There was a time when I thought of myself as “The Rejectionist.”
From 2003 until 2007 I edited McSweeney’s Internet Tendency . Many of you may not know this publication, but it is a cultishly popular website associated with McSweeney’s Publishing, a company founded by author/activist Dave Eggers.
Among certain demographics, McSweeney’s means something.
For that period of time, every week I would reject 200 or more submissions while accepting anywhere between three and five. Our rejection rate approached 99%. Since 2007, I’ve had a different, much more pleasant, editorial role with McSweeney’s, but to give the current editor a break, I’ve been back at the helm of the S.S. Heartbreak, and it’s got me thinking about things.
I like to think I got very good at doling out rejection. I wanted to be: quick, kind, honest, and equitable. The only criteria that mattered was the piece of writing itself.
My ethic of equitability once caused me great pain when I passed on a submission by a writer/performer I absolutely revere, and is pretty much a legend, but who also obviously did not send us his best work.
Apparently, my status as The Rejectionist became widespread enough to even be satirized in The Onion , to this day one of my proudest achievements.
Doling out all that rejection taught me a few things.
1. Success against the odds is not a lottery.
A lottery implies that everyone has equal chance. This was not the case. While my approach to the submissions was resolutely egalitarian, a number of people disqualified themselves from consideration. Most of the time this was because they submitted pieces that were fairly obviously not the kind of thing we publish. Other times, the genre may have been appropriate, but the execution was just as obviously limp.
Still other times, they would insult me or the publication in their cover note, something along the lines of “You guys suck. Maybe you’ll suck less if you publish this.” It’s tough to be equitable towards that submission.
2. Success against the odds is also not a meritocracy.
While I like to believe that every piece I chose to publish was deserving, the process was inherently subjective. Either I liked it or I didn’t. There was no committee, no deliberative process outside my own taste. I had high confidence in my taste - what other choice did I have? – but it would be absurd to think that my taste is everyone’s taste.
“You guys suck.”
Additionally, for every three to five submissions I would accept, there were another eight to ten or sometimes more that were very very good, well worthy of being published. We just didn’t have the space. I would tell the writers this (honesty), but I always wondered if this only increased the disappointment associated with the rejection.
I’ve been thinking about things that are not lottery/not meritocracy as related to higher education based on two recent articles. One was an interactive graphic from the Chronicle of Higher Education inviting us to “Play the Role of the Search Committee”  for a tenure track creative writing job. The other was Lee Skallerup Bessette’s essay  here at Inside Higher Ed on receiving a rejection for a job for which there were 500 applicants.
One of the commenters on Prof. Skallerup Bessette’s post suggests that the academic job market is “a lottery”  and that she had “lost.”
How cruel would it be if the job market in Higher Ed really is a lottery? All that work become qualified and then it’s a random chance?
The Chronicle graphic declares that 117 of the applicants met the qualifications for the tenure track creative writing job. The suggestion, perhaps, is that within those 117 we are looking at a kind of “lottery,” except an examination of the 117 as individuals shows that this isn’t necessarily the case.
Eliminating anyone who is not in a current teaching-related position narrows the field down to 82. Why did I do that? I’m hiring someone to teach, so I figure I should get someone who is teaching.
Next, I eliminated anyone who hadn’t published at least one book. Why this? I guess because it demonstrates scholarly achievement and it’s also an easy way to cut my candidates almost in half.
That gets me down to 47. Forty-seven people with current/ongoing teaching experience and a published book.
Thirteen already have tenure track jobs. I’m going to eliminate these candidates over concern that they’re using my institution’s search as leverage to extract a raise from their home institutions. We only have the money to bring three candidates to campus, so I’m not going to use one of those slots on someone who might not take the job under any circumstances.
Thirty are instructors.
Four have fellowships or residencies.
I’m eliminating those with fellowships or residencies because I already have 30 people who are currently teaching.
Now what? If I eliminate those who don’t have another book in the publishing pipeline I get to 21. If I instead eliminate anyone who hasn’t published at least five short stories, it’s 17. A book in the pipeline and at least five short stories? That’s still 12.
If there is a wholly meritocratic aspect to this process, I’ve likely exhausted it at this point. We’re now looking at far more subjective criteria, likely depending on what individuals on a committee find important.
There are dozens of different ways to start slicing the candidates, each of them not arbitrary, but neither is it possible to quantify them. We are firmly in the realm of “taste.”
How much weight should a fellowship or residency receive? For me, not much. I know many writers who can’t take the time to do residencies or fellowships because of family or other obligations. Should they be punished?
Others, though, will be impressed by a stint at Bread Loaf or Sewanee.
What about having published a textbook? Is that worth more or less than a prize for one’s writing? Do I privilege the candidate whose book was reviewed in the New York Times knowing that this is both a big deal, and something of a lottery in and of itself?
One comment  on Lee Skallerup Bessette’s essay suggests that if people don’t have tenure-track jobs five years removed from their terminal degree, they should move on.
Nineteen of my personal final 30 are five years or more removed from their schooling. The ultimate choice for the job in the Chronicle exercise received his MFA 12 years ago.
Not a lottery, not a meritocracy. What is it?
This process very much reminds me of my work as The Rejectionist. Not everyone has an equal chance. At the same time, not all of the deserving are rewarded.
When it comes to publishing, it’s easy for me to say that them’s the breaks. While there’s lots of capricious and “unfair” aspects to commercial publishing, it is, after all, a business. No one is owed a book contract, or even a featured slot in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
Some seem inclined to apply this attitude to higher education. There are comments on Lee Skallerup’s Bessette’s essay suggesting the blame lies with the individuals pursuing these jobs, for not seeing the writing on the wall, or recognizing the PhD glut, or thinking that they’re “special snowflakes” when they’re not.
Here’s the thing though. Someone like Lee Skallerup Bessette has already proved she’s a “special snowflake.” She has a full-time job. She’s a dedicated and even innovative teacher. The problem is that she, like so many others, has a job in a system that doesn’t provide sufficient or equitable compensation and it’s wearing her out.
Who can blame her?
By accepting that the jobs we want are the result of a “lottery,” we give a pass to the fact that we’ve created a system where anything short of winning that lottery is unsustainable.
Those 30 instructors who have also published a book, every one of them is a special snowflake. They are also all currently employed in higher education, and yet they are likely making less than $30 thousand a year. In some cases they are likely making less than $10 thousand. They probably don’t have health benefits. They will not receive raises, ever. They could face non-renewal at any time.
These candidates have already proven that there is a demand for their services. They are already teaching and publishing and doing everything anyone could expect of a tenure-track professor. One of the finalists not chosen for the job wrote and acted in an award-winning short film based on her own novel. Pretty damn special.
Also, according to the current system, a loser.
We have a system where anything short of hitting the tenure-track “lottery” requires unreasonable degrees of sacrifice to do work (teaching in higher ed) that we all agree is necessary and valuable.
The damage to individuals and institutions under this system is real. Lee Skallerup Bessette’s personal testimony in her essay is, I believe, representative of thousands of people already working in higher education. Warm bodies to put in a classroom may be fungible. Excellent teachers are not.
The jobs already exist. We already have them. No one is demanding they win the lottery. We just want to rewarded for what we’ve already earned.
I don't think Tweeting about these issues helps that much, but it can't hurt: