Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Tell Me What You Want -- What You Really, Really, Want: Writing and Placing the Job Advertisement

I want to begin with some bad news: if you are a search chair, and your ad has not already been placed, you may be up Hiring Creek right now, because important deadlines in many fields have passed. Just saying. And yes, one of your responsibilities as search chair is (was) to know when those deadlines are (were.) An experienced department chair will, of course, remind you of deadlines and help you meet them by facilitating the process I describe below, but as we all know, one of the joys of a successful tenure case can be the unhappy surprise of being informed you are the next chair, so s/he may not be experienced enough to have known this either. That said, let's get down to brass tacks. How do you write and place an ad?

1. Write the ad for the scholar your department has agreed it wants to hire. This means being as clear about rank and field as you can be. If you are only willing to consider people who do not have any time on a tenure clock anywhere, the phrase you want is "beginning assistant professor;" if you are willing to consider experienced but untenured folk, just say "assistant professor;" if you are willing to consider experienced people, but only those who would not be eligible for tenure immediately, indicate how many years seniority you are willing to consider: "assistant professor who has not progressed beyond the first contract." Remember, there will be people out there who, through no fault of their own, have not gotten tenure and must apply for assistant level jobs; there are others, again through no fault of their own, who have held a number of visiting positions and accumulated a significant portfolio. These people, frankly, have been through enough, and you shouldn't encourage them to apply if what you want is someone who will complete a lengthy probationary period by which they reassure their colleagues of their qualifications for tenure (yes, I'm talking to you, liberal arts colleges.) And one thing you must not do is suggest in the ad -- if it is a terminal appointment -- that it might be converted into a tenure-track line. That's the kind of news that would surely be welcome at a later date for the lucky winner, but it is false advertising to say that a terminal contract is anything other than a terminal contract.

And as to field, take a good look around your department, see who you have, and whose strengths you would not duplicate in a new hire. Now the wise applicant will do that too, but given the state of the market, candidates should not be expected to guess whether you do -- or do not -- want a second scholar who specializes in the Civil War. Your ad should have at least one line that indicates exclusions or preferences, if they exist. For example:

"Blinker College invites applications for a beginning, tenure-track position in twentieth century Russian history; scholars whose work focuses on gender and ethnic minorities during the Soviet period are particularly encouraged to apply." This is the kind of ad I like to see, because it demonstrates not just that there has been a thorough discussion about what kind of Soviet historian is desired, but it also demonstrates how such a person might meet other needs in the department. But check this one out:

"Aardvark University invites applications for a position in Twentieth Century United States history, specialty open." This is the kind of ad that can -- in some circumstances, although not all -- be careless, if not borderline unethical. Now, if Aardvark has a big department, if it is an R-1 university, if it is a senior appointment, I would believe them that they are open to anyone. There is enough turnover in such departments at higher levels, enough need for graduate supervision in the twentieth century United States, and enough demand for big surveys, that what they want is to hire someone who is going to win the Bancroft six or seven years down the line, and duplication isn't an issue. If it is a small department in a big university (State Tech) where there will only be one person covering the field, fine. But if it is a smaller school that is more like a SLAC than an R-1, but with a large history department that employs several Americanists, and that doesn't hire frequently, this isn't a good ad! In such a case, I would urge the department to specify a field it does not currently have covered with a specialist. Don't encourage applications (and false hopes) from scholars who will be taken off the table because of duplication in field.

Finally, the department and the search committee should not be in fundamental disagreement about what they are, or are not, open to. It is an inappropriate compromise to put fields in play that some people in the department will actively oppose during the hiring process, and unethical to put candidates in play who will be ammunition in an internal struggle. Make your compromises now, and keep your word about the agreement you have struck internally.

Conclusion: do not encourage applicants to put the time, effort, expense and emotional capital into an application to your school if, for some reason out of their control, they haven't got a fair chance of being considered for the job.

