Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sticky Wiki

Cruising around the blogosphere as one does, and following link to link, I ended up on Academic Cog's December post about the academic job wiki. My favorite Cog was upbraiding midnight raiders who erased sections of the wiki, claiming that they had done so as a "political act" to protest the oppressions of the job market. I agree with Miss Cog, mutilating the wiki was a mean thing to do, although I think it was probably a function of wiki-madness itself, perhaps enhanced by drink, that gave some jerk the idea that hir own rotten year on the job market could be made better by destabilizing other people's peace of mind. Having never really thought much about this job market wiki before last year (when I stumbled upon it and, to my horror, found a colleague's divorce detailed by a disappointed job hunter as the reason why s/he was given a job, purportedly by sympathetic friends, that "should have" gone to someone junior), I have now encountered it accidentally several times in the last six weeks.

The first was at the AHA, where I had an exchange with another colleague who I don't know particularly well. Both of us are tenured full professors at SLACs, so neither of us (I think) fall into the category of people who might justifiably be enraged on our own, or our students', behalf by the state of the job market. I mentioned the incident I have sketched out above as a reason why I thought the wiki was not so great (not that there is anything one can, or should, do to stop it, as it is a wiki.) My colleague got fighting mad -- or at least it seemed so to me -- because, as s/he pointed out, the job market is so stacked against the job-seeker, anything that could give a candidate more information was justified.

OK, I said, trying to de-escalate, but any and all information? Including putting the personal business of strangers up? And how did more information about others really help a job seeker? (Academic Cog, by the way, makes a good point that being allowed to deal with disappointment privately is a benefit of the wiki.) As I also pointed out, one had to rely on the good will of other strangers that the information posted was accurate. And, although some of it seemed to be good sharing - "received phone interview 11/21" - some of it was bad sharing -- "I hear that there is a short list already." "I hear there is an inside candidate." Well, from whom did you hear that?

My colleague was unmoved by my skepticism and we agreed to disagree. I shimmered across the room to get another beer, and forgot about the wiki for another few weeks.

But once I started to ask around, I found that people actively on the job market give the wiki mixed reviews. For every jobless soul I have talked to who finds it helpful to have "more information" there is another who is made anxious by the compulsion to check the wiki and its inevitable failure to offer any concrete help in the job hunt. "I try to stay off it," more than one has confessed. "It makes me anxious, but I keep checking anyway," said another a few weeks back. And I get that: if you are a blogger, how many times a day do you check to see if there are any comments? Any comments responding to your response to a comment? A visit from the Diva that might need to be purged? (nb: the Diva has been very civil of late and we at Tenured Radical appreciate it.) How could you help but go on the wiki if you were on the market?

Okay, so when I decided to write about the Academic Job wiki, I went to the original wiki, and then followed Academic Cog's link to the scratchpad version that was established when the Raiders of the Lost Wiki took a number of pages down from the real one. And I found, in relation to my own American Studies searches at Zenith:

NB to candidates: Caution when applying here. Institutional cultures vary by department, last year's search for a [field censored by TR] specialist in [department censored by TR] was tanked by a hostile admin, and several junior fac of color were not granted tenure. Research well, ask around, and get the specs.

Now, this information is only partially accurate, to begin with. Furthermore, as neither of our American Studies searches were partnered with the named department, or in the designated field, and the search chairs are reporting to an entirely different administration (president, provost and divisional dean are all different people), I ask you: what did this have to do with the actual searches that candidates would be participating in? What does the wiki tell them that helps them be better candidates for our jobs? That there is racism at Zenith? Well I could have told you that if you had asked. And those who work at universities where there is no racism might want to write a comment for this post about what it is like to work under those conditions. Enquiring minds want to know.

I suspect that the person who wrote the wiki post is the same anonymous commenter who occasionally shows up on this blog to hint darkly about my naivete about the "troubles" at Zenith. I don't mind the insinuation, although as regular readers of this blog know, having been among the first round of casualties in those troubles, aka, the Unfortunate Events, it is not I who needs to be reminded that the past is not always a place we want to visit. But at what university or college have these things not happened? Where have deserving people not been misunderstood? Welcome to the academy.

