Rebecca Schuman

Columnist at vitae

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Market Crash Course: Campus Visit Dealbreakers

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Read the full Market Crash Course archives here.

For many academic job candidates, the quest for a tenure-track position ended last month—possibly in heartbreak, existential despair, and the seething anger that comes from spending $1,000 for no discernible reason. Just as the adrenaline from the big conference dissipates (and the Visa bill arrives), the “Campus Interview Scheduled” notices begin to appear on the dreaded Wiki—which, never a font of reliability, should be now considered about as accurate as a Magic 8-Ball.

We’ve entered the season of the “fly-out,” also known as the “callback,” or the “world’s single-worst all-expenses-paid vacation.” Given the preposterous ratio of applicants to openings, many academic job seekers will never have the distinct pleasure of experiencing one of these firsthand. This is a requiem for those souls who have somehow made it to the final step—and a minor talking-to for the search committees that have invited them to do so.

Oh, but why must I keep picking on the search committees? Won’t someone think of the search committees? Fear not, my academic-one-percent friends: There are many, many people thinking of nothing but you right now. And believe it or not, even I understand your pain. The buyer’s market has put monumental pressure on hiring departments to find only the best people. It’s no longer enough to land an engaging teacher, productive scholar, and kind, considerate colleague. No, we’re talking unicorns only. A new hire’s very being must elevate the department two feet off the ground. Do you know how it looks to choose a dud when half the population of Wyoming applied?

Just as interviewees choke under all that pressure, so too do search committees. The result is often a panic-driven compulsion to purge “unworthy” candidates. All too often, this happens through the creation of various campus-visit “dealbreakers:” The candidate wore a suit to an “informal” dinner! He said “oh dear” once! She was insufficiently versed in Walter Benjamin, even though this is a chemistry department! It seemed like she’d leave for a better job—I don’t know, I just got a feeling. He gesticulated too much during his job talk. Her voice was too nasal during her job talk. He got too sweaty during his job talk. He didn’t order wine at dinner. She ordered wine at dinner. He was a vegetarian. She ordered a steak, and didn’t even ask if it was hormone free!

In the words of the great semiotician Lloyd Dobler: You must chill! Why treat a tenure-track vacancy like it’s the motherloving papacy? “But Rebecca,” you insist, “this is important! This is a person we’ll have to work with for the next 40 years!” Oh, will you? Even the most hands-on academic department has colleagues that interact with and depend upon each other less than your average cubicle denizen. How often do you really work together with your colleagues, like together? Once a week? Once a month? And besides, many departments are already full of people who hate each other. Remember how they all got their jobs? They had campus visits, too—visits that went well.

The fact is, you cannot know what someone is really like as a colleague when she is teetering around your campus with the everloving bejeezus scared out of her. You can only know what someone is like to work with once you work together. So just choose someone already! And try using criteria befitting an Earth Human. Is your finalist palpably nervous, anxious, and overly eager to please you? Damn right he is. This is by far the most pressure in front of total strangers your finalist will ever have. Even if he goes up for tenure, he’ll be judged by people he knows in an institutional culture he understands. Is a “mistake” made while flying blindfolded and terrified truly a mistake?

And enough with the pettiness and pedantry. Candidate dressed too formally? It’s a two-day job interview; what did you expect? Candidate dressed too informally? Somebody probably told her she was “off the clock” at an event that wasn’t. How about, as long as your visitor’s clothes are clean and covering all of her important body parts, you let it go?

The same goes for a less-than-ideal teaching demo. It’s damned near impossible to teach students who aren’t yours, and who are less than eager to have a substitute. Do you get a basic idea that this person is an engaged pedagogue whose style is consistent with your department? That is good enough.

And do not even get me started on the job talk. If a candidate cites your own research insufficiently, or focuses on something about which you have no expertise, or is in some way interested in research you do not enjoy, these are not flaws. These are assets. You’re hiring so that you get someone who isn’t like you—or at least you’re supposed to be.

Granted, there are “dealbreakers” and then there are dealbreakers. I do not think anyone would object if a hiring committee passed on a candidate who trashed his hotel room and then gave only the explanation, “Rock ’n roll!” If, for example, the candidate spent a hefty percentage of her visit licking anyone or anything besides food, that could be cause for concern. It’s perfectly all right to give pause to a finalist whose job talk consists, in its entirety, of an interpretive dance to Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” (without an accompanying handout offering proper exegesis of the performativity of the gesture), especially if the job is in math.

And, of course, feel more than free to reject a candidate who kills someone during the campus visit, if this was not a planned part of the itinerary.

The campus interview is, of course, a fraught time for all involved—and yet most people, on both sides of the job-having divide, do manage to act normal (or, at any rate, “academic-normal,” which is somewhere between minor awkwardness and high-functioning sociopathy). The “dealbreaker” pressure doesn’t get to everyone: Some candidates spend their entire visits in collegial bliss, and many hiring committees are more interested in making a good impression than judging others.

Still, though, I have heard enough scream-worthy stories of dealbreakers from readers and friends to know that they’re common. In fact, they’re so common that savvy finalists should be prepared for their candidacies to tank for a very dumb reason over which they have no control. Humane search committees would do well to engage in some soul-searching on the way to the next job talk.

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