18 August 2008

The Perils of the Academic Job Wiki

It was truly bewildering to follow our job search on the Academic Job Wiki last year. We advertised a tenure-track position in the long nineteenth century (United States). It generated a lot of discussion, none of which made sense to those of us in the department or on the committee.

The opening comment:
“the circles seem to inform that they want someone that has 20th century AFAM project/interests (9/11/07)”


Another poster asked, sensibly:
"What's "AFAM"?”

That would imply African American related.”

A request for another clarification:
“okay, what's a "circle"?”

“questions questions, meaning I heard! i am sure we ALL know the academic circles run small and are well connected. Not much more to add.”

At this point, I’m pretty puzzled. Circles? I’m in the department and I can’t think where this might be coming from. I’m actually here and I’m not aware of any circles of any type emphasizing anything in particular. I can certainly categorically state that it would be insane for us to advertise a nineteenth-century position if what we wanted was twentieth-century African-American history.

I must be in a different circle. It's my understanding that there will be a second position advertised. If you look at the chronology of this search and then observe what conspicuous fields are *not* represented currently on Rice's faculty (think kepis, funny beards, and hardtack), that should serve as some clue. Then again, maybe both circles are right. It wouldn't be the first time that a department had two circles, both with stong [sic] opinions for the type of person the department wants.”

Again, Huh?

Luckily, another reader requested some clarification there:

“When thinking about the fields not represented, what does this mean: "think kepis, funny beards, and hardtack." I'm just not following”

Good, because I’m not either.

“I'm not the OP [the person who made the original post], but I assume s/he meant Civil War”

So at this point, there are two rumors on the internet about our search: one that we want someone who does African-American history, and another that we want (or possibly don’t want? That wasn’t really clear) a Civil War historian. Neither of these two rumors are correct: we were looking for exactly what the ad said we were looking for: the long nineteenth century, subfield open. I was really bothered by this. It seemed to me that job seekers were on the wiki deliberately starting rumors about our search, possibly to limit the numbers or types of candidates. There was no such thing as the wiki a few short years ago when I was on the market; I used to think information was power, but the “information” being circulated here seems calculated to render competitors powerless.

OK, next:

“I received an email from someone on the search committee asking me to apply for the job before I had sent in my application. My specialty is not African American. They are running a second search for assoc./full professor in southern history”

Which prompts a crazy reply:
This comment could possible [sic] go below [under another topic heading], but I have to object to the practice of sending select invitations to apply. It creates the impression of cherry-picking a candidate under the guise of conducting a national search. That kind of thing smacks of old-boy club and the old guild. Thoughts?”

“I guess it does smack of the OBC [Old Boy Club], but I think there are so many variables in a search that an invite does not mean slam dunk. As a grad student, we had a national search that we all thought was a dog and pony show for one candidate who had a well received book in the field of our specialized PHD program. She didn't even get an offer because department members didn't like her next project. Anyway if the dept. is a fossil of the dinosaur era and is full of Good Ole Boys, do you or I really want to work there anyway? Just a though[t].”

Letters to colleagues pointing out the existence of a position are fairly common. Most search committees want to widen their applicant pool, rather than narrow it. If you are a job seeker and you receive one of these letters asking you to apply for a job, pat yourself on the back and send in the application. If you don’t receive a letter, send in your app anyway. I also wondered here: was the poster suggesting that Rice's history department "is a fossil of the dinosaur era?" Or that it is full of Good Ol' Boys? Not amusing!

And, don’t overthink the wiki. There’s a lot of emotional angst out there during the job season, which I totally understand, but it doesn’t seem to me that the wiki is really good for the delicate psyches of graduate students. Nor does it seem to provide accurate information beyond the scheduling of AHA interviews, etc. that help clarify the timeline of a particular search.



At Tuesday, August 19, 2008 5:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In a classic example of "the lower the stakes, the higher the drama," check out the LiveJournal "applyingtograd" community. I used to post over there a few years ago, trying to help people out, until I realized you could get screamed at for saying something like, "maybe you might want to take a year off," or "maybe you should have a fall-back program." Come December of every year, the place is mayhem and pandemonium and kingdom come all rolled into one.

At Wednesday, August 20, 2008 7:21:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And Elvis is partying with Anastasia on the Titanic with the black helicopters circling.

Being (more) serious, and as a non-American observer of the US academic scene, I wonder if this sort of pananoid/conspiracy/ demented stuff isn't in part a product of the (from an outside perspective) appalling meat market mentality that the annual AHA interview/hiring round gives rise to? I am very glad that we have no equivalent of what I've seen at several AHA meetings, which I think is destructive in the extreme.

