From 30 to 1: The Job Search Resolves
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
January 28, 2010 – 09:07
As I discussed in my two previous posts about Middlebury’s search for a new media studies faculty member, I’m trying to conduct this search with as much openness and transparency as possible. Unfortunately, as the search has progressed and the field has narrowed, it has become much more difficult to write about the process without comments becoming more tied to individuals, a line I do not want to cross. So this post will be somewhat vague in outlining how we came to make our offer – and to spoil the end, I will not publicly announce the name of our new colleague until she does so herself. Instead, I’ll discuss the sausage-making process by which the hiring proceeded, hopefully to shine some light on what happens in a search for those readers who find themselves outside the black box. In November, we reduced the field to 30 candidates whose files interested at least one of the three “first-read” committee members enough to request additional information. For faculty running future searches, I highly recommend this tiered model of asking for a “thin file” upfront (CV, letter, statement of interests, reference letters) and only asking for teaching and research materials from people who make the first cut. It saves time and money for candidates, huge amounts of time for the search committee and administrative staff, and reduces needless waste of paper and shipping fuel.
The “thick dossiers” from our round of 30 were read through by the entire department (6 faculty) and one outside member from another department, a tradition in search protocol at Middlebury. We met in early December to generate a list of candidates to interview via video Skype. It was interesting to see how each of us read the files differently – some were primarily looking at the teaching materials (syllabi, evaluations, statements of approach/interests), while others were focused on research accomplishments and promise. Most of us were primarily interested in identifying the “footprint” that each candidate would have on our curriculum – what courses would they likely be able to offer to both expand what is on the books now, and cover existing areas that need additional faculty. And since the position was conceived largely as adding to our digital media offerings, the degree to which candidates focused on digital matters was a top concern.
I asked every member of the search committee to send me their (unranked) top ten candidates, and I tabulated the votes – 10 received no votes, and looking back at that list, most were either more tangentially tied to our department’s disciplinary allegiances, less tied to digital media, or less advanced in their ABD progress. Of the remaining 20, the top 6 were easy to identify, found on the majority of the committee’s list – but interestingly, only one candidate was on everybody’s list. We spent most of the two-hour meeting discussing the remaining 14 candidates, with the goal of interviewing 4 of them. While 10 is an arbitrary target number, we felt like it was a good balance of enough to offer a range of options, but not so many to overwhelm us.
In the end, we moved forward with candidates who had advocates from a number of faculty, and seemed most likely to add something new to the program. There were a few impressive candidates who were too far along down the tenure track to be considered, as the administration had not authorized hiring at the advanced assistant level. And some candidates were quite interesting to us, but had not sufficiently explained on paper how they’d mesh with the department’s curriculum. I found that strong letters of recommendation played an important role, especially when hiring a new area for the department – colleagues seeing glowing praise written by known faculty in the field could be reassured that they would be likely to fit our program. And I’m sure there were a couple of toss-up choices that were made because of less tangible rationales, such as one faculty member being a stronger advocate than another. But in the end we came to a consensus list of 10 candidates that we felt offered the strongest case for filling our needs and succeeding at Middlebury.
Film & Media Studies is not a field with a tradition of conference interviewing – some departments do interview at MLA, but not many, while a very organized search can interview at NCA in November. But most job searches I’ve been involved in (on both sides) do the first round of interviews via phone, a practice that is much more cost-effective and simple than conference interviewing. This was my first time adding video to the interview, and I’d highly recommend it – out of 10 interviews, only one had any technical difficulties requiring us to switch to conventional phone. The ability to see body language and gestures on both ends made the process more personable and responsive – and for a visual media position, it was interesting to see how each candidate composed their mise-en-scène!
In the aftermath of this year’s MLA, Brian Croxall’s post about the economics of adjuncting, interviewing, and conferences has been broadly discussed as a reminder of the structural inequalities within the academic job search, and Tim Burke has an interesting discussion on possible alternatives to the conference interview funding structure. As I said in Tim’s comments, I find the Skype practice sufficiently effective to abandon the conference interview model, and hope that many faculty in fields more used to conference interviewing follow that lead.
But I think the important question is what do you hope to accomplish with the conference or phone/video interview? We could have chosen 3 candidates to bring to campus without doing the Skype interviews, but I feel confident in saying that only one of those three would have matched our actual invite list. The Skype interviews gave us a sense of each candidate’s ability to articulate themselves and make us excited and interested about their research and teaching. In a small department at a small college, faculty need to feel comfortable with colleagues’ abilities to communicate with each other, students, other departments, and the field at large. Is it fair to judge somebody’s communication abilities solely by how they perform in a 45 minute video interview (or an in-person hotel room interview either)? No – but the nature of the job search is that there are so many candidates who are strong on paper that you need to find ways to distinguish between them beyond the CV.
The content of the Skype interviews ranged from teaching to research to their career goals. I sent some questions ahead of time, specifically asking candidates to prepare to talk about how they would teach a core course in our program, and outline a new course they’d bring to the curriculum. Again, I hope readers charged with leading a search follow this lead, as all the candidates were appreciative to be able to prepare answers to these questions in advance – and it’s not like you’d ever really be asked to pitch a new course with no advanced prep! We tried to avoid asking “zinger” questions, as it would not only tell us little about the candidates, but it would reflect badly on us as potential colleagues. Overall, the conversations were less about getting the right answers, but about demonstrating their ability to communicate effectively, admit when they don’t know something, and show some promise to be innovative thinkers and teachers.
Most candidates did quite well on their Skype interviews, and thus we were faced with the task of narrowing down to three to invite to campus. In the end, we chose candidates whose interview demeanor was strong, who effectively addressed some of the concerns we had about them on paper, and who seemed to offer the best chance of success in the classroom and in their research program. We scheduled interviews for the first two weeks of January, with the goal of making a hire by the end of the month.
There’s little I can say about the campus interviews without becoming too personal, so I’ll just outline what we had candidates do and why. We had each candidate offer a research talk as well as many one-on-one sit-downs. Whenever I go to job talks, I’m reminded by what strange hybrid beasts they are, especially at a small college – we want candidates to present original research, but in a form applicable to a general audience rather than show off their cutting-edge theoretical innovations. Especially for a position like this that aims to add new areas to our curriculum, we saw lectures about topics that few in the audience know anything about, but aim to be more than introductions to the topic. And then the audience asks questions designed in part to learn more, but also to demonstrate the candidate’s ability to engage with students and colleagues. But as a colleague reminds me, we’re not hiring faculty to give job talks!
In the end, the committee was unanimous in our decision, and it turns out that the candidate to whom we offered the position to was the only one who’d previously been on everybody’s initial top ten list. I take that as a sign of a successful search process, resulting in such an excellent candidate being offered the position – and accepting the offer. And soon I’ll be happy to announce the identity of my new colleague…
Thanks to everyone who applied for the position – as I’ve said before, so many of the candidates whose files we read would make excellent colleagues, and I expect to come across many of your names in future conferences and publications. And thanks to the many commenters on these posts – it’s always gratifying to be able to share my experiences and feel like it’s making a difference to people looking to enter academic careers. And I hope you all find positions given the tough realities of academic job searches.