September
2nd 2009
What’s a “good university?”

Posted under: American history, class, Gender, jobs, race, wankers

Help!  I'm smothered in ivy!

Help! I'm smothered in ivy!

Inside Higher Ed recently published an article purporting to take us “Inside a Search,” by Lou Marinoff, in which he relates the story of how the Philosophy Department at City College of New York filled a position last year.  It’s mostly what you’d expect, except for the fact that they decided to run an open search–any field.  For a job in New York City.  And he seems surprised that they were overwhelmed by 637 applications!  Duh.  Who ever could have predicted. . . ?

Anyhoo.  Here’s the part of Marinoff’s article that really raised my left eyebrow:

How did we prune our field from 637 to 27? An important selection criterion was holding a Ph.D. from a good university. Members of our department earned their Ph.D.s at Columbia, Harvard, Oxford, and University of London. Additionally, City College is known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat,” with distinguished alumni that include nine Nobel Laureates, more than any other public institution in America. Our faculty members are expected to live up to this legacy.

Wow–the superscientific method of divining the “good” Ph.D.s from all of the others.  Shockingly, they decided that the universities they attended all qualify as “good” universities.  I like that part too about how “our faculty members are expected to live up to this legacy.”  So modest!  And how many Nobel prizes has your department reeled in so far, perfesser?  Huh?  We’re waiting….

Fortunately, most of the commenters at IHE beat me to the punchWhy did they solicit applications in all fields from all schools, when they should have specified that only applications from “good” schools would be seriously entertained?  You won’t be surprised to hear that this department of (according to the first commenter at IHEhere’s the web site, which appears to back up this comment as much as it can) four white guys with mostly Ivy League and Oxbridge degrees managed to hire–guess!–two other men with similar pedigrees!  Anyone who has attended an Affirmative Action workshop knows that you’re obligated to do exactly the opposite of whatever Marinoff did.  You have to look at people from “non-traditional” universities and go out of your way to make sure your applicant pool is diverse in as many ways as possible.  (Maybe that explains the wide-open job description?) 

This is what the dingbat opponents of AA don’t get:  it’s not just about racial and gender diversity–we are required to solicit applications from as wide a pool as possible and to give them all equal consideration because Affirmative Action is also about preventing discrimination on the basis of class (by looking only at people from “good schools,” and disregarding people with Ph.D.s from state schools or undergraduate study in a community college), religion (by knocking out anyone who studied at Yeshiva U., Calvin College, Catholic University, or Brigham Young University), region and nationality (by excluding people who studied at institutions in a particular foreign country or region of the U.S.).  A straight, white, male colleague of mine is fond of reminding us that he too is a beneficiary of AA because he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Utah:  AA required that the search committee who hired him treat his application fairly alongside those other applications from Stanford and Columbia.

What was the penalty for this discriminatory stance the department took?  “Dean Reynolds and Provost Zeev Dagan, alike, perceived this search as a unique opportunity to strengthen our department and the college with the pick of a bumper crop of promising young philosophers. The dean had obtained the provost’s approval and the support of President Gregory H. Williams to hire not one, but two of our finalists.” Awesome!  White men almost never catch a break, do they?  Gee–I wonder why women in philosophy are still so marginalized?

Aside from the likely illegalities, it strikes me as simply counterproductive to go into a search with such rigid and arbitrary criteria.  Most historians who aren’t desperately insecure and hung up on status know that different Ph.D. programs have different strengths–and that what counts as a “good” Ph.D. will vary widely according to which field you’re seaching in.  Are you looking for a Latin Americanist?  Well, the University of Texas will be a great place to look.  How about an African Americanist?  You could do a lot worse than hire a recent grad from Michigan State University.  Want an environmental historian?  It’s the University of Wisconsin that can help you out.  How about Borderlands?  Well, it turns out that a lot of the Universities of California are where you want to look–not to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.  We all probably can think of departments in which everyone they hire comes from HarvardYalePrinceton, right?  That always strikes me as rather desperate and as a mark of insecurity among the faculty, because it suggests that they don’t trust themselves to discern who’s truly the best fit for them, and they have to rely on a “name-brand.”  In my department, it’s the specific program and faculty a candidate has worked with that’s much more important than the relative prestige of the name of the degree-granting university.