2. Be clear about what the application should look like. Do not ask for more materials than you will legitimately consider, and don't intimate that there is a minimum but you might want more. It is convention in history to ask for a letter of application, curriculum vitae and three letters of reference. I wouldn't ask for "at least x letters" as some search chairs do, because it suggests that it would be better to have more than x, and sets candidates scrambling unnecessarily to add to a dossier they thought was already complete. It is convention to ask for a writing sample: for a tenure-track job, set your limit at 40 pages because if you ask for less, grad students have to actually cut a dissertation chapter or article to meet an utterly arbitrary standard (I knew some last year who were actually engaged in this process, when it had no other purpose intellectually, and it served no other function but to impede the completion of a dissertation. And save the search committee time in their reading.)

Conclusion: be considerate of the candidates, many of whom are struggling to apply for jobs and finish dissertations simultaneously; many of them will also be teaching full or part time. Ask for what you really need to evaluate their candidacies, with an eye toward what they can give you readily and what they will be asked for by others.

3. Teaching portfolios are useless, particularly at the preliminary stage, unless you actually care more about a commitment to teaching than a commitment to active scholarship. Don't ask for them. If the Radical were the Drag King of the World, one of the things she would do is outlaw teaching portfolios. I want to say this with the caveat that I probably disagree with many of my Zenith colleagues, and friends at other institutions, in this matter. But teaching portfolios take a huge amount of time to prepare, they are almost exact replicas of each other, and they only tell me what the candidate thinks (often hypothetically) about teaching -- not whether s/he can teach well.

I don't believe any of us can evaluate our own teaching, and to ask a novice teacher to do so is particularly unkind. In my view, it takes pedagogy lightly to suggest that it can be mastered in the course of a few teaching assistantships and one or two independently taught seminars. I don't want copies of teaching evaluations (wouldn't any candidate pull out the ones they considered unfair or prejudicial?); I don't want to hear about how a graduate student centers Freirian methods (as if s/he just discovered this empowering theory, and our students were Brazilian peasants emerging from two centuries of illiteracy); and I don't want to know how your heart leaped when you entered your first classroom (ee-yew.) But I will take seriously what a member of the faculty, in a letter of reference, has said about a teaching observation as we are picking semi-finalists. I will also take seriously the record of experience, as it is listed on the cv.

Conclusion: Unless teaching skills are virtually the only requirement of the job, and scholarly accomplishments are a distinctly minor factor in the hiring and eventual tenure process, serious evidence about teaching should be provided by candidates at the semi-finalist stage, in the form of interviews and draft syllabi. Teaching portfolios consume time and money that people who do not have jobs don't have. And when evidence about teaching is solicited, it shouldn't be part of a grab-bag "portfolio" that relies on ill-defined terms like "excellence" since different teachers teach well differently. Evidence about teaching should make the candidates comparable to each other. This excludes student evaluations entirely, since they are not comparable instruments across institutions, and more important, the committee has no sense of the institutional context within which they were generated, or who the students are. Any course the successful candidate would be required to teach, and will be asked about in an interview and subsequent requests for materials, should be named in the ad.

4. The deadline for applications should represent a realistic date that both allows applicants to prepare the materials you are asking for, and allows you to evaluate their applications and generate a preliminary interview list in a thoughtful way. No application that took a day to prepare should be read in twenty minutes. No job applicant should be asked to spend money far in advance to attend a convention where s/he might not be interviewed; conversely, no job applicant who is not already a tenured professor making a good salary should be ask to spend $1000.00 at the last minute for a plane ticket and a hotel room that could have been acquired at half the price a month in advance. If you are running late, let your semi-finalists know that you are willing to interview them by phone or, if they live nearby, that the committee can meet them briefly on campus. Graduate students will make deadlines, within reason, whenever you set them -- why not set a deadline of November 1 and generate your interview list by Thanksgiving so that you are not calling candidates on Christmas eve or New Year's day?

Conclusion: treat job candidates as if their time, money, peace of mind and energy were valuable too.

