Illustration by Art Valero for The Chronicle Review
It's hiring season again, and I've been meeting more job candidates than usual in the social sciences and the humanities. That’s because my regional public university is seeking to reduce its dependence on adjunct labor by adding tenure lines.
Based on those interviews, I have some thoughts on qualities I’d like to see in more applicants. But first, here are my observations, as a dean, on the changes I’ve noted in applicants today as compared with five years ago:
- More lab and clinical experience. Social-sciences candidates have more postdoctoral experience and publications, and they come with strong research agendas. They not only have a project lined up for the next few years, but often, another project for the years after that.
- A better sense of who we are. I’m finding that many candidates know what a regional public university is, and have a clear idea of why they want to teach here. They genuinely like students and understand at least some of the issues facing ours.
- Realistic expectations. This one’s directly related to the previous one. Candidates don't seem to expect reduced teaching loads or lavish labs, as some used to. They have a better sense of what the financial constraints on higher education are these days, having already spent some time as contingent faculty members.
- Online experience. Increasing numbers of doctoral students are getting the opportunity to teach online. Many like it — or at least understand that it’s here to stay. Candidates in the humanities have started arriving with portfolios of digital skills that I hadn't seen before in prospective faculty members. Many have a strong digital presence themselves and work in a variety of media.
- More active in the community. Many recent Ph.D.s — in both the humanities and the social sciences — demonstrate real interest in working in our community in a variety of way. It’s nice to see folks who want to go off campus and engage with our neighbors, helping us to see ourselves as part of our community and helping the community to understand what we do and to see the university as a potential resource. If faculty members involve students in research or service in the community, so much the better. I’m seeing many candidates who have been involved with community engagement in graduate school, and are eager to do the same in our region.
Now here are the qualities, enthusiasms, experiences, and directions that I would like to see more of in job candidates.
- More lab and clinical experience with undergraduates. My institution puts a premium on undergraduate research, offering lots of opportunities for faculty members to set up labs with students, spend summers at local archeological digs, and work with individual mentees toward co-authored conference presentations or articles. We know that few graduate programs encourage doctoral students to work with undergraduates. But at an institution like mine, it can help your candidacy if you have ideas about how you would do that — even if you’re in the humanities. I have one colleague working with students on a digital archive project, another on an online journal, and many others on research projects in and outside labs.
- A better sense of who our students are. Doctoral students often come from elite undergraduate institutions and then go to top research universities. They often don’t have experience teaching the kinds of students who attend a regional comprehensive. It’s always encouraging when a job candidate comes into my office already aware of — and even excited about — the demographics of our student population. Two-thirds of our students are Pell Grant recipients, first-generation college students, and/or students of color. When a candidate talks about the joy of seeing a first-gen student fall in love with anthropology, or asks me what it means that we have a large Cape Verdean student population, or wants to know how many of our students have outside employment, I see a potential colleague who cares about who our students are and how to reach them most effectively.
- A few unrealistic expectations. I wouldn’t mind seeing candidates express a bit more vision — some bigger ideas about what they would bring to the job. Not that I want inflated egos or big financial demands for centers or institutes as yet unformed. But you can dream a little. Do it in the form of questions: “Do you see a possibility, down the road, of an interdisciplinary minor in X studies?” “What would it take to develop a study abroad program in Y?” “If I were to get a grant, would the university give me course release time to do Z?” I can’t speak for all deans, but I like ambition. And I like it when candidates can project a long-term future at my institution. Many times, folks who have been part-timers (either at our institution or elsewhere) have developed useful outsider/insider perspectives on what works and what doesn’t. Share those insights.
- More online experience and awareness. Before you interview, look into the institution’s expectations on this front. If you’ve never taught online, don’t pretend you know how. Express willingness to learn. Think about the different constituencies in online classes: Some students of traditional college age may be looking to make their schedules more flexible, some will be older adults who can’t get to campus, some may be students with limitations on their mobility. Be aware of the challenges involved in creating student engagement online. Mention how you would reach out to students from less-privileged backgrounds who tend to have lower success rates in online courses. Take a look at the research on accessibility and success in online learning, and be able to pull it into your interview. It’ll play well.
- More complicated relationships to digital scholarship and pedagogy. This one is true in both the humanities and the social sciences. Our professional organizations are helping us to understand how to value new kinds of scholarship (see, for example, the MLA’s Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media). New faculty members push us in exciting new directions, and while I don’t expect new hires to be experts on digitally produced scholarship, I would appreciate a candidate who is willing to, for example, work with a faculty-development group on new ways to publish. Likewise on the pedagogy front. Higher education needs to prepare students to be able to communicate what they know in a variety of ways. Can you teach students how to make timelines, charts, or graphs, or how to use collections of information to make arguments visually as well as verbally? What are the survey tools they might use?
- Some interest in preparing students for life after college. I love candidates who can talk about how their current service activities would translate into engagement with our community. You’ll impress me if you’ve done a bit of homework about what kinds of community projects your classes might be able to do here, what local waterways might have good research possibilities, or what the big issues are in our municipal governments. The other side of that is — if you work on issues of race or class and have no idea what our regional demographics are, you’ll look like you don’t really care. We need faculty members who can think in new ways about the connections between students’ work and lives after they graduate. The better that students can articulate the value of what they’ve learned, the more their families and communities will understand, and be able to champion, the value of higher education.