Silver Linings?

Nicholas Hengen Fox analyzes the messages of hope and pride that come in job rejection letters departments send out.

November 16, 2011

This spring, I watched my colleagues run away from their mailboxes. Like most soon-to-be humanities Ph.D.s, they would do anything to escape the onslaught of job rejection letters. Believing that good news seldom comes by post, they would barely glance at the letters, then stuff them in drawers, under stacks of books; delete them from their inboxes.

I, too, was being rejected. But rather than trashing the letters, I became obsessed with them. They came in many forms. Some on thick creamy paper embossed with heraldic shields, some on photocopied letterhead, some in unsigned e-mails. Some were ethereally short — compensating with brevity for their lack of elegance. Others took up a whole page, including remarkable details about why a department had chosen not to hire, about whom the department had chosen to hire (and why they were preferable to the rest of the field), about the possibility that the department might hire in the future.

Whether short or long, there would seem to be good reason to flee from letters of rejection. But, as I read and reread my own rejection letters — and the more than 100 others I have collected from friends and colleagues — I began to see a less sorrowful story. While the letters show remarkable variance in mood and tone, one noteworthy strain runs through them: affirmation. While prophets of doom hold forth about the death of the humanities and the collapse of the professoriate, these rejection letters tell another story. They find, against all odds, much to celebrate. Not only do the rejection letters applaud and cherish those whom they reject, but they praise the departments and universities in which they are written, and the discipline as a whole.

In what follows, I will elaborate this message of hope — both for this year’s job seekers and for all of us who care about the fate of the humanities. While my goal is not so lofty as to launch a new area of humanistic inquiry (say, Job Rejection Letter Studies), it should go without saying that my ambitions here are purely academic. 

Affirming the Applicant

Many letters begin by affirming the applicant with their salutations. One opens "Greetings!" hailing its recipient like a familiar face at the faculty club. Indeed, many letters drive this point home by simply assuming all applicants are already faculty members: "Dear Professor," "Professor," "Dear Prof. O’Rourke," begin three letters in my collection — all addressed to people who were still graduate students. How flattering!

Of course, it’s easy for committees to be confused given that — according to the rejection letters — each applicant, whether an A.B.D. candidate or a seasoned scholar, is truly excellent. The rejections pull no punches in praising the quality of those they reject. The letters are filled with breathless descriptions like "remarkable," "impressive," "outstanding," and "extraordinarily strong." Some departments, rather than be overly simple, use complicated language to praise rejects. One university writes that the rejection "should not reflect poorly on the quality of your work." This subtle phrasing has an almost Kantian ring to it. Others — like this public college in New England — are more effusive: "you should be aware that the keen competition among excellent candidates made this decision difficult in light of the unique strengths and contributions offered by each person." How wonderful candidates must feel to know that their work is excellent, unique, and strong! One might be inclined to read such praise "against the grain" and note that vapid compliments can hardly mean much when hundreds receive them. But the letter’s praise is clearly not only true; it is a thoughtful palliative that can really boost a reject’s self-image.

Perhaps the most brilliantly affirmative letter in my whole collection is a rejection for an Ivy League teaching position. It praises the applicant and focuses "in particular" on "the thoughtful remarks on your teaching philosophy." The precision of this compliment sticks out, even among the undulating swells of praise that gently buffet job rejects. Until, that is, the applicant learns — from two or three of her colleagues who, no doubt, applied for the position as well — that this is a form letter. The two copies in my collection are identical, except for the addressee. Some might call this mendacious, but there’s no need to jump to conclusions. No doubt every applicant did have a truly extraordinary teaching philosophy. This was, after all, an Ivy League position.

For such excellent candidates, future success is assured. Not only are the candidates excellent, but surely — as so many letters imply — they will not be rejected by many other institutions. "Your candidacy for this position was very strong," writes a regional school in the Midwest. "We believe that, given your credentials and experience, you will meet with much success even in this challenging job market."

With so many incredible rejects (who will, of course, necessarily land jobs elsewhere), it’s no wonder that many letters are tinged with regret, often from their first lines: "I am sorry," or "I am very sorry" or, "I regret to inform you," or "I am writing to let you know that, unfortunately." Some, rather than reject the candidate, simply note that the problem is not the candidate. One short letter — puffed up in bold font (perhaps to make it seem longer?) — notes, "Our needs are different at this particular time." It’s not you, it’s us, the letter seems to admit.

