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.


14 Responses to “Moving forward with our media studies search”

  1. 1 Joe

    I’m curious about this comment: “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.”

    It seems as if you’ve conflated discipline” and “field.” Do you situate your department in a discipline or a field?

    I interpret film as part of the “media studies” field: “film and media studies” sounds tautological. Why wouldn’t a humanist from communication and media studies fit the bill?

    Thanks for posting this!

    • Joe – a humanist from communication & media studies certainly does fit the bill. That’s what I am and what many of our top candidates are. I guess what I meant was someone who views themselves primarily as a social scientist probably would not succeed in our department (nor would they be happy). I wasn’t trying to differentiate discipline and field, as I see that as a slippery & esoteric boundary.

      As for the place of film within media studies, I believe the vast majority of film scholars do not situate themselves within media studies – certainly that’s true at SCMS, where cinema & media coexist in parallel with overlaps but neither as a subset of the other. Our department (as it now stands) is comparable to the SCMS model.

      I hope that addresses your question…

  2. 3 Jim

    I’m also curious about a comment. You write, “Experience teaching or attending a small liberal arts college is also a strong asset.” I have to disagree that the experience of attending a small liberal arts school should be a strong asset in and of itself. If a candidate can articulate why they would like to teach in a liberal arts setting, should the fact they didn’t attend one more than 10 years ago be a weakness compared to someone who did? As someone on the job market, and more interested in teaching at a liberal arts school (although I didn’t apply to Middlebury), I find it quite immaterial to my liberal arts readiness that I attended one of the leading research institutions in the field and majored in Media Studies. I have many friends who experienced a liberal arts education and I know from their experiences and my own different experience at a research school why I want to teach in a liberal arts setting. Moreover, at this large research institution, I had everything from a 15-person class with the Chair of the College of Communications to a 700-person lecture. All of these experiences make me really hunger to teach at a liberal arts school. Sorry for my long reply, but I’ve actually had a phone interview with a liberal arts school where one search committee member followed your same reasoning and basically acted horrified that I could even comment on on a liberal arts school having never attended one. I find such reasoning crudely reductionist. Thank you though for your write-up, as you said on a subject that often remains “opaque”–even to someone as myself who has served on a search committee as a graduate student!

    • Jim – I didn’t mean to suggest that direct SLAC experience was the only way to demonstrate that a candidate would be a good fit. I’d say that if you make your case compellingly in a letter and interview, then the “horrified” reaction you describe is completely unwarranted. But I have met many grad students and faculty whose education have never touched the SLAC model that simply do not get it, expecting large lectures with TAs and a culture that treats teaching as a “day job” to fund your research. I’ve met alums of SLACs who prefer teaching in large universities, but they at least understand what the SLAC experience is like. And certainly many products of large universities are hired and thrive at Middlebury, so past experience is only an asset, not a requirement.

  3. 5 Brian Faucette

    Would it be possible for you to elaborate on when letters requesting further materials were mailed out?

  4. 7 Rebecca

    Dr. Mittell, As someone on the market who applied for this job and many others, I just want to thank you for humanizing this “opaque” (as you appropriately describe it) process. This and your wiki contributions have been both generous and helpful.

  5. 8 Brian Faucette

    Thanks for the reply Jason. Thank you for providing advice and knowledge of this process as I finish up my dissertation. I really appreciate it and perhaps we will bump into one another at SCMS in March in Los Angeles.

  6. 9 Musa


    Thanks. This is very helpful and it gives me a lot of food for thought as I move forward in my job search. And no hard feelings, the game is the game.


  7. 10 Joel Burges

    It’s awesome that you are pursuing transparency: the ethics of doing so in a comparatively chaotic market is more of what we need in the academy!

  8. Thanks Jason, I’d just like to add my voice to the general chorus of gratitude: it feels much better knowing where things stand and how the process is unfolding. Good luck with the rest of the search!

  9. 12 Lupro

    Sorry to pile on, but your effort here and elsewhere to bring transparency to this process is extremely refreshing, inspiring, and hopefully contagious. Most sincere thanks.

  1. 1 uberVU - social comments
  2. 2 Digital Culture Links: November 14th 2009 « Tama Leaver dot Net

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