Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Rethinking the academic job search

Financial and structural constraints conspire to make it difficult to tamper much with the standard English department job search: appointing a hiring committee, placing an MLA ad, sorting through applications and requesting additional materials, interviewing ten or so candidates at a convention hotel, bringing three to campus, hiring one. It is a grueling effort and a financial burden for all involved. It is especially unpleasant to be a candidate caught in the process's machinery, since statistically it produces copious rejection and offers small chance of reward.

It's not a great system, but it seems to me that -- absent a huge stockpile of cash -- there isn't a whole lot that can be done by any single department of English to change its basic structure. If there is, I would dearly like to hear about it.

One practical step that a department can take is to do some good, basic research as a prelude to the search. Too often job searches proceed with a vague notion that excellence will rise to the top. All a faculty need do is advertise a period- or genre-oriented slot ("medievalist" "postcolonial studies" "American novel" "poet"), sift the applications, and voila: the best candidate. The problem is, though, that the expert on the American novel doesn't necessarily know much about the changing contours of, say, contemporary medieval studies. Such gaps cause awkward conversations with job candidates, who get viewed as an alien species; at its worst such a gap can foster a general lack of focus in the search.

For the past few years my department has embarked on a process of self-education as the search begins. We have christened the main event the "Futures of the Field" symposium. This panel presentation and discussion seek to map out some of the most exciting research being conducted in the field in which we are about to make a hire. Typically we invite three scholars at three different stages in their careers. They present on both their own work and on what they see as being important work by other scholars. A conversation that includes the faculty of the English Department, interested faculty from other departments and nearby institutions, graduate and undergraduate students follows. A reception fosters some informal chat. That evening the hiring committee takes the panelists to dinner to continue the dialogue.

So far we have had symposia directed towards the medieval/early modern divide and Latino/a studies. Both were successful in investing the whole of the faculty in the search process, and in yielding outstanding hires. On Friday comes our third iteration of the event, on medieval studies. Information on panelists is below. All are welcome to attend.

Please join the English Department of the George Washington University for our third Futures of the Field symposium, this time dedicated to the most interesting work being done in medieval studies.

The event takes place on Friday October 27 at 2 PM in Marvin Center (800 21st St NW) room 403. Light refreshments will be served.

Our speakers are:

Bruce Wood Holsinger, Professor of English and Music, University of Virginia. Professor Holsinger is the author of two well regarded books: Music, Body and Desire in Medieval Culture and The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory. His newest book Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror is forthcoming from Prickly Paradigm Press. Among the many topics he has published on are postcolonial and subaltern studies; queer theory; the Marxist premodern; continental philosophy; race; pedagogy and violence; music.

Kellie Robertson, Director of the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program and Assistant Professor of English and Women's Studies, University of Pittsburgh. Professor Robertson is the author of The Laborer's Two Bodies: Labor and the 'Work' of the Text in Medieval Britain and the co-editor of The Middle Ages at Work: Practicing Labor in Late Medieval England. She has published widely on labor; postcolonial theory; gender; historiography. Her book in progress is entitled The Reformation of the Body: Reading Practices and Bodily decorum in Medieval and Early Modern Britain.

Kofi Omoniyi Sylvanus Campbell, Assistant Professor of English, Wilfrid Laurier University. Professor Campbell is the author of Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic: From Pre- to Postcolonial. He has also written on contemporary Caribbean literature, medieval nationalism and colonialism, and queer Caribbean identities.


Karl Steel said...

Will the speakers make their papers available for people who can't make it, in part, because they're in the midst of applying for academic jobs?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I will ask the speakers if they would be willing to share their prepared remarks as blog posts. Stay tuned!

Anonymous said...

hi all - just a quick comment on the nature of the job search. as someone who came through the canadian academic process, and who interviewed with both canadian and american schools, i can tell you that we canadians find the American process a bit confusing. the american process certainly, i have to admit, works out better for the hiring schools. but in canada there is rarely a preliminary interview process, and in the few cases where there is, there is always the choice to conduct those over the phone.

by and large though, over here schools just choose between 3 and 5 (or in some cases 6) of the candidates and invite them to a campus interview based on the submitted materials. more humane for the candidates (in terms of expense), but riskier for the schools because they don't get to see any of those candidates before the actual interview.

and i'd be happy to share my talk with the readers here.

Karl Steel said...

Kofi: yes, I'd like to see your talk.

Bardiac said...

This sounds like a great idea for a department that could actually afford to bring in outside scholars for a symposium.

On a practical note, for fields where you're generally searching, do you have additional people in that broad field already (as part of the search committee, for example)?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Bardiac: you're right, many institutions could never do this due to finances. The event costs about $5K, not small money. So far we've been able to argue for funding three of these because -- when you think about it -- $5K to improve a search that can lead to someone taking a job that lasts a lifetime is a good investment.

Our search committees try to include two experts in the field, one person who does something quite different but who has thematic interests important to the department as a whole, and one person from another department entirely. In the past we have also experimented with including a non-academic from an important DC institution with relevance to the field, but that didn't help all that much.

Bardiac said...

That sounds ideal, and I agree that a 5K investment makes a LOT of sense, but I don't see it happening in a lot of schools.

I think the 5K investment would be even MORE useful at schools with fewer scholars in a given search field, though they're even less likely to be able to afford it. Hmm.