Furthermore, I wonder -- is such a comment actually intended to hurt rather than help? Certainly suggesting that job candidates ask directly about whether the tenure process is biased against candidates of color seems like a bad strategy. Ask me that and you are asking the person who will be candid and think it is a reasonable conversation in a recruiting situation; ask some other search chair and they might suggest you pick up your dossier on the way out the door. You really have no way of knowing. But let's assume encouraging people to make themselves conspicuous by collecting gossip that they have no way of evaluating is not malicious: how would a candidate act on that advice? Not apply for a job s/he is qualified for and increase the risk of remaining an adjunct instead? Or apply for the job, perhaps get it, and then be permanently vigilant about what terrible thing will happen next at the hands of unknown enemies?

Alright, I'll stop fulminating. I know that it was a spiteful attempt, probably by someone who has all the reasons in the world, to slam Zenith more generally in response to having been slammed by the Zenith personnel process. But as to whether such comments "help" others? Let's not be naive. And this leads me to the problem with the wiki: there seems to be no wiki administrator who is in a position to address the question of whether a post, disingenuously claiming to be helpful, actually hurts job candidates in the end by complicating their feelings about places that people inevitably experience differently and search processes which do not privilege the individual.

As to what I learned from the wiki, I think it would be helpful for people running searches to read it to think about what not to do and how to be as respectful of candidates as possible. As Academic Cog points out, search committees keep candidates on the string for far too long. Candidates receive interview requests so much at the last minute that even knowing whether to pre-register for the convention is impossible -- a convention you really might not be able to bear going to if you have no interviews. (The Radical once received such an invitation on Christmas Eve.) These endless timelines are something we need to re-think, since job searches may be disappointing on many levels, but they don't have to be gruesome or dismissive: to this extent, I agree wholeheartedly with my AHA colleague that more transparency would help. Reading the wiki comments should be sobering about the level to which those running searches do not feel bound by common courtesy. Not returning response cards included in the application by the candidate; not acknowledging the receipt of applications; not letting people know they are out of the running; personal rudeness on interviews: the list is long, and these careless things happen everywhere, including Zenith, I am sorry to say.

After my own search is over, I will do a post about how to do a search that will include some things I wish I had done better this year -- maybe an article for AHA Perspectives. Someone should, at any rate, and I hope some of the comments on this post will give advice on that. But let me say that although the wiki does no terrible harm, the good it does may be undermined by the level to which it incites insecurity among job seekers and distributes questionable information (some of the clothing advice is truly useless obsessing: no one does-- or doesn't -- get a job because s/he did -- or didn't -- wear a dark suit.) What might make sense is if, alongside the wiki run by job seekers, each professional assocation maintained a wiki in which search chairs who had advertised with that association's newsletter posted a tentative schedule at the time of placing the ad, and were asked to either maintain that schedule or alter it if circumstances dictate. Comments about discourteous or unprofessional treatment that go directly and confidentially to the Vice President of the Professional Division of that association could also be a feature of this page. Job seekers have a perfect right to do what it takes to feel empowered, but having information made publicly available by the search committees themselves strikes me as an intervention that would allow those who want to get off the wiki to do so.


Paris said...

The Wiki is a very instructive exercise in telephone. While my field is pretty good about limiting comments to the basics (interview requests, etc.), the second anything more involved starts happening, inaccuracies start to creep in. I have seen this in the few instances where I know a good deal about a search, so I presume it is the case in all other instances.

That said, I read the US history & American Studies pages just because many of y'all on the market in that field are NUTS.

Bardiac said...

I love your suggestion about having search chairs post about expected timelines and such, and also about having a place for candidates to let folks higher up know about problem searches.

I looked at the Wiki a bit this year because I knew about a couple searches. The basic date information was either accurate or non-existent (people didn't post about some date info).

But it seems like the rumors could get pretty inaccurate. For one thing, I talk to X, the chair of the search, and X tells me about issues a, b, and c. Then I talk to Y, a member of the search committee, who tells me about issues b and d, but denies a. It's not like people on the same committee even agree sometimes.

And yep, you're absolutely right that most campuses have treated people badly at some point and in some way. But how to make that information useful to a candidate or new employee? Really difficult!

Jonathan Dresner said...

The Asia wikis were much quieter than the European/US wikis, and that leads me to one of the key problems with them: as the number of participants in the search process dwindles, the odds of participants being wiki contributors also dwindles, meaning that there comes a point where the wiki stops being useful. Maybe this isn't as much of an issue with the livelier boards, but it's certainly true of the Asian ones.

