Diary of a Joint Search


How do joint searches between area-studies programs and traditional departments work? I reflected on that question for some time after opening an e-mail message early last spring from Kathy, the coordinator of our area-studies program. The dean's office, she reported, had at last approved our request to hire a new faculty member.

As area-studies and ethnic-studies programs have assumed new visibility and significance at the large research university where I am an assistant professor, searches for jointly appointed positions are becoming increasingly common. Indeed, the dean's letter indicated that the person we hoped to hire would have formal contractual commitments to both the program and to a specific humanities department.

The punch line came at the end of the e-mail: Would I be willing to serve as the program's official representative and as one of two heads of the search committee?

I should note at the outset that my own appointment is strictly within a traditional department. My affiliation with the area-studies program is entirely unofficial and voluntary, but expected within my department since my predecessor served many years as the director of the area-studies program.

Ordinarily as a relatively new assistant professor, I would be excused from obligations like heading a search committee. But given a substantial turnover in faculty members serving the area-studies program, and my own chronological and topical expertise in relation to the position, I was the logical choice.

Although I did not relish the prospect of added administrative work in an already busy semester, I did feel honored to have been entrusted with the responsibility. Blissfully ignorant of what awaited me, I agreed to make the leap into the unknown world of the joint search.

The dean's decision to position the new hire formally in both the program and a department augured well, I thought. It meant that the program could assert real influence in the hiring process, rather than being left on the sidelines to hope that the traditional department would offer the position to someone competent and willing to work with us.

Unfortunately, although good intentions were in place, little thought was given to the logistical aspects of creating joint appointments within the university's existing hiring and tenuring practices. In detailing the good, the bad, and the ugly that we experienced in our search, I hope to make the case in this three-part series for explicit reforms that I wish had been in place when we started.

Initially I entertained happy thoughts about what the new position might bring to our area-studies program. In addition to Kathy, another junior colleague, and myself, we stood to add (if successful) a fourth faculty member. That would mean one more person to help diversify and enhance our curriculum, to rotate into the cycle of teaching our popular introductory survey courses, and to share some of the many "service" responsibilities that help to keep the program afloat.

We knew that the successful candidate would have to demonstrate excellence in scholarship, a must for tenure at our university. Second, we hoped to find someone with above-average teaching ability, who could engage students and serve as a "draw" for the program. Third, the person would ideally manifest an interest in (and a capacity for) engagement with the cultural group he or she studied.

My initial optimism began to fade after I shared the good news with Len, a senior professor in my department. "With which department will you be searching?" he asked. When I told him that I would be co-chairing the search committee with Betty, from Department X, he smiled wryly and asked: "What did you do to deserve that?"

Fifteen minutes later, my telephone rang. It was Judy, the chairwoman of my own department. Len had spoken to her, and she wanted to see me as soon as possible. This seemed serious. Initially, I worried that Judy was going to voice legitimate concerns that my responsibilities with the program were exceeding acceptable limits for a junior assistant professor, but in fact she wanted to speak to me about Department X's history with joint searches.

Over the next half-hour, Judy provided chapter and verse about Department X and its well-deserved reputation on the campus for not playing well with others. Yet she recognized the needs that the position could fill -- both in the program and in Department X -- and pledged to help. Over the course of the search process, she would listen to my questions and offer invaluable strategic advice.

The process began in earnest after Kathy, the program coordinator, and Max, the chairman of Department X, drafted the advertisement and placed it in the appropriate online and print outlets. Our turnaround time was short, both because it was relatively late in the hiring season and because we knew that the subfield in which we were searching was quite small.

Three weeks later, with several dozen applicant files before us, I met with Betty to begin reviewing them and to discuss the process of creating a shortlist. Joining us on the official committee were Henry, a senior humanities professor affiliated with our program, and Michelle, another member of Department X detailed to the search.

At the outset, Betty seemed determined to derail the process. It was too late in the year, she argued. The pool of candidates was too small, and too uninspiring. Worst of all, several of the junior applicants came from a graduate program she felt to be very weak.

Henry and I were stunned. We had assumed that Department X was equally interested in filling the position. What had happened? Fortunately, Michelle, who must have possessed some prior experience in dealing with Betty, intervened. She noted that while the subfield in which we had advertised was indeed small, she had seen at least 10 applications that looked viable.

Tactfully she disputed Betty's assessment of the particular graduate program in question, and noted that if we were to defer the search, we would likely add only an insignificant number of new applicants to the pool. In Michelle's view, the best of what was out there was now before us, and we were obligated to continue.

Henry and I concurred, and we all agreed to meet the following week to establish a shortlist of three or four finalists based on the vitae, letters of application, recommendations, and writing samples we had requested.

It turned out that Michelle's initial scan of the applications proved quite accurate. In short order, we were able to rule out all but eight applicants for the position. Many who had applied appeared not to have read our advertisement. Some assumed that we were asking for a person with training in a traditional discipline or experience with an area-studies program, when in fact we required both.

Other applicants had no expertise of any kind with the culture area for which we were searching. Still others, including members of the cultural group named in the advertisement, applied despite possessing academic training in completely unrelated disciplines.

To winnow down the pool, we began discussing in minute detail each of the eight survivors. We soon agreed that two of them lacked the appropriate teaching experience. Despite their reasonably impressive research records, they were eliminated.

We also let go two other applicants who showed substantial promise but were still at an early stage in writing their dissertations.

Four applicants remained. Barbara and Christine held appointments at other institutions, Dan was a postdoctoral fellow, and Cheryl was weeks away from defending her dissertation at a prestigious university.

Majority opinion on the committee ranked Dan at or near the top of the pool. He had completed an award-winning dissertation at a prominent research institution, and he had embarked on another innovative project in a well-known postdoctoral program. Additionally, he alone among about a third of our entire applicant pool had secured a letter of recommendation from perhaps the most prominent senior academic in his field. That scholar made clear his opinion that Dan was the best-qualified candidate for our position. Indeed, to avoid conflict of interest, he had turned down requests from a number of other applicants to write letters on their behalves.

Despite that unusual endorsement, Dan had formidable competition. Christine had also written an award-winning dissertation and had already published extensively. She was also unique among the entire pool of applicants in possessing postgraduate training in teaching.

With two finalists on our shortlist, conversation turned to the relative merits of the remaining two applicants, Barbara and Cheryl.

Barbara came from a solid graduate program and had landed a job at a teaching-oriented institution that we knew happened to possess a significant student population of the cultural group which she studied. Her application letter was brief, and, probably as a result of a heavy teaching load, her scholarly productivity did not compare to either Dan's or Christine's. But she certainly had ample experience in the classroom, and her research appeared innovative and significant.

Cheryl, on the other hand, submitted a highly polished application. Her dissertation research was comprehensive and its argument convincing. Her work was especially attractive to Michelle for its disciplinary rigor, but Henry and I expressed concern that Cheryl's work did not really advance understanding within the field in the ways that Barbara's did.

Michelle then pointed out that Cheryl had done some collaborative work with a contemporary community, but upon closer inspection we found that that had occurred nearly a decade ago. Nothing else in her application file demonstrated commitment to the kind of applied engagement that interested Henry and me.

Given our program's wish list, Barbara seemed the stronger of the two. After some discussion, the committee decided in favor of Barbara. We now had our three finalists.

Then came the task of scheduling and hosting the campus interviews. I'll fill you in on that part of the story in my next column.

Robert N. Weaver is the pseudonym of an assistant professor in a humanities department at a major research university in the East.