This fixation on brand-name universities carries over into book publication, too.  This reverie reminds me of the story I heard about an eminent and prolific Native American historian who was getting hassled because ze had several books published by the University of Nebraska Press and the University of Oklahoma Press.  His colleagues at an eastern elite college just couldn’t understand why ze didn’t try harder to publish at really prestigious presses–you know, like Harvard and Yale.  Ha!  (Clue stick:  even if you might not have the same bragging rights if your kid gets into Nebraska or Oklahoma, they’re the premier Native American presses.  And yes, Virginia:  there is civilization West of the Hudson River.)  A related anecdote:  European Medievalists are always incredibly impressed when they learn my book was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.  Ha again!  I’m not a Medievalist, and although the American History and American Studies side of the Penn Press list is very well respected, it isn’t yet as prestigious in Americanist circles as the imprint is in Medievalist circles.

So, what’s a “good university” anyway, if it’s all so highly specific and contingent?  I guess that’s why Affirmative Action requires us to read all of the applications we receive, so that we can make those fine distinctions, which really aren’t all that hard to make if you know your field and have a Ph.D.

34 Comments »

34 Responses to “What’s a “good university?””

  1. Tom on 02 Sep 2009 at 9:54 am #

    HIstoriann–

    I am sure you can guess the content of this comment just from seeing my name here, but what you describe here is possibly illegal, but as troubling or more troubling to me is the active bad faith practiced by this search in refusing to evaluate applicants and choosing instead to evaluate their schools (by reputation).

    Why is it that people in the humanities (in this case philosophy, but I think it happens in English and History, too), speak with one side of their mouth about fairness, ethics, propriety, and intellectual honesty, but when searching for candidates, they feel free to act in utter bad faith: in this case, not even assessing the quality of candidates (and trust me, Harvard has graduated some bozos, too). But also: I know it happens that hiring committees refuse to take candidates (and their letters) at their word, read into the files or read between the lines, and make idiotic and prejudicial statements like “this candidate would never accept the job if we offered it” or “we could never complete the hire of this person.”

    I can’t say it clearly enough: doing or saying these things is simply acting in bad faith, and anyone who likes to think of himself or herself as a good person should avoid these things like the plague and call others on it when they see it happening.

    Academics should acknowledge that their hiring practices are a real-world test of their commitment to intellectual honesty (faculty evaluation is another), and that far too often, intellectual honesty is dropped at the door as soon as it’s not about doing our own research. I actually know of one university where (if you play your cards right) you can take credit for a published article in your annual evaluation during a year in which you literally did zero in relation to that article: I can’t see how that’s compatible with a feeling of intellectual honesty.

    To answer your question: there is no such thing as a good university, at least when it comes to hiring (though there may be such a thing when it comes to students’ educational opportunities). In the hiring process, the name of the university where one trained can only be used to let file-readers off the hook of having to evaluate a candidate. Any individual candidate may outperform or underperform a university’s norm: there is no substitute for hiring a person, since we can’t hire a university.

  2. squadratomagico on 02 Sep 2009 at 10:22 am #

    Zounds! You published on UPenn???!!

    I’m surprised there isn’t some form of oversight on the part of CCNY, that wold mitigate searches like these. Here at OPU, each member of a search committee is required to fill out a response sheet for each and every applicant for the position. It can be quite onerous for popular adverts: it’s about a page long, with feedback requested on 4-5 questions, including some form of justification why somone is not making itbeyond a certain level of consideration. The answers don’t have to be terribly detailed, but it does mean that every search committee member must at least scan each file, rather than setting an arbitrary cut-off by university.

    (The easiest one of these I ever filled out was for a hand-written application on 5-punch notebook paper, from a person who received an MA 20 years ago and had never taught, published, or worked in an educational context. But he liked the subject and thought that was enough.)

  3. Tim Lacy on 02 Sep 2009 at 10:26 am #

    There’s nothing worse than conflating gender and power politics. As a man, I’m sorry to acknowledge that they’re often the same. But of course it’s the latter that interest me. It did more than raise my left eyebrow. I don’t know exactly what hackles are, but mine are raised. What the fuck is “good”? And did not one of these pieces of white trash actually read any of the theoretical literature on power structure reproduction that’s come out in the past, oh, 30+ years? Also, programs and institutions aside, what of America’s rugged individuality—if you care to try and empathize on their own ideological ground with the clusterfuck that was their hiring committee. Surely they believe in the old-fashioned, tradition, conservative, patriotic “promise of America”? So, what of the ideas, dissertation, and individual personality traits of those considered? Well, screw that because we know what those are by virtue of institutional self-reproduction.