Another thought (I have no grand theme or vision here, just a couple of thoughts): I don't think the wiki makes people more anxious about the search process: I've done searches without the wiki, and the obsession is the same, just without the sometimes useful information.

Another thought: when I heard about the wiki vandalism, my thoughts were about over-competitive job-seekers, not disgruntled ones, and about anti-intellectual sorts.

Another thought: the rumors on the wiki pages aren't that different than the stuff which I've heard pre-wiki, except that I'm usually not in the loop enough to hear them. Lots of people aren't: is it really better to keep more people out of the loops?

There was one case on the Asia wiki, and at least one case on the other ones, where the searching department contributed something to the discussion. In one case it was a genuine contribution; in the other it was blatant propoganda responding to criticisms. A wiki which was open only to search committee chairs would be mildly useful, if they'd use it: you could use H-Net's job guide or the AHA job listings, and add information as the search progresses. But the informal information-sharing has its benefits as well.

For better or worse, openness is the new standard. We can decry the indiscretions and insecurities of our profession, but the only real solution to bad information is more good information.

Jonathan Dresner said...

p.s. It was great to meet you at the AHA, TR. I do have a job for next year, though it was not, oddly enough, listed on any of the wikis. For the rest of my applications, I added information if I got it first, and was made considerably less anxious about schools which hadn't called me if I knew they'd called others. The reliability of the information seemed pretty high, to me. The word that my own institution had called people for phone interviews was posted a day after I saw the majority of the department (minus me, of course) gathering in the conference room....

Anonymous said...

I appreciated knowing from the wiki whether or not a school had started scheduling interviews; given that the only school I've heard anything from since the initial "thanks for your application" letter was the school canceling their search, I appreciate knowing for sure I can cross those jobs off the list! (I mean, I'd know that by now, but it's still useful to get confirmation of that.)

But it's been interesting reading the Wiki, having had a job and been on a couple of searches, because it made me realize how little so many candidates actually know about how searches work. I mean, the rampant speculation about what it meant that dept X had done Y or so on was kind of amazing. All the comments that this or that dept had an inside candidate, just because there's someone in a VAP in the position being searched! Honestly, I don't think I've ever come across a truly inside candidate (and yes, I know it happens, but I really don't believe it happens to the degree people on the wiki assume it happens).

People seem very quick to assume deep, dark, malicious motives to committees and institutions, which would look a lot less sinister if they understood the processes by which jobs get approved/advertised/offered/etc. (I mean, there are a lot of SCs treating candidates badly, but I'd say 90% of the time it's incompetence rather than malice.) But I don't think candidates can really understand this till they've been on the other side, no matter how frequently the process gets explained. I mean, I know that emotionally I could not understand how a search could fail, when there are so many good people wanting jobs so desperately, until I was on a couple of searches and saw how equally desperate depts could feel to get the candidates they wanted. The weirdness of this market is that although it's so crappy and there are way too many candidates (in most fields) and candidates feel powerless, depts don't always feel any more secure about getting what they want out of the process, either. (Although depts can have much higher expectations, I think!)

Anyway, reading the wiki this time round made me realize anew what a scary, despairing, paranoid place the market is, especially before you've ever had a t-t job. (I think not being attached to a dept full of fellow grad students on the market insulated me from this a little, this time round.) And I agree with Jonathan that I don't think the wiki has increased or decreased that; the wiki just broadcasts it for all to see.

(I also agree with Paris - I read the US/American Studies page for amusement! Sorry!)

And congrats on the job, Jonathan!

Anonymous said...

I admit that reading the wiki is a guilty pleasure--though I've been shocked by the hostility and the naivete (how much power does AHA have?) of some of the posters.

But I also don't think it's any different than what I experienced without this virtual (free)form of academic market tickertape. My cohort of hopeful jobseekers in the early 1990s included a person who called me nearly every night, informing me of his day's work on the telephone, learning who was serving on this or that search committee, how search committee members' expertise favors this or that candidate, who else was applying for a given job, etc., etc. I was finishing my dissertation and teaching as a visitor a 4-4 courseload; I sent my applications and hoped for the best. And then's there's the "friend" who finds out before you do that you didn't get the job and calls to "commiserate" (read: gloat).

My advisors and I had discussed the vagaries of the market, the inevitable slippage between what's in a job description, what's in your application, and the abilities of a search committee caught between department politics and whatever the deanery wishes. One terrific advisor placed search ethics in the historical context of post-civil rights, post-feminist politics, so that I could understand how search committees may approach and carry out their charges--or totally abuse their powers. Those conversations were enough to keep me focussed on writing and teaching and working towards alternatives just in case.

