Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The backhand side: stupid job ads and equity

I hate red tape. I hate that every time I travel for research, I have to ask for and then save the receipt I get for buying a $5 sandwich on the airplane, and that if I get breakfast in my hotel room because the conference starts at 8:30am, I have to make sure that my toast and eggs are itemized on the hotel invoice because "Room Service Charge" is not reimbursable. This feels petty and annoying to me.

But sometimes, the pettiness and rules of the bureaucracy are an equity-seeking device.

Last year when I taught our graduate professionalization class to the second-year PhD cohort, we had as a guest lecturer a departmental colleague who was chair for a long time, and was hired in the 1980s. He was talking about the academic job market now and then. Now, as we all know, it's a paper-heavy bureacractic mess. But then, it was a phone call between two dudes, exchanging grad students and privilege. No application, just backchannel.

In this vein, Sydni Dunn in Chronicle Vitae just reported on Jonathan Goodwin's work with vintage MLA job ads (building on prior work by Jim Ridolfo). Here's an ad that really stuck with me:

This is a marvel of insider-clubbiness. There might be an opening, and it doesn't matter what field you're in, but we'd like your degree from somewhere good and you should be able to play tennis and engage in repartee about same. The vague requirements leave the position completely open to whim; the emphasis on the rank of the school tends to reproduce privilege. The only real metric you could use to distinguish among candidates is actually tennis: publications are "helpful" but not required, so you can't compare candidates on research record. You can't distinguish by specialization, because none is required. You could in fact not hire at all. I can just imagine the deliberations. Oh wait: there wouldn't be any. Because this was before committee-based hiring. Shudder. I'll take Interfolio any day, frankly.

In my Facebook feed, then, in 2015, I was surprised to see a link to this ad from MIT. It starts out okay, or at least standard:

The MIT Media Lab ( is seeking candidates to fill two tenure-track positions. Appointments will be within the Media Arts and Sciences academic program, principally at the Assistant Professor level. 
Successful candidates for either position will be expected to: establish and lead their own research group within the Media Lab; pursue creative work of the highest international standard; engage in collaborative projects with industrial sponsors and other Media Lab research groups; supervise master's and doctoral students; and participate in the Media Arts and Sciences academic program. Send questions to faculty-search [at] 
MIT is committed to building a culturally diverse educational environment; women and minorities are strongly encouraged to apply. EOE.

Yes, that sounds like a job ad. Job type, job rank, job duties, number of jobs available, contact information, assessment criteria. Also, equity statement.

Good. Then the two available positions are listed out. One, in climate change and environment, is pretty standard, too. But then, this, in "undefined discipline":

The Media Lab is a cross-disciplinary research organization focusing on the invention of new media technologies that radically improve the ways people live, learn, work, and play. 
We are seeking a new kind of early career faculty member, not defined by discipline, rather by his or her unique and iconoclastic experience, style, and points of view. You can be a designer, inventor, scientist, or scholar – any combination – as long as you make things that matter. Impact is key. 
This means somebody with at least these three sets of characteristics: 
  1. Being deeply versed in a minimum of two fields, preferably not ones normally juxtaposed;
  2. Being an orthogonal and counter-intuitive thinker, even a misfit within normal structures;
  3. Having a fearless personality, boundless optimism, and desire to change the world. 
Any disciplines apply as long as their confluence shows promise of solving big, difficult, and long-term problems. And, most importantly, candidates must explain why their work really can only be done at the Media Lab. We prefer candidates not be similar to our existing faculty. We welcome applicants who have never considered academic careers. If you fit into typical academia, this is probably not the job for you. 
Applications should consist of one URL—the web site can be designed in whatever manner best characterizes the candidate’s unique qualifications. Web site should include a CV or link to a CV.
So. Not a real application. Make a website, any kind of website, but unique, and submit that as your application! Also, there's a personality-based assessment--be orthogonal as well as polymathic! We want you to be young (early career) and iconoclastic! This is a professor job, but if you fit into academia, you're not the right fit. Except you'll still need a PhD and do the work of a professor. The ad seems to be asking for a set of personal traits--and personal traits that seem to inhere in a very particular kind of applicant:

Venture-capital tech-dude types who skipped college and traveled to India (not to see family, but to experience life, man) and who have foregone the scholarly article in favor of something showier because they like attention and feel they deserve it and they have rebellious haircuts and gender-bending accessories.

Look. I regularly lobby to have my media appearances and blog work count on my CV. I get "iconoclastic"--and I get weird haircuts and gender-bending accessories. I wear My Little Pony swag to teach. But this kind of ad, in its emphasis on personality and attitude, feels insulting to all the hard, verifiable, assessable work that academics do to become trained and competitive for professorships. And it will lead to bad candidate assessment.

The ability to receive a serve on the backhand side is not named, but implied. Again, how on God's Green Earth can you sensibly sort a candidate pool? I'll tell you right now it'll be like an American Idol open tryout, except many of the sensible people will just not even go.

Once more: in many ways, I'm all about thinking outside the academic box: I take Facebook seriously as life-writing and I refuse to call everyday social media users naive or thoughtless. I'm lobbying hard to change a lot about the PhD at my institution. What is killing me about this job ad is that it gets loosey-goosey about all the wrong things in ways that are going to disadvantage applicants who've just barely got a toe-hold into the academy. By removing assessable metrics and by opening the ad so widely, it's nearly guaranteed that a very narrow set of possible winners is going to emerge.

You can bet your backhand on it.

1 comment:

  1. In the 1960s (not 80s, as I recall...I was there) that's how hiring was done in Canada--if you were from Oxford or Yale, you'd get hired with a phone call. By the 1980s in the humanities, equity hiring was beginning. I was taught by many people who were hired with no publications or specialty, but who were Oxford/Cambridge second stringers. That was how empire worked as part of the process.


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