A few sad letters remain so despondent at the necessity of rejection that they never actually reject applicants at all. One such letter notes the completion of the search, acknowledges the applicant’s labor in applying, and ends wistfully, by "wishing you the very best." Another offers the chair’s phone number for follow-up questions. Who can doubt the strength of the scholarly community in the face of such evidence? Other search committees, even more pained by the need to reject, wait months and months to send out their letters; in July I received a rejection for a job I applied for in October. Other departments — the most pained of all — simply rely on silence. Avoiding the muck of language altogether, these institutions — around one in five of all advertised jobs, according to my informal polling — simply do not reject candidates at all. While some might call it rude, we must agree that the silent rejection accomplishes its task with a dignified linguistic economy. And, what’s more, it saves face for everyone: the excellent candidates don’t have to read another unfortunate rejection and the excellent departments never have to hurt anyone’s feelings. You are so wonderful, its silence implies, we simply cannot reject you.

Affirming Department, Administration, and Discipline

With scholarly excellence abounding, it’s no surprise these letters find themselves so richly complimentary of those they reject. Rather than dwell in sadness, most rejection letters allow the excellence of the applicant pool to lead them to a range of generally optimistic conclusions.

Many letters look to a bright disciplinary future. In such missives, the mass rejection evidences not just strong candidates, but the vitality of a particular field of study: "as a result of this search, we can speak confidently to the representation that Ethnic U.S. Literature has throughout the world with teacher/scholars like yourself." Bravely, this letter assumes that its many hundreds of rejects will, indeed, garner tenure-track positions elsewhere and continue their excellent work. Its abiding faith — particularly in an often-marginalized field of study — is tremendous indeed.

More frequently, though, departments find more local reasons for optimism — as in the letters that use rejects to affirm their own department’s excellence. A prestigious New England college, for example, notes the "impressive number of applications from a range of candidates that included nationally recognized figures in the field." Another letter announces that the "search yielded a highly competitive field of six hundred and forty-eight qualified applicants." Other letters describe the competition as "difficult," "stiff," "keen," and "fierce." While such exciting language reflects well on the rejected candidates, it also highlights the excellent quality of the rejecting department. What’s more, it rather generously allows rejects to see, firsthand, the elite company in which their application mingled.

I must single out one particularly subtle variant of this departmental affirmation. This letter, from a large private university, begins by announcing its “unhappy task” of sharing that the search "has been canceled — at least for this year — by the dean’s office." It goes on to cite budgetary constraints and continues: "Needless to say, we are unhappy with this decision, which came as a surprise, as we have been able to hire four new faculty in the past two years." One might see in the letter’s annoyed tone a pointed lack of affirmation. But the attentive reader will note that while the letter evokes sympathy from the rejected masses for the department’s difficulty, it also manages to boast of the department’s stellar hiring record. Quite a feat!

While some letters are tinged by complaints about administrative constraints, many rejection letters manage to affirm the importance of administration. One letter, from a Midwestern university, thanks applicants for applying to "B4833 ENGLISH"; another, from a large university in the west, alludes to "position 000293." The inclusion of Human Resources codes in these letters gives the rejected applicant another behind-the-scenes glimpse of the modern university — and gives her a chance to develop her fluency in this language. But, more importantly, such letters assert the absolute centrality of administrative bureaucracy in all of the college’s functions. Some show this simply by sending photocopied rejection letters — addressed to "Applicants" or "Mellon Postdoctoral Applicant" or, simply, "Dear Candidates" — that don’t reference the candidate or the particular position at all, as in the letter that begins, "Thank you for your recent application to one of our English Department searches."

Affirming our Future

The affirmative richness of these rejection letters cannot be questioned. Indeed further study would no doubt reveal subtler gradations and flashier linguistic pyrotechnics. But for now, I hope to have drawn from these rejection letters a powerful lesson for applicants: there is no need to fear! If there really were a structural imbalance in the humanities job market, would committees really be receiving so many excellent applications? If the disappearance of stable, tenured jobs really was leaving hundreds of highly qualified applicants with little to do but face rejection, year after year, could committees really find so much to affirm in their candidates, their departments, and their discipline?

Job applicants, even when you receive letters with blunt phrases like "This letter is to inform you that we have decided not to pursue your candidacy," or "We have concluded the search and hired someone for the position," or "Unfortunately, we've decided to suspend the search for this year," do not fear. You may be rejected from a slew of jobs over many years. But you are still remarkable. To remind yourself of this, don’t hide from your rejection letters. Read these brave, generous, and hopeful missives closely. You will be affirmed.

Indeed, we all can be. For the lessons of these letters are not just for applicants, but for the discipline as a whole. While some critics would tell us these are dire times for the humanities, each spring’s flood of rejection letters can help us see the truth: our field is thriving, our potential is great, and brighter days have already arrived.


Nicholas Hengen Fox teaches at Portland Community College.


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