    I’m beginning to think that all signs of one’s school affiliation ought to be blacked out from CVs for hiring committees. Start with the person’s ideas, diss, and publications (maybe) and move backwards. – TL

  4. Comrade PhysioProf on 02 Sep 2009 at 10:30 am #

    In the natural sciences, we substitute “did you get your PhD from a good school?” with “did you publish your work in good journals”? You could be a post-doc at East Gebip Bumbfuck University, and if you publish something in Cell, Science, or Nature, you will be looked upon as a serious candidate for a faculty position.

    Of course, there are major structural obstacles to someone from East Gebip Bumbfuck University publishing something in Cell, Science, or Nature in the first place.

  5. Tim Lacy on 02 Sep 2009 at 10:34 am #

    Rereading my first few sentences, I see that my target seems ambiguous. I’m reflecting on the CCNY hiring committee, not anything that Historiann wrote. I agree with her analysis, plus a few other points. – TL

  6. Colonial on 02 Sep 2009 at 10:38 am #

    That problem is pretty widespread in academia. It’s more academic snobbery than a dedication to quality. To have someone from a “State U.” would look bad on their web page, you see, and might affect their reputation in some way. I got my Ph.D. from a quality state flagship University and one of the hardest things I had to learn was that certain schools would just throw all applications from state schools away without even looking past the first glance at the education portion of the CV.

  7. Azualo on 02 Sep 2009 at 11:01 am #

    It’s a pretty good trick to be both rigid and arbitrary. Thank God I don’t live, work, or interact with these people at all; they’d hate me since I’m from a university with cow manure on its boots.

  8. Kathleen Lowrey on 02 Sep 2009 at 11:16 am #

    The thing that *most* made me want to throw things about that IHE piece was not the line about “good schools” — of course it’s awful, but it would probably take legislation, not pillorying in the pages of IHE, to stop that kind of discrimination — but that they asked for a FULL PACKAGE OF MATERIALS AT STEP ONE. It’s a kind of shattering rudeness and insensitivity to vulnerable job seekers’ time (not to mention airy disregard for the environment) that makes me foam at the mouth. Even if they’d gotten the anticipated 200+ applicants rather than 600+, if they knew (and clearly they did know) they’d be using yes/no (in their view) criteria like “good schools”, all they needed at step one was a cover letter and CV. I don’t understand why professional associations don’t issue sternly worded guidelines about this: for everyone’s sake, job searches should proceed in two stages; stage one is letter/CV ONLY.

    What seems clear — given the utter uselessness of asking all applicants to submit all materials right away — is that it’s about a sick power trip on the part of the search committee. I can just imagine this dude bending the ear of anyone unfortunate to be trapped next to him at a conference about how the job search was taking ALL OF HIS TIME and he had to maintain a REALLY COMPLEX SPREADSHEET and oh heavens how his heart bled for all these supplicants but really couldn’t they be a bit more professional about submitting and huge stack of documents destined to be scorned (non-Ivy! Le sniff!) and pulped? Gaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh.

  9. Feminist Avatar on 02 Sep 2009 at 11:18 am #

    This criteria also means, presumably, that they wouldn’t hire someone from their *own* university for the job- what a fabulous comment on their institution and their own ability to produce good graduates.

  10. perpetua on 02 Sep 2009 at 11:25 am #

    I have to say that this post strikes right to heart of the one the aspects of the academy that I like the least. I find it difficult to express how distasteful and repellent I find it when search committees goes bananas over an Ivy League candidate, no matter what hir qualifications or quality of work. Pedigree alone is sufficient to demonstrate merit, apparently. (this sometimes explodes into what a colleague of mine calls the Golden Boy Syndrome, wherein one young white man from an Ivy League school is unanimously elected as the Golden Boy for a particular cycle of jobs and/or awards.) But its the effects of all this that are the most pernicious: the maintenance of elite, white, male stranglehold on the profession, with its attendant limiting in intellectual creative and different approaches to academic problems. I feel sometimes like departments are contracting, rather than expanding, in terms of creativity. People really do want to hire someone from their same program. Every hiring cycle departments sit around looking blank, going “Oh, dear, what can we do to improve our departmental diversity through this hire?” And yet they turn around and use the same criteria as always. This even occurs at the level of graduate school as well – undergrads with degrees from Ivy Leagues or other very elite schools are given preferential treatment in admissions, consciously or subconsciously (I say “subconsciously” because these individuals tend to go to schools where they are groomed to go to grad school and have more polished applications). So it really starts much earlier than job hires.

