Monday, November 28, 2005


Who Would You Hire?, or, Merit in Action

I’ve been reading a lot about ‘Merit’ lately. It’s offered as an all-purpose explanation for academic decisions – admissions, hiring, setting funding priorities, etc. It’s used as a trump card to defeat context – in all cases, hire according to merit, and all will be well.

But merit is always contextual. Put differently, it’s not just about the candidate.

I’ll make it concrete. Assume you’re the hiring decision-maker at Hypothetical State. You’re hiring for a tenure-track position in English. The position involves some teaching of composition, though the majority of the courses are literature and/or film. The department search committee sends you three finalists:

Earth Mother: ABD from Respectable State, “almost done,” lots of composition experience at multiple colleges, great committee work and collegiality, likable personality, teaching awards, a few conference papers.

EuroDude: Ivy Ph.D., book contract, references from gods, great job talk, contacts/experience in film industry, slightly icy personality, minimal teaching experience, has never breathed the word ‘composition’ or taught outside Ivy U.

Sisyphus: M.A. from They Have a Graduate Program? State, longtime internal adjunct, trailing spouse of bigshot at Nearby U, faithful to the department for 15 years, plays well with others, taught everything from soup to nuts, no plans for a doctorate, never published.

Which one has the most merit?

The only intellectually honest answer is: it depends.

In a community college setting, I’d lean towards Earth Mother. Student success is our reason for being, and she is the likeliest to improve that. If Hypothetical State is mostly about teaching, and especially if it has retention issues, she’s the best.

At a research institution (or, more commonly, a wannabe research institution), EuroDude is the easy winner. Degree in hand beats ABD every time, and a book contract beats a sharp stick in the eye. Arrogant? Who cares? He’ll need it to navigate the snakepit of departmental politics. Besides, he’s the only one who has shown the potential to get tenure.

Sisyphus could carry the day in a fractious department. If the department is divided into warring camps, or if the dean and the department are engaged in a war of attrition, Sisyphus could emerge as the dark horse, compromise candidate. The department won’t meaningfully advance (or even change) with that hire, but a political firestorm could be avoided. There are times when this is the most prudent route. A manager might be saving political capital for some other high-risk, high-reward project coming up, and might elect to keep his powder dry by taking the safe route here. If hiring Sisyphus makes another, more important decision possible, then Sisyphus is the best choice for the college as a whole. (Sisyphus would also be a compelling choice if the college had recently been burned by a few ‘flight risks’ flying. At least s/he could be assumed to be place-bound).

Alternately, you could look at it negatively: what would a manager be accused of in each case? In hiring Earth Mother, I’d be accused of ignoring both excellence (EuroDude) and loyalty (Sisyphus). In hiring EuroDude, I’d be accused of ignoring teaching (Earth Mother) and loyalty (Sisyphus). In hiring Sisyphus, I’d be accused of lowering standards and inbreeding.

Comes with the job.

A few key points:

- The needs of the department are usually defined, in part, by hiring decisions made 20-30 years ago when the market was a very different animal. In a true meritocracy, incumbents would have to defend their positions against newcomers. Since incumbents have tenure, they don’t have to.

- Needs depend on the self-definition of both the department and the college. Is the college changing its mission? Is it “raising its academic profile,” or focusing on retention? Does the college even know its mission? (Most don’t.)

- Geography can play a role. A trendy urban school might take a flyer on EuroDude, figuring that location would cancel out ‘flight risk.’ A suburban or rural school that hired EuroDude would have to assume that he’d leave when something better came along. If a department can’t be sure that it would keep the line when he left, his candidacy would be doomed.

- I haven’t even mentioned hiring for diversity. That variable makes this exercise even more fun.

- Two of the three candidates will think that something they did caused them to fail. They will both be wrong. It’s Not About You.

Who would you hire, and why?

I don't know who we would hire, but I know who we wouldn't: Sisyphus. And the reason for this is simple: there is no way we (a regional state university with many MA programs, including in the English department) would hire someone without a terminal degree, generally a Ph.D., but potentially an MFA or JD. Unless Sisyphus had a bucketful of publications or something like that, there's no way they'd get the nod.

