Saturday, January 26, 2008

Two Ways to Improve the Job Search Process in English

OK, this is only a half-serious post but there's no time even for a two-thirds serious one. How to improve the job market for literature people?

1) The Reality TV Option. For the best job on the market in a given year, produce a reality tv show. That is, use an American Idol format to narrow the field down to the dozen most viable candidates, then Survivor to get down to the three finalists, and then the Presidential race (a series of debates at peer universities and votes by profs and grad students) to decide the winner. The search committee could be involved in the first two stages in creative ways, but after that it's out of their hands.

This would publicize just how amazing the talent pool is in literary studies. The long time for it to develop would allow all kinds of looks at backgrounds of the various candidates, spark interest in the humanities more generally, and be much better for all involved than the usual process.

2) The Q-School Option. Author- and period-based professional organizations (among others) could put on late-summer conferences in which applicants (only those without and in search of a tenure-track job) can choose which of, say, 5 pressing questions in the field they want to address in their talk, narrow the participants down to the top 5 on each, spend a day discussing the answers proposed by the panelists on each question, rank the panelists at the end of the conference, and, eventually, publish a book of the winners' expanded and revised essays. The questions for the next summer's conference would be agreed-upon by the officers of the society after the conference and posted by early fall, so that everyone going on the market the following fall could have the academic year to prepare their papers and submit them in early summer. As an incentive to those who don't make the top 5, all papers from the top 30 applicants could be posted on a conference blog, opening them up to comments and feedback from the profession at large. [These numbers are customizable to the size of the organization, of course.]

This would help get attention to what the leaders of the organization see as the crucial issues in the field and help them indicate who among the not-yet-tenurable they feel most deserve jobs. With the late-summer timing of the conference and blog, candidates (in the top 5 or top 30) can include the results on their c.v.s and those who are invited to present at the conference would also benefit from the day devoted to their question and answers and the chance to interact with more established people in their field.


I'm sure others can come up with better ideas. Let's get creative, people!

[Update 1/30/08: Craig Smith at FACE Talk answers my call! And I got Around the Webbed by Inside Higher Ed for the first time evah. Just for the record, I wrote this on a computer in the day care center playroom imoto and I were hanging out in while onechan was in her yochien and revised it slightly when we got home. There's a lesson there somewhere.]


Rent Party said...

I like both ideas, actually. #1 resembles what we already do in the U.S. a great deal, but makes it more explicit and systematic. #2 resembles
more closely what they do in some of the other countries I am familiar with, but makes sure people gets general exposure and a publication out of their job talks.

The Constructivist said...

Thanks for the comments!

You're right about #1. But putting it on tv is a new idea, right?

#2 isn't so much job talks as a new way for professional associations to make themselves relevant and helpful to the not-yet-tenurable. This should be a more reliable peer review process than letters of recommendation alone and should help ensure good people aren't falling through the cracks in the early stages of searches when hundreds of applications inundate often very small search committees in the middle of a very busy semester.

Craig @ AFT said...

Funny--we were just sitting around the other day coming up with academic reality shows ourselves. "Who will be America's next great lecturer?"

But seriously, the hiring process is problematic in so many ways--I am going to try to pick up on this thread over at FACE Talk this week.


Michael E. said...

I have a more modest proposal: Make the command performances required by on-campus visits more uniform from one department to the next. As an adviser and a director of graduate students, I have job seekers in my office every year around this time who are trying to read the tea leaves of the assignment that they have been given by the search committee: one wants a thirty-minute informal presentation on research and teaching; another wants a "teaching demonstration" for faculty that lasts 45 minutes; another wants a 40 talk on research "but not too formal"; some want them to teach other people's classes; some want them to teach fake classes composed of select undergrads; some want straight lectures; etc., etc., etc. Each search committee or department has its reasons for asking for what it wants, but each of these slightly different versions sends the applicants -- who are sandwiching their trips between their own teaching -- scrambling back to the drawing boards, and worrying about whether they are giving the department exactly the kind of performance that the performance demands. As a profession, we should come up with a couple generic formulas and stick with them. It would be an easy way to make this much easier for the applicants -- and their advisers.

The Constructivist said...

Great idea! Which reminds me I still haven't finished my advice on the campus visit post yet. Late, as usual!

Craig @ AFT said...

Congrats on the IHE Pick up--does wonders for the traffic! And impressive on the composition venue!

The Constructivist said...

Michael, I haven't forgotten your comment, but decided to hold off on my campus visit advice post until our camps visits are done, so I don't inadvertently give an advantage to the later-arriving candidates.

I like the idea of formalizing our expectations for the different kinds of talks people are asked to give, but I think it's utopian to narrow it down to a couple. Departments really are different. That's why I thnk it would be easier to achieve standardization at the level of the professional association (my #2) above. Job talk requests always reflect the state of the department making them, and as such provide useful information (even if it's the "do I really want to work with people who think this idiotic method works?")....

Since I've been here, we go with an enigmatic "tell us about the relation between your teaching and your research" directive precisely in order to see what people make of it and do with it, to give us material to consider what their choices reveal about them. I'll save the extended rationale for a post of its own, but suffice to say here and now that it has worked really well for us. I can imagine it working just as well for any teaching institution, but not as well for R1s.

I can tell you formats I'm against: have the candidate teach someone else's class (even if you get to choose the readings, it's not at all representative of what you do in a course of your own design with your own students); use a research talk to guess at what kind of teacher the candidate would be (even if the dominant mode in the department is lecturing, you talk differently to our colleagues than to undergrads).

Anyway, more later.

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