Friday, December 5, 2008

The One Sentence Identifier

72. The One Sentence Identifier

While in college I had the chance to serve as the student representative on a couple of Art department search committees. They were among the highlights of my senior year and I recommend the experience highly to any of you who might have such an opportunity.
For one committee, in particular, I was struck by how all the various bits of the candidates’ applications (and the details of their life experiences) got boiled down to a one sentence identification. It worked like this.
At the start we had piles and piles of applications, many of which seemed to have completely missed the thrust of our published job description. To this day, when I hear of academics sending out dozens and dozens of applications I have to believe that many of those were a waste from the beginning and should never have been contemplated. So with varying degrees of effort the committee pruned the wild mass of initial applications down to a workable twenty or thirty.
Now, for a relatively large committee of busy academics, keeping track of the names of each candidate and their individual triumphs can be very difficult. Further, names themselves are not relevant. So, rather than use their names we would create a new name built of their most pertinent facts. For instance, “the woman from Cleveland who didn’t earn tenure but who has the great student evaluations.” Or, “the guy from Wichita with the really thick resume.”
In the woman’s case, we had an immediate reminder of three positive and one negative relevant facts. In the interest of gender balance adding a woman would have been good for the department. Being from Cleveland might make central Iowa more attractive to her and help her to stay longer if hired. Excellent student evaluations implied that she was an excellent teacher and from the student’s perspective teaching is more important than research. However, failing to earn tenure implied that she had done too little research and might have a similar inadequacy on our faculty.
Anyway, after various candidates had been trimmed away, we finally agreed on three or four to interview on campus. “The woman from...” was one of them, but only because the student element of the committee (me) was impressed by the great student evaluations and lobbied hard on her behalf.
Now, all of these applications included transcripts, statements, letters of recommendation, job histories, etc. but many of those elements were never consulted or only casually skimmed over. If two candidates seemed similar, the details separated them. The absence of something or a discrepancy might be enough to get an application tossed out, but the collective opinion, in spite of all the available information, was relatively thin on facts. How would your own work and career be generalized into one sentence?
So, “the woman from...” came to the college and did all the usual interview things: meals, meetings and a lecture. She blew the lecture. She failed to research our college well enough (even while being greeted and hosted, dined and chatted up) to correctly gauge the intellectual level of her audience. She delivered her talk at too basic, too simple a level. What Doonesbury once described as, “Our Friend the Beaver.” She probably got good evaluations because she was pathetically easy and easy-to-please.
The next meeting of the search committee was interesting. The chair got to “the woman from...” and hesitated, fearing I’m sure that I’d want to argue all afternoon in defense of “the students’ candidate.” I interrupted, and said, “Before we go any further I’d like to say that the students withdraw their support of this candidate. We don’t think we need to spend any further time on her candidacy.” I think that the faculty felt an intense surge of gratitude and respect in that moment. The students had seen what they had seen and understood it for what it was, an inappropriate candidate. “The man with...” was hired, earned tenure and still works there.
It is very difficult to know what aspect of your application will be the deciding element in the collective decision to offer you an interview. Certainly you may get an interview in spite of some part of your application. You did get an interview so some faction of the committee, however weak it might be, had enough clout to get you to the school.
Don’t just answer questions. Ask them as well. Find out everything you can about the situation, your audience, and the role that they hope you will play for them. If the “woman from” had been more observant she might have given a different lecture or put a different emphasis on the lecture she had prepared and given herself a better chance at earning the job. You, too, may be able to adapt successfully to the situation if you can get some timely information about your hosts. You’re not just applying for any old job. You’re applying for a specific job at a unique institution with a complicated internal culture. Study up.
And be careful. While you’re there you may learn things to warn you away from this institution. Working at a place where conditions quickly become unbearable can easily damage your further career as a teacher, for very little about your hellish experience there will recommend you to the faculty at the next school.
The search committee interviews you to protect their interests. You should interview them to protect your own. And in preparing yourself for the application process consider just how everything you do might get generalized down into one sentence. It would be great if your career inspired the search committee to torrents of detailed praise, but that’s not likely to happen. These are busy people and they’re going to take the easy way out. Make it easy for them to understand what you have to offer their program. The simple view of you is the one the committee will be working with, no matter how complex you really are.

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