Recently, I wrote about meeting to discuss job apps here, and also some application advice, here. Here.I'm going to discuss the next meeting, what I'll call focusing.
As a reminder, our imaginary job ad looks something like this:
Assistant professor of Underwater Basketweaving.
Terminal degree in Underwater Basketweaving or a related field.
Specialization in Deepwater Basketweaving.
Secondary specialization in International Basketweaving or Reed Cultivation.
Ability to teach basic basketweaving.
Strong assets include a commitment to undergraduate teaching, liberal arts, and multicultural basketweaving.
In the last meeting, the search committee split the candidate pool into groups, with one group being candidates that aren't qualified for some reason. There's also a group that people on the committee want to look at further, ask for materials, and think about interviewing. Then there's at least one group of candidates who are at least minimally qualified, but aren't in the further interest group. Some of these people will be well qualified, but they didn't stand out in the ways that the candidates in the further interest group did. Let's imagine that we have between 20 and 40 candidates in this further interest group; we're hoping to interview between 5-15 people, either at the UBA convention or by phone, so we know we have to focus in on the candidates in this pool who seem most likely to be able to really do a great job and fit well and convince our colleagues of both.
Let's note, here, that we're now looking at a group that's all really good. They're all well-qualified. They've all already stood out as really interesting candidates. But half or more won't be asked for interviews. And of the folks who are, we can only hire one.
In preparation for the focusing meeting, the search committee will spend time with the other materials in the applications. We tend to start a new grid sheet for just these applications.
In this case, the grid will have the candidates' names and numbers, and also blocks for their writing sample and their letters of recommendation. If we've asked for teaching materials or a teaching philosophy, we'd have blocks for that, too. Then there's an empty block for other stuff.
I like to start in the middle of this pool by number, so that I'm not fatigued at the same level as someone else, hopefully. I figure it takes me about half an hour to read the writing sample and letters of recommendation, and write my notes for any one candidate. That means this is a substantial time commitment, and tiring. Even great writing samples don't look so great when you've been reading for three or four hours. And this reading is on top of teaching, grading, regular committee work, and advising (and it's advising season, here). So I try to be careful to take breaks every few applications, and to read generously.
I start by reviewing just enough of the candidate's letter to remember them a bit, and then I start on the writing sample and read that. Since I'm not a deepwater specialist, I have to read as I can. I read for clarity: does the argument read well? Does it explain things well enough for a general reader in the field?
But I also read for interest, by which I mean, I think about whether the project seems to be doing something interesting or challenging. I try to be self-aware during this part of the process especially, and keep in mind that even if I don't like a deepwater analysis of whale hunting, a paper that makes me interested must be especially good. I'll make notes about the writing sample in my grid box.
Then I move on to the letters of recommendation. These can be really difficult. Do I know the letter writer? How, or in what way? I have to make sure my knowledge doesn't influence me in a way that's unfair to the candidate or other candidates. It's also difficult because the letters are sort of in a vacuum, but we read within contexts. In US contexts, letters can tend to be pretty enthusiastic, and it can be really difficult to tell how to read that enthusiasm. In UK contexts, letters tend to be a bit more reserved. (I once had a review for TAing from a British professor and felt like I'd been body slammed. But another professor reading the letter said that it was a strong letter from the British professor.) If I don't know that sort of context, I may misread. Unfortunately, unless I know the letter writer, I may not realize zie is a racist or sexist [bleep] and so my misinterpret the tone of a letter (because most academics are smart enough not to say outrageously racist or sexist stuff in a letter even if they're biased for/against a candidate based on something I find unethical).
My approach tends to be to look for specific information, especially about the things I care about. Does the letter talk about the candidate as a deepwater basketweaving scholar/creator? Or does the letter focus on the candidate's reed cultivation experience? And, of course, it's not just one letter, but several, so I read for balance.
I also read to learn something about the candidate as a teacher and colleague. Can the letter writer speak about the candidate's teaching in ways that make me think the candidate is, indeed, developing as a teacher?
Finally, I read for the other assets. If the letter writer talks about the candidate's commitment to liberal arts teaching or to multicultural basketweaving, I'm impressed.
