Townhouse Notes: Meritocracy and the Job Application Arms Race
It may be that assistant professor applications became onerous with the very best of intentions. There are historians today who remember when academic job offers were made through the old boys’ network, at AHA annual meeting “smokers.” Some number of jobs in history were advertised, of course, but it’s wise to assume that others were not. (Perspectives’s In Memoriam essays occasionally mention prestigious departments that were seemingly handpicked by influential chairs. Read carefully.) I don’t know the backstory of application materials for entry-level jobs in history, but I would surmise that they increased as the discipline faced pressure to dismantle the old boys’ network, to give women and minority applicants a fair shake, and, not least, to comply with anti-discrimination laws. Moreover, a commitment to meritocracy—especially the idea that the best candidate for any job (or undergraduate admissions slot) might not be the one with the shiniest pedigree, or white, or male, or Christian—was an article of faith in academia by the late 20th century. One way to show a commitment to that ideal in hiring would certainly be to seek out more and better evidence of merit.
This is what I surmise, at any rate. But whatever the origin story, the fact of the matter is that today applications for many jobs, especially at the most elite institutions, require much more extensive documentation of qualifications than a cover letter and a CV. Maybe that’s why AHA Council’s decision in January to recommend that hiring committees ask for letters of recommendation from applicants only after the initial screening was greeted with round approval. The discussion continued, however, when the AHA posted a job ad for a teaching position that required applicants to submit four sample syllabi. Some people suggested that the AHA forbid job postings that require the submission of so many materials. It would be impossible for Council to determine “how much is too much” in order to make an enforceable policy. Yet a discussion about materials beyond the cover letter and the CV, and what they can show, is probably overdue.
It’s not just sample syllabi; it’s also research agendas, teaching philosophies, statements of potential contribution to campus diversity, publications and dissertation chapters, and, bizarrely, sometimes even graduate transcripts. Even if you’ve given serious thought to teaching, research, and service, it’s hard at first to articulate concrete ways your professional practice relates to them. Moreover, applications should be customized to each school’s mission statement, to the department’s course offerings, programs, and strengths, and, of course, to the ad itself. I well recall applying for fancy postdocs with themes, which required me to design courses related to those themes basically from scratch. A fair number of people are pointing out that as the number of advertised jobs in history continues to track far below the level it was at before the great recession, requiring all these materials of candidates facing such long odds feels cruel.
It’s perplexing, in such a competitive ecosystem, that anyone could think that just having more evidence of worthiness from all candidates will make a difference in the cross-sector outcome of entry-level searches in academic history. Statistical evidence shows that the prestige of an applicant’s program correlates with the likelihood that they will secure a job in the professoriate. Meritocracy simply doesn’t function without gatekeeping of some kind. But it also implicitly requires us to trust the gatekeepers. This is not to judge any individual candidate or hiring committee. But it is to question whether, in the big picture, requiring a raft of additional materials from job applicants will make a difference in the composition of the professoriate.
Are we back to the old boys’ network, just with teaching philosophies? Maybe we never left!
Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives. She tweets @Cliopticon.
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