Thursday, November 02, 2006

Fair or unfair? (Or is that not the question?)

As I mentioned earlier, my department is currently running a couple of job searches. Although I'm not on either committee, I still hear chatter about the applicant pool--and I have one colleague who keeps popping into my office, application files in hand, and saying, "Firstname Lastname. Know 'em?"

Since they're always INRU PhDs, of course I always know them. However, since neither of our searches is in my field, and since most of the applicants are a couple of years behind me, I generally don't know their work; when asked about them, then, I've admitted the limits of my knowledge while still being genially enthusiastic: "Oh, s/he's great, just great. Very smart, hard-working, a lovely human being." But today a name came up belonging to someone who has a, shall we say, problematic personality--problematic to a degree that would be apparent even in a 30-minute interview, or possibly even over the phone. So I said, all faux-judiciously, "Well, you're the one reviewing the files, and of course I don't know his/her work . . . but if the question is just about collegiality, Person Y wouldn't be my first choice. All other things being equal, I'd definitely go with Person X."

And then a few hours later my colleague returned with a question about a Person Z, whom I actually know quite well--Z is from my entering class and is someone with whom I had numerous courses, whom I TAed alongside, and whom I get a tremendous kick out of even though we were never very close--and, well, Z is obviously the person I recommended MOST highly, for the simple reason that Z is the person I know best.

On the one hand, this is all perfectly normal and natural and the way that things work in the real world, whether that world be academia or law or Wall Street; connections are what make the world go 'round. When I was on the market, I knew that I was likely to get MLA interviews with schools where the search chair or a committee member had a degree from INRU--and whaddaya know? I almost always did.

Moreover, I trust my colleagues to make thoughtful decisions, and I'm happy to have some little knowledge that might be useful to them. All the same, when you've already received more than 200 applications for a position, you probably do what you can to weed through the pile as quickly as possible--which means that I can't help but feel a few twinges about what my casual remarks could potentially do to someone's candidacy. I also can't help but have noticed that my department, like so many others, has a lot of "duplicates": faculty members with degrees from the same institution. In fact, two of this year's new hires have doctorates from the same institutions as faculty who were hired just the previous year. (I'm the only INRU PhD in the department, but I'm one of three faculty who hold INRU BAs.)

Now, if a grad program is good, the likelihood of hiring multiple people from that program is obviously going to be higher--but I don't happen to think that the laws of the job market follow the laws of probability all that closely.

I've ranted about this elsewhere, but when I started my PhD program, our entering classes were absurdly un-diverse. 10 students came in every year, and always from essentially the same 10-15 schools. Year after year, with just one or two wildcards--someone from a midwestern liberal arts college, say, or from a flagship state school that wasn't a top doctoral institution. [I should note that this doesn't hold true any longer, or at least not to this degree; I've been pleasantly surprised by the range and variety of entering students in the last few years.]

And the thing is, I really don't think that it was snobbery, or at least not conscious snobbery; I think that it was laziness. If you're a harried committee member, and you get an application from someone who's got an undergrad degree from a place you consider a peer institution--where your friends teach, or taught, or got their degrees from--you feel like you know what it's about: you have a sense of who the faculty are, what kinds of students attend, and what the courses in the major looks like. It's just easier than wondering whether Northeastern Montana State U has a rigorous course of study, or who this person writing a rec letter is--and it's certainly easier than (*gasp!*) actually trying to evaluate each candidate on his or her own merits.

It's not that my fellow grad students weren't very, very smart. They were; some of them were even brilliant. But it still felt unfair to me, and I continue to wonder whether I'd have gotten into my program myself, had I not attended one of the approved institutions.

So, I worry, just a little bit about perpetuating that kind of unfair advantage at my new institution, even while I'm genuinely convinced of the awesomeness of most of my grad school colleagues. I want them to do well, and I'm certainly personally invested in seeing that we hire new people as fantastic as those we already have. And yet. . . !


Professor B said...

Interesting post, Flavia. I know I have dealt with the same issue at my institution. Out of 10 faculty, we have 5 from my grad institution, such that we sometimes refer to our current department as Grad Institution East.

Having served on a couple of faculty searches, two chair searches, and now a Dean's search, things seem to always fall into the same two broad categories: 'People we would never in a million years invite for an interview' and everyone else. The everyone else is the tricky part, and I wholeheartedly agree that maybe too often folks from lesser known places are given the short shrift with respect to a really thoughtful evaluation of their candidacy.

