The Way We Hire Now

Full vitae thewaytheyhire

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By Jonathan Kramnick

When I got my first teaching job in 1995, every position I applied for was advertised in a single place: the October edition of the Jobs Information List,published by the Modern Language Association. It was (and still is) the notorious "MLA Jobs List" — or simply, "the list."

The list was a magazine-sized pamphlet with a construction-paper cover. It looked not unlike a modest junior-high school yearbook. Contents were divided state by state, from Alabama to Wyoming, with Canadian and overseas institutions bringing up the end. The appearance of the jobs list every fall had a kind of ritualized gravity. What was the list like this year? More jobs than usual or fewer? Where? In what fields? The geographical and institutional spread of its insides formed the matrix of our ambition and our fear alike.

The list was mailed to my department around the second week of October and immediately appeared in Xeroxed stacks next to the mailboxes. Those of us on the market that year took one home to read from front to back, circling and annotating all the positions for which we were qualified, and a few for which we weren’t.

The schedule we were on was finite and regular:

  • The earliest deadlines were in the first week of November.
  • Requests for additional material came in over the next month and invitations for interviews at the very end of term.
  • Interviews were held at the MLA convention in some faraway city during the last few days of December, usually in hotel rooms.
  • If all went well, campus visits followed in late January and February with job offers tendered and negotiated before March.

The process was analog, uniform, and backed up by relative affluence, even in the leanest of years.

The years that followed brought a dramatic fall off in tenure-track jobs, just as everything started to go digital. Sometimes it is hard to know where the one trend stops and the other starts, but the transformation of the faculty job market in literature and languages has been as thorough as it has been drastic: Today, there are fewer tenure-track jobs available, they appear in a scattershot way over the course of the entire year, and they are advertised and filled in a manner that is poorly understood and has few agreed-upon norms.

In Part 1 of this series, I offered an overview of how the jobs crisis has transformed faculty hiring. Here in Part 2 I’ll turn first to the sea change that has occurred in the logistics of how we hire assistant professors in my field.

To get a grip on where things now stand, start with the fact that the MLA jobs list has lost its monopoly. The low cost and simplicity of doing things online has meant that advertisements now appear on any number of platforms, including The Chronicle, Interfolio, Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC), HigherEdJobs, and well beyond.

Liberated from the MLA bureaucracy, job ads show up soon after the start of the fiscal year in July. Compounding that development, the online version of the MLA jobs list now comes out in September — fully a month earlier than its print ancestor — and is updated every week of the semester. Application deadlines have crept earlier every year, even as new openings continue to trickle out well into the spring.

It would be good for everyone involved in this hiring process to have a sense of the timeline and its burdens.

Where once job candidates had the first part of the fall semester to prepare their CVs, cover letters, and other materials, they now must put everything together in close to final form over the summer. Under the analog system, moreover, a sense that printing and mailing paper took time and money meant that search committees usually staggered their requests for materials. Ads often just asked for cover letters CVs, and letters of recommendation, leaving writing samples until after the first cull. With the full-scale turn to digital submission, almost everything now gets sent up front. So all of a candidate’s materials have to be in passable form soon after Labor Day and multiply revised, polished, and ready go by the start of October.

The concatenating effects of technological progress and economic decline have meant, in other words, that the job market is experienced as a constant presence and pressure even as its actual contents have fallen off, a bitter irony.

Consider the answer to a question you may have thought to ask: How do departments and administrations know that their ads will be read in the absence of a single, all-encompassing list? They can of course rely on the hunger of candidates to find their ads no matter where they appear.

However, they can also, wittingly or not, rely on that most pervasive and integral of digital phenomena, the academic jobs wiki. Like all sites of its kind, the academic jobs wiki is a crowd-sourced and constantly edited page that aggregates jobs as they appear, breaks them down by subfield, and provides appropriate links and information about materials and deadlines.

