As is well-known, the rationale behind an academic hiring decision cannot be the object of a possible sensible experience. As with other supersensible realities such as God, the soul, and the whole of the universe, the attempt to reason about said rationale ends in irreconcilable antinomies, which is to say, it results in contradictory statements, both of which can be demonstratively proven.
- It is best to go on the job market your last ABD year, so that you’ll appear fresh AND it’s preferable to have your degree in hand and a few years of teaching experience.
- One should publish aggressively in field-leading journals and seek to publish one’s dissertation as soon as practicable in order to stand out AND it’s best to go the more traditional route and hold back on publishing one’s research so as to save it for the tenure probationary period.
- One should cultivate as wide a teaching competence as possible so as to serve a variety of departmental needs AND one needs to have a clear, narrow specialization.
- One should jump at the opportunity to do adjunct work in order to stay in the field and develop one’s teaching portfolio AND one should be cautious about doing adjunct work lest it leave you with the taint of being a second-rater.
I’m sure my readers can supply additional examples. Overall, however, I believe these antinomies demonstrate the abusiveness of the academic hiring process — an abusiveness that comes not from the members of the various committees, who are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, well-meaning people who take their job seriously, but rather from the intrinsically arbitrary nature of the process.
There is an appearance of rigor in the volume of application materials required and the clear stepwise narrowing process that leads from application to interview to campus interview to hire. Yet it’s intrinsically impossible for such a process to yield the “best” candidate. Yes, it nearly always results in a “good” candidate being hired, but that’s because 95% of people who have a PhD in the relevant field will wind up doing a good job. That’s because they have been training for that job for five to ten years.
Most searches will seem to have found that elusive “good fit” because people will generally become acclimated to a school relatively quickly. They’ll be a “good fit” because they’re there. I very quickly became a “good fit” with the culture of Kalamazoo College, for instance, and I was not hired through a “rigorous” application process. In cases where someone is not going to wind up fitting in, it’s extremely unlikely that a twenty-minute interview (perhaps the cruellest charade in the whole process — how can they possibly learn more than they already have gleaned from a voluminous application file in such a short time?) or even a campus visit (when the person is naturally going to be on their best behavior) will let you figure that out.
So: basically everyone applying, within certain limits, will be fine, and basically all of them will wind up “fitting in.” Do you decide based on who has the longest CV? I can say based on personal experience that that is not the case, because I’m pretty sure that I have one of the longest CVs of anyone in the humanities at an equivalent stage of their career. I’ve published two books with a respected trade press, including my dissertation, and one of them was already in print before I even graduated. I’ve placed articles in a wide range of well-regarded peer-reviewed journals — indeed, my success in placing articles has been almost farcically good. I’ve presented at my national disciplinary conference every single year, often doing the maximum two presentations.
Surely I, of all people, should be getting a job, right? I do feel that sometimes, but don’t you think it’d be pretty abusive if the burden of proof for an entry-level, probational job was having published two books and ten articles? And clearly there are people who are hired as ABDs who finish up, publish a reasonable amount, and get tenure with no problem. There is and should be no need to be a hyper-productive scholar in order to get a job in the field you’ve trained for and then, after a probationary period, be rewarded with a reasonable level of job security.
That is, after all, what we’re talking about: getting a job in the field you’ve trained for and then getting some reasonable job security. There is absolutely no need for it to become a meritocratic arms race. The only reason it’s like that is because of artificially-created scarcity. We’re not talking about six-figure salaries and stock options and a jet-setting lifestyle — we’re talking about a baseline middle-class job that leaves you enough freetime to devote yourself to the hobby of scholarship. Asking to get that after a long period of training and poverty is not exhorbitant. There’s no need for the process to be so arbitrary and cruel.
Yet under current circumstances, it’s impossible to reform the “process” of the job market and make it more fair, because the entire university system is increasingly arbitrary and cruel — saddling the students with inescapable debt on an increasingly false promise of higher future income, exploiting well-meaning people who only want to live a calm and quiet life where they’re paid to teach people and do some thinking, and allowing a randomly chosen few to “live the dream” basically so that the exploited masses will still believe that their “carrot” exists and if they’d just work a little harder….