One of my facebook friends commented about some job market stuff, and it got me thinking about what we can do to make the job search a better experience for everyone, or perhaps a less miserable experience. And what we can't do.
Let's face it, short of all quitting our jobs, faculty folks can't make the job market suddenly and magically open up. Nor can we move our midwestern schools to places with less brutal winters, or move them closer to places with good jobs for spouses in specific industries.
What we can do? Here's what I'm thinking about the early stages of the search:
Think really carefully about asking for materials up front, and where possible, ask for electronic submissions to ease mailing costs.
On the search committee side of the market, I think it makes a lot of sense to ask for letters of reference up front, though I recognize that getting people to write letters of recommendation can be hell, and getting people to write them in time is sometimes a worse hell. (Those problems are with letter writers, and not with search committees or the market, though.) I've looked at interfolio, but I'd be interested in hearing more about it. It gives one price for a year (and other prices for 3 or 5 years), but it's not clear to me if there are also additional charges for sending out portfolios or letters of recommendation.
I'm less convinced either way about asking for writing samples up front. I don't tend to use them for the "first read through" of a set of applications, but I do by the second, and if there's not much time between, I might want them up front. Having them up front means that the committee can work from one cut to the next a bit more quickly. Whether they actually do or not, that's a different question.
I've been on several searches that have used phone interviews for the first round, and I've found it at least as good as conference interviews. For one thing, I had pretty horrible experiences at MLA, so I have no urge to ever go back. And for those who say that grad students should go to conferences, that's great, but let's be realistic about which conferences are likely to be useful, and which not. For me, MLA was useful when I was on the market because I was on the market. It was useful at other times because I was giving a paper and able to go see and hear papers. But those two never happened at the same time. Market years were simply to miserable to go see and hear papers meaningfully. More local or area-focused conferences probably make more sense in terms of budget and networking for most grad students. Talking to friends, my sense is that some smaller or poorer schools really prefer phone interviews, and have for some time.
I don't have a lot of experience with Skype, but I prefer phone, I think. That preference is based on watching students Skype when I was overseas, and on an old photography article I read once about taking baby pictures. Here's the baby picture article in short: if you're taking pictures for the parents of a baby, then you get really close to the baby's face, so that it's like a parent being right up close to the baby. If you're taking pictures for non-parents, then you take the picture a bit further off, because non-parents aren't usually as comfortable with the extreme closeness that parents are used to. People may not articulate their discomfort, but they'll choose photos that way. The connection to Skype is that most people do it sitting pretty darned close to their computer, and the social distance feels awkward to me, like we're too close. Just me? Maybe. How about you?
Timing. It takes a huge lot of time to read job applications. Even if you read fast for the first cut and spend ten minutes per, if you've got a hundred to get through, you're looking at a lot of time. And if you've got 200, a lot more time. Then there are all the discussions, rereading, preparing for the next step. All this is done, in my experience, as an add on to the rest of the job. I know it's hard to wait for an interview call, of course. My suggestion is that when the department sends an acknowledgement, it should include a realistic timeline for hearing about interviews. And at each step thereafter, candidates should get realistic information about the timeline. At the same time, we all know searches where the first two or three campus visits didn't pan out well, and the third or fourth person was asked late, but turned out to be just the right hire. So for those on the receiving end, try not to take late calls as bad news or as personal issues.
What else should we on the search committee side to to make our searches as humane as possible?