Which doesn't excuse fruit loop behaviour of this kind, by the way. :-)

At Wednesday, August 20, 2008 5:37:00 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

anonymous--I think you might be right about the meat market mentality. Academic hiring in general is a screwed-up process.

I suppose this appalled me because on this blog, on other online fora, and in dead tree print I've defended access to information for all and touted the internet's potential to disseminate information. This kind of deliberate abuse makes a hash of my pro-internet, pro-blog, pro-information arguments!

At Saturday, August 23, 2008 12:26:00 AM, Blogger Larry Cebula said...

Rebecca, why didn't you comment and set things straight? If you didn't want to come right out and identify yourself you could just post "My circle says that they are looking for exactly what is describedin the ad--and I AM IN A POSITION TO KNOW." Something like that.

At Monday, August 25, 2008 10:28:00 AM, Blogger Rebecca said...

Larry, I did think about it but I thought it wouldn't be appropriate for a committee member, anonymous or identified, to contribute to the rumor mill in any way.

What do others think about committee members posting on the wiki?

At Monday, August 25, 2008 12:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can someone post a link for the 2008 history job wiki? Thanks. *As a survivor of the US job wars I agree. There are just so many Americanists out there, it's tough to find a job and those rumors start flying. The insecurities often translate into anguish and anger. Good luck to all!

At Monday, August 25, 2008 1:44:00 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

I had to hunt around to find it...but this seems to be the one folks are using this year. Anyone know of any others?


At Monday, August 25, 2008 4:45:00 PM, Blogger Larry Cebula said...

Rebecca: You know I am not actually all that sure what search committees should do about the wiki either. The next time I am involved in a search I might anonymously update the wiki in a minimal way to keep people appraised of the search progress. "Dec. 2: Short list finalized, everyone has been contacted for phone interviews." "Jan. 20: Campus visits scheduled." At my last school we were not allowed to contact anyone until there was a signed contract, so candidates who were ruled out in the first screening never heard a thing until they got a Dear John letter from HR sometime in April. That seems so inhumane and unreasonable.

The danger of course is getting drawn into a discussion of the search, which we should not do.

At Monday, August 25, 2008 4:54:00 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

Yes, exactly my thoughts, Larry. We generally email people here if they are not to be interviewed at the AHA, so applicants know the score by mid-December. I understand applicants are worried and want to know what's going on, it is just a question of how best to keep everyone informed. I agree, though, the danger is getting sucked into side issues. So I erred on the side of caution this past year.

Our searches for this year haven't appeared on the wiki yet, so maybe Rice will be in the clear this time around!

At Saturday, September 06, 2008 4:44:00 PM, Blogger Ortho said...

Thanks for sharing your interesting thoughts Rebecca.

Last year the wiki-users left nasty comments on our search, too. But the comments did not deter the applicants, over 200 applied for our 20th-century U.S. position. Plus we're all extremely pleased with our new hire. We think the hire is stellar!

At Thursday, September 11, 2008 10:24:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So are you going to evacuate? :)
Good luck through "Ike"

At Tuesday, November 11, 2008 5:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a bit late to comment, but wanted to say that the 2007-2008 job wiki for Latin American history jobs last year was far less contentious, and really did act as a space for sharing info. Posts rarely extended beyond "letter rec'd," "AHA interview scheduled," "hire made," etc. There were a few short discussions about experiences at particular universities, but were always balanced (by chance) with positive and negative comments. I posted info when I received any communication from a department, and relied on the same info from others, understanding that the legal and practical confines of the search process make it difficult for the committee to communicate in a timely manner with all applicants. I always took the info with a grain of salt, never presuming it to be the final word, but found it to be a real anxiety-reducer - better to know, even when the news is bad.

I also wanted to note that the University of Alabama, Huntsville History Dept. did update their job listing on the wiki. The committee member began posts with "Department representative to the Wiki here..." providing info about interviews and delays in the schedule due to tornadoes.

I agree with your concern about the abuse of these kinds of sites - not only because it undermines the wiki as a useful source of info, but because these folks are joining are departments. I understand how tight the market is in many fields, but who wants to work with someone who would undermine their colleagues? I am more than grateful to be off the market for the time being!

Thanks for letting me add my 2¢.

At Tuesday, November 11, 2008 6:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OUR departments, not are departments.

EEk. Sorry for the awful typo.


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