That said, I haven't felt bad about voicing my opinion if I am asked. We have had to evaluate several of my grad school colleagues for positions since I joined the department. Since a big part of what we go on is the ever-ambiguous 'chemistry' or 'fit', I was content to offer my opinion on those matters (and to a lesser extent their scholarly ability - so hard to judge when you are starting out yourself!) and let the rest of the department weigh that information with the rest. I have no illusions about the relative impact of my opinion on swaying search committees. ;-)

That said, I actually lobbied pretty hard to get included on the committee that is searching for the new Dean. Our existing dean was downright hostile towards our department, and I wanted to make damn sure that someone from our department gets to evaluate the person that fills that position.

Tenured Radical said...

Professor B is right -- this is very thoughtful, as are your other posts. No wonder people ask you for your opinion.

Here's another perspective. I had served on several searches, and then, upon gettting tenure, ran two of them, and then served on, God help me, the Provost search. I think that your reservations about imprecise, experiential comments are dead on, since one of the things your senior colleagues do want to know is, Will this person work out? However, other than demonstrating respect for you (which they are doing) and implicating you in an outcome that you have no real control over (which they are also doing), they are asking an important question.

The big secret of academia is how many of us who are now middle-aged look around us and groan at the idea that there are peers -- not just senior colleagues! -- who may be millstones around our necks for the rest of our professional lives. People who had good credentials, better letters and, at a very junior stage of their lives, good work, have turned into difficult, cranky drones.

How did such promising people turn out to be such duds, short of getting whacked over the head with a fraternity paddle? One answer is that they weren't what they seemed to be in the first place, since prestigious grad programs place a high premium on placing their students, regardless of how they turn out. Maybe the chapters sent to the search committee were the only ones in the dissertation that were critiqued and polished, and only for the job market. Maybe their mentors would do anything to get them out of the department, and getting them a job seems like a good strategy (just like horrible administrators get offloaded on other schools with glowing recommendations.) Maybe they routinely slept with undergrads as TA's and no one ever wanted to be known as the fink who turned them in. One person we hired (and fired) had stolen hir research from the footnotes of other scholars: only a year or so after the lawsuit was settled did I learn (on an airplane coming back from a conference)that s/he had a reputation in hir cohort and on hir committee for having claimed to have worked in archives whose door s/he had never darkened. Character doesn't appear on the c.v., but it does matter.

No one ever writes in a letter of recommendation "Ms. Gradstudent has a terrible temper/is a terminal kiss-ass/may have plagiarized a seminar paper/is borderline lazy/is remarkably selfish, even for an academic." But how many of our colleagues actually turn out that way? Enough of them to make you want as much informaition as you can get right at the beginning. So keep at it, in exactly the way you describe. Good applications will always have partisans, anyway. You've only got one vote in the end, girlfriend.

Ianqui said...

I come from a very good but very unorthodox graduate program that was only formed in 1996. This means that there aren't many grads who have paved the way for us, but I got exceedingly lucky because one of my colleagues here at XU also graduated from my program. I got two interviews when I was on the job market, and hired at the place where there was someone with a PhD from my grad institution. Coincidence? Definitely not.

The Combat Philosopher said...

Part of the problem here is that people like to think that the hiring process is a rational one. It is not.

Having sat on many hiring committees, I have seen all sorts of oddities. For instance, one job candidate was rejected because they described themselves as coming from 'The Commonwealth of Virginia', rather than just 'Virginia'. Although I argued against this, it was fatal to the candidate.

On the business of getting 'behind the mask' information on candidates, I actually think that this can be quite important, especially when compiling a short list. I always think of the hiring process as being more like an adoption than anything else. The question that is really being asked (although few people will admit it) is 'Could we live with this person for the rest of our careers?'

The business of sticking with the known programs is also an interesting one. I think that this can cause some good candidates to get overlooked. I always focus on the CV. If a person is an active researcher, then they are likely to have the necessary skills to keep publiching, make tenure etc.

This much being said, I also have quite a few deadwood, useless co-workers. What I find really worrying though is that it is often the deadwoods who end up on hiring committees, as other people are too busy doing real work. These people are also frequently the most vocal on these committees. I thus take it upon myself to try and counter-act these individuals, as they have a propensity to wish to short list weak candidates (often arguing that these are the candidates that we will realistically be able to hire).

The main point here though is to illustrate how the whole process is fundamentally irrational, despite the best efforts of all involved.

The CP

Holly said...

I totally had to laught when I saw your reference to NE MT State University. I know you just named Northeast Montana State University because it sounds like a place in bum fuck Egypt, but there is no such school. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a high school there. Northeast MT is, however, the home of the MT militia - a damned scarry place! That was a totally off-the-topic comment, but hey, it's my homestate; one I can be sort of proud of for booting out their idiot R senator!!