Search Hell

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From the issue dated July 2, 1999

To: All Search Committees
From: a Stymied Job Seeker
Re: How About Some Respect?
By MICHAEL LOYD GRAY

Everything was arranged: My flight to Los Angeles was booked and a rental car awaited me. I would spend the night at a Hampton Inn in Orange County and interview for a tenure-track teaching job at a community college the next day. In two years of searching for a job, this was the first time I had been invited to an interview in California. I figured I would finally break the California barrier.

Instead, I hit the wall.

The morning of my flight, I woke up with the absolute conviction that I just couldn't face one more search committee. At least not then. Certainly not until I figured out how to get back that keen edge for dazzling search committees that I had unexpectedly lost after going on five interviews in three weeks to cities all over the Eastern and Southern United States.

There was an assortment of feelings behind my sudden need to temporarily step off the job merry-go-round. First, the search committees were all blurring into one mass of wagging tongues. Second, I had run out of ways to answer the same old questions. And third, the California interview was the first one that wasn't paid for by the college. That rankled me.

For weeks I had lived on airplanes and in hotels in order to appear in front of three to 10 strangers attempting to assess my worth in an hour -- or less, if possible.

It's a cattle call at many colleges, and it shouldn't be. Some colleges interview as many as 20 candidates, spending little time with any of them but shuttling them in and out to meet interview schedules that are often planned to the minute.

A Missouri college even took me on a campus tour with another candidate for the same position. That shouldn't happen. Each candidate should be treated as though he or she may well be the new faculty member, not as a body that needs to be processed as quickly as possible.

Some faculty members will whine that interviews cut into their time to do their jobs. They might as well regard those pesky students who appear (sometimes) in their classes every day as time bandits, too. Professors can whine all they want, but hiring a new colleague is too important to be regarded as an obligation to duck or to get over with as quickly as possible.

Sure, it takes time to entertain candidates, but let's consider the students. They deserve good teachers, not hasty hiring decisions by committee members more interested in getting back to work. In that hastiness an important fact is often ignored: It's not only candidates being inspected. The college is being inspected by the candidates, who deserve to feel that potential colleagues care and will take the time to know them.

Therefore, I say throw those interview schedules out a window. Spend more time with fewer candidates. Develop a working list of no more than 10, and then do phone interviews to whittle that down to no more than three finalists for on-campus interviews.

An entire search committee can participate in a conference call and get an idea of whom to invite to campus. And with only three finalists, a full day could be spent with each one. There would be plenty of time for the obligatory tours, a teaching presentation, perhaps even a candidate's presentation to students, to assess classroom performance.

It's simply not enough for a search committee to sit in a classroom as candidates file in for barely an hour and then disappear for a college tour and a quick dash to catch a plane home. For God's sake, take some time with the process. Go beyond the interrogation about diversity, personal weaknesses and strengths, and the plethora of other well-intentioned questions. They need to be supplemented with specific questions about how candidates handle classroom situations. Stop asking so many questions about the books that inspired us to become teachers. Ask us how we are going to reach the terribly disaffected young people of Generation X.

And please, go have lunch as a group. An hour in front of the committee, regardless of how well the teaching demonstration goes, is not enough time to make an educated decision on whom to hire. It's in the informal settings, such as lunch or dinner, that candidates and faculty members begin to know what it would be like to be colleagues.

Time permitting, a group from the committee should take the finalists into the city or town where the campus is located, for dinner or for a look around. Don't pass up any chance to spend time with the candidates. The person who gets hired can be either a mistake or a gem with whom the faculty will live for years.

Finally, I believe that colleges must accept the fact that they pay the check when it comes time to hire faculty members. No arguments, please. Many job candidates are either part-time instructors working without health insurance and making less than they could at McDonald's, or full-time but pathetically underpaid temporary instructors, who continue to teach for half of what we're worth while hanging on desperately for that tenure-track spot. If a college is serious about finding the best teachers it can, then it's time to show some good faith and respect by paying their travel expenses.

It's also time for the campuses that don't help with travel expenses to stop inviting candidates to interviews without enough time to get a reasonably priced airline ticket. The California interview I declined was offered with only a week's notice. Most airlines require 14 to 21 days' notice for good fares. What's more, the interview was scheduled during finals and near the deadline for handing in grades. I had to make special arrangements to be gone during finals and to complete the grades after I got back. None of that mattered to the California college.

It also didn't matter last year to a Maryland campus that had me charge to my credit card two flights, each with less than a week's notice, only to delay reimbursing me for two months. I got paid only after I angrily complained to the president. At the time of this writing I just received reimbursement from a college that interviewed me more than two months ago. And how about the colleges that call job candidates and invite them to the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association for an interview just a few days in advance? That, too, has to stop.

Any search committee that won't give a candidate time to make an affordable, timely trip is callous. If it means working a little longer to identify candidates, then do it. If it means starting the search process a little sooner, then do it. Show some respect and concern for the people who give up their time and hard-earned money to gamble that they can win a job.

Michael Loyd Gray, formerly an instructor at Northern Illinois University, is currently working on a screenplay.


Copyright © 1999 Chronicle of Higher Education
July 2, 1999
Section: Opinion & Arts
Page: B9