Oh the (need for) humanity…

March 25, 2009

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn lingers with readers in curious ways. I tend to recall moments when Huck marks the distance between superficial manners and genuine kindness. Remember when the small town undertaker has to quiet the “powwow and racket” of a dog during a funeral service? He disappears into the cellar: a whack, a howl, then silence. But what comes next is the important part. When the undertaker returns, he “whispers” theatrically over the heads of the congregation to the preacher, “HE HAD A RAT.” Huck reflects, “You could see it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know. A little thing like that don't cost nothing, and it's just the little things that makes a man to be looked up to and liked. There warn't no more popular man in town than what that undertaker was.” The undertaker intuits what many search committees and department chairs forget. In a search, communication is everything.

In my first column, I suggested that departments should try to make the search process as humane as possible. That comment elicited a wave of e-mails. Most wrote to say, well, “amen.” So I challenged myself to come up with concrete suggestions for improving this too often inhumane process. My list grew so long that I’ll focus on the first stages of the search here and discuss the campus visit in my next column.

For a crash course in the best and worst search practices, skim Academic Jobs Wiki. The site advertises positions in numerous fields. In addition, job candidates are invited to comment on “universities to love” and “universities to fear.” The anonymous posts may or may not be fair, but collectively they suggest how the search process could improve. Most of the complaints boil down to one problem: failures of communication. A shocking number receive no acknowledgment at all from colleges and universities to which they apply. Even worse, candidates who get as far as a campus visit sometimes never learn the outcome. So here is a first round of suggestions for search committees. I welcome you to share yours as well.

First, departments should think carefully about the materials they request in their advertisements. Initial decisions require a letter and a resume. Trees and postage saved. In the early stages of a search, applicants need to know two things. Did materials arrive? What next? A quick e-mail acknowledgment and a timeline surveying the next steps in the search are deeply reassuring. When an ad attracts 400 candidates, notification requires real effort, but so did applying.

All of the candidates with whom I’ve spoken along with those on the wiki sincerely wish departments would let them know when they are no longer being considered. My warmest memory from my own job search is, ironically, a rejection letter. A faculty member from the University of Pennsylvania wrote an unusually compassionate letter, including one sentence that complimented my writing sample with enough detail to suggest she had actually read it. I kept that letter for years and to this day I send out a bless-your-heart whenever it comes to mind. Timely response is all the more important now that those who do get invited for interviews are likely to post that information on one of the wikis. A quick appreciative e-mail to those who didn’t make the first cut ought to be manageable, and if you have the resources to insert even one personal comment, you will have done a very, very good thing. If the next step in your search is a conference interview, you might also help an unsuccessful candidate avoid wasting a fortune on a plane ticket and hotel.

Whether the first personal contact with candidates will be by phone, at a conference, or on campus, the interview will be more productive and less stressful for everyone involved if candidates know what to anticipate and how to prepare. Who will be present and what are their areas of expertise? (Yes, I know that should be on the Web, but it often isn’t.) What cell phone number can the candidate call in case of disaster? What can you tell candidates about the interview? Will any committee member need to arrive late or leave early?

An interview shouldn’t feel like a round of whack-a-mole. What can you tell candidates about the interview in advance? Will it last 30 minutes, 45 minutes? If you want candidates to speak thoughtfully about their ability to meet a specific need in your department, why not ask them to ponder the topic in advance?

It’s well worth a small loss of time to be sure appointments are scheduled at intervals that will neither leave candidates waiting in the hall nor force them to meet face to face. Think about the interview space, too. Try sitting where you plan to place the candidate. A large, deep chair puts a short person at a disadvantage. You simply can’t sit in such a chair wearing certain kinds of skirts. Three committee members once sat facing me with their backs to a bright window. All I could see were silhouettes. To this day, I have no idea who they were.

No one should have to say so, but committee members should introduce themselves and provide water. They should not eat, doze, complain about exhaustion, check e-mail on a Blackberry, or leave a cell phone ringer in action. They should be welcoming even if this is the 15th candidate in two days. Apparently the question -- “Why would anyone want to work on this topic?” -- is a frequent opening gambit at interviews. Surely rigorous doesn’t have to be rude.

For those who interview at conferences, I can’t resist sharing a pet peeve. What would possess a department to invite all the people they’ve interviewed to the same party? Misery really doesn’t love company (and probably the last thing Misery needs is a free drink). Candidates wryly glad-handing strangers — faculty members? competitors? alumni? — at such parties must assume they’ve been lured to some dreadful version of an academic reality show just before being voted off to oblivion.

Finally, at the end of the interview, offer an updated timeline. Why subject someone to slow torture when you can explain that no decision will be made about the next stage of the search for two weeks or a month? Once you do decide whom to bring to campus, the other candidates would appreciate being told they are no longer being considered so that they can move on to other hopes and dreams.

In the next year, departments are likely to have fewer staff and faculty members. It will be tempting to cut corners wherever we can. But the worse the economy and therefore the job market gets, the more all of us, especially those seeking work, are likely to value the respect that professional courtesies communicate.

Maybe the reason I remember a seemingly inconsequential scene from Huck Finn so well has to do with the rat. That undertaker demonstrated the power of a simple act of kindness when he revealed a rat was at the heart of the problem. He also avoided acting like one.

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