Humanity in the humanities?

I’ve been meaning to talk about this article for some time, one of the better ones to show up in the Chronicle in a while. Author Keith Wilhite, who teaches at Duke, suggests that the current job search process at the university level leaves a lot to be desired–in fact, that it’s downright inhumane. Outlining procedures in which hiring departments ask for massive portfolios (recommendations, writing samples, c.v., teaching philosophy, etc.), have unclear requirements, and often notify applicants of their status six months or more after the initial deadline–if they notify them at all–Wilhite argues that some common sense and “decent manners” would help the incredibly stressful job process run a little more smoothly for the candidates who, according to most reports, have only about a fifty/fifty shot of ever landing a tenure track position, let alone one in their field or somewhat desired location. And though the comments after the article are largely supportive, most lauding Wilihite for publicly saying what candidates have been privately lamenting for years, a few–referring to the search committee’s limited time, resources, and authority in the face of an institution’s administrators and legal counsel–still seem to be caught up in the “reality” of the situation, suggesting that “it is not as simple as it might seem from the outside.”

Well, I’ve been on search committees, and I’ve been through the search process as a candidate myself several times (thankfully, no longer). And all I can say, with all due respect to the “it’s not so simple” folks, is: no, it really is that simple. Job candidates simply want to be treated as human beings.

This isn’t hyperbole. There are a few basic things we all learned as children which we would be well served to remember as adults:

1. Be on time. Job candidates are expected to get to interviews on time, submit material on time, and follow instructions. The least search committees can do in return is make a decision in a timely fashion and notify candidates as soon as possible–not six or eight months later, or never in some instances. It’s basic courtesy, and it’s not hard. Send a simple, professional letter, and do it sooner rather than later.

2. Be reasonable. Don’t ask candidates to send every possible item under the sun if you’re really only going to need a c.v. and cover letter to weed out a large majority of your initial applicants. This wastes paper, money and time that neither search committees nor candidates have in abundance…and it is entirely unnecessary.

3. Treat people as you would want to be treated. The vast majority of job candidates are in a very, very tough spot. After spending years in graduate school building debt and teaching introductory composition courses for pennies on the dollar, newly minted Ph.D.s emerge from their graduation ceremonies to face an extremely tight market–one which, with apologies to some in the MLA, has nothing to do with “a glut of Ph.D.s” and everything to do with a conscious choice most institutions of higher learning have made, to hire as many non-tenure track, adjunct faculty as possible–both to wait out the tenure system while higher-paid and more influential professors retire and to put pressure on said professors to toe the line in an ever more business oriented environment. College enrollment is mostly up; English majors are up. The academy as a whole needs more professors in the humanities, not fewer. But so long as college administrations try to run their respective schools as for-profit businesses (which is only good when you’re trying to get, you know, a profit) and not institutions of higher learning, adjunct and contract hiring, which hurts both tenured and non-tenured faculty, will continue to be the order of the day. Given the lack of decent-paying jobs this creates in the higher education sector, job candidates find themselves in an almost untenable position without other sources of income. And given those facts, it would behoove search committees to remember the human beings on the other end of the letters they send out, and try to avoid the “sorry, but we found an incredibly well-qualified candidate!” crowing, as if the recipient of said letter didn’t even merit an honorable mention in the contest.

4. Be nice. This is the simplest one of all, yet seems the most vexing problem to solve. In brief, word your letter politely and professionally–and don’t act surprised if a candidate, not having heard from your committee in six months, follows up with a polite inquiry of his/her own. You don’t owe anyone a job, but you do owe them the favor of common courtesy, and it’s a very easy standard to uphold.

Search committees engage in a largely thankless task, and many of them do it with professionalism and class. I’ve been extremely fortunate in my career to have positive experiences with the committees at the places where I ultimately ended up teaching…but then I think that’s instructive. I wanted to teach at Boston University, and then at St. John’s, largely because of how impressed I was by the people who were ultimately going to hire me. But I was interested not so much in their credentials–which were impressive–as I was in their humanity, their basic sense of fairness, and my feeling that they understood my situation as much as I was trying to understand theirs. It’s because of these positive experiences, and my own as a member of such committees, that I know these are not only goals we can achieve but ones we must set. And now that I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the right side of that fifty/fifty tenure track position game, and gotten the brass ring of tenure in the bargain, I think it’s about time I start advocating for those who are just getting on the merry-go-round. I hope my colleagues will take a page from Wilhite here: “Those of us seeking tenure-track jobs are coming to terms with our diminished prospects. In the meantime, the least departments could do is make a grueling situation slightly more humane. It’s called the humanities after all.”

Amen to that.