As this hiring season draws to a close, I'm still thinking about what the courtship process looks like from the departmental rather than the candidate side. The dating metaphors that are so often used to describe the job market are apt, not least because each party is usually pretty much in the dark about the other's motives, intentions, and ultimately their true character.
In saying that I don't for a minute mean to imply that there's any functional equivalence between the positions of candidate and hiring department; close to 100% of the power lies with those doing the hiring, and although I guess a candidate can still break a department's heart, heartbreak is a lot easier to get over when you've got eligible ladies and gents throwing themselves at your feet. (And when you're in no danger of being evicted, having the lights turned off, or moving back in with the 'rents.) So don't flame me: I'm not suggesting that hiring departments are ever in need of pity, especially when compared with job candidates themselves.
But since I've thought about the job market almost exclusively from the perspective of the candidate (even as my own department has been hiring rather steadily), it's startling to notice how we on this end use much the same language as those on the other--language that is reminiscent of the alternately boastful and abasing language of single guys and gals looking for love: I deserve so much more! I'm not going to settle! But. . . do I really have anything that anyone whom I would want, would want? I should set my sights lower. Oh God, please love me!
Departments like my own, which are stronger in fact than they seem on paper--like the men and women who are better catches than the photos on their match.com profiles would suggest--are probably especially prone to these kinds of mood swings. (Look at the CVs of our faculty! What, you think we're not good enough for you? But, we do have a 3/3 load. Whadda we expect? Maybe we should be content with a nice person who will be a solid citizen and never leave us.) Still, every hiring department gets emotionally over-invested in at least some of their candidates, going through periods of anxiety and self-doubt and the hope that the object of their desire feels the same way about them.
But although there may be more status anxiety lurking beneath the surface of our hiring process than we'd willingly cop to, one of the nice things about being in a strong but not immediately eye-catching department is that we tend not to overestimate our own judgment and we don't buy into the fiction that there's some absolute and objective way to rank our applicants--that Candidate A somehow is the best person on the market this year in his field, and that therefore we must get him at all costs. We have plenty of experience hiring our second (or third or fourth) choice and having her turn out to be amazing. So although we make a careful and a thoughtful assessment of everyone's merits, and we vote down some candidates as unacceptable, our collective attitude seems to be that it doesn't necessarily matter if we get our first choice or our third--or even if we have to go back to the general applicant pool and start over.
Because you never know. You don't know whether your list of MLA interviewees really comprises "the best" candidates from among the applicants, and you don't know that the people selected for fly-backs are truly the best of the semi-finalists. You don't know what you're missing if you've already missed it, and you don't know how someone will perform until they perform; some people deliver on early promise and some don't, while others have late growth spurts. Not always getting your first choice reminds you that assessing merit isn't as clear-cut as many pretend--as does finding out that someone you ranked sixth or tenth got offered a far better job than the one you had on offer.
And that kind of perspective is the real advantage that those doing the hiring have over those seeking jobs. It's often said that hiring committees in the era of the jobs crisis can afford to be picky, but the truth is that they can afford to be careless: they can wait and see, they can be modest about their own achievements, and they can keep an open mind--they can even change their mind--about what matters most. Because there are plenty of fish in the sea.