Each discipline has a wiki. In addition to aggregating all the job ads, the wiki also provides continuously updated rumors about the state of play of any given search, with users logging on to record any response they have received, to gripe, or to pass on what they may or may not know about what a search is "really" designed to produce, and so on.

In the event, almost as soon as a department has requested additional materials, scheduled an interview, set up a campus visit, or offered the job to someone, notice appears on the site. I advise every student to consult the wiki all the time. It is the best way to ensure that you don’t miss any advertisement, from early July onward. But that means that students are in the echo chamber of their own dread for the duration.

Dread has, of course, always been a feature of the faculty hiring process. Accelerated technology and depleted resources have just created a special torque, one that is worth fixing so far as we can.

Nowhere is this more urgent than in the area of interviewing. Few of our rituals are more shrouded in mystique than the MLA interview — the unique longing and loathing that comes with sitting in a hotel suite with professors interviewing you for a job at their institution: handshakes, awkward silences, pitchers of water, the odd knock on the door. In recent years, however, the in-person convention setting has steadily competed with interviews done over Skype.

There are good reasons to prefer that we interview remotely, but some of the downstream effects on timing and on the norms of engaging candidacies have been regrettable. Prior to Skype, the MLA convention schedule held a pivot point on a broadly common timeline. Since almost all departments were on the same schedule, candidates tended to have enough time to weigh their options before accepting or rejecting an offer. In fact, the MLA has a rule stipulating that departments provide a minimum of two weeks for candidates to make up their mind. Skype interviewing has weakened that pivot point, and desperation on all sides has eroded the norm of giving candidates a respectable amount of time.

Some of the most egregious behavior that has followed really ought to stop. For example, the loss of a consensus timeline has made it possible for some hiring committees to take their pick early and bank on the candidates being so desperate to have a tenure-track job — any job — that they will accept the offer without knowing if they will have other options.

That is truly an abuse of the buyers’ market. And I have seen it done by every kind of department — from those severely under funded and under pressure from their administrations to complete the hire quickly to those sitting in comparative luxury at the most elite and wealthiest campuses in the country. The two-week window has gotten as short as three days. Candidates have had to withdraw from searches for jobs they clearly preferred to take offers they have in hand.

There’s no reason why that has to be the case. Departments that are fortunate enough to: (a) have tenure-track positions to fill and (b) work with friendly administrations should adjust their hiring schedule to accommodate the candidates. Try to keep loosely to a timetable that turns at the intersession, if just as a way to ensure that they have all the choices available to them. The job market is bad enough. Why make it worse?

Despite the chaos that it sometimes causes, however, there are good reasons to use Skype. For one, traveling to the MLA and booking a room at a conference hotel are considerable expenses for graduate students and recent Ph.D.s, especially contingent faculty members. That expense was understandable when there were more jobs and when there was no alternative. Many now consider it unreasonable to ask people to spend $2,000 or more on a trip to the MLA meeting for one or two job interviews.

For another, some think that MLA interviews are more susceptible to implicit biases with respect to race and gender than those conducted over video. The science is still out on that question, but the informalities of greeting and small talk that play a significant role in face-to face interviews might give an advantage to those with privilege.

For these reasons, Paula Krebs, executive director of the MLA, urged in April that we stop interviewing candidates at the convention and use Skype instead. Not all departments are going to do that, and many still argue for the importance, given the high stakes, of conversations not subject to the mediation of speakers, microphones, and fickle internet connections. But my hunch is that this intervention from on high will turn the tide even more in favor of remote interviewing. In any case, Skype is here to stay. We need to learn how to live with the technical and ethical problems it poses.

Colleagues should be mindful of these and other tensions unique to the current moment. Most of us are beneficiaries of generational luck. We owe it to those who are not to be kind, above all else, and to be aware of the pace and volatility of change in once-settled practices. Students and recent Ph.D.s facing a market that is at once ever present and diminished need to be always on the ready and have scant margin for error.

In the next column, I’ll discuss how those tensions play out with respect to the subfields we are hiring in now.

Jonathan Kramnick is a professor of English at Yale University.

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