American Job Search

July 12, 2007

“Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil veils” (“When you are worth nothing, you should want nothing.”)
--Arnold Geulincx (1624-69; with apologies to Louis Menand)

One of the best films of the 1990s was Chris Smith’s unheralded $14,000 masterpiece, American Job. The film follows an uninspired young man, Randy Scott, as he finds and then loses (or quits) a number of dispiriting minimum wage jobs: factory worker, fast food dishwasher, motel room custodian, and telemarketer. One of the best scenes comes near the beginning of the film when Randy is interviewing for a factory job. Quickly scanning his application, the middle manager conducting the interview notices that Randy once had a summer job at a local amusement park guessing people’s ages and weights. Intrigued, the middle manager challenges Randy, if memory serves, to guess his weight. Although at first reluctant, Randy does guess, comes pretty close, and the interviewer is duly impressed. Randy gets the job.

The scene, like the television show "The Office" at its best, is painfully awkward and therefore anxiously hilarious. But in retrospect the scene also terrifies because it demonstrates just how meaningless minimum wage job interviews have become. These jobs are so de-skilled that they could be -- and have been designed to be -- done by anyone. Indeed, we later see Randy at his job, where he pushes a button, waits for an excruciatingly long 30 seconds or so, removes a piece of molded plastic, and then pushes the button again. Given the nature of the work, it follows that the interviews held to fill these positions will have little to do with determining a person’s skills or qualifications. Since the job requires no skills whatsoever, everyone is qualified for it. Rather, these interviews will have more to do with determining a job applicant’s character: his work ethic, his friendliness, his willingness to follow a boss’s order (even an absurd one, like guessing his weight), and, later, of course, his drug-free-ness. I caught myself thinking about Randy and his interview during my own extended interview -- what is euphemistically referred to as “a campus visit,” as though you were there to soak up some local color -- for a job in an English department at a small, regional campus of a large state university system. It must have been my second or third campus visit of the hiring season, with two or three more looming over me. Like changing the oil in your car, campus visits follow a rigid, prescribed routine that one departs from at peril. These visits alternate between events -- meeting with a dean, touring the campus, giving a job talk, meeting with the search committee -- and meals, and it must have been at one of these meals, making small talk with various professors, that I thought of Randy and his interview.

At that moment, of course, I had no real reason to think of Randy. Unlike the factory job Randy interviews for, the job of English professor requires a great deal of skill and training -- depending on how quickly one moves through her graduate work, anywhere from 5 to 10 years in addition to 4 years of undergraduate training. And instead of a single interview stretched out to last a respectable 10 minutes, candidates for tenure-track jobs in English must pass through at least two rounds of interviews: an initial, 45-minute interview at the discipline’s major conference, the Modern Language Association, and then, if they clear that hurdle, a two- or three-day interview at the hiring department’s campus. Indeed, search committees go to great expense to fly me to their universities, put me up in hotels, and stuff food down my face in order to judge how well I or any other candidate will perform at the particular set of skills required of a standard tenure-track English job: the holy tenurable trinity of research, teaching, and service. Unlike Randy’s situation, too, my campus interview existed for my benefit at least as much as for the search committee’s. If I receive more than one job offer, visiting a campus gives me the chance to determine whether I would want to bring my particular skills to this particular campus and community. As a result, everyone is usually -- though not always -- on their best behavior.

If my interview was nothing like Randy’s, I nevertheless frequently ended up feeling a lot like Randy, guessing -- and being asked to guess -- people’s weights and ages. Don’t get me wrong. No one asked me to guess their weight -- or whatever the academic equivalent of that question would be. Rather, just like the weight-guessing question Randy was asked, the banal yet innocuous questions faculty members do ask -- “Where was I from?” “How did I get interested in this topic?” -- become loaded with a significance out of proportion to their actual content. Together, my answers formed me into a certain candidate shape, one which may or may not be the proper and notorious “fit” that search committees frequently resort to in making their final decision. And I realized that despite our hopes to be judged according to what we have done and not who we are, what really gets evaluated on campus visits is not primarily a candidate’s skills but, rather, just like at Randy’s interview, a candidate’s character. Has the candidate worked hard? Is she likable? Does she get along well with others? Can the candidate handle gracefully the at best inappropriate and at worst illegal question someone asks about her spouse and his or her career ambitions? Will the candidate hold her tongue in meetings with the insipid dean who is perversely proud of his lack of knowledge about the humanities? And while there is less fuss made about her drug history -- although that is changing -- how well will she get through dinner with only a glass of wine?

