Question I applied for a job in the honors college of my alma mater ("Juneville State"). It's the program where I came of academic age. I founded the literary journal there, accumulated more hours than any other graduate in the program, and won all the honors. I'm very much a known entity. I received my M.A. and Ph.D. from Juneville as well, and have now been teaching at another college for 10 years. But when I saw that Juneville had an opening, I contacted my former mentor, who encouraged me to apply. I expected at least a courtesy interview, but instead got a form e-mail to "Dear Applicant," thanking me for applying, regretting that I was not selected, and adding, "Please do not let this discourage you from applying for other positions that interest you. This e-mail address is not monitored. Please do not reply."
Am I being overly sensitive