Let’s Make the Academic Job Market More Humane

We recently completed a search at my institution for a historian of the Islamic World with a specialization in the vast period before 1800. I chaired the search, and am chairing another search in a different department right now. From the isolation of my family quarantine, I have thought a lot about the search. I am very excited about the person we hired. Still, as I reflect upon the process and what I hear from my younger colleagues, it seems to me that there is much that we as a profession might do better.

When I began applying for jobs a long time ago, the system was very different from today. Credentials stuck in files at the AHA, or mailing in letters and a CV with letters of recommendation to follow. All carried out through the U.S. Mail. Administrators and their so-called efficiencies have changed the way we conduct searches.

My campus, like many, uses an online employment system. Applicants upload the documents we ask for (a letter, a CV, and a statement of teaching philosophy). The system generates automatic emails acknowledging receipt of the applicant’s materials. If I let it, the system will also generate automatic emails informing applicants that they did not get the job. This is the default setting. That seemed a bit harsh and disrespectful to me, and a bit inhumane, but I have come to understand that these robo-mails, or no message at all, have become the norm. Applicants can be forgiven for feeling chewed up and spitted out, scorned and abused. It takes a lot of work to apply for an academic job. The opportunities are few and the stakes are high. An automatic email seems an unnecessarily callous ending in a world filled with callousness.

We must do better.

So I sent sixty-one emails personally, one to each of the applicants. It took a bit of time, but not much. I wanted the applicants to know that I appreciated the time and effort they put into their applications. I acknowledged the rottenness of the job market, and how I wished we could have interviewed more people. I told them how impressed my colleagues and I were with their credentials, and how difficult a time we had narrowing the applicants to a number of candidates we could meaningfully interview.

I expected nothing in response, but thirty-one of the applicants replied to my email. This surprised me. Though one was gently and reasonably critical of the time the search took, all were appreciative and thanked me for treating them with courtesy and respect. All of them either said, or strongly implied, that such minimal courtesy is all but unheard of in today’s academia.

I spend a fair amount of time on Twitter, so I read a lot from recent Ph.D recipients describing their searches for a tenure-track job. These are tales of desperation, despair and depression, with not a few instances of shabby treatment by hiring institutions along the way. We who are lucky enough to be tenured or on the tenure track must, and can, do better. Writing a personal message is only the start.

Decency matters.

Decency matters so much that it is worth the extra effort to treat job applicants as you would like to be treated. Yes, the market was brutal when I went out twenty -five years ago, but it is much worse now. Believe recent graduates when they tell you that.

We must recognize that we are so fortunate to have the jobs we have. Colleges and universities, I know, as workplaces can vary widely in quality. I spent the first four years of my career at a dysfunctional hellhole in Billings, Montana. But even in the midst of the shit-show that was that college, I enjoyed my students, the teaching, and the advising. I enjoyed the moments I squirreled away to work on my first book. Once I closed the classroom door or my office door, I was happy.

And even if you feel justified in whining about your place of employment, remember this: there are literally hundreds of people who would like to do what you are doing, but will never get that chance. This brutal reality imposes upon all of us the obligation to be the best historians and teachers we can be. You must remember, no matter how good you think you are at this work, no matter how paradigm-shattering you consider your research, it is almost certain that there is someone better than you, shut out by the brutality of the academic job market. One of my colleagues at the dysfunctional hellhole, who doubled as an associate pastor at a local Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, told me during my on-campus interview that being a college professor was the best part-time job in the world. I suspect that we all know people who take this approach to academia, who do not produce or take their teaching seriously, but I can think of no attitude more loathsome and disrespectful to the many hundreds of talented historians who will never get a chance.

We cannot undo all the macroeconomic changes in higher education. I recognize the magnitude of the fiscal challenges facing colleges and universities. But let’s push back against the increasing bureaucratization of the job search and the increasing role played by computers in the hiring process. Perhaps you have an Ivy-League pedigree, and you feel your research is so important that you cannot be bothered to pay attention to the lowly peons who want to join your department. Perhaps you went to a second-tier school and never looked back. Whoever you are, wherever and whatever you studied, there is no excuse for not being kind. Resist every institutional protocol, and every barrier, that keeps you from treating job applicants the way you would like to be treated. If you are that barrier, and find that you cannot find the time to treat applicants with decency, perhaps you ought to step aside. Be kind and be decent. Most of all, show compassion. It matters.

4 thoughts on “Let’s Make the Academic Job Market More Humane”

  1. Very well stated Michael. Unfortunately it is not just academia that has become so robotic and impersonal. Talk with young people in the job market, as I’m sure you do with graduating students, and you soon hear horror story after horror story about how humiliating and dehumanizing the job search can be.
    And as a parent I’m sure you can attest to the coldness of the college application process, and how devastating that process can be for very bright young people who have not experienced rejection to any degree, and don’t understand that there are many other very bright young people also competing for those few coveted opening. Hopefully most learn that it is not the end of the world that they didn’t get into their first choice college or university, and that they can get an excellent education at a different school. But then the beat goes on to the point you describe of having weathered years of study, research, writing deep research papers that get torn apart, and also hoping to get published – only to find there are fifty application for every limited job opening. And then to only be treated as a number receiving computer generated form letters/emails. And hopefully they will be fortunate enough to encounter a Michael Oberg who takes the time to personally acknowledge them, and show a degree of respect and humanity.
    No, it is not just academia where administrators care more about “business efficiency,” cost-benefit analysis, and the budget. Unfortunately, Milton Friedman, and his disciples, have done so much damage to every field touched by economic decisions that the spread sheet has become god over people. Don’t get me going about ministry, and especially the Episcopal Church, which your analysis brought painfully back to mind. Believe me, time does not heal all wounds, nor does it erase the memory of how arrogant, self-righteous, bubble-heads can destroy their fellow human beings and act holier than thou.
    But while you are showing concern for all of the younger job applicants, and the “system” that eats them up and spits them out, also remember those who are not able to apply for full-time, tenure track positions. How does the academy (or other markets for that matter) treat so-called contingent, or part-time, employees – or adjunct faculty as they are commonly known? Is the same compassion and humanity shown to these hard working, under paid faculty by tenured employees as they would expect to be treated? Or is there a hierarchy that looks down their noses at those deemed less worthy? Are adjunct faculty valued and made to feel wanted and valued as people with feelings and souls?
    All people want to feel respected, even when delivered bad news. For making the extra effort to reach out to those applicants who were not accepted for employment, you are to be commended. I hope others follow your lead.
    Peace and Blessings.

    1. Thanks for this, Jim. You are absolutely right about the treatment of adjuncts. I ought to have included a discussion of that issue in the blog post. The lack of respect shown to contingent faculty is a huge problem across the profession.

  2. THANK YOU, Mike, for the much-needed reminder of human decency and perspective-taking. “Working” in the ivory tower–or guild–is most certainly a privilege, which can if one lets it produce the most boorish and arrogant behaviors imaginable. We all know such asses, but fortunately the guild also has mastercrafts-women-and-men, like you, who keep the goal of epistemological modesty and human decency at the center of our work. Again, THANK YOU!

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