5. Advertise everywhere your budget allows, and particularly on the internet, which is heavily used by younger scholars. This means definitely advertise in the job listing for your professional association, in any newsletter or e-newsletter connected to that association, and in any publication or e-publication produced by scholars in subfields that are named in the ad as areas of interest. I like H-Net, and Inside Higher Ed gives you listings by state, which is helpful for couples who are on the market. The ad should be posted on the university web page, and preferably, your department web page. You should distribute it to colleagues elsewhere who might know potential candidates, and as search chair, you should be willing to discuss the position briefly with any candidate who is unsure of whether s/he would be taken seriously as an applicant for reasons of field, (in)experience, or status of degree. In other words, is the committee willing to recommend someone who works on masculinity for a joint appointment in women's studies? A candidate who already has a book out and might wish to come up for early tenure? An American Studies Ph.D. for a history job? A person who won't defend in the spring, but could realistically take an October degree? These are fair questions to want an answer to, in my opinion.

Finally -- and here I reflect many conversations I have had with colleagues and graduate students since this post but -- keep an eye on the appropriate wiki in your field. I am on record as disliking wikis, as the information they disseminate tends to be random, inaccurate and sometimes mean-spirited. But they are a fact of life now, and they have become a fact of life because we search chairs do not give candidates full, accurate -- or sometimes even honest -- information. Rather than deploring their existence, I have decided to participate in them. The responsible search chair, in my view, will keep an eye on wikis and make sure that the ongoing search report generated by applicants is correct. If certain kinds of questions keep coming up, the way to be fair to all candidates prior is to volunteer new and accurate information to the wiki.

My last comment is that search chairs need to remember that they are advertising for candidates, and you are not advertising yourself: your institutional and departmental web page, and the reputations of your colleagues are the primary advertisement for your institution, and it is inappropriate to include sentences that characterize values -- even good ones, such as the importance of colleagueship -- as criteria a candidate must speak to in a two page letter. There is one big exception to this, in my view, and this will probably draw howls of protest. It is not altogether clear whether it is ethical for private, religious institutions to give preference to candidates who represent a set of religious or ideological beliefs, but at present it seems to be legal, and search chairs have an obligation to put that in the ad. "Christ on a Cross University expects all employees to meet its standards of moral behavior" may not be a value to the taste of some of us, but it is honest if, for example sexual preference, divorce or union activism would be actually be an issue that would exclude some candidates from being employed by your institution.

Next week: Job Seekers, What Does A Good Letter of Application Look Like?


Ahistoricality said...

(wouldn't any candidate pull out the ones they considered unfair or prejudicial?)

I wouldn't, no. Except in the sense that I don't include the idiotic Rate-My-Professor pseudo-science numeric evaluations in my dossier: all narrative comments are included, however, in full.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear ahistoricality,

Well, I get that -- and I still think it puts candidates in a tough position, having to choose between being honest and sending out materials that they don't believe represent their best efforts fairly. You may be a mentally tougher person than many.

We all prefer honest of course: you could work in my department any day of the week if this is your attitude.



Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

I do hereby nominate the Radical to be Drag King of the World. Say it with me, people: TEACHING PORTFOLIOS ARE USELESS! AMEN, SAY IT AGAIN: TEACHING PORTFOLIOS ARE USELESS! And yet grad programs all over the country encourage candidates to waste time compiling them and money copying them and sending them out to search committees whether they are requested or not. Can someone tell me why this is the case?

Lesboprof said...

I like the model where we ask for teaching evaluations only if there is a question. I was on a committee where the candidate was impressive, but hir presentation style made me want to scream. I worried that the candidate would be a problem in the classroom. S/he had several years of teaching, so we asked for the evals--scores with comments. They were excellent. Turns out, after we hired hir, s/he was an incredible teacher--just not so good at the lecture.

Anonymous said...

This is really a great primer. However, I've got 2 questions for you and your readers/commenters:

1. With reference to part 1, paragraph one, "If you are only willing to consider people who do not have any time on a tenure clock anywhere, the phrase you want is 'beginning assistant professor,'" etc. I've never heard of these various distinctions in describing Assistant Professor searches. Wouldn't it be rather discriminatory NOT to consider everyone who's eligible for the job? That is, it seems unfair to exclude candidates simply because they got a bum first tenure-track job they need to escape, or because they didn't get a TT job right out of grad school. Perhaps you get so many applications that you need to preemptively weed them out somehow (whereas those of us in large square states get fewer because of our geographic isolation from the coasts), but it strikes me that this isn't a fair way to do it.

