Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: Should I Admit I’m Not Submitting What They Asked For?

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Question: I’ve been asked to submit further materials for a job application, including a new syllabus for a specific elective the department offers. Problem: I also have to finish grading 60 essays this week, and I don’t have time to create a new syllabus. What I have drafted so far is a course description with a rough structure of the class, the readings, and the learning outcomes. Should I acknowledge that I am not sending the department what it asked for?

I was going to add a comment like: "Due to time constraints, such as having to grade 60 essays that I must return this week because of scheduled, related class activities, I am unfortunately forced to submit a course outline instead of the complete syllabus." While not ideal, this seems better than saying nothing — right?

Sometimes I can unambiguously answer a reader’s question in just a few words. This is one of those times: Do not include any such language in your email. If you do, it will work against you, not for you. Just submit the course description without comment.

I could have answered the question in a single word — No! — but I want to take this opportunity to elaborate on why the reader’s initial instinct is off-base and self-sabotaging. It comes off as excuse-making in a highly gendered, impostor-syndrome-ish way and is a prime example of overexplanation — a problem that women tend to be prone to and are certainly more likely to be penalized for than men.

In my work with faculty job candidates, one of the principles I impart over and over is: Don’t make excuses. In part, that’s because no one likes excuses. You don’t want the search committee to think you sound like a panicked undergraduate trying to explain why a paper is late. But there’s another, more important, reason: While some search committees make fair requests of a candidate, others are prone to unreasonable demands (like "Please FedEx us three hard copies of your dissertation overnight" or "Please submit six letters of reference for this first-round screening; Interfolio letters not accepted").

By leading with what you’re not doing, and an excuse about why, you are unnecessarily handing the search committee a narrative that does you a disservice.

Sure there are good practices for how to prepare a syllabus that will impress a search committee. Ideally your syllabus should convince the committee that if you were air-dropped into the classroom tomorrow, you could teach the class without missing a beat. That means — again, in an ideal world — no placeholders like missing page numbers on the readings. It also means that you should have all the assessment percentages worked out and the assigned readings listed in standard and consistent citations.

Yet when institutions ask job candidates for "a syllabus," they get a variety of types of submissions — from skeletal outlines to fully elaborated documents with plagiarism policies spelled out. And the truth is: There is no one universal standard for this sort of prospective document — largely because a syllabus is a less-standardized document than many other artifacts of academic life. Actual real syllabi span a wide range of formats and lengths, depending on the personality of the author, the requirements and boilerplate of the institution, the use of textbook versus separate readings.

So the search-committee members will not be measuring your submission against any central standard. No matter what sort of document you send in, you are not inherently subverting their request.

I’m not saying you should send in something slipshod, filled with errors, or poorly conceived. I am saying that search-committee members each prepare their syllabi in different ways, with different degrees of specificity. So while it is possible you will get dinged for not turning in something more substantive, the logic of the situation in this case actually grants you the benefit of the doubt — so long as what you send isn’t hand-drawn with crayons or with coffee stains on it.

In short, it’s not clear that you are doing something wrong by sending in something brief. So don’t make it a wrong by pre-emptively apologizing for it. If you tell the committee members that you are sorry you are turning in a defective artifact, they will assess it as a defective artifact.

Which brings me to my larger point — gender, gendered behavior, and penalties for gendered behavior. The compulsion to apologize and furnish excuses is something much more common to female job seekers. I see this time and again throughout the life cycle of the faculty job market, from the cover letters to the final negotiations.

In best-case scenarios, female candidates apologize for things they could get away with if they didn’t frame the situation as a misstep (like this syllabus predicament). In worst-case scenarios, women apologize for things they should feel entitled to do — like "bothering" the search committee to build in adequate time for a candidate who is a nursing mother to use a breast pump.

On the broadest level, such reluctance among candidates reflects an ethos in which women feel that they still have to apologize for existing in academe, and the baseline they have to adhere to is one of overcompensation. Do I ever see male clients engage in that kind of self-sabotaging behavior? Sure — but not nearly as often.

Sexism, too, works its magic in these situations: While an apology or an elaborate justification is likely to reaffirm unconscious stereotypes about the inadequacies and incompetence of female candidates, the same thing is likely to "humanize" male candidates and make the search committee more benevolently predisposed toward them.

In many ways, the academic-hiring cycle is like a medieval morality play of egos and insecurities — a patriarchy on steroids. When you feel compelled to apologize, examine your gender positionality in the situation, especially if you are a woman. Would your male colleague adopt the same stance? Are you acting like a female undergraduate who raises her hand even as several boys start talking ahead of her, and then introduces her own comment with "I’m sorry, this might be a stupid question, but …"

Try to arrest that behavior in yourself as a job candidate. It will make a difference in how you are evaluated, and down the line it will make a difference in how you advocate for yourself in negotiations and how well you are compensated.

Obviously, not all apologies are bad. If you spill coffee on a member of the search committee, definitely apologize. But otherwise, ask yourself if you are sabotaging your own candidacy by overexplaining something that you don’t need to justify.

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