It’s decision season. Conference interviews at the big humanities meetings and elsewhere came and went, campus visits were made, and some candidates anxiously await news. On campuses across the country, meanwhile, search committees and departments are sitting down to choose the candidate they’d like to offer that elusive tenure-track job.
Like many of you, I have had the unpleasant experience of being a job candidate and the, for different reasons, unpleasant experience of serving on search committees. It’s not all bad, of course, and the positives far outweigh the negatives. In fact, while it is woefully time-consuming and in the end you are left wishing you could offer the job to many of the qualified candidates, serving on a search committee is one of the most important, and meaningful, service duties one can do at a college. We are choosing our colleagues and, for our students, their teachers and mentors. I find it much more worthwhile work than my recent assignment to, with all due to respect to the fine folks on it, the “Copyright Committee.”
Getting a job, as we all know, can prove mysterious. Just what determines if one gets the job or not? And what, for departments and committees, proves the deciding factor? We can reasonably expect that all three of our three finalists will spend most of their professorial lives as we all do: writing, teaching, and serving our departments and institutions. And most candidates that make it to the finalist stage, it seems clear, can do all of those things competently enough.
If things are relatively equal by the finalist stage, and they usually are (final candidates are almost always from a strong graduate program, offer a promising research agenda, and have teaching fields that complement the department’s existing offerings), then what? Something must tip the scales, right? I’d contend that many, maybe most searches come down to the intangibles. And the biggest and most indefinable of them all is simply fitting in. It’s no secret (though worth saying) that collegiality, personality, and social skills matter, a lot.
In my department I call it, probably to the unrelenting annoyance of my colleagues, “The Happy Hour Test.” (Drinking has little, if anything to do with it, incidentally, and many can pass and have passed this test without any hint of libations). Instead, it’s a metaphor for potential collegiality.
While at first glance the “test” asks if this candidate may occasionally show up to the Friday afternoon gatherings at the pub near campus, it really asks questions about their broader sociability. Will this person be sociable? Have a laugh? Tell a joke? Simply be friendly? We all know that lunch and/or dinner during a campus visit are an extension of the interview, and most of the serious conversation centers on research, teaching, and the institution. Really, though, it is an important chance for applicants to demonstrate pleasantness, which might just get them the job.
My wife tells me that in her world of the nonprofit this concept is “The Cincinnati Layover Test” (which puts forward a hypothetical scenario where you’re traveling for business and find yourself snowed in in Northern Kentucky and must navigate the next evening and morning; I like to imagine it including a late and desperate dinner at the local Chili’s, and airport shuttles to and from the airport with your colleague). How would that period of forced companionship go with this person? Is this potential hire a colleague you could endure, maybe even enjoy, this circumstance with?
Choosing a colleague isn’t a marriage, but it’s close. The exercise centers on selecting a colleague you will see, particularly at colleges like mine that hire people we think we can successfully guide to tenure, in the halls for the next 25 or 30 years. So it’s important to ask, will this person engage in what Larry David of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" calls a “stop and chat,” or will they more often than not mechanically retreat to their office? Can they have a casual and easy conversation about something that, while perhaps meaningless, might offer a moment of retreat from the humdrum of our academic lives? Will this person be a welcoming “door open” colleague, or a persistent “door shutter”? In short, is this person capable of “playing nice with others?” We’re all “weird,” of course, we are academics, after all, but warmth and friendliness make this long-term relationship a lot easier to commit to.
More often than not, collegiality proves a, if not, the deciding factor in searches. (I’ll confess, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the tone of this piece, that it matters a great deal to me when I evaluate candidates.) More professionally, we tend to call these sentiments “fit,” but it is a fit beyond the ability to offer courses that complement the expertise of those already in a department. And the notion extends beyond a candidate replicating what a department might already boast in its ranks. Unless territoriality is a factor, we all know that early on in searches departments and committees tend to “like” and gravitate toward potential colleagues who are professionally, or otherwise, similar to them (which is probably another essay altogether). Still, assuming finalists all bring complementary and unique qualities to a department, the Happy Hour Test proves significant when it comes time to make that final decision.
In the end, the Happy Hour Test depends on affability, but its consequence goes beyond likability. If one “passes” the Happy Hour Test, I’d argue, there is an especially strong correlation to being a strong teacher, colleague, and college citizen. It’s not the deciding factor in hiring, of course, and shouldn’t be, but it is an important consideration when thinking about the potential for successful teaching and an ability to attract students. For better or worse, it is important. As a candidate, and then hopefully as a colleague, offer a smile. Tell a funny and/or self-deprecating story. Demonstrate warmth. Revel in the oft-dismissed small talk. Get to know your professors and colleagues. (“Why I had no idea you were such a macramé enthusiast, Dr. Thompson!”) Ultimately, people get – or don’t get – jobs for a variety of reasons. This is one you, as candidate (and hiring departments) can win.
Jeffrey A. Johnson is associate professor of history and director of American studies at Providence College.