  11. Colonial on 02 Sep 2009 at 11:31 am #

    As someone who has been on search committees for each of the last three years, here’s my feelings on job packets. It’s too burdensome to ask for writing samples in stage one. It’s just too much trouble and hassle for both committee and candidates when a sizable portion of candidates will be elminated on other grounds (Ph.D. not in hand, not the field we asked for, duplicates an existing faculty member’s teaching areas, etc).

    However, it is very important to ask for letters of recommendation early in the process, and the initial step is as good as any. Reason: timelines make it almost impossible to go back and ask later and still wrap things up on time. Typically the job ad goes out in September with applications due in early Nov. The committee meets in mid-Nov to work on narrowing down the list a bit. If requests for letters do not go out in late Nov, the odds of us getting them all in time to send out invites to the AHA in early Jan is basically 0%. Even as it is, with letters requested in September we get a steady amount of recommendations arriving into early December, and a surprisingly large number trickling in during January and February.

    In short, if our committees had waited until stage two to request rec letters, it would seriously endanger the successes of our searches.

  12. Another Damned Medievalist on 02 Sep 2009 at 11:38 am #

    At SLAC, people from the big name research universities really have to have great teaching evals and a cover letter that demonstrates that they understand us in order to get over the first hurdle, because we don’t want to be someone’s stepping stone. As it happens, some of us have degrees from prestigious schools, but a lot of us have some combination of prestigious SLAC/private U, and Big State U. My colleagues with the best pedigrees are also people like me, who come from non-traditional backgrounds. A lot of us have taught at CCs, or have attended them.

    We aim to choose faculty who understand our institution and students, and the people who fit in and stay the longest tend to not be of the old boy network, thank goodness!

  13. Matt L on 02 Sep 2009 at 11:38 am #

    Gads. Thanks for the post Historiann, and I guess I’ll pass on reading the IHE article for the sake of my blood pressure. I had often wondered about this… when I was doing my third year of job searches, I stopped applying for jobs along the New Haven to New York axis. I realized that they only hired people who already lived within a two hundred mile radius of Manhattan.

    I would also agree with Perpetua about how the Golden Boy syndrome. This segues rather neatly from yesterday’s post about patriarchy. Cheers.

  14. Feminist Avatar on 02 Sep 2009 at 11:41 am #

    I think it starts when people choose to go to university at 18. Many of us (especially if we come from non-traditional backgrounds) pick universities based on location, affordability, nearness to family, gut feeling, because we just don’t have the knowledge of academia to know that X is the place to be for Y subject. Some of don’t even have a shot of getting into top schools because we weren’t privately educated and primed with all the additional requirements [more than grades] that get you into a top school. And often we aren’t quite sure where we are going to end up, let alone planning for grad school when we pick our first university. And then you finish your degree and discover you can’t get funding because you are from the wrong institution, so you decide to pay for it yourself, but you can’t afford to pay for the best schools, so you settle for another programme. And, then you can’t get a job because you made the wrong ‘choice’.

    And really what we are asking people by picking ‘good’ schools, is that when you are 18 your parents were financially well off enough and informed enough to ensure you go to the ‘right’ school for a job you don’t yet know you want.

  15. Kathleen Lowrey on 02 Sep 2009 at 12:51 pm #

    Colonial — have you had a reference letter make a definitive difference? I’ve only ever been on one search committee, but 2 years later while I can still remember interesting tidbits of different candidates’ research I can’t recall a single phrase from any reference letter. I’m not saying reference letters should be abolished — they can help contextualize aspects of people’s histories — but I feel that 90% of the decision comes out of the two elements: can you say in a letter what your research is about and make it sound interesting? Does your CV look honest and robust and does it include the elements we are looking for (in terms of research, teaching, and service experience)? Asking hundreds of applicants to send 3 letters each — well, no matter what the committee’s schedule is, I just don’t think it’s cricket.