2. Graduate transcripts: this was a matter of heated debate last year or the year before on the job wiki. We must ask for them because of bureaucratic requirements that we didn't write, and we must ask for the "official transcript," which as you may know costs big bucks. ($10-$15 now?) When I applied for my current job, I sent a photocopy and said that I could produce an official copy upon request (a request I don't think was ever made.) Do you think this is a good compromise on the vexed (and hideously expensive and cumbersome) transcript requirement?

Tenured Radical said...

Historiann: As to part (1), since what you are suggesting doesn't fit into any legal category of discrimination, no, it isn't, actually -- and it wouldn't be considered discrimination anywhere *but* the university, where the lack of jobs make it a bizarrely competitive world rife with resentment. A look at the history wiki two years ago showed that grad students resented it mightily when a more senior person walked away with a job that they think should have gone to someone just entering the market. So you could flip it, re. discrimination: taking the more advanced people seriously means that you are weighing them against entry-level people who couldn't possibly have the same experience or credentials. I could go on -- but no, I don't think it's discrimination, any more than preferring to hire at the associate level is discrimination, since these are all made-up categories.

As to transcripts, I don't think they should be a part of the application -- if ever -- until the semi-final stage, and that goes for everything that costs money and time for a group of people who have neither. I would also, as I said in last week's post, not ask for recommendations until the semi-final stage either. A letter, vita and writing sample should be enough to let you know whether you are interested in someone. At which point you might, given the world we live in, want to ascertain that the candidate is who s/he says s/he is and has the degree s/he claims to have. It's not uncommon for people to lie about such things -- or rather, it's common enough, that I can imagine an administration wanting to check before getting serious about someone.


Dr. Curmudgeon said...

Great post. I'm in a different field, so I'll take your thoughts with a grain of salt, but as I'm currently at one of those institutions that wants teaching over research (or says it does), and that seems where I'm most likely to be able to jump to because of how a 4/4 limits research, teaching portfolios seem like something I'm going to have to get used to.

As I've talked with people though, there doesn't seem to be much agreement on what a teaching portfolio should be. I'm curious what you think should go into one and how long should one be?

Anonymous said...

Excellent suggestions, here is another. If this is an inside search and you have to pretend you are actually looking do not ask for a lot of material. I applied for a job last year that wanted a lot of infomation, sylabus, samples, etc. . . After an exhaustive search with 250 applications, in a miracle, the right candidate was teaching there already and married to a faculty member. If it is a rigged job, see if you can avoid a campus vist and "narrow" it down by a conference interview. I did a campus interview when my father was dying, my siblings and I were taking care of him at home. I later realized this college had zero intention of hiring me. I did not have the mental or emotional energy to waste.

Tenured Radical said...


I think the topic of an inside search might be a whole post in itself. There is no law that says you have to search for a position, only practice, and the truth is that for many senior jobs nothing like a search is really mounted. If a department has a good reason to hire someone, they should do it in my opinion and leave everyone else alone, because there is no general right to compete for a job. But if you do mount a search, it should be fair -- that would include not telling someone that s/he is an "inside candidate" -- unless, of course, someone more interesting comes in over the transom! What is really unfair -- as you say -- is to pretend that people are competing for the job when they have no chance of getting it, no matter how well they do.


Anonymous said...

I teach at the state university (not UConn) up the highway from TR and I'd just like to say that for us, we look at BOTH teaching AND scholarship. Assuming that institutions that emphasize teaching don't care about scholarship is unfair and misleading. We are undergoing "mission creep" up here -- increasing expectations for scholarship, persistently heavy teaching load (4 sections per semester). The same is true of other state universities around the country.

