Monday, June 25, 2012

Self-Fulfilling Cynicism

This piece in IHE was painful to read.  It’s about being a sacrificial lamb candidate for jobs for which the internal candidate has the inside track.  The author winds up asserting that there’s simply no point in applying for jobs when there’s an internal candidate, since the fix is presumably in.

As a factual matter, the assertion is just false.  Internal candidates often lose.  But I get the emotional appeal of the argument, even as it leads to self-defeating behavior.

As a veteran on both sides of the search committee table, I can attest that anyone who claims the ability to read the mind of a committee is lying.  I’ve had committees that report to me send me lists that left me scratching my head.  And I’ve walked out of committee meetings with my mouth open, wondering just how the discussion veered from candidate A to candidate B.

The core of the essay, aside from a palpable bitterness that seems to stem from a sense of betrayal, is an assumption that there’s a single list of qualifications against which every candidate can be ranked objectively against every other.  If there’s a Great Chain of Being, then either you hire the highest person on the chain that you can, or you’re corrupt.  A or B.

But that’s just not true.  And despite the more conspiratorially minded fulminations of the interwebs, “fit” isn’t just a euphemism for bias.  

Sometimes, the “best” hire is the one whose speciality is the most immediately useful.  Quick, who’s the better historian: an Americanist or a Europeanist?  Out of context, it’s a nonsense question.  But in a department with ample coverage of the U.S. and nothing outside of it, the Europeanist is the more desirable hire.  A math department that fights over the few sections of calculus, and grudgingly teaches basic arithmetic, is probably better off hiring the gifted algebra teacher than the next great theorist of knots.  (Seriously, mathematicians get all excited about knots.  Don’t ask me.)  

Sometimes it comes down to hiring for the future.  If you have a department with a chronic leadership vacuum because nobody ever wants to step up, the candidate with some administrative facility becomes attractive.  “Diversity” hiring may seem offensive when viewed through a purely individualist lens, but if you look at hiring as something like casting, some roles need to be filled.  You wouldn’t hire Meryl Streep to play the action hero, no matter how well she does accents.  

Internal candidates have the advantage, and the curse, of being more fully known.  External candidates come with experience, but without baggage.  Sometimes that amounts to buying a pig in a poke, but sometimes it means getting someone whose talents weren’t entirely welcome in their previous role.  

If you read blogs by adjuncts, you’d think that internal candidates never get hired.  If you read this IHE piece, you’d think external candidates never get hired.  Those can’t both be right, because some people are actually getting hired.

The IHE piece advises candidates not to apply for jobs for which there are internal candidates.  I know bitterness when I see it, but that’s terrible, terrible advice.  I’ve defeated internal candidates personally, and I’ve hired both internal and external candidates at different times.  It can happen.  The better advice, I think, is to focus on what you can actually control.  You don’t control who else applies, and you don’t control what a committee or a hiring manager will think.  You don’t control the market, the economy, or the legislature.  But you do control your own responses.  

The most effective candidates -- both faculty and administrative -- are those who present believable versions of themselves as actual people.  Yes, there’s some element of polishing that goes into an interview -- that’s understood -- but the basic truth of who you are as a professional should come through.  If that turns out to be what the college needs, not only will you get the job, but you’ll have a good chance of being successful in it.  If you get the job under false pretenses -- which is pretty rare in my experience -- you’re setting yourself up to fail.  

And unless you’re a certified superstar, accept the fact that you’re going to collect a staggering amount of rejections.  That sucks, but it’s par for the course.  Rather than retreating into bitterness and conspiracy theories, just take it as how the game is played.  (If that’s too difficult, there’s always the option of leaving the field and playing another game.  I don’t mean to put that lightly, but it’s true.)  I’ve endured my share of rejections, and I’ve had to deliver rejections to some perfectly wonderful people whose only mistake was being in the same pool with someone who fit the college’s needs even better than they did.  But rejecting yourself, and then taking your continued unemployment as evidence that the fix is in, is just self-fulfilling cynicism.