The Silly Season Part II: The Myth of Impartiality in the Full-Time Application Process

Good Adjuncts,

When I last wrote on the full-time position application/interview process, I told you that I was planning on writing about concrete suggestions for improving the process, and I’m going to get at some of them here, but to do so I need to get at what drives much of its cumbersome, redundant, and impractical nature.

At the heart of it is the myth of impartiality.

What do I mean you ask?

Well, unlike the people who decided this year’s Oscar nominations, most public institutions are very concerned about trying to redress the fact that their instructional staff is dominated by faculty that are white, male, or culturally Anglo-Saxon, especially in places like Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California, where the overwhelming majority of student are Latino/Hispanic. To some extent, students should be taught by teachers that can have a deeper personal awareness of their students’ backgrounds. Perhaps even more so, students should have the experience of learning from teachers of other races, sexes, and socio-cultural backgrounds to have both a broader world view, and a capacity to think outside certain cultural boxes.

The idea of an “impartial” application process, driven in part by EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) guidelines, was driven to root out the institutional bias that kept under-represented groups from being present among college faculty. The assumption has been and is that if the process is “impartial” that naturally the best candidates for the full-time position will rise above that bias. At the same time, this “impartiality” will also prevent a kind of cronyism in which personal favorites of administrators and or faculty are chosen for their likability rather than their skill or talent.

The truth of the matter is that despite decades of this push for impartiality, college faculty are still not that diverse, and moreover, cronyism and partiality are still very much in place.

I think few college faculty, when seriously looking over the ethnic and socio-cultural diversity of our campuses, can say that our faculty as a whole is reflective of the diversity that it should be, although there are a few who would take umbrage at my assertions of cronyism and partiality. In response to these, let me offer up a couple of examples:

If you’re really interested in getting a diverse applicant pool for a full-time position, then you’re naturally going to want to throw out a wide net; this would translate into a position being advertised for minimum of six weeks. Why so long? Well, it gives the applicant enough time to 1) research the institution, 2) consider the position requirements, 3)acquire transcripts and letters of recommendation (needed in some cases), 4) fully consider the supplemental questions usually asked, and 5) write an effective letter of introduction and intent. It would also stand to reason that the position would be advertised widely, like say in the Chronicle of Higher Education and, as in the case of California Community College System, websites like the California Community Colleges Registry, and that the position would be widely announced on the very campus where the position is being offered.

Sadly, this practice is only randomly observed. In one specific case, I can recall position being posted the day before a Spring Break with just a two-week window for applications. Yup, they were certainly looking for a wide pool of applicants. You can probably bet that even some of the adjuncts in the same department were caught unawares, which must have made that mad dash to assemble all the necessary materials real fun, not to mention of course, that the duress under which the applications were assembled meant that all the applicants were putting forth less than their best.

Another example I have is of a position with I believe a one-month posting window that was so poorly advertised that one adjunct, who had been working on an involved project with the department chair, didn’t even know about it, nor did half the adjuncts in the department, not to mention adjuncts who weren’t working in the district.

When I first heard about these examples, I thought surely the California Ed. Code would prohibit such practices, but no. How a position is advertised is determined by the hiring committee alone. Does that sound fair?

Another place where partiality and cronyism play a factor is in what is known as the supplemental application. Now before I get going, first let me say that supplemental components on applications are essential. Specific departments are going to have certain needs, and they need to determine whether candidates do or do not meet these needs.

The problem is that many of these supplemental applications become either too long, or tied to the jargony in-language of a department, and actually can work against a diverse applicant pool. Four of five supplemental questions which speak to an applicant’s teaching, professional development, campus involvement, and theoretical viewpoint should be enough. I recently filled out one application with Twelve supplemental questions, each of which involved giving highly detailed and well-thought out answers. Many of the questions were in fact redundant, and not one of the 20+ other adjuncts I talked to about the application as a whole didn’t think the number of questions was excessive, and this includes two of the adjuncts that actually got the full-time positions.

The “jargony” aspect of the application will come out when certain cue words are thrown out like “Generation 1.5” and “Affective Domain” to talk about ideas and concepts that already existed and were being discussed in simpler language before the words were used. These words remind me of the Post-Structural Literary Theory language used in Grad School Programs in the 80’s and early 90’s. When applicants see these words, most of them, unless they were at the specific conference where the word was used, or in that specific department’s meeting where the word had been bandied about, are going to go and google it, or chat about it with their colleagues, figure out they’ve been dealing with it already, then turn around and write about it in the application, making sure to drop the word to show awareness. Naturally, the applicant who is on the “inside track” with the language is going to succeed, but does this sort of circle-jerking of a term really result in getting the best candidate?