I hate reading teaching philosophies, but if I were on a search that had asked for them, I'd look for someone who has something to say about their individual experience, for someone who seems to understand some of the bigger issues we think about as teachers, but doesn't just toss buzzwords. But I know some people love the buzzwords and look for those. If they talk about teaching specific texts, I'd want to know why.
Were I looking at a syllabus at this point, I'd look for a realistic sense that what they're teaching could be taught in the quarter or semester. Do they think they can do a full survey of deepwater basketweaving in two weeks? Do they seem to make interesting choices for their syllabus? I wouldn't look for a syllabus that directly fits our course labels, since I think that disadvantages a student who comes from a differently organized department, but who may be an excellent teacher and able to adapt (or lead us to change our organization).
After I've read all the secondary materials, I go back through my notes, referring when necessary to the applications, and add information about what impressed or worried me into the new grid. If I really liked the way the candidate talked about multicultural basketweaving in the letter, or there was a cool publication on the CV, I'll make sure that gets in the grid. What I want is to know why I was impressed by the candidate or why I wasn't.
Finally, I'll start grouping the candidates again. If I can put them in three or four groups, I will. What I'm looking for is a small group of people I really want to interview, and a second group of people I think would be good to interview, and then a group that I'm not so interested in interviewing. But even so, I recognize that everyone starting in this group is well-qualified.
Once the search committee has read the further materials, we meet. And that's when the discussions start.
We may start by talking about the criteria we used in reading the materials. That will give us a sense of who cares primarily about letter writers and who cares more about writing samples, and what we're looking for in each.
We may then do a preliminary round of sharing our top groups, and seeing how much overlap there is. If we've all chosen the same top ten people, then we probably have a good idea of our interview pool. If we've chosen 7, but disagree about 10, then we need to select some more from the ten. And so on.
Then we start talking about applications. What impressed us, what didn't. What our concerns are. If there's a specialist deepwater basketweaver on our committee, we'll want that person to orient us to the letter writers if possible, and certainly to the writing sample within the conversations deepwater basketweavers are having these days. We may group people as we go, but I try to get the group to hold off on that, so that there's no sense that the last person discussed isn't fully considered.
After this discussion, we start sorting and figuring out which candidates we really do want to interview. This argument may get heated, or it may be really easy. Some candidates may have stood out in the discussion, and I may be convinced by my colleague's opinion that they're really good. Or I may be convinced that someone isn't as good a fit as I thought. And the same goes for each of my colleagues. Whether we do it by consensus or voting, we find our way to a smaller group of people we want to interview.
What's the take away for candidates, then?
The more applications I read, the more I want a clearly written writing sample. I know there's temptation to send the most highly specialized piece of writing possible, but I'd urge candidates to make sure their writing sample demonstrates that they can really make and explain an argument, and that the argument is accessible to non-specialists. Perhaps for R1s, a more specialized sample is more appropriate? I don't know, since I've never been on a search in Shakespeare or a closely related field. And I have been on a search for accounting (at my previous job). (R1 folks, I'd really appreciate some feedback on this from your search experiences.)
Letters of Recommendation
You may feel that you have little control over your letters, but you're sort of wrong. I would recommend that you make sure that in addition to your primary advisor/director, you get a letter from someone who takes teaching seriously and who has seen you teach. And make sure you share some teaching materials with this person or talk about your teaching with them. I have a sense that some candidates feel that they have to choose Super Important Basketweaver in their program even if SIB doesn't know them well or isn't in deepwater basketweaving. That can mean that SIB's letter isn't as strong or specific as a different letter might be, so there's a tradeoff.
I don't know how strongly other people around academia feel about reading letters from famous folks. Again, if I were to be reading Shakespeare letters and read one by someone who's work and opinion I greatly respect, I'd be impressed. But if it were a weakish letter, I'd tend to form a poorer opinion than otherwise.
I guess this issue, for me, is a lot like the big name school issue. I tend not to look for a school with a famous name, and look for a school with a strong deepwater basket program. But I know that if someone's applying with one of my schools on their CV, my ears perk up, and I expect that's true all around academia. But that alone isn't the thing that makes us choose a candidate to interview.
When I have time in the near future, I'll write about how we prepare for interviews on our end.