Further, in my experience at a couple of different universities/colleges, internal candidates who are "long time adjuncts" in the department rarely have any chance at moving into the tenure-track. And I should point out I don't think that either of these issues-- terminal degree and the unfamiliar-- is just an English department bias.
Well obviously EuroDude has the objective criteria. But, it has been my personal experience that schools put NO value what so ever on research and publications when hiring. Instead they will take somebody with NO publications and teaching experience over somebody with multiple books and peer reviewed journal articles and no teaching experience every time. It has gotten so bad that one first rate scholar in the UK has noted that almost all good research on Central Asia is being done outside of academia now.
At my Southern CC, EarthMother would win in a romp. Eurodude gets the ax due to his preceived arrogance and probably doesn't get an invite to interview. Sisyphus is interviewed, but since we know her "warts and all" she is overlooked with the majority of valuation based on her "shortcomings." While we expect loyalty in our adjuncts, we don't return it very often...just like every other employer in the U.S. :-(

See, but does Eurodude have the objective criteria for a school like mine? I'd say, actually, that on paper he DOESN'T. The reason is that 90% of what I do is NOT related to research and the Brilliant Thoughts about Literature that I have. Rather, 90% of what I do is spread across bureacratic minutiae and teaching. Thus, Eurodude would be (probably) a) incredibly unhappy at an institution like mine (regional comprehensive, mainly undergrad teaching with no grad program in my field) and b) not particularly good with the kind of students that we have (I mean, hell, my students freak out because they think that I'm arrogant, cold, whatever)and c) not particularly good at the job that we're actually offering. Of course, there may be some secret that this dude's qualifications hide (a working-class background, a deep desire to focus on teaching and a teaching statement to prove it, etc.) but without that he is not going to make the first cut.

No, I'd say that Earth Mother would be the best fit for my institution. She has some research, which is important, but her focus is teaching. She's getting her degree from a respectable place, but one doesn't need to worry so much about flight risk with her.

Sisyphus is a no. Why? Because Sisyphus is never going to leave anyway, and so there is no solid economic reason to hire Sisyphus for a real salary. Yes, this is disgusting, but I think it's the truth. Also, even at a university like mine, we do like the candidate to gesture toward a research agenda if he/she is hired on the tenure track.
It's up to Sisyphus to make herself more valuable - as pointed out earlier, if she's not doing the terminal degree, she has had time to publish. She can't assume she'll be given a full-time TT just because she's around.

Eurodude wouldn't be happy at our institution either and would only anger students (and colleagues who are putting time into teaching AND publishing) and cause headaches, in addition to the possibility that you pointed out - losing the line.

Another factor to consider - what did their cover letters state about how they would fit into your department? I often find that missing, especially in the case of Eurodude. Make a solid case that while are you are published, you do care about teaching. But I'm afraid that the insular world of the upper tiers (ie major professors) tell them that only publications count.

You're also right about confused missions - a few years ago our university went from "By Doing, Learn" (and our 4-year tech majors go out making twice what our teachers do) to "Research, Scholarship, Service" (not very imaginative, I know! (and without any additional support for said research and scholarship . . . )

What role do cover letters play in your initial impressions before any other contact has been made?
Cover letters carry more weight than many people realize, at least at the two schools at which I've done searches. C.V.'s quickly boil down to a few key categories -- degree in hand or not, relevant teaching experience or not, publications/papers or not -- but letters give you some way to get a sense of the person.

A successful cover letter addresses the institution and job in question. As a cc, if the cover letter is mostly about your research, I know you don't really want to be here.
The assumption that Eurodude would be unhappy with a job as oppossed to being unemployed is just wrong. In fact it is indicative of the incredible arrogance of all you tenured profs. It is an easy way to exclude people with more publications and keep them out of the cartelized university system. In other words merit doesn't count in your little clique of leftists. It reminds me of the former East Germany. First, most important thing is membership in the Party, second most important thing is membership in the Party and third most important thing is membership in the Party. Eurodude has no teaching experience because you can not get a job teaching unless you have experience teaching. Before jetting off to Europe to get his Ph.D. in two years he worked as a barrista for minimum wage and tips.
Presumably, in his time as a barrista, he could have adjuncted somewhere. That is, if he didn't consider teaching too far beneath his dignity, or too far beneath working at Starbucks.

Note, too, that at the research university, Eurodude would have the upper hand.

More to the point, leaping from what I wrote to a denunciation of a little clique of tenured leftist profs (a charge, btw, to which I am immune) simply gets it wrong. The point of the exercise was to show that different schools will have different definitions of 'merit.' There is no Party. Different schools have different needs.

