Moving forward with our media studies search
Three months ago, I posted information about Middlebury’s search for a comparative media studies faculty member. I’ve been quite excited about the discussion and feedback I’ve gotten, highlighting the benefits of opening up the black box of the faculty hiring process. So as the search proceeds, I want to post an update.
We have received over 270 applications for the position, a large but not unexpected number. What has surpassed my expectations is the quality of the applicants – I feel confident saying that, at least on paper, I believe that half of these applicants could be successful faculty at Middlebury and excellent additions to the department. But obviously we need to pare down the pool for interviews – this post offers some insight into the process by which we went from 270 applicants to the 30 or so candidates from whom we’ve requested more information in preparation for requesting phone interviews in December.
A brief caveat – I know that many of you reading this will be one of those 270 applicants. I obviously can only speak in generalities, not about specific applicants. I hope revealing the process of selection helps explain our rationale for advancing your candidacy or not. Given the number of applications, I’m not willing to entertain individual queries about why somebody was not advanced – but I do hope that the process sketched below helps shine a light on an otherwise opaque process.
As department chair and the faculty member most engaged with media studies, I read every application myself. Two of my colleagues read almost every application as well, with the intention that every file receive at least two reads – and unless they clearly did not meet the expectations of the position, they were read by all three of us. Since we only requested a thin file (CV, research/teaching statement, and reference letters), the primary question we all asked was “do we want to read more about this applicant?” If so, we requested a larger dossier of a writing sample and teaching materials to advance to the next round of reviewing.
What criteria did we use to decide our top candidates? Certainly there were no definitive litmus tests, aside from the basic qualifications of a Ph.D. or very-close-to-finishing ABD, but we did focus on a few core issues. First, the goal of this position is to expand the media studies offerings within our department – of the four main critical studies faculty currently at Middlebury, three focus exclusively on film with me as the only non-film scholar (and I teach a good amount of film in many of my courses). This hire hopes to balance the two sides of Film and Media Culture more fully, and as such, we are looking for somebody who is primarily a media scholar. We got a large number of applications from film scholars, some of whom (but not everyone) do a little bit of work about other media – although many of these applicants could be great additions to our department, they simply don’t fit the scope of this position. Likewise, we were looking for faculty who clearly belong in a department like ours, rather than other fields like political science, sociology, anthropology, mass communications, etc. – bringing in somebody whose work is so disciplinarily divergent from our own can be a recipe for future problems, and probably not worth any gains that might be realized by going outside our discipline significantly.
In some ways, adding a faculty member to a department is kind of like pitching a new TV show (yes, I have to live up to my blog’s name!) – there needs to be a balance between the familiar and the new. While we don’t want somebody whose profile and interests completely overlaps our existing faculty, we also don’t want somebody so radically different that there is no common ground. We’ll need a new faculty member to succeed in teaching courses that are already being taught, as well as adding new breadth and range to our curriculum. The range of courses that a candidate could teach is a central consideration for assessing an application.
An important criteria for a college like Middlebury is teaching experience. The strongest candidates have substantial teaching backgrounds, perhaps in settings beyond their graduate institutions, and ideally have designed courses that are comparable to what would be taught here. Experience teaching or attending a small liberal arts college is also a strong asset – the particular intensity and focus of teaching at a place like Middlebury is hard to understand without first-hand experience, so being familiar with the environment and expectations is useful (although certainly not essential).
A number of other factors go into assessing candidates for this position. We’re hoping that this faculty member will broaden the digital media options in our department, so their demonstrated ability to both teach about and with new media forms was a clear consideration. Potential for interdisciplinary ties is an asset at Middlebury, especially with programs like International Studies, Environmental Studies, and Women & Gender Studies. And obviously a publication track record and potential appropriate for a junior faculty hoping to achieve tenure is a must.
Another factor that’s less cut and dried involves the candidate’s cover letter. Especially for applicants whose career path might be less than typical, narrating the process by which they ended up at this point in their education or employment is vital. I can think of a number of applications who made an unusual C.V. compelling by means of telling their story (as well as others who did not), and even applicants who have followed a more typical path help themselves quite a bit by conveying a sense of drive and personality through their self-presentation. When there’s a pool of 270 letters, standing out as distinctive (in a positive way) is quite important. On top of that, an effectively written cover letter suggests that the candidate will be at home teaching writing intensive courses, which is required of all Middlebury faculty.
In the end, the process of selecting 10% of a strong application pool is daunting, and I know that there are great applicants who won’t move forward for hard-to-define reasons. But I think a key lesson for candidates to realize is that not making the cut is rarely a referendum of your worth as a scholar or teacher – it’s usually more about a sense of the position and internal needs that are hard to articulate, combined with the inevitable comparisons among the applicant pool. When I was on the market, there were jobs that I imagined that I would be perfect for that I didn’t get – later when I found who did get them or heard about the department’s process, I usually came to understand the ways I wouldn’t have fit expectations or needs. I hope this post helps provide a some insight to many of you as to why you were or were not asked for more information.
One question that I anticipate people asking: “if I wasn’t asked for more information, am I out of the running?” Technically no – we won’t send formal announcements declining applications until the position is formally hired. However, it is unlikely that a candidate whom we have not yet contacted will be considered for the next stage of phone interviews. Obviously, that’s not the answer most people want to hear, but I think it’s better to know where things stand than not.
I’m happy to entertain general questions and comments below.
Filed under: Academia, Media Studies, Middlebury, Teaching | 14 Comments
Tags: job search