Later that night, flipping through stations on the television, I tried to account for why, if I was right, Randy and I should both be judged on our character and not on our skills. The answer, rather obvious in retrospect, is that while the job of an English professor is certainly a skilled one, there are at the same time countless people trained to do that sort of work. In other words, anyone could push a button and wait 30 seconds. Similarly, there are a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of people who can write articles and books, teach classes in a given area, and adequately serve on committees. (Many rejection letters noted that the search committee received several hundreds of applications.) In which case -- that is, in a case where there is a surplus of people qualified to do a certain task, whether that task is skilled or unskilled -- the criteria for who gets a job and who doesn’t will shift, either slightly or totally, away from a candidate’s competency and towards her character. It is a buyer’s market, and in addition to providing shelter, a house-qua-candidate has to have a certain curb appeal, too.

Economists refer to this as the “sheepskin effect,” although it works slightly differently in the humanities job market. In times of high unemployment, employers will have more applicants from which to choose their employees and, thus, can raise the qualifications for the position beyond what would reasonably be needed to perform the work. When character does not, educational attainment oftentimes performs that sorting function. Employers conclude, rightly perhaps, that someone who could make it through two or four years of college has demonstrated more perseverance and ability than those who dropped out of college or never went. For example, a secretary does not need a college degree to do all or even most of her work, but all things being equal, an applicant with a college degree will be interviewed -- and most likely hired -- before the candidate with only a high school degree. Thus the “sheepskin” effect: the process whereby those with college degrees will be interviewed (and frequently hired) before those without college degrees, even though nothing about their work requires a degree.

In the humanities job market, though, where everyone, by definition, has a sheepskin, sometimes a whole flock of sheepskins, the “sheepskin” effect will still apply but according to other criteria -- criteria nevertheless unrelated, strictly speaking, to the ability of the person to do the job. Distinctions among sheepskins -- Ivy versus state, flagship versus branch -- as well as publications used to provide that sorting function, and still do, but now that more and more candidates are going on the market with publications, hiring committees can begin to be even more finicky about their candidates. Call it the “character” effect, or, in homage to Randy, the “weight-guessing” effect.

Now, I do not mean to suggest that “skills” count for nothing, and it could well be that I am just cynical, fed up with being the plaything of departments and search committees. At the time, I was certainly tired of going on campus visits. And it is also true that I dislike this part of the job search not just because I find it dehumanizing (although I do) but because it puts the shy, the reticent, the impatient, and the substance-addicted among us -- and I include myself in most of those categories -- at a considerable disadvantage. Either we will not demonstrate our collegiality as well as other candidates, or we will feel slightly ashamed for being someone (chatty, obsequious) we are in fact not. Indeed, I will admit that my favorite part of campus visits is the job talk. Not just because I like to hear myself talk, but because it means you’re finally done with all the time-killing and time-serving conversation and can finally speak about something meaningful.

In many ways, of course, this emphasis on character is justified and even laudable. These are tenure-track jobs, which, if all goes as planned and tenure is granted, represent -- failing financial catastrophe -- an institution’s lifetime commitment to that employee. As such, faculty members in a department, especially a small department, need to feel certain that they can live happily ever after with a candidate for the remainder of their career. No one wants to share their workplace with a drunk who wanders the halls and sneaks cigarettes in his office, a faculty member who sits in his office in boxer shorts eating spiral ham with his fingers, or a crank who circulates vituperative, paranoid e-mails to the rest of the department. As you probably guessed, I have not invented these colorfully un-collegial colleagues, but they are very much real. Most of them, not coincidentally, come from an earlier generation of faculty, hired before the reserve army of literature professors came on the scene in the mid-1970s and made it possible for departments to pick and choose among the qualified and collegial rather than just having to take their chances with the qualified.

So, in the end, departments can be forgiven their desire for collegiality. And it is surely nostalgia to imagine that “character” never played a role in who gets hired or fired. Moreover, there may well be no solution to the current “weight-guessing” effect short of returning the profession closer to a state of full employment. But we should remember that that desire for collegiality is a luxury, one made possible by the specific -- and surplus -- conditions of a labor market.

Bio

Michael Joseph Donlin, who isn’t sure future colleagues will find this essay collegial, is the pseudonym of a lecturer at a university in the Midwest. For the benefit of future job seekers, he weighs 170 pounds.

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