Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tales from the First Year, Tenure-Track: Immediate Reflections on the Hiring Process

SACC Guest Blogger Melissa King, Ph.D
San Bernardino Valley College

I’m lucky. After receiving my Ph.D. in spring 2013, I was hired as tenure-track faculty at one of the community colleges where I’d been adjuncting. When I received a phone call of congratulations from HR, I was flooded with relief, knowing that I will have benefits as well as a reliable salary allowing me to pay my student loan debt.  I know how rare my situation is, and I am overwhelmingly grateful. I’m lucky because I am surrounded by an excellent community of faculty and students who have only been generous and kind.  I’m lucky, even dramatically so, in that I consider myself to have been completely unprepared for the community college hiring process and did not understand fully the shift in roles required from specialized Doctoral Candidate to well-rounded, sole, full-time instructor of Anthropology on a campus which was supposedly moving to eliminate the Anthropology program just two years ago.  Let me unpack that in a few blog posts. First, why and how I was unprepared for the community college hiring process and what this says about both grad school and incoming community college faculty ….

In my final year of grad school, the period I most heavily sought employment, I was advised about faculty selection in the academic world by professors, recent graduates who had and had not found permanent positions, and a number of excellent web resources including Dr. Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In. From these, I worked on what I understood were the important documents: CV, letter of interest, and teaching statement. I brainstormed statements about future research plans and how my research affects my teaching. In my first interview with a community college, none of this seemed to matter, however. I was totally unprepared for the generalized questions that came nowhere near my areas of specialization. Nor was I asked much about teaching, of which I expected at least a little as community colleges are primarily teaching institutions. I presented myself as a specialized expert who could contribute to a well-rounded department by offering a unique perspective. This strategy failed me. Advisors were surprised at the questions I was asked, but they did not offer revised interview strategies because, I believe, they were simply unaware of what happens in most community college faculty interviews. By sharing my experience, I was perhaps educating them. And why is that? Although the number of articles at The Chronicle of Higher Education increases monthly espousing community college careers as viable for Ph.D’s from R-1 universities, the attitude has not caught on full well in practice. Where the attitude has caught on, tangible evidence of it is nevertheless lacking. Advisors and departments would need to re-strategize their programs to help grad students move equally between specialized and generalized realms of expertise, between teaching and research preparation. Grant-writing seminars could, for example, be directed to both realms.

I was also distressed and disoriented at the coldness with which faculty with whom I’d been working as an adjunct treated me during my first interview. Only later did I learn this is normal, and it prepared me for the next interview, but why had I heard nothing of this beforehand? Supposedly the objectivity forced in these interviews is meant to create fairness in the hiring process so that favorite adjuncts aren’t treated favorably in committee interviews. Yet I wonder if there is a better way to do this. Is it especially the cultural anthropologist in me that resists the notion of objectivity as more fair or moral? How can candidates learn about this process ahead of time and who’s responsible to providing this info? Interviewers I knew from a separate interview committee have since contacted me and explained that they felt uncomfortable as well, having to remain so detached. I appreciated their words but am left with questions about this process. How will I, should I, interact with future candidates about hiring processes?

For the most recent interview, I had decided to change my strategy to present myself as a well-rounded scholar trained in robust departments who would speak not from a specialized position of interest but from a generalized position across the discipline. This approach seemed to work much better. In contrast to the first interview, here I was asked only about teaching. Prepared for the icy atmosphere, I held onto more confidence, and I dressed specifically according to Kelsky’s recommendations. That afternoon, I was called for a second-level interview. I thought, “WHAT?! I did it, yes, but what is a second-level interview?” I admit that I had never heard of a colleague, advisor, grad student, or anyone really mention this strange creature, the “second-level interview.”

My previous conversations and experiences had led me to believe in an academic hiring process that would last a day or two and would involve meetings with departmental faculty, student groups, a campus tour, a random campus roundtable, lecture, and other events, like a series of various interviews and meetings. Scrambling my resources in the week I had to prepare, I came to understand that I would likely meet with a Dean or Vice President, perhaps the union representative, and would casually talk about my fit into the campus. I was told that a second-level interview is pretty much just about finding out which candidate is more likeable. So without years of prep behind me, this was the attitude I took into the interview. Though I was professional, I tried to answer questions in a personable, down-to-earth, and real way. Unfortunately, while that approach suited my personality, it reinforced a mistake I’d unknowingly made much earlier in the process.

You know those third-party HR application systems that community colleges (and some four-years) now use seemingly en masse to accept job candidates? Well, I sadly did not know how serious they are. My first negative impression of generalized HR applications came when I was applying online for a position across the state. The application required three letters of recommendation to be uploaded into the online HR system along with other documents. It seemed odd to me that the school would not value the privacy of references and I felt super weird asking my advisor to provide an open letter for such purposes. This was not the process I’d been trained to expect, where letters of recommendation along with CV’s and so on were to be sent directly to the Chair of a faculty Search Committee, or perhaps that committee’s departmental administration. In the second-level interview, I somehow, despite years of taking on responsibilities that adjuncts need not assume, came across as lazy or uninterested because my HR application, as I found out to my great surprise, was indeed treated as the sole record of my application and the document that superceded my CV. Nowhere on any of the approximately thirty HR applications I’ve filled out was I asked to list publications, presentations, or awards. I had filled this application out half-heartedly, unaware that without proper completion, none of my important documents would ever reach the selection committee. Thinking of it as a hoop to jump through, I was ignorant that it was actually the initial selection process made by HR. I had been honestly led to believe that this HR system played little role in the selection committee’s decisions. I have since discovered a number of bright candidates on the market for a position who were not invited to an interview and who then began doubting their recent revisions to cover letters. Perhaps they should have been rethinking the HR application, since after sharing my experience, I realize I am not the only one who casually filled them out. The reality is that, indeed, perhaps the only document some of the selection committee members or even a Vice President or Dean might see, if one makes the HR cut, is this standard form application minus CV info.

So my questions about preparing grad students and candidates are directed not only to academic departments but also to community colleges. If community colleges wish to hire newly minted Ph.D.’s, how can they inform about the hiring process and how, when, and why should they become informed about the broader culture of the academic workforce, from knowledge of terminology like Associate-In and R-1 to confidentiality of advisor’s recommendation letters and the role of a CV? If I am going to work to make anthropology a public one on my campus, does that include promoting more dialogue within what has been traditionally conceived as a hierarchy of individuals, from community college students to tenured researchers at R-1’s, and what is the place of the hiring process in this as it structures relationships between these loci?

1 comment:

Bob said...

Nice blog post, bringing to light an important issue - grad students are typically ill-prepared for applying for jobs in teaching-focussed institutions, whether they be colleges or universities.