I insist on this point because it's true, but also because keeping it in mind could spare some folks some real anguish. Self-blame is rife among under-employed academics. What I'm trying to show here is that self-blame isn't accurate. Talking about the market as if there is a single definition of 'excellence' or 'merit' presumes that an unsuccessful candidate somehow isn't good enough. S/he could be great; it's just that the needs of the moment led to other hiring choices.

There is no Party, no Man, no Establishment, no Conspiracy, no Ogre. There are just different schools with different needs, and very limited resources.
Yes, Dean Dad, I'm getting the message. It's not about me.

So what should the strategy be for someone between EarthMother (teaching experience, with the phd and publications) and Sisyphus (lots of time as an adjunct at one institution)? Go elsewhere? Our department hires about half MAs and half PhDs, so there's no clear line on that either.

Thanks for presenting the vivid example. I also was surprised that you (or other dean/administrator) makes the decision. Not the committee?
In my department, we recently hired a long time adjunct into a tenure track position.

The adjunct had recently finished his PhD and was a strong candidate through the national search. We had a couple campus visits, and the adjuct showed that he understood our needs well (which made sense), AND has an appropriate level of research interests.

So it does happen.

I'm not Dean Dad, Timna, but were I you, I'd first make sure I got my PhD, and actually looked to apply elsewhere. Research may be close to impossible as an adjunct, and it's certain to feel unfair, but you're competing against people who've been adjuncting and doing research, or who've just finished grad school while teaching, or whatever.

We consistently get 80-200 applications for just about any job in an English department here. Half of them get cut just because they're not actually able to fulfill the advertised requirements. Among the others, there are probably 10 who would be great hires for us. And yet, we can only hire one.

It's hard to remember when you're the one on the market, but the other nine people generally impress us and make us wish we could hire them. They haven't done something wrong, but just haven't done quite as much right, if that makes sense.

Great post and discussion as always, Dean Dad!
Since Eurodude only had a BA and a few academic books and other peer reviewed publications when he worked as a barrista how would he have adjuncted? He only got his MA after leaving his minimum wage job to go to Europe. The fact is nobody will hire Eurodude even as an adjunct because he has no teaching experience. I suspect in many cases that this excuse covers other idelogical reasons, but it is nonetheless the one most frequently given.
Bardiac -- I think you nailed it. Not knowing Timna's department, I'd advise anybody, as a matter of general principle, not to restrict a job search to a single institution. It's entirely true that t-t searches frequently involve three rounds of cuts: first those who don't have the minimum qualifications (why do they apply?), then those who meet the minimum but don't stand out, then those who are outstanding but aren't The One. In this market, it's not unusual to turn down excellent people. And not for unspecified, but presumably sinister, 'ideological' reasons, either. Just because we can't create enough jobs to hire everybody who could do them well.
I think that's probably key, Dean Dad. As long as I mostly apply to this school, really why should they hire me?!

btw, bardiac, I did finish the phd --2 years ago, writing the dissertation as I adjuncted. since then, I've continued to research and write, albeit at a reduced pace.

who knows where I'll go from here!
I was the last ABD hired in our department. Honestly, I don't think they'd hire another unless they had to fill a very tough niche (as was the case in my hiring, and my ABD status wasn't too worrisome since my defense was finished before my first month of teaching was). Since our small department needs everyone to teach in the M.A. program at some point or another, a Ph.D. is a baseline requirement.

So, Sisyphus wouldn't stand a chance while Earth Mother would be our choice for all but ABD status. That said, we did make an offer once to an Eurodude type but, fortunately all around, he turned us down.
Congrats, Timna, and my apologies for not realizing.

We have adjuncts here who are great teachers. But they're very unlikely to get tenure track positions here.

It's a painful issue all around: we know abusing adjuncts is bad, and that adjuncting makes it even more difficult for people to get the research done that will make them look fresh on the job market. And they don't get paid as well as they should, and have little job security.

Some of them might get offers if they were willing to leave the area. In fact, pretty much everyone I know from grad school who got a tenure track job moved far from where they ever imagined living.

