Is the Internet to Blame for Similar-Sounding Faculty Candidates?

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A pseudonymous Ph.D. candidate on the market for a History job wrote up his or her “Job Horror Story” for the Chronicle of Higher Education.   The candidate recounts being “stood up” by an interviewer who (accidentally?) left for the day before interviewing the erstwhile candidate, the last interviewee of the day.

In this wired world we inhabit, our perspective on the job market has become skewed. Thanks to online forums and blogs, interviewing in academe has evolved into a series of sacred rituals. Tips for success have become hard-and-fast rules that can never be violated — at least, not if you want to land the job.

While a good percentage of the advice doled out to new Ph.D.’s is probably worth hearing (if I hadn’t done a little online reconnaissance, I would have never known the Interviewer had left the booth), some of it, and the sheer volume of it, serves no other purpose than to terrify job candidates. Stories of rude and unprofessional behavior during interviews are now considered the norm. Interviewers are no longer professors fulfilling a service requirement but villains out to trample the souls of those “lucky” enough to score an interview.

It is quite possible that the culture of the job market is as bad as it seems, but no one would dare try to deviate from the prescribed norms to find out. We have mountains of online evidence to prove that if you do anything the least bit objectionable in the interview, you can be replaced. When branch campuses of the University of Maine claim to have 260 applicants for one position, as happened last year, the tightness of the market takes on a whole new dimension.

The full story appears in the Chronicle here (subscription required – sorry).

This story caught my eye because it it echoes some of my own thoughts on the market for law teaching jobs.   So many of the successful candidates have a “canned” quality — alumni of the increasingly-popular law fellowships are so rehearsed (and perhaps faculty so unimaginative in their questions) that it is a challenge to get a “real” (or even “real-ish”) sense of the candidate.   I’m not even sure that an Appointments Committee safely may assume that a candidate is in fact interested in teaching the courses he or she listed on the AALS FAR form (or not interested in the courses not on the form).    A candidate truly interested in clinical teaching, for example, does himself or herself (and potential employer and colleagues) a disservice by not stating the interest clearly because a faculty mentor “advised against it.”  

What kind of advice are candidates getting and where are they getting it?   Apart from the teaching fellowships (and the handful of professors at certain unnamed schools who, year after year, seem to have one of their “best 3 or 4 students of all time” on the market), could it be that the internet (including us bloggers) are responsible in part for the move toward the “generic” candidate?

-Bridget Crawford

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0 Responses to Is the Internet to Blame for Similar-Sounding Faculty Candidates?

  1. Ralph M. Stein says:

    Very interesting but, I think, not in the right direction. I don’t think the internet has much if manything to do with who gets invited to interview at law schools.

    Candidates sure do seem “canned” because too often they are junior clones of faculty, especially younger faculty, who do not look for or discover qualifications beyond those they possess. So if an appointments committee or the full faculty is heavily swayed by folks who have attended the same top tier schools, enjoyed one or more federal clerkships, spent some time (not much usually) at a prestigious law firm (preferably in a really major city), it’s a surprise that those sharing that background get many initial interviews and callbacks? Not to me.

    I might add that I fully understand that with the credentials I offered when seeking my first academic position in 1975, I’d never get an interview today hardly anywhere. So the “generic candidate” isn’t an inevitable creature – he/she is handpicked for the very traits that produce candidate homogeneity.

  2. Ann Bartow says:

    I always wonder if it occurs to faculty members at elite schools how little weight we give their references when every single faculty candidate we inquire about is “one of the best students I ever had.”

  3. Ralph M. Stein says:

    Reminds me of a mini-scandal many years ago in the Navy when it was disclosed that in a major command 90% of the officers had been rated as being in the top 10%. Even for a proven, lifelong innumerate like me…

  4. bob coley jr says:

    The clone effect is evident throughout history and throughout all aspects of human interaction. The interrnet has had the effect of speed on this occurance but it is not the cause. Follow the leader is a game we learn early. Of course, the leader may be just wandering.

  5. Joseph Slater says:

    I dunno, I think advice on the blogosphere probably has a more positive effect overall. It allows more people to get some basic “Dos and Don’ts” — people outside the tiny loops of the handpicked chosen few of the most influential profs.

    If that’s true, there might be a feminist angle to this also. If we assume the “elite” profs are disproportionately male (note I’m not saying the best profs are male, but rather that a disproportionate number of those considered “elite” are) and if we assume that these male profs consciously or unconsciously try to replicate themselves in legal academia (and while some probably don’t, some probably do), that would mean that “insider” information about how to get jobs would go more to male candidates.

    That all assumes, however, that there really is a rhyme or reason or “right” or predicatable way to approach job interviews and the hiring process generally. I’m finishing my third year as chair of my school’s appointments committee, and I honestly feel less confident about any of that than I did three years ago.

  6. Ralph M. Stein says:

    “Insider” information from and about a particular school is valuable and usually it comes from personal contacts, not the Internet. When I searched for a position eons ago, some of my law school faculty put me in contact with people they knew at schools I was interested in and more often than not I received genuinely helpful advice.

    I’ve spoken to a number of applicants for positions at my school before they started the process and, hopefully, I was helpful to them.

    I think there is both rhyme and reason to the process as a general matter but what an applicant can’t know, unless he/she is being interviewed for a dedicated slot such as Tax or Environmental law, is what the collective desire of the faculty is with regard to myriad factors including curriculum, teaching modalities and so on.

  7. Anita Bernstein says:

    I think the Internet has been a bit of an electric lawnmower here, making more of the grass the same height. But that’s not a bad thing–it’s
    democratic, less elitist. And Bridget, I think part of what’s going on is you’re getting senior on the buying end! The more inventory you’ve had to process, the harder it is to see individuals as distinct.

  8. bob coley jr says:

    The electric lawnmower is a great metephor for all ways of desemination of knowlege insofar as the grass on the playing field goes. But I would imagine few look at all the blades individualy before deciding if the field is acceptble. The probllem (as myself and others see it) is not the lawn mower, rather the fact that each blade of grass is indestinguishable from the rest because of its use and successful attempt to make all conform to the user’s vision of what a blade of grass should look like. The purpose of using the mower must be examined.

  9. Joseph Slater says:

    Ralph:

    There are different kinds of “insider information.” You refer to one kind that the internet usually doesn’t help with: school X really would like to hire somebody who teaches/writes in X area (and hasn’t made that information public through the typical AALS publications).

    But there is also basic information such as general guidelines for job talks or what sort of qualifications get you considered at what type of schools which can be useful for those outside certain loops.

    Finally, if you understand the hiring process, more power to you!