  16. Linda on 02 Sep 2009 at 12:59 pm #

    I want to add to a point Historiann and Feminist Avatar raised: social class often has a lot to do with where you end up on the academic hierarchy. In my field, most students admitted to Harvard and Princeton for grad work did their undergrad either at an Ivy League university or an elite liberal arts college. In addition to costing a fortune to attend, these places attract undergrads from a certain social class. In the tiny Midwestern farm town were I grew up, Swarthmore simply wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen. Everyone went to nearby state schools for undergrad. This must be all the more true for poor kids from inner cities. There are, of course, happy exceptions, but they seem rare. (I was thrilled when a former undergrad of mine got into Princeton a few years ago. She came from a very poor family and worked herself through undergrad at a state university. To their credit, Princeton recognized her extraordinary ability. Now she’s on the job market, which makes me feel very old indeed.)

    So the class bias carries through to the first academic job. At least the Marinoff had the courage to admit to his department’s Ivy League bias in hiring, even if he was blind to the obvious fact that they are guilty of class bias. At least the 600+ applicants from “lesser” schools will have no doubt about why they didn’t get interviews.

  17. the rebel lettriste on 02 Sep 2009 at 1:23 pm #

    CCNY is a part of CUNY, and CUNY notoriously chooses Ivy Leaguers. Often at the expense of its own graduates. (I have a CUNY PhD. Am I bitter that the CUNY job I was in the running for went to a Columbia grad with NO teaching experience, whereas I’d been teaching CUNY students for 7 years? Am I bitter that I received no funding, because CUNY is broke, and therefore HAD to teach my way through school? No, not at all.)

    The whole “proletariat Harvard” thing is hilarious. No proletarian ever gets HIRED at CUNY. They’re good for adjuncts, though.

    And it is incredibly rare for a CUNY dept. to admit that the reason they get 600+ applicants for their extremely ill-paid and teaching-heavy jobs is because of geography. Not because of their own innate Ivy-covered specialness.

  18. Sisyphus on 02 Sep 2009 at 1:58 pm #

    Bleah! Even though this kind of credential envy is not news to me, it still makes my blood boil.

    I hereby change my mind about my earlier post on the value of qualitative information. If “qualitative ranking” is going to mean mindless worship of ivy-league degrees, I’m willing to move to quantitative means of assessing a “good school”: what percentage of your grads are funded with fellowships and what percentage teach? what is the PhD completion rate of your department? what percentage of nontraditional-aged, first-generation college students, and underrepresented students make up your grad cohorts and how many of them finish? What is the publication rate of your professors and have your ABDs published anything?

    And I agree with the poster who said that calling for a complete packet up front takes the cake. I have to pay 7 bucks now each time I request my letters go out, plus all the printing and mailing costs of sending out an article and 20 bazillion teaching evals instead of just a letter and cv. I’m still going to apply to these jobs on the off chance that they won’t be idiots and will actually read my stuff, but I’m not holding my breath.

  19. Historiann on 02 Sep 2009 at 2:14 pm #

    I agree with Kathleen and Sisyphus that it’s outrageous to ask for so much stuff up front. Having served on a number of search committees, though, I can say that it may be that CCNY (like my uni) has a list of things we have to ask for from everyone up front. This is meant to serve the needs of Affirmative Action in many ways–so as to avoid people playing the “old boys’ network,” which you can imagine happening if we asked only for letters and CVs (phone calls to old pals whose student has applied, etc.) I think the goal is to provide us with enough information from everyone so that everyone’s on a level playing field, and so that search committees won’t be tempted to place phone calls to track down more information. But in this day and age, with letters and portfolios being in many cases ruinously expensive to mail out with every single letter of inquiry, it seems like these policies should be revisited and revised.

    And, I also agree with Tom: the way the CCNY search was run was just plain bad faith, in addition to being probably illegal and just dumb. I wonder if any of the 610 applications from people who didn’t get a first interview will not only read this, but take some kind of legal action, or perhaps file a grievance with the APA. Sheesh.

  20. Historiann on 02 Sep 2009 at 2:16 pm #

    One more thing: can any of you imagine being one of the two new hires? How would reading that article make you feel? (I don’t publish their names here, but Marinoff does, quite proudly.) If they’re decent men, they’re probably deeply embarassed and chagrined.

    Thanks for carrying on the conversation today–I had 2 back-to-back classes and then a Master’s exam immediately thereafter, so I was jammin’ straight from 10 to 2 p.m.!

