Friday, December 12, 2014

Searches from the other side

That title sounds a lot more woo-woo than I meant it to. What I'm talking about is pretty pedestrian: the job search--from the committee's perspective.

I've been on search committees before, and this is in fact the second search that I've chaired. What makes this one different is that it's on the big-conference timeline and it's for a field that closely parallels my field in terms of the number and quality of applicants. I won't say what discipline we're searching for, but it's a tenure-track humanities position in a field saturated with high-quality Ph.D.s.

For a 4/4 low-endowment rural SLAC position, we received a staggering 139 applications. Of those applications, probably...well, let's be generous and say that 25 were eliminated immediately for not being in the right field (in English terms, think comp/rhet when we're hiring for literature).

That leaves 114. Of those, easily...80? 90? were perfectly fine. Good degrees, interesting-seeming research (this one is harder for me to judge, since it's not my field), solid teaching, strong recs.

We winnowed them down to 8 for phone interviews. That's 5.75% of the initial pool.

How did we get there?

Good question.

This search, more than any other I've participated in, brought home to me the issue of fit and the sheer injustice (no news here) of the hiring process. As I annotated my list of candidates, I found myself writing "Seems strong," "Seems solid," "Worth a second look" far too many times. Gradually, these changed to, "Seems strong but nothing stands out"--and that was that.

So--what stood out? Because we couldn't interview everyone with a good degree, solid research, and strong teaching; that would mean 80-odd interviews. The problem is that what stood out were things that weren't in the job description because they couldn't possibly have been in the job description.

For example:

  1. Candidate A has some experience teaching in Z, and we have a part-timer in Z who might be retiring soon (and no budget to rehire).
  2. Candidate B has some study-abroad administrative experience that would dovetail nicely with our program in Y.
  3. Candidate C's service-learning experience would fit really well in this particular community.
  4. Candidate D's research interests are close enough to those of a few of my colleagues to spark some interesting team-teaching possibilities, but not so close that they would duplicate our department's strengths.
  5. Candidate E has high school teaching experience that might enable him/her to collaborate on developing a new secondary certification program at Field.
And so on.

Fortuity starts to play a role. It's not the case that each of our finalists has some specific strength like this, but these were the kinds of things that started leading me (and the rest of the committee) to single out particular applications over the others. And you--the applicant--just can't prepare for that.

What you can do, though, is highlight interesting bits of your professional life that might cause your application to stand out, too. Conducted workshops for first-generation students? Mention that in your cover letter. Don't dwell on it, in case it's not relevant, but mention it. Organized or taught on a study-abroad trip? Mention it. Engaged in service-learning? team-teaching? curriculum design? Mention it.

There is one other concrete thing that I can mention, too. If you're applying for a job at a SLAC, somehow demonstrate that you're specifically interested in SLACs. Maybe this doesn't matter much if you're applying to the really top-tier elite schools (who wouldn't want a job at Swarthmore?), but, at least at a school like mine, a research-heavy cover letter that doesn't even mention the appeal of a liberal arts college pretty much gets you kicked to the curb--simply because there are too many applicants and we have to narrow the pool somehow.

Also: If you have a tenure-track (or tenured!) position and are applying out, EXPLAIN WHY. Give some explanation of the move, ideally one that makes you look good. Simply avoiding the topic in your cover letter counts as one big red flag.

Good luck, everyone.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A good start

So I didn't mention this, but I won a (actually, the) big Field College teaching award at Commencement last year. The payoff is a bit of money for me, half-a-bit of money for my division, and I get/have to deliver the next opening convocation address--which happened yesterday.

I was nervous. It's always funny to me when I'm nervous about public speaking, now; it only happens when I switch genres--that is, when I do something other than teach a class or deliver an academic paper at a conference. In my surveys, for example, I require my students to memorize and recite a poem, and last year I started doing it, too--and when I go up to recite, I notice that I'm shaking. Recall that I'm reciting in front of students that I teach 2-3 times a week with no anxiety whatsoever. It's funny. (I was painfully shy about public speaking until about my late twenties, when I downgraded to really quite anxious; picking up a 4-4 load at 31 got me over most of my fears by 33. Now, at 38, I don't always know when to shut up.)

