagree with many of my Zenith colleagues, and friends at other institutions, in this matter. But teaching portfolios take a huge amount of time to prepare, they are almost exact replicas of each other, and they only tell me what the candidate thinks (often hypothetically) about teaching — not whether s/he can teach well.

I don’t believe any of us can evaluate our own teaching, and to ask a novice teacher to do so is particularly unkind. In my view, it takes pedagogy lightly to suggest that it can be mastered in the course of a few teaching assistantships and one or two independently taught seminars. I don’t want copies of teaching evaluations (wouldn’t any candidate pull out the ones they considered unfair or prejudicial?); I don’t want to hear about how a graduate student centers Freirian methods (as if s/he just discovered this empowering theory, and our students were Brazilian peasants emerging from two centuries of illiteracy); and I don’t want to know how your heart leaped when you entered your first cla
ssroom (ee-yew.) But I will take seriously what a member of the faculty, in a letter of reference, has said about a teaching observation as we are picking semi-finalists. I will also take seriously the record of experience, as it is listed on the cv.

Conclusion: Unless teaching skills are virtually the only requirement of the job, and scholarly accomplishments are a distinctly minor factor in the hiring and eventual tenure process, serious evidence about teaching should be provided by candidates at the semi-finalist stage, in the form of interviews and draft syllabi. Teaching portfolios consume time and money that people who do not have jobs don’t have. And when evidence about teaching is solicited, it shouldn’t be part of a grab-bag “portfolio” that relies on ill-defined terms like “excellence” since different teachers teach well differently. Evidence about teaching should make the candidates comparable to each other. This excludes student evaluations entirely, since they are not comparable instruments across institutions, and more important, the committee has no sense of the institutional context within which they were generated, or who the students are. Any course the successful candidate would be required to teach, and will be asked about in an interview and subsequent requests for materials, should be named in the ad.

4. The deadline for applications should represent a realistic date that both allows applicants to prepare the materials you are asking for, and allows you to evaluate their applications and generate a preliminary interview list in a thoughtful way. No application that took a day to prepare should be read in twenty minutes. No job applicant should be asked to spend money far in advance to attend a convention where s/he might not be interviewed; conversely, no job applicant who is not already a tenured professor making a good salary should be ask to spend $1000.00 at the last minute for a plane ticket and a hotel room that could have been acquired at half the price a month in advance. If you are running late, let your semi-finalists know that you are willing to interview them by phone or, if they live nearby, that the committee can meet them briefly on campus. Graduate students will make deadlines, within reason, whenever you set them — why not set a deadline of November 1 and generate your interview list by Thanksgiving so that you are not calling candidates on Christmas eve or New Year’s day?

Conclusion: treat job candidates as if their time, money, peace of mind and energy were valuable too.

5. Advertise everywhere your budget allows, and particularly on the internet, which is heavily used by younger scholars. This means definitely advertise in the job listing for your professional association, in any newsletter or e-newsletter connected to that association, and in any publication or e-publication produced by scholars in subfields that are named in the ad as areas of interest. I like H-Net, and Inside Higher Ed gives you listings by state, which is helpful for couples who are on the market. The ad should be posted on the university web page, and preferably, your department web page. You should distribute it to colleagues elsewhere who might know potential candidates, and as search chair, you should be willing to discuss the position briefly with any candidate who is unsure of whether s/he would be taken seriously as an applicant for reasons of field, (in)experience, or status of degree. In other words, is the committee willing to recommend someone who works on masculinity for a joint appointment in women’s studies? A candidate who already has a book out and might wish to come up for early tenure? An American Studies Ph.D. for a history job? A person who won’t defend in the spring, but could realistically take an October degree? These are fair questions to want an answer to, in my opinion.

Finally — and here I reflect many conversations I have had with colleagues and graduate students since this post but — keep an eye on the appropriate wiki in your field. I am on record as disliking wikis, as the information they disseminate tends to be random, inaccurate and sometimes mean-spirited. But they are a fact of life now, and they have become a fact of life because we search chairs do not give candidates full, accurate — or sometimes even honest — information. Rather than deploring their existence, I have decided to participate in them. The responsible search chair, in my view, will keep an eye on wikis and make sure that the ongoing search report generated by applicants is correct. If certain kinds of questions keep coming up, the way to be fair to all candidates prior is to volunteer new and accurate information to the wiki.

My last comment is that search chairs need to remember that they are advertising for candidates, and you are not advertising yourself: your institutional and departmental web page, and the reputations of your colleagues are the primary advertisement for your institution, and it is inappropriate to include sentences that characterize values — even good ones, such as the importance of colleagueship — as criteria a candidate must speak to in a two page letter. There is one big exception to this, in my view, and this will probably draw howls of protest. It is not altogether clear whether it is ethical for private, religious institutions to give preference to candidates who represent a set of religious or ideological beliefs, but at present it seems to be legal, and search chairs have an obligation to put that in the ad. “Christ on a Cross University expects all employees to meet its standards of moral behavior” may not be a value to the taste of some of us, but it is honest if, for example sexual preference, divorce or union activism would be actually be an issue that would exclude some candidates from being employed by your institution.

Next week: Job Seekers, What Does A Good Letter of Application Look Like?

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