  21. Susan on 02 Sep 2009 at 3:08 pm #

    I was enraged by the original IHE article. What was so striking was that Marinoff talks about figuring out whether applicants could deal with their unusual student body — but he’d already ruled out most of the people with unusual backgrounds.
    I do find letters useful: not necessarily for people, but they do help weed people out.

  22. Historiann on 02 Sep 2009 at 3:20 pm #

    Susan–great point. I noticed that too about the attention to teaching CCNY’s allegedly uniquely diverse student population.

    And I’m still waiting to hear about those Nobel Prizes!

  23. Colonial on 02 Sep 2009 at 4:36 pm #

    Kathleen -
    I can think of at least two occasions that letters made a big difference in those three searches, and both were sets of really bad letters. In a wider sense, though, we’ve been informed by higher ups that if an application is missing a letter or is incomplete when we start setting up interviews, we must remove that candidate from consideration and only evaluate completed applications.

  24. Janice on 02 Sep 2009 at 5:50 pm #

    Like you, Historiann, I’m bemused at the idea that there are “good schools” that carry that discipline-wide. Even within a subfield, coming from one of those schools with a strong reputation in that specialization is no guarantee the candidate is going to be anything special in our eyes. You need a heck of a lot more information than Ph.D. institution. Even a CV wouldn’t be enough to judge a candidate’s suitability, but it’d be better than just the institution alone. *boggles some more*

    A preliminary screening with a CV, research & teaching statement and recommendations would be a bare minimum for making the decision. Frankly, here in Hinterlands U, we’re not in the position of being deluged with applications when we advertise so we usually ask for the entire package. Even then, we’re usually sifting through about as many applications, in total, as these guys had for their APA shortlist. Geography is a powerful factor!

  25. PhilosopherP on 02 Sep 2009 at 6:14 pm #

    I’m not at all surprised by the article. As a woman and a philosopher, it makes me ill — but, I’m used to that sensation.

    This isn’t just places like CCNY — the philosophy job market is so terrible that even places IN Nebraska get to pick from a wide assortment of Ivy League Ph.Ds. Of course, some of those departments get what they deserve as their golden boys use them for a while — teaching poorly and writing a lot so they can get out of there. The departments seem to keep hiring the type of person over and over again, so clearly they see no reason to change.

    What did surprise me was the amount of candor in the IHE piece. I’m sure they’ve broken a bunch of confidentiality rules and probably some hiring practice guidelines… I’d never admit it.

  26. Historiann on 02 Sep 2009 at 9:16 pm #

    Philosopher P: I hear you. I too wondered about the candor–but then, I suppose that’s another perk of unexamined privilege, right? “I can tell you exactly what I did with the full confidence that my management of this search was totally and completely correct!”

    Janice–would you agree that the institution where a person trained tells us almost nothing about how that person will interview or what kind of a teacher, scholar, or colleague that person will be? All of that comes down to personality, not institutional imprimatur, and personality is almost infinitely variable. Maybe this is even less “superscientific” than the “good university” test, but I think I trust my gut more than the name-brand on the diploma.

  27. Paul on 03 Sep 2009 at 5:40 am #

    Wasn’t this the traditional way that hiring for senior positions in most fields – government, business, and professional, as well as academic – was done? I picture the traditional elite hiring process as basically a checklist of what schools one went to, one’s family connections, clubs one belonged to, etc. Only white men need apply, and only a fairly small percentage of those. Some people who were not from an elite group would make it in, but it was an uphill struggle all the way.

    It makes sense that affirmative action was really designed to counteract this and open up higher positions to more than a tiny percentage of the population. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t see it that way.

  28. Historiann on 03 Sep 2009 at 7:03 am #

    Yes, Paul–I’ve worked with people (since retired, all nice guys) who were hired in this manner:

    A department chair called up his advisor or another professor at his graduate institution (or an old grad school friend) and asked, “who do you have coming along in X field?” Names were proffered, and invitations to apply for a job were issued. It was all very non-competitive and clubby.

    Although it’s expensive and complicated and fraught, I much prefer the current system. It’s opened up employment to a much wider range of straight, white men than the old system.