So I was nervous. This was by far the biggest crowd I can ever realistically hope to address, unless I'm called upon to give a plenary at Kalamazoo (which, let's note, can't even qualify as a remote possibility). All 168 first-year students, all new transfers, all faculty, the 60-student chorale, parents, visitors, any returning students who took the "Required!" memo seriously, all of the administration, nearly all staff, two trustees, at least two emeriti, local friends of the College, etc. Our 500+-seat auditorium had people standing in the back and along the sides. (Not to see me, you understand, but for the opening hoopla.) I was nervous.

I was also nervous because I'd worked for a long time on my talk and therefore wanted it to be really effective, but I couldn't gauge its quality anymore. This kind of address is more like a sermon than a paper. It's out of my usual scope. And I was afraid that I'd speak to quickly, swallow my words, and otherwise be...boring.

But I think that it went really well. Really well. A number of people (including a colleague who's been at Field for more than 20 years) told me that it was the best address that they've heard at Field, and the president asked me for a copy to give to donors under the heading, "Why the humanities matter."

And...maybe it's a coincidence, but my back-to-back sections of Developmental Comp this morning--the first day--went very well. Perhaps, even if they didn't pay all that much attention to my message (which had to do with how life is more than a job and your individual encounters with ideas, books, etc. ought to call you to change your life), I at least made a good enough impression on our first-year students that they'll be moderately psyched to have a class with me.

I'm feeling good about this semester, which is a radical change from how I felt a month ago, when I had to pick up an overload of Developmental on top of the overload one-credit Honors course I was already teaching (so I have 13 instructional hours this semester, plus I'm chairing the Humanities division--1 4-credit overload in all). These last two days have been good. Maybe I'm more...competent? dare I say impressive?...than I'm inclined to think.

OK, I'll stop bragging now. May I also mention that the student body president's speech was fantastic? And that we both managed to refer to our journeys along a certain medieval pilgrimage route through Spain in our talks? That, I think, was my favorite thing about the whole morning--the only two people at the entire college who have taken that trip both managed to talk about it with the entire campus community in the same morning!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A paradigmatic first-world problem:

We currently have so much food (due to a rainy summer and our very productive garden, particularly in the apple department) that we don't have enough room in our refrigerator to store it. We had to eat half a melon tonight just to clear space for dinner leftovers.

More soon--classes start tomorrow.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Back at it

After almost three weeks away, and three weeks of adamantly not working (and lots of fun, and many great visits with great people, and WAY too much time in the car, esp. with a two-year-old), it's time to get back to work.

In keeping with my businesslike attitude, this post shall be brief and bulleted. Goals for the week:

  • 3 hours of weeding/gardening (I have a lot to say about weeding, and my terrible attitude towards it, and its inevitability despite my attitude. Maybe I'll say some of it sometime)
  • outline of chapter 1
  • 1000 words toward chapter 1 (describe the project, basically--I did this really well over Thai food on Wednesday, and I'd like to capture whatever it is I said)
  • print pictures for B's second-year album
  • clean car
  • schedule oil change
  • yoga x 3
  • plan little summer class (it's like 1 hour long)
  • read L (a book that I should have read for, like, my dissertation. What's wrong with me? I'm such a fraud)
  • clean desk -- that one's almost done! It'll involve sewing some little pads onto toddler slippers, and making decisions about coupons, and filing a tape in the basement tape holder, and that's just about it.
I'm not counting the weeks anymore, though, because that would get depressing. Classes start August 27. I have ages.

Saturday, June 14, 2014


Happy second birthday, my sweet little Bee. Your smile is my very favorite thing.

