Monday, February 14, 2011

The hiring thaw

Like many institutions, mine is beginning to be released from the clench of a hiring freeze. This year, though we have an astonishing three lines at our disposal, we're pursuing one candidate quite vigorously, because s/he works in a field where we have developed real need because of recent retirements and faculty moves, and because s/he is pretty amazing--already constructing an active professional profile, well-published, and thoughtfully imagining syllabi both inside and outside hir specialization (one class this candidate has spoken with me about verges on one of my fields, and it would be a very exciting and very welcome addition to our department's offerings).

Still, I'm surprised to have heard some comments on both sides of the hiring process about the thaw climate. Some of our institution's faculty have said, "Great! Now that we can hire, let's just get bodies into lines and secure them all up!" Such a response is shortsighted, of course, but it's a natural one when one feels (rightly or no) oneself to have been deprived for any time. I have no interest in hiring anyone but highly competitive candidates, and if the candidates we most want end up taking another job..., well, in the immortal words of Ian McCulloch, "that's the way the bee bumbles/ that's the way the thunder rumbles," and we'll search again next year. And keep searching until we hire someone who is both good for us and good full stop. Why pursue mediocrity for the sake of a line? (Aside from the hiring freeze, we haven't had any lines seized from us in my memory, if at all.) It's such an embattled sense of institutional identity to cultivate, and I'm not sure that my institution prompts it--it's not got a tyrannical use-it-or-lose-it mentality toward TT lines.

More surprising are some comments I overheard at MLA this year, from shiny PhDs or near-PhDs jumping into the market fray. Said one: "Departments will be especially desperate this year now that their hiring freezes are lifting." Said hir interlocutor, "Yes, our chances are so much better than if we'd gone on the market before the recession." These kids seem to be involved in a folie a deux with my shortsighted colleagues, and while I don't think that such a view would necessarily make grad students feel like they don't need to be competitive in order to conquer ailing and desperate departments, it certainly follows from the logic here.

What I'd say: our hiring committee is getting much more careful, much more selective, in part because it's still a buyer's market; lots of PhDs came out from their programs during the bad, bad years. Some of them took postdocs and are readying to reapply, having spent some years writing and publishing. Some of them have been teaching widely, and have very smart things to say about pedagogy, and about the interdependence of their teaching and their research. And in part we're being very selective because we want the investment to be a long term one, with lots and lots of payoff. We want new hires to outshine the folks they're replacing, not merely fill their lines.

I'm not actually writing this to put the fear of God into folks on the market--most of them have plenty of that already--but rather to register this point as it affects me. Because, you know, it's all about me. I have a very good job, but not the job I want to die in, and I'm perpetually aware of what I'd look like if I decided to throw my hat in for a job at another institution. I'm running as fast as I can to stay competitive in two fields, and while I'm doing okay on the CW side of things, on the Renaissance side my scholarly book still isn't out in the world, nor even contracted, and I'm worried that with every passing month I'm looking less and less like the good long investment for the selective hiring committee. (Note: I'm not seeking pep talks or compliments here, folks; just trying to deliver a snapshot of Associatehood.) Would I hire me? The more time passes, the more I doubt, and the more I start to hope I'd get a "Fill the line!" committee.

Now, I'm not on the market, and because of my shared custody, I'm not going to be on the market anytime soon, except to the one institution in my virtual backyard for which I'd gleefully trade in my 50-mile commute. (And even after my kids are grown, the geographical boundaries of my aspiration are tight: I need mountains and snow and dry barrenness and westernness and some vegetarian restaurants, and there are pretty much three towns to which I'd move from my present happy seat.) I just want to be solid on paper if that job, wherever it is, should ever open up--to be as competitive a candidate as I can be knowing that expectations just keep going up. Because from my standpoint, the thaw doesn't mean a warm rushing torrent of hiring, it means the icy trickle of discrimination.


Lisa B. said...

funny, interesting--this very dynamic (grab someone to fill the line) must be a kind of contagion. I understand where it comes from--we *do* have lines seized, when someone leaves the line, there's a full reconsideration of whether we should fill it. But I don't want someone who's not awesome. That person will be my colleague, probably, for the rest of my career. I want that person to be excellent.

Bardiac said...

We've done some interviews this year, and we've had really excellent candidates at the campus visit stage (which is where I read their materials). I don't think the competition is less than it was at all.

Flavia said...

That conversation that you overheard strikes me as so strange--I've always assumed the job market to be a buyer's market--that the only way I can assimilate it is as hopeful/wishful thinking, an attempt to buck up self and friend: it can't actually be that bad; in fact, I bet hiring committees are really desperate these days!

But that being said, it is different from the other side. Sure, it's a buyer's market, and in theory any decent department could get an amazing colleague by hiring any one of 10 or 20 of their applicants. But the process of sorting them and winnowing them, and not knowing where else they're in demand, does mean that there's a very real chance of having chosen duds at or before MLA, or of winding up with a failed search.

(At the moment, we're re-hiring for a line for which we've lost each of the last two hires--in both cases for totally flukey personal reasons. But that combined with the fact that we've had a couple of candidates withdraw because they got offers from top-20 programs has made some of my colleagues convinced that the market, at least in this particular subfield, is more competitive than a reasonable evaluation of the evidence would suggest.)

Dr. Koshary said...

Proverbial fear of metaphorical God registered anyway.