  29. Ellie on 03 Sep 2009 at 7:54 am #

    In favor of the “heavy” initial job packet, it is certainly burdensome to the committee to read all those writing samples up front. But if the committee members are willing to do the work, it does seriously circumvent the old boys’/prestige network. A good friend is in a department where every search committee reads every page of the major collected works (diss/books/articles) of every candidate, on the grounds that only that allows them to see the real quality of the candidates’ work, rather than get sucked in by snazzy cover letters from candidates who happen to come from elite departments with better professionalization support or glowing recommendations from big-name advisors. Candidates apparently complain, but what they don’t know is that this department interviews many more candidates from outside the elite club than usual (degrees from less well-known schools, non-traditional educational paths, minorities and foreigners, etc.) and has been known to hire candidates who were really on the bubble in terms of the specific fields listed in the job ad.

  30. Historiann on 03 Sep 2009 at 8:07 am #

    Ellie–that’s interesting. I think it’s perfectly fair to hold off on asking for writing samples unless and until someone has made the initial cut. There are a lot of people who apply for jobs who don’t fit the job description, so why ask for their work when it’s clearly tangential to the position advertised? (Especially if you consider that a lot of “assistant professors” have books out–it seems burdensome to ask for a copy of someone’s published book without having giving their application an initial vetting.)

    It seems like a more reasonable use of faculty time to read the entire dossiers of 10-20 serious applicants who fit the job description. (And in my experience as a job-seeker, unfortunately, I wonder whether anyone in an interviewing ever reads anything, including the cover letter!)

    I want to stand up for the usefulness of job application letters, though. I think it’s a sign of a thoughtful and attentive person who gives us a letter that indicates ze 1) read the job description carefully, 2) took the time to explain to us in great detail why ze’s the exact right person for the job, by 3) walking us through hir CV, showing us all the ways in which the only next logical step in hir career is to join our faculty. People who are able and willing to do that honestly, and with real achievement on the CV to back it up, stand out for good reason in a job search. I always read the cover letter first to see how the applicant explains hirself, without regard to institutions or letters of recommendations. If someone can’t explain hirself effectively in a letter of application, the supposed prestige of hir degrees or letters of recommendation don’t do anything for me, as a search committee member.

  31. New Kid on the Hallway on 03 Sep 2009 at 8:20 am #

    FWIW, I don’t think class is actually a protected class. Legally speaking, affirmative action has no concern with class.

    Because, of course, if you are a person of color whose perspective would benefit academia as a whole, you *must* have been “good” enough to get into an ivy and demonstrate your merit that way, right? right? :-P

  32. The History Enthusiast on 03 Sep 2009 at 9:26 am #

    Thank you, Historiann, for clearly explaining the plethora of problems with this IHE article. I had similar reactions myself and judging from the ensuing conversation here, it is nice to know I’m not alone.

    This is my first year on the job market, and I spoke with my advisor last week about whether or not I should even apply for a position at Princeton. My thought is that, coming from a state school located west of the Appalachians, there really isn’t much of a point. He concurred. My committee members all think that I have a solid CV, writing sample, etc., so it is discouraging to know that even a great record like mine (great, but not stellar) likely won’t get me past the first round of eliminations. This is especially true in the crappy market we have now thanks to the recession.

  33. Historiann on 03 Sep 2009 at 9:32 am #

    THE–I would never say never to an application. You never know where it might lead, and if all you get out of it is an AHA interview, that is still valuable experience. (Actually, I don’t think P-ton does AHA interviews!)

    My advice is apply for everything that you can reasonably apply to. (That is, don’t stretch yourself to apply for jobs for which you’re not exactly qualified, but apply for everthing for which you are qualified–Princeton, Big State U., Reginal State U., Tiny Sectarian College, communitiy colleges, FancyPants College, etc.) Your job is to present yourself effectively as a candidate–it’s the search committees’ jobs to decide if you warrant a second or third look.

    That is: don’t do the search committee’s job for them. You really don’t know what they’re looking for, and neither do they until they see the range of applications. You should be encouraged by all of the scholars here–many of whom are historians as well as people in many other disciplines–who think that Lou Marinoff’s approach is bad faith, illegal, and just stupid, and are just as offended as you are.

  34. Letters of recommendation for job applicants: how important are they? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 21 Jan 2010 at 9:38 am #

    [...] from FancyPants University.  (Maybe this is why I reacted so viscerally to that strangely proud description of the profoundly immoral search process described in Inside Higher Ed last fall–as did many of you.  It’s not how we roll–but then, my department’s [...]