(The French blocks and pirate onesie are pretty great, too.)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


At 14,200 words, with a reasonably logical structure, a handful of notes-to-self, and the lingering need to read and incorporate at least one major study, I have decided to pronounce M chapter drafted. I'll be putting it away for a while--I'm off to visit family and friends pretty soon and intend to do no work on my [second] book (for I'm starting to force myself to call it that) while I'm gone.

I'm pretty pleased. Today is, what, June 3? And this was one of the major, quite possibly undoable items on my summer list. So hey, list! Check it out! Done!

Of course, it's also absolutely the easiest chapter of the projected book for me to write, because it's the only one that's on a text that I know really well. Aha. And also on my list are "Draft chapter 1" and "Finish H chapter draft"--I started H chapter last fall, but then a) I eventually acknowledged that a.1) I hadn't actually finished reading H itself and a.2) I was still very sketchy on the considerable body of H research. Also b) my colleague died in October. All this to explain why it's not finished yet. Unfortunately, problem (a), with both of its subparts, still exists.

H has been sitting on my desk since last summer, by the way.

Anyway. The drafting of this or that chapter is a problem for another day. I'm heavily into my Pre-Voyage State, which involves trying to clean everything and finish every project. For example, I actually have on my to-do list, "Drop off dry-cleaning" (followed by "Pick up dry-cleaning"), when the clothes that need dry cleaning are clothes that there is no chance I will wear before mid-September at the earliest (if we have a cool fall).

I'm trying to get myself to cross that one off.

We'll see.

(When I was 23 and about to embark on a major adventure trip, I actually finished a novel that my friends and I had about 2/3 written when we were fifteen, because I couldn't stand the thought of leaving it unfinished when I took off. I'm really glad that I did it--the novel is hilarious and such a fun testament to our goofy sophomore selves--but in retrospect that seems a little nuts, doesn't it?)

Monday, May 26, 2014

Unsettled (starting Week Three)

I always feel a little unsettled when I'm writing. I'm a quick writer--I can produce text at lightning speed--and I mostly enjoy revising; I'm very much a process writer, so revising is where I usually figure out what my real argument is.

The unsettled feeling doesn't come from the fact that my arguments take a while to develop, though. Well, maybe it does, in a way: As I write/revise/think over what I've written, I shuttle back and forth between thinking that I've got a great idea, what a brilliant sentence that is, I'm so productive and a dreadful fear that I'm arguing the obvious and/or someone else has certainly already made this exact same argument, and I'm too ignorant in my very own field to know it.

Impostor syndrome persists into tenure, and the only way forward is to ignore the voices and write the next damn book.

I did pretty well with last week's list. I bound Bonaventure's book (pictures to follow iff [that's if-and-only-if] I take and then download them), went to a yoga class (the first one I've been to in Field State that really kicked my ass! And, um, inspired me spiritually, etc.), read through my chapter and identified the next big thing to work on there, made sure that at least the skeleton of my argument is present in the chapter, finished a book that probably isn't very relevant to my project, and did not paint the kitchen--I opted for a trip to the Children's Museum with Bonaventure and TM instead. That was fun. I totally want to just play with all the toys and things myself, and having a toddler with you is a great pretext, since he does kind of need help playing with them.

Bonaventure's in the foreground, almost too little for his smock.

This week:

Writing: Work on the Big Hole in my chapter. I've read one article already; I need to work it into the chapter, and I'd like to read and work in two more articles this week, if I can.
Reading: Read a book for chapter 1. (I've started it; it's interesting and pertinent.) Type up notes.
Home: Clean the floors. (I was going to do this today, but I have a cold, so I won't. However, there's no way I was going to go another whole week without cleaning the floors, so this is kind of a nice freebie on my list.)
Fun and Self: Finish Fun Book; read a bit of Proust. Go to yoga.
Crafty: Finish the scarf I've been knitting.
Yard: Try to get in three hours of work on that infernal sidewalk.

First, though, I need to pick up the milk. Better get to it.