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Something’s Smoking

December 12, 2011

Later this month, at the annual meeting where most philosophy job interviews take place, part of the hiring process will take place at “the smoker,” at which candidates and search committees mingle over drinks, with hiring committees at tables around the room. It's gone on that way for as long as many people can remember.

A recent blog post painted a disturbing picture of the event, held at the Eastern division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, the key site for job interviews throughout the country. The anonymous post, on the blog "What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?," said: "APA interviewing also means spending several nights up late, standing in uncomfortable shoes in a hotel ballroom, sipping cranberry juice while talking to tipsy prospective employers at that monstrosity we call the ‘smoker.' "

The poster, who said she is pregnant, complained about the informal interviews, the drinks and the dimly lit room. She said the setting of the “smoker” was overwhelming proof of the maleness of the profession, and the one time she was at the smoker before, she was hit on. On the job market again, she said she dreads the event.

The field of the philosophy has long been dominated by men, with women professors making up about 25 to 28 percent of the workforce, according to the APA. This figure lags those in most other humanities disciplines, where the numbers have moved much closer to parity -- and the continued gender gap frustrates many. While the smoker is officially just a reception, many philosophers say that this approach to hiring is antiquated at best, and creates particular problems for women.

Brian Leiter, a  professor at the University of Chicago who writes extensively about the faculty search process, said it wasn’t only women who find the smoker unpleasant. “Most job candidates hate it. It is not quite clear what we are supposed to do,” he said.

Sometimes, a more formal job interview may be continued at the evening reception, he said. And when candidates do stop by, there may be other competitors who are being interviewed right in front of them. “It is probably a leftover from the time before equal employment laws kicked in,” Leiter said. “People sort of mill about. There is overpriced beer and there is an awful lot of people looking very awkward. Some job candidates just avoid it, others go because they have to be there.”

But the people who hate it are the job seekers, and they do not have any power, Leiter said. “It would be less problematic if it only was a social gathering,” he said.

David Schrader, the executive director of the APA, called the description in the blog post misleading. “She speaks of the reception is taking place in a ‘dimly lit room.’ That wording carries a set of suggestions that are potentially misleading,” he said.

He said the ballrooms were as well-lit as ballrooms can be, and that the writer had overstated the importance of the reception. “Virtually every major meeting I attend, whether sponsored by the APA or another organization, has receptions. The receptions serve the purpose of providing a time and place for people to gather for informal conversation and visits with old friends and colleagues,” he said. (Schrader is correct, of course, that most disciplinary meetings have receptions, but many of them are small gatherings for alumni of various programs or large parties to mark a new book or some other event. The philosophy association seems unusual in that many search committees suggest attendance to this party and use it as part of the process of evaluating candidates.)

Schrader said that the APA has an ombudsperson whom the blogger could have approached with her concerns. (The APA makes money off the departments that pay $50 for a table at the event, but Schrader said that the revenue produced is only $4,200.)

Following the original blog posting, two other blogs ran posts about the smoker and were critical of the practice. Jennifer Saul, head of the philosophy department at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, who runs the blog about being a woman in philosophy, said she was glad that the issue was being debated. “It is an incredible throwback to previous era. Even the name is indicative of that. I think it is a humiliating ritual,” she said.

Saul, who has a Ph.D. from Princeton University, said she had heard from colleagues who told her that the smoker is not as much a part of the job process as it used to be. “But all the women I talk to are appalled by it,” Saul said.

Though most people do not consider it part of the formal job-hiring process, candidates who are witty and charming in a social setting may have a distinct advantage. “That is not actually the skill they should be looking for in academic jobs,” Saul said.

Rebecca Kukla, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University, said the event was socially problematic for women, not unlike another former practice at some APA conferences (and those of other disciplinary meetings) where job candidates were interviewed in hotel rooms and sometimes had to sit on a hotel bed while being interviewed. That practice was stopped a few years ago, and interviews are now held in suites or in ballrooms.

Kukla said it has been the standard for many decades at the conference to tell candidates to come by the smoker for a chat after a formal job interview. “I have heard lots of stories about people who were apparently ruled out for jobs because they did not show up at the smoker,” she said.

This year, Georgetown University will not have a table at the smoker, she said.

Michelle Mason, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, said there is no real evidence showing that not attending the smoker could hurt a candidate’s job chances. “This might be the kind of networking event they might have in other fields. I am told this was how people used to get hired,” she said.

There remains a lot of anxiety surrounding the event, but Mason isn't sure the anxiety is justified. Her own experience: Many years ago, when she was on the job market, she sought out a faculty member at the smoker but quickly found that he was intoxicated. “It is not easy to extricate yourself from these situations if you are a helpless graduate student,” Mason said.

Her advice to applicants: If you don’t want to go, go to bed early and you will be in better shape for interviews the next day. “There are lots of questions about what the exact function of the smoker is. I think it is a good thing that the philosophy community is talking about it,” Mason said.

 

 

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