I'm not sure what you mean by a teaching portfolio, but being able to produce evidence of good teaching is essential even for research I jobs. Having these materials all in one place where you can easily send it to a search committee certainly is a good idea, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post - it should be distributed as widely as possible. I agree with every single one of your points. Would that SCs heed your call.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear clio,

In response to this response to the post:

"Assuming that institutions that emphasize teaching don't care about scholarship is unfair and misleading" --

I don't assume this, particularly since I teach at a SLAC where there is a widespread belief that the two are inextricably linked, and where students matriculate because the faculty does prioritize teaching. Here you and I have far more in common in our institutional culture and attitudes toward teaching than we have differences.

But I also believe that if an institution prioritizes teaching it has to agree to teach its probationers to teach -- someone may be a talented or thoughtful teacher in graduate school, but that person is far from being an experienced or outstanding teacher, so why ask people to fake it with dreamy, romantic statements and one-size fits all syllabi for a search committee that hasn't even agreed to meet with them yet? And may I also say -- including student evaluations of a course in an employment packet is using an instrument generated by students for one distinct purpose -- evaluating the course -- for another: credentialing a candidate. It's not up to our students to credential us for the job market, and I don't think the evaluations of a bunch of students I have never met who experienced a classroom I never entered have much to tell me about a job candidate. I bet I would get very different evaluations at Villanova than I do at Zenith, and both groups of students would be, in a sense, right.

What I do think is that in our current zeal for standardized forms of comparison, the teaching portfolio has emerged as "evidence" of good teaching (the equivalent of a dissertation being evidence of good scholarship) when, in fact, it is not. It may be evidence that a job candidate has thought about teaching, but not evidence that such a person teaches well, or is capable of adapting to students who have different expectations than the ones s/he has already taught. And as I said in the post, I think it takes teaching lightly to suggest that a graduate student, sitting alone in a room, evaluating her own teaching, is sufficient evidence.

By making the graduate student responsible for the teaching portfolio, graduate schools have once again offloaded the responsibility for training and for getting a job on the jobless. In turn, we, the employers, are saying in effect that a grad student has to prove s/he can teach before we will deign to give them the entry level job where they will, in fact, learn how to teach.

One of the reasons graduate students are so angry about the job market is that they work their butts off to demonstrate their excellence, and are rebuffed 90 to 100% of the time, sometimes by people who haven't written as much or are as committed to teaching as they are. Both their mentors *and* their future employers have successfully turned season after season of joblessness into the candidate's "failure" and most of us persistently refuse to look at the inequities that those with jobs have built into the system. Teaching portfolios don't create more jobs: they just create evidence for us to cite as proof that a candidate is undeserving of the job we have to give.

So this isn't an argument for not valuing teaching, or for a false dichotomy (scholarship-teaching), or not caring about it in the search process. It is an argument against making graduate students responsible for something we need to take responsibility for in the job process.



Janice said...

if you are a search chair, and your ad has not already been placed, you may be up Hiring Creek right now, because important deadlines in many fields have passed.

I wish you'd talk to our senior administrators about this. We're never able to advertise tenure-track positions until well into the fall.

The U howls when we demand to run our ads on H-Net and not just in the one display ad in the national academic publication they prefer. We can't assess applications until they are released to us by the administrators who're finally consenting to agree that there's money for the position (this is often as late as February).

Tenured Radical said...


I would start a conversation about this university-wide advertising policy *now.* A lot of older people have there heads up some dark place of the anatomy about advertising on the net -- for people in their twenties, if it ain't on the net, it ain't advertised.

The part they should like is that it is *cheap* -- I think H-Net is $75.00 or something -- and if they are out of control of their budget calendar, as many publicly supported schools are, it goes up in a couple days. All of a sudden a search that is running late is right on time!


Jarrod Hayes said...

I would like to add the following phrase to those that should not be included in a job posting:

"demonstrate outstanding potential"

Or any variation thereof. How, pray tell, are we as applicants supposed to know what the search committee considers outstanding potential? Even if we could make such an assessment, would we really 'tuck tail and run' if we found ourselves wanting? Just leave it out.