I'm being forced out on the market again, with little good luck this year. Older and wiser, I read the wiki as an outlet for anxieties produced by those who realize they have little control over outcomes. Having also served on search committees, dealt with hostile colleagues who apparently didn't get the memo that the "old boy's network" was banned, and overworked deans, my sympathies are (over)extended to all in the market.

Nevertheless, I do think that there's been some positive changes in the ways search committees think about job search responsibilities and ethics. I rarely received a letter acknowledging my application without some sort of rough timetable for making the decision--that didn't happen at all in my earlier foray. Nor did the "we've culled the pool and you're not on our shortlist" letter appear in my mailbox in those days. Not posted, as TR suggests, but nevertheless made known to those who need to know.

Sure there are hapless and hopeless search committees. There are also underpaid departmental staff members who are given the onerous tasks of collating, documenting, emailing, etc. Then again, many universities and colleges have adopted online application procedures, which means that search committees aren't able to see any applications before the deadline or before the folks in human resources (over which search chairs have little or no power) do whatever they do.

Knowing all that doesn't allay the overanxious jobseeker. Judging from the wiki, I'm not sure how much information posted to a Website would be enough.

squadratomagico said...

I don't have much to add other than to agree that when I was job-seeking in the mid-90s, there was just as much anxiety and parsing of every search committee move. The obsession exists independent of the various ways to feed it.

I did want to speak to another point of your post, however, and that is whether unconfirmed gossip and recommendations to wear dark suits are useful. I cannot imagine that any serious job seeker would significantly adjust his/her self-presentation in response to rumors on wiki. The cv and the talk, both hugely important in my experience, will not be altered by this gossip. The only thing that *can* change in response is the self-presentation to colleagues and students. And here, too, I question how much influence such tidbits of information can have. Perhaps others are better chameleons that I, but I really could not alter my basic pattern of relating to others for a 2-3-day visiting interview based on wiki rumors.

I suppose someone could be inspired to ask a pointed question about promotion and race, as you point out. But I would hope that most intelligent job candidates would immediately discern the pitfall you yourself point out: that one's interviewer could very well take offense at such a question and that it is better left unasked.

In sum, the job wiki may feed anxiety, but hopefully it doesn't destroy readers' common sense. (There may be those out there who lacked common sense to begin with, but I don't think wiki has anything to do with that.)

squadratomagico said...

Oops -- I forgot to subscribe to further comments in this discussion, so I'm re-commenting. Sorry!

Sisyphus said...

Ooh, thanks for sending all those readers my way! (although it is a little disconcerting to have the top two ways people find me be a profanity-laced wiki rant and "how to write a teaching philosophy")

To add to what I know about the wiki vandals: subsequent postings they made indicated they were not students (anymore?) or affiliated with academia at all; more like those really obnoxious anti-globalization activists who slash the tires of everyone at a social justice rally to "prove" to everyone that they should not be dependent on cars ---- it's that self-righteous "leftier than thou" sense of absolute purity that really makes me angry. I certainly run into a lot of that crap in activist circles out here in California. (Universities are part of the state, therefore disrupting any part of those universities at all is likewise subverting the state. Gah.)

Back to the wiki, yes, better ways of informing candidates would be great --- perhaps the AHA and MLA could add that to their guidelines of best practices? Unfortunately, many many departments aren't even following the basic guidelines that already exist --- small places or places that haven't hired recently just seem completely out of it. And many search committees seem to be too out of the loop technologically (and busy, too) to post info on the web. It seems almost impossible to resolve all around.

Tim Lacy said...

The History job Wiki is a joke. What's to stop the malicious and/or disgruntled from wreaking havoc? Nothing.

I hate to say it, but there's no safe, anonymous, and timely solution to getting information about the job market. I'm sorry to be a pessimist, but that's how I see things---as of today. - TL

Anonymous said...

I went on the market the first time before the wiki and now that I am going it again, I am really grateful to know when I can check certain applications off of my list. Thanks to this I know that every search I entered this year has hired, although none have yet bothered to send me a rejection letter, some over months. Most of the "short" information on the wiki seems to be accurate (interviews scheduled, campus visits underway). The rest is gossip and can be left to those who wish to read it.