For most of us, it's a trade off: live where you want or have a tenure track job. That doesn't make it good, but that seems to be the nature of our beast.
This is why I panic. I've got the PhD. I have no publications -- no wait -- a review came out last month. I've got another in the works. I would be happy in different ways at different types of institutions, but think I'd be happiest where I could publish. If my job goes TT and I get it, I will be able to do that at my CC -- they're very supportive and pay enough that, if I'm careful with money, I can write in the summers (but it will be a real strain). OTOH, I never HAVE to publish. So I apply for different jobs, and discuss the holes in my CV honestly (lots of teaching, the last three years as a FT contingent person, but only just getting my research agenda back off the ground -- two reviews and two scheduled conference panels this year) ...

But it would be nice to think I still have a chance ...
Just to procrastinate a little longer:

In my department, Sisyphus wouldn't even be considered in the pool. I repeat: the entry-level requirement for a tenure-track job in my English department (and every other English department I am aware of) is a Ph.D. Period.

There are only two possible exceptions to this that I can think of: if the position was in a field like creative writing or journalism, and the candidate in question was very well-published and experienced and lacking the degree.

Between EuroDude and Earth Mother: there are just too many factors to consider to really say. We've hired both types and have had good and bad luck with both types. The person who is mostly likely to get the job in my department is probably more like EuroDude than Earth Mother though.

But a lot of this speaks to the differences between a place like EMU and a community college and/or a smaller 4 year state school. We have just shy of 50 tenure-track faculty and about 100 full-time and part-time lecturers. We have over 800 undergraduate majors and larg(ish) MA programs. So, for example, if we were to hire someone to be a lit/film specialist, we wouldn't really care a whole lot about her or his composition teaching, as long as she/he wasn't hostile to composition studies. This is because this hire would almost certainly *never* teach composition; rather, they'd be teaching courses in their specialization.

Oh yeah: even though we're very much a "teaching" school, scholarship still matters. A lot. As a result, I'm pretty sure we haven't hired anyone into a tenure-track position in the last 8 or so years who didn't have at least some scholarship (and usually a publication or two) on the ol' CV. It ain't "publish or perish" around here, but it ain't 5-5 teaching, either.
Bardiac nailed it, once you get down to the last ten you might as well let them throw dice for the slot. (OK you have to interview them to see if anyone eats his boogers, but beyond that.....)
Well said, Dean Dad and others. At our average-size 4-year state school, we recently held interviews for a position. I sat and watched in amazement as candidate after candidate would essentially disqualify themselves in one way or another. In fact, the Best On Paper candidate walked in chewing gum in the most obvious manner possible; the interview went downhill from there. Another admitted that his real interest was an entirely different position that he hoped would open soon. I suppose, in many ways, a good approach is to simply try to keep your application on the table until the time the dice is rolled.
Just to respond to some of the previous comments: I think to say that all American universities value teaching over research is overstated. There are many research institutions (the one I attended, for instance), where connections and research were the only thing that mattered - teaching experience wasn't necessary, though certainly if someone had excellent research qualifications AND teaching experience, it didn't hurt. But research qualifications trumped the others.

Now, how to evaluate those research qualifications is another matter. Some schools look "hot" and others don't; there are fashions and prejudices about what is good research as much as there are about anything else. National traditions, for instance, differ. I know that in medieval history, British scholarship can look very narrow to many Americans. Someone with a gazillion pubs still needs to be able to sell the relevance and importance of those publications to prospective employers. (I saw an well-published economic historian completely lose a job in his job talk, because he spent 45 minutes telling primarily social/cultural historians about the economic implications of trade in a certain commodity. The first question he got asked was how this trade affected the people who were actually involved in creating the commodity. His answer? "Uhhhhh...." Which is NOT to say that he should do social/cultural history, just that in a job talk in a department dominated by such scholarship, he, as a candidate, had to make the case to them why they should care about the economic implications.)

FWIW, I don't think any of these candidates would fly at my own small liberal arts college. What we would look for would be someone who has the teaching ability/experience and personality of Earth Mother, with more of the research ability of EuroDude - at the very least, with degree in hand. In other words, you'd have to have it all! Of course, this is easier to command in some fields than others. A search in, for instance, 20th c US history can probably get away with not settling for anything less than Perfect Candidate, whereas a search in something like African history will have to compromise a little more (not because Africanists are any less qualified than Americanists, there are just a lot fewer of them, and it's harder for us to get one of them).

Sorry to hijack at such length...
Good point, New Kid!

In some specialties, the applicant not only must walk on water, but his/her shoelaces can't get wet.
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