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

The Silly Season: Applying for that Full-Time Position

Hello “Good Adjuncts”

With the slow but steady uptick in the nation’s economy, more revenues have been drifting into community college budgets, meaning we’re getting fired/laid off/left off the schedule less and, joy of joys, getting shots at the coveted full-time position. Er…maybe “shot” isn’t quite the right word, but rather, “long shot”.

A colleague of mine, Dennis Callahan, may he rest in peace, was one of the lucky few who after years of toil as an adjunct managed to secure himself a full-time position.  When speaking of getting the position, he didn’t say, “I earned it,” or “I was clearly the best candidate, “or “I simply gelled with the department.” Instead, he described his getting the job as, “having won the lottery.”

I would tend to agree with this analysis, and I’ll discuss why later, but what’s being left out is this distinction.  A lottery winner simply buys a ticket for a chance shot at a glorious prize.  The would-be full-time position applicant, by contrast, will be asked to write pages and pages of applicant questions, beg full-time colleagues for letters of reference, revise and ever so tweak a curriculum vita,  go through a battery of disingenuous interviews being asked often abstract or obtuse questions by people who are coached to being largely smiling robots, wait for a response, which may not come for months, if then selected, go through a largely ceremonial interview with three other candidates when in truth, one of you has been chosen already, and then finally be anointed as full-time instructor.  This for a job that, while clearly better than being an adjunct, usually pays around 40,000 dollars a year to start.

Welcome to the “silly” season.

Every time in the past that I had the opportunity to apply for a full-time position at one of the local colleges (I am bound in part due to my wife’s work to the area), I have dutifully applied, spending a great deal of time and a bit of emotional angst over putting together the application, and going over the prospect of an interview in my head.  I have been luckier than most in that I’ve always managed to make it through the written application process, but stall out after the first interview.  Each time after that interview, I would wait, and wait, and wait, sometimes for up to two months before I heard a decision was rendered, usually by getting that fun little thin letter in the mail saying effectively “thanks, but no thanks.”

I would then spend the time between that interview and the next application process going through my head what I should have said or not said, talk with other full-time faculty, and ”strategize”.

And I did this knowing that everyone else who was interviewed and failed did the same, along with the other applicants who never even made it to the interview. Oh, and but of course, you would tell yourself, along with the other well-meaning full-timers who you’d talked to, “Buck up!  You just have to keep trying.”

It’s interesting to think that for the last 11 years of teaching that I have worked hard to be seen as a good adjunct to put myself through this process of self-flagellation.  The fact of the matter is that honestly, getting a full-time job is more about being a good applicant than being a good teacher, and to some extent, more about luck than it is about skill or talent.

The byzantine application process in California is largely the result of Equal Opportunity guidelines, which are meant to level the playing field in terms of which sexes and ethnicities are present in full-time positions.  These guidelines have been in place for over 20 years.  And how effective have they been?

Well, I teach in English, which at community colleges are the largest departments.  I can say that in terms of full timers, at the two schools where I teach, among the 40+ or so full-timers, there is one African American, three Asians, and perhaps maybe ten Latinos, which is notable in that one of my campuses is located approximately ten miles from the US-Mexico border. In what may be perhaps a more progressive sign, the majority of faculty are women, primarily white and non-Hispanic.  At both campuses, the ethnic diversity is slightly higher among the adjunct field, but I do notice, and maybe it’s just me, that many minority adjuncts will simply disappear.  My presumption is that the prospect of living paycheck to paycheck means that they, like many of my white, non-Hispanic colleagues, simply move on to other professions.

What I mean to say, in short, is that if EEOC guidelines were really meant to address the problem, they’re doing a thoroughly crappy job of it.

Now in truth, the biggest problem with the application process is that there are, even in the “best” of times, remarkably few positions available in comparison to possible applicants.  When you have sometimes up to 200 people applying for one position, and at least half if not more of those applicants are serious contenders, there are going to be losers, and a lot of them.

Clearly, the easiest solution to this problem would be for more full-time positions to be offered.  This is a no-brain answer, which can be addressed by doing something equally simply from a monetary standpoint, but difficult from a political one—give more to higher ed. with the stipulation the money be used exclusively to make more full-time positions.

I would agree that’s one solution to the problem, but only part of it.  Part of the problem is also a process which is cumbersome, unwieldy, artificial, and creates a hyper-competitive environment where people strive to escape the world of the have not’s to be among the haves.

In the third paragraph of this essay I gave a loose description of the process as done for community colleges in California.  Consider that including question responses, transcripts, letters of recommendation (optional at some places), and a fully developed curriculum vita, you’re most likely talking close to 20 pages of information to be perused for each candidate.

This means every committee member will have to go through literally thousands of pages of documents to assess who should even be interviewed.  The committee members are all too likely not given release time for their work, and the time they have to spend winding their way through the applications could be time better spent on curriculum, instruction, or professional development.  Moreover, are they really going to be able to make an honest assessment of the candidate under these conditions?

Then there is the interview process itself, which will also take the committee members out of the classroom as they need to go through hours of interviews asking tightly refereed questions.  Much of the time, the committee members are not even allowed to interact with the candidates except on the most perfunctory level.  You could just as easily put the candidates in an empty room and have them respond to the questions submitted over an intercom.

After that, the committee members will have to score the candidates on the basis of their direct responses to the questions, pretending, if one will, that the information given in the application packet didn’t exist.  The committee members then also have to pretend as if they don’t even know these people, even if they have been working alongside them for years.

From there the committee members will usually submit three choices to a vice president for further review.  Often the committee will have the candidate they want in mind, so this part of the process, is for the most part, a formality, but again, the Kabuki Dance must continue.

One might ask, “How a vice president, who may not only have no knowledge about the subject being taught, but have never really taught a class, should be a final arbiter in deciding the who is right for the position?” It would be a good question. The answer is that it makes no sense, other than that the vice president or president wants or needs that power for largely emotional or psychological reasons.

And for anybody who fires back, “it’s in the Ed. Code”, let me just ask, “Who made the Ed. Code, and what was their motivation?”

I’m always struck by people who say that schools should operate and manage themselves more like private corporations.  I ask, “Where in the corporate world would such a process be used to hire one candidate for an entry-level position?”   If you can tell me this, can you also tell me when they’re filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, because no company would be able to function effectively if it dealt with personnel and hiring in this way.

As for all the good adjuncts out there toiling away in the hopes of getting a job, 95% of them will be out of luck until, next year, when another 95% of them will be out of luck again, and at this point, the inevitable self-doubt, refection, and bitterness sets in.

And as for the lucky winners of the full-time position?  Well, they’ve been anointed the best.  They are a cut above.  Why of course, the system works, because after all, they made it, and if people were just like them…

Sometimes, these lucky few go on to view the adjunct condition as merely a temporary transitional period which effectively separates the wheat from the chaff, and therefore there is no “adjunct” problem, but rather, a problem of old adjuncts who just haven’t figured out that they suck and need to quit the profession.

I’d be curious to know that if they had to go through the same process on an annual basis if they in fact would get the job again year in and year out.  My bet is that nine times out of ten, they would not.  In fact, this actually happened at one of my institutions.  A full-timer took a year off for family issues, reapplied for the position, and didn’t make it past the first round of interviews.

What can, could, should or should be done about the process?  That my good adjuncts, will be the subject of my next essay.

Sincerely,

Geoff Johnson

A “good” adjunct who hasn’t figured out yet that he sucks.