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 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.