The effect of the massive supplemental application is more pernicious in another regard. If you, as anyone I talked to about the application, spends over 30+ hours filling it out, it’s time taken away from teaching, family, sleep, etc. Each supplemental application is different, so if one is applying to mutliple schools, this turns the application process into an unpaid full-time job to supplement the already overworked and underpaid job one has. Generally, the people who have the time and energy to devote to this are younger, or not encumbered with family, namely children, or having to support the whole household independently on a single income. There are exceptions of course, but few.

Anyway, filling out any of the applications is more or less a cathartic process, and so when after all the work, an applicant, approximately six weeks later, receives a thin letter, which effectively says “your application was considered, but you were not chosen . . .” then follows up with the most bullshit rejection letter line “. . . we hope that you will consider applying again in the future  . . .” you can bet it’s a bit demoralizing. Now to be honest, people do have to get rejection letters, and people are going to have to be disaappointed, but you certainly can lessen the sting if the application is less arduous. The fact of the matter is that after a few of these serious gut punches, adjuncts stop applying, but they don’t stop working. In fact, I know of one whose been working since 1963, and still is.

You’d think after 30 years, she’d be made full-time by sheer commitment to the job.  Further, if she hasn’t been fired in 52+ years, one could assume she knows how to do the job.

A final example I want to offer up of partiality, at least as it exists at the California Community College Level, is the presidential interview. Consider that a large community college campus has 200+ full-time faculty, and some have even more. Consider as well that these faculty and the positions they hold are in areas of specialization and expertise of which the president often had limited or no knowledge. Consider further that these presidents are more CEO’s and public relations figures than academics. I wonder if, in any similar-sized company in the US, that the CEO interviews each full-time employee? My guess is…no.

Then, does it really make sense for the president to conduct the final interview for each full-time academic position?

My sense for why this happens is because of accreditation and the corporitization of the college campus. Whether he/she tells you or not in the interview the president wants to choose somebody to help sell the campus and make him/her look good. Unfortunately, this doesn’t neccessarily have to do with being an academic. Presidents want people compliant with accrediation (think SLO’s), who aren’t going to raise hackles over raised class caps, reduced access to educational resoucres when he/she deems it necessary, and proposed new policies and facilites, whether of dubious nature or not. The fact that this one individual (the president)  has the ultimate say in whether a person gets the full-time job or not should make it clear that the application process is anything but impartial.

If you’d like to take at least some of the silliness out of the silly season, then:

1) All applications should be uniformly advertised and posted with enough time for applicants to resonably get their materials together.
2) The supplemental components should be limited to 4-5 questions, and the application as a whole should take no more than 5-10 hours to process.
3) The hiring committees (Composed of a Dean, Department Chair, Faculty and one Student Representative) should be the first and final people to decide upon a full-time hire.

But I have an additional suggestion. Many of the problems with partiality and cronyism in the process are not because the people who hire adjuncts hate adjuncts. In fact, quite the opposite. They want to hire the adjuncts who work alongside them, for they know that they can do the job.

Fair enough. Then departments and/or schools should be given the opportunity to offer “closed” positions in which the only eligible applicants are those that work for the institution already. An internal promotion process whereby adjuncts at an existing institution could become full-time instructors would significantly improve morale among adjuncts, and impel them to be more connected to the institutions at which they work.

Most workers, and teachers are no exception, operate by a notion of a protestant work ethic which implies that hard work is rewarded by a rise of one’s station in life.

That an adjunct could simply become a full-timer by hard work and dedication alone? Perchance to dream…

Geoff Johnson

A “Good” Adjunct

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2 thoughts on “The Silly Season Part II: The Myth of Impartiality in the Full-Time Application Process

  1. I fully agree with the existing Adjuncts should be given preference as is common practice in companies. Improve morale by promoting from within. Secondly, the demonstration lecture needs to be under uniform conditions, i.e. in an actual classroom and not in a small conference room that isn’t even arranged (screen, computer, etc) as a classroom is arranged.

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  2. an applicant, approximately six weeks later, receives a thin letter

    Not to depress you further, but that’s actually really good. When I was applying for faculty positions (at four-year colleges) rejection response times were typically on the order of four months. Because most of them go through the entire process (compile longlist, conduct phone interviews, compile shortlist, conduct on-campus interviews, make offer, have offer accepted) before they’ll tell anyone that they’ve been rejected. And that’s for the schools that even bother telling applicants they’ve been rejected. Maybe half the schools never even bother telling them.

    As for the possibility of prioritizing internal candidates, that seems like a good idea for community colleges. If the job is 100% teaching, there’s no better preparation than teaching at that school. With four-year colleges and even more so research universities, the chance of going from adjunct to tenure track is minimal, though.

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