The incidents noted here at Phi Beta Cons and in the popular media leave many people wondering how such crackpot attitudes could thrive on college campuses. This is because people don’t know just how lengthy, overwhelming, multi-layered, and delicate is the process by which a young adult goes from undergraduate to tenured professor.
Consider one step in the advance: the job market in the humanities.
There is no more miserable creature on earth than the post-doc looking for a job. You’ve spent your twenties reading books and writing papers, taking classes from advisors who wonder when you’ll be off their hands. You have no prospects, and you can’t do anything else. You can barely pay your rent, but every hour at a part-time job derails your ambitions. At the annual scholarly convention, you join a thousand other wannabes scrambling for a few plum appointments. Your clothes are a bit threadbare, your posture slouches as if you aren’t sure of getting a rebuke or a reward. Your face is wan, but your eyes dart. In a hotel elevator you shy into the corner when the doors part and the happy ones enter—those with JOBS. You sneak a glance at their badges to spot a familiar name. Who knows? Maybe you have an interview with one of them the next day. Should you introduce yourself? Mention that book of his that you admire so much? Too late. The doors open and they file out.
How did you get so gawky and tentative? Through a fateful, unfeeling process that lasts six months. In the summer, you spend a month getting letters of recommendation for the dossier and refining your résumé. When the scholarly organization issues a national listing of job openings, you draft cover letters accordingly. A month later, having spotted things in your packet that it liked, a few hiring committees write back asking for a writing sample and the dossier with letters of recommendation. You select your best piece of work, usually a chapter of the diss, and ask the career center to send your file. If those fare well with the committee, a month later comes a request for an interview at the upcoming convention of the scholarly organization. Then comes the most important step in the process, an hour of conversation in a hotel room. The committee is made up of three or four professors of different fields and ranks. If the interview goes well, you become one of three finalists for the position, visiting the campus a month later to meet with all the faculty members, talk to a dean, and deliver a lecture. A month after that, the winner gets a phone call from the department chair tendering the offer.
At each stage, the pool narrows. It has to, with around 44,000 doctoral degrees granted every year. Added to them are the thousands who didn’t get a job the year before and are trying again. Hiring committees scan the applications, peruse writing samples and letters, and debrief after the interviews. The entire department discusses and politicks over the finalists after the campus visits. What works well for the candidate? Better to ask what disqualifies. It is easier for the committee, burdened with thousands of pages of materials, to find reasons to reject.
A cover letter that strikes the wrong tone or cites the wrong figures is ruinous. I once read a cover letter that opened something like, “I am a Feminist Foucauldian whose research into the Nineteenth Century disarticulates the power relations of domestic spaces as they are represented and reinforced in popular theatricals and visual culture.” Too grandiose. A research description that doesn’t click instantly with professors gets tossed aside. A few lines of “My dissertation examines . . .” and “dismantles prevailing conceptions” and their eyes glaze. With a stack of files three feet high, committee members don’t have time to read all the samples and letters, and so they judge by category. Is the topic hot? Is the approach current? Is the conclusion politic?
Letters of recommendation walk a fine line between approval and hype. Everyone knows they are a genre of insincerity. When an inflated letter by a Duke science professor made it to a university in Britain, the hiring committee contacted him to see if the letter had been forged. “It was so hyperbolic in their eyes that they couldn’t believe it,” he admitted. But he was only following custom. Letter writers need to make the candidate look serious and bright (nothing less than brilliant and hyper-conscientious).
The convention interview is a balancing act. You have 45 minutes to make the questioners feel enthused and comforted. Affect counts more than substance, for these are professors with a full slate of interviews and no training in personnel. When I walked into an interview back in 1988, for the first 15 minutes listened to a harangue about my advisor. One committee member had an issue with his outlook and used me as the occasion to let it out. I fired back, “Look, I’ve spent a thousand dollars on a flight and a room to come half way across the country to talk to you about my qualifications, and it’s pretty damn irresponsible of you to do this.” I wish. Instead, to my shame, I tried to grovel my way into his good graces.
Even the good interviews can be excruciating. Committee members are tired, bored, distracted, and wary. Each one has a preference, and rarely do they coincide. Candidates are desperate and inexperienced. A career is at stake, but you can’t let it show. He who relates best to the whole group, not to just one of them—an exciting 10-minute exchange with one prof excites the suspicion of the others—moves on to the campus visit. While on-site for two days, you become a friend for some, a threat for others. Identifying who has power is hard, so sounding genial to all is crucial. You must find topics for lively conversation, but steer clear of department sensitivities and expect anything.
All the decisions are collective, a result of majority voting. Which candidates triumph? Those who cause the least discomfort to the largest number of voters. Scholars who don’t fit smoothly into ready classifications and mutter the standard pieties are hard to figure, and the hiring of a colleague is so long-term a commitment that nobody on the faculty wants to take chances.
Professors don’t want to go to war over a hiring—you’re not that important—and so the compromise candidate, the less adventuresome and strong-minded one, survives. It is okay to have strong opinions, as long as they’re shared by all and won’t disrupt the department. The ardent minds are passed over, the singular intellects weeded out.
This is conformity by passive selection. It explains why political correctness is so dominant in a world of academic freedom, and why a few bullies are able to intimidate the rest.