My suggestion: If you want to kill the black market for information on the current state of the searches, create a working regular market for that information. It is as simple as that. If you want people in the search not to smear your department on the wiki, try not to give them cause to do so. If you want job candidates to be courteous to you, treat them courteosly. The vast majority of job seekers are just people who want to be faculty members looking for information. Until the profession comes up with a better solution or substantially raises the level of courtesy in its dealing with job candidates, I am glad the wiki is there. It is a weapon of the weak.

Oso Raro said...

This was a compelling post, for many reasons, I suppose. Of all the commentary, which has been illuminating, I would say that I probably closer to Paris and Gebranntes Kind, both in the telephone aspects of the wiki, as well as in the use of technology as a tool of the weak.

Gebranntes Kind's simple and straightforward advice regarding the job search process seems rational and self-explanatory, but rarely followed. Last year's wiki featured a particularly juicy slip which I blogged about in February 2007 that was demonstrative of some of the benefits of the unstructured and unauthorised speech the wiki can support.

I find that some aspects of your annoyance with the wiki (and its interest in Zenith) perhaps overly proprietary, no? Such utterances, like the one you cite, *are* meant to hurt the institution, in the sense that they work to uncover the mechanisms of the machine. While you point out the information to be incorrect, it was presumably correct (or partially correct) last year. And the post you remark on is not foolish enough to urge anything really but caution, which strikes me as perfectly reasonable. It does not say "Don't apply here!" or "They are bastards!" It says, get the real deal before you sign on the dotted line. What's so wrong about that?

The silence of all these things is far more damaging than even misinformation, in my mind. Certain institutions, such as Sadistic College, cultivate liberal images when they are in actuality viciously racist and homophobic places, sick places. Where is that information to be found however? Certainly not in four-colour brochures or on the fawning editorial pages of the New York Times.

Perhaps what annoys many academics (not you, necessarily) about the wiki, and may have motivated the vandals (which I am convinced are in the employ of certian institutions, to be honest) is the slippage of the mask, the unauthorised nature of the discourse, the unfettered rupture of the hierarchy. The unseemliness of it all. But that is the point, no?

Tenured Radical said...

Dear all:

Actually, the wiki doesn't annoy me, nor is my interest in the misrepresentation of Zenith particularly proprietary: as I point out, I am as aware as the next Joe of Zenith's flaws, the benevolent mask that covers the hideous reality of the liberal arts college, and so on. And I do point to some of the wiki's merits in my post: that search committees are often unintentionally inhumane and lazy, and that search committees ought to read it and do a better job.

By the way, i applied to five jobs this fall, and only heard from three (all public institutions, which needed me to check affirmative action boxes) that they even received my application. And I haven't heard from even those three since, although they have had a file on me for five months and: in those departments I actually have friends and acquaintances on the search committees who might have just placed a call but didn't. At a sixth school, I had the wit to call a friend to find out what they really wanted since the ad was so broad, and it turned out that the search had been cancelled, but nobody had bothered to pull the ad. So it isn't just tenure track people who get treated badly, although I get it that people probably don't think I count because I have a job already.

But two things. First, that information posted about Zenith wasn't even right *last* year. The administration didn't tank the search -- I know who did, and they weren't administrators. Second, unnamed department does have its problems -- those problems don't happen to have anything to do either with American Studies searches that are on the ground this year because we aren't searching with them, nor did we have anything to do with the actual events Anonymous Nosy Parker Poster is referring to. So the information is wrong, and I would argue, on the face of it unhelpful.

And yes, colleges like Zenith are intentionally and unintentionally dishonest in the ways pointed out by Oso (of whom I am a great fan), but all candidates need to be getting *good* information on discriminatory practices at *all* their interviews, from people with names and faces who are on the ground there (grad students, faculty connections, friends of the diss advisor, and so on.) Not gossip from anonymous sources.

And "weapon of the weak" -- I know, I've read Patricia Spacks too, but aren't we being a little dramatic here? Weapon against whom? For whom? The job situation is dire, graduate students are suffering terribly, and the market needs to be better professionalized on the hiring end to minimize that suffering. Couldn't agree more. But when the wiki becomes a place for people to vent their rage in spiteful ways, maybe it's cathartic for that person, but it isn't going to help anyone get or keep a good job.

My main point is this: I think the wiki itself points to a need to reform hiring practices. It doesn't constitute a reform of hiring practice, nor does it give job seekers any real power to affect what happens to them.



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