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For years, graduate students have been complaining about the practice of search committees that conduct interviews at disciplinary meetings telling them just two weeks before the gatherings whether they have an interview. For graduate students with limited funds (in other words, for most of them), they are forced to gamble on airfare, hotel and maybe an interview wardrobe without knowing if they will need to be at the meeting. And in the current job market, many won't get a single interview.
Others wait, and then, if they are fortunate enough to get an interview, must scramble at a time that discount airfares and hotel rooms are gone.
Well if two weeks makes logistics difficult and expensive (but is a widespread practice), how about less than a week? That's the question raised by an email sent out by a search committee at the University of California at Riverside about a tenure-track job in American literature before 1900.
Yes, a tenure-track job in literature at a research university -- the kind of job many English grad students dream about. Hundreds applied, and 12 or so lucky candidates will be interviewed at the Modern Language Association meeting, which starts January 9, in Chicago. But if they thought they would find out before, say Christmas, they were wrong.
A Call for Reform
A 2008 op-ed in Inside HIgher Ed calls for reform of the job process to make it less expensive and stressful. One of the ideas was to have disciplinary associations require that departments notify all candidates on whether they have interviews 30 days before a meeting starts.
The search committee sent out an email telling all candidates that they would be informed on January 3 whether they have an interview. And in the blogosphere, that struck some as rude, and a demonstration of the way those on search committees may have lost touch with the realities facing grad students.
The email was sent to Rebecca Schuman, an adjunct who wrote about it on her blog, Pan Kisses Kafka. She urged readers to contact Katherine Kinney, the search chair at Riverside, and express their anger. "If you are feeling trolly, or bold, or aren’t in English, or have nothing to lose, please feel free to contact Dr. Kinney and tell her how you feel about her committee being unable to read through their applications and decide on their semi-finalists more than FIVE FUCKING DAYS in advance of a conference, to which people will be spending upwards of $1,000 to travel having bought tickets in advance," Schuman wrote.
"The way I see it, Dr. Katherine Kinney and the Overlords of the UC-Riverside English department have decided that anyone they deem worthy will, of course, already be attending MLA, either to give several important papers, or to be interviewed by several other institutions who have the common fucking human decency to notify their candidates more than three days in advance. This is a move that is both elitist and out of touch. Because of the hyper-competitive market and huge glut of applicants for every job, nowadays many, many Ph.D.s and A.B.D.s attend MLA to go on a single, solitary, pathetic interview -- because, they’re told, 'all it takes is one,' after all."
Schuman, who has written critically of search committees in the past, said this was the first time she was doing so and naming the search chair, because the "naming and shaming" was needed to promote change.
Many of Schuman's readers agreed. One wrote: "Two WEEKS isn’t even enough! Some of us live from stipend payment to stipend payment and need at least a month to plan for any sort of domestic travel, including seeking appropriate couch surfing opportunities. There is something seriously fishy going on here."
The MLA does in fact tell search committees that they need to be considerate of job seekers' need to travel to the meeting. Guidelines from the association say: "Departments need to be able to reach candidates quickly to schedule MLA convention interviews. Candidates, especially those who plan to travel during the holidays, should supply departments with contact information. Because of the expenses related to convention attendance, departments should notify all candidates, including those not invited for interviews, of their status as early as possible."
So why are officials at Riverside not making up their mind until January 3? In an interview, Kinney said that the committee -- using a new system for reviewing applications -- discovered two weeks ago that some applications had been read by only one search committee member, and others hadn't been read at all. The committee tried to catch up, but was still behind. Applications had only started to be reviewed November 25, and there just wasn't enough time, she said.
The university could have called off the search, she said, but that wouldn't have helped anyone, Kinney said. In the end, she said she decided the best approach was to continue to have the committee read applications, and to "let everyone know" that there would be no word until January 3.
"I understand how much anxiety there is," she said. "There are not a lot of Tier I research jobs compared to the number of qualified candidates there are." She added that the pool was very strong.
Kinney said that, in the past, when a candidate couldn't make an MLA job interview, the department has let those in Southern California drive to campus another time, and she said that the search committee would try to be flexible with anyone unable to make it to Chicago. (She acknowledged that this pledge of flexibility was not in her email to job applicants.) She also noted that, before the MLA moved its annual meeting from the period between Christmas and New Year's to early January, her department regularly notified candidates only about 10 days before the meeting started.
On Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, candidates are suggesting that Riverside is far from alone with late notification. And while some note that Skype interviews and conference calls are being used by some search committees, many candidates who like that idea if all candidates are interviewed that way are afraid that they would be at a disadvantage if most candidates are being interviewed in person, and only a few are not.
Kinney said she was not surprised by the frustration, and that she realizes that there is a lot of "structural unfairness" in the hiring process. "I don't want to defend the system."
Deborah Willis, chair of English at Riverside, said via email that she was surprised by the concern over the issue. "When I was on the job market years back, I can recall getting an interview invitation on Christmas Eve -- and that's when MLA was on the weekend right after Christmas. (I also recall being thrilled to get the request.) I've heard of other people being contacted a day or two before MLA," she said.
Added Willis: "The job search is, especially for entry-level positions, a stressful, challenging, exhausting process, and I can understand why job seekers would be upset about anything that makes it more stressful. We all have a lot of sympathy for our applicants -- especially since we've all been through it ourselves. But the big problems are the things that make the job market so terrible in the first place -- budget cuts, dwindling support for public universities, the increasing reliance on adjunct faculty, etc. The timing of an interview request seems pretty minor in the great scheme of things."