Monday, November 03, 2014


Games and Casting

Gerry Canavan’s piece on the higher education faculty job market is well worth a read.  Briefly, Canavan rejects both the idea of “market as meritocracy” -- hard to sustain when demand fluctuates as much as it does -- and “market as lottery,” which suggests the complete irrelevance of anything candidates do or don’t do.  Instead, he argues for understanding the market as a game, in which the moves a candidate chooses matter, but luck also plays a significant role.  

I agree that luck plays a significant role.  Even if you imagine that each individual position is filled entirely on “merit,” whatever that means, the existence of positions at any given time is a matter of luck.  Last year, we hired for math.  This year, we’re hiring for English.  The switch is not a reflection on anyone’s merit.

Different disciplines -- and different levels of the academic hierarchy -- have different sets of rules.  Right now, for example, we’re hiring two tenure-track positions in English, and two more in Computer Information Systems.  In English, it’s very much an employer’s market; in CIS, not so much.  Were I a betting man, I’d bet that we’d get an order of magnitude more applications for English than for CIS.

From this side of the table, I can attest that candidates have agency beyond the moment of deciding to apply.  I’ve seen candidates do very well at interviews, and I’ve seen frontrunners disqualify themselves by their interview performance.  So yes, there’s more agency than a “lottery” would imply.  Besides, the “lottery” metaphor assumes that search committees don’t see distinctions among candidates.  They most certainly do.  We bother to have search committees at all precisely because of the differences among candidates.

All of that said, from this side, the metaphor I would use is “casting.”  Given fewer positions than needs, each hire counts.  The “best” candidate for a given role depends, in part, on who is already there.  If a given program is full of outsize personalities and high drama, a more reserved and even-keeled candidate becomes more attractive.  If it’s stale and complacent, a sparkplug would be a better choice.  (As you’ve probably guessed, I’m not a huge fan of monocultures.  They breed pathogens.) Sometimes you need someone with range; sometimes you need a specialist.  I don’t know how to compare the “merit” of those in any absolute sense, but in a given context, one may be more useful than the other.

It’s an article of faith in the academic blogosphere that “fit” is a euphemism for all sorts of sinister motives.  And it can be.  But sometimes it’s a function of the mix of personalities already present.  From the candidate’s perspective, that’s invisible and useless, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  It just means that there’s a perspective beyond the candidate’s.

One of the tragedies of the lopsided market in many disciplines is that candidates trying to find the first full-time job often lack the luxury of giving “fit” any serious consideration.  That sometimes results in people accepting jobs out of desperation, then growing discontented quickly on the job as they realize that the institution has very different priorities than they do.  I lived that myself when I took a faculty job at DeVry.  It wasn’t what I’d had in mind when I went to grad school, but as the saying goes, any port in a storm.  It allowed me to make an adult living, albeit a modest one, plying my trade.  It wasn’t until several years later that I gained enough experience to decamp for a place with values closer to my own.  

In many cases, people don’t get that chance, and they wind up feeling stuck at places they might not have chosen if they had other options.  The issue might be that it’s a community college instead of a selective liberal arts college, or that it’s hundreds of miles from partner and/or family, or that the culture of the place just isn’t a match.  

The issue with “fit,” I think, isn’t so much that it’s fictitious or disingenuous; it’s that it’s imbalanced.  At the entry level, in most fields, employers can be far choosier than prospective employees can be.  Judgment is running largely in one direction.  If it were more reciprocal, I suspect some of the dysfunction that arises from poor matches would subside.  

Unlike Canavan’s “game” metaphor, the “casting” metaphor assumes that different searches will be looking for very different things.  They will.  An actor who’s well-suited to playing an ingenue may be a poor choice as an action hero.  That’s no reflection on “merit,” but it isn’t random, either.  That may not be terribly helpful to someone looking desperately for a port in a storm, but it does suggest a couple of takeaways.  For example, some self-awareness about one’s own priorities might help avoid disastrous matches.  If you are, well and truly, an urban creature, then applying for the job in the middle of nowhere is probably a bad idea.  If you see teaching as a distasteful chore to be tolerated only to the extent that it allows you to publish, then a community college is not the place for you.  And you can get turned down for a dream job due to factors you couldn’t have controlled even if you had known about them.  

Canavan is certainly right that the rhetoric of meritocracy, applied here, serves mostly to punish the victim.  Whether we go with the game metaphor, the casting metaphor, or something else, let’s not make the basic mistake of assuming that winners win because they’re winners, and losers lose because they’re losers.  In this market, winners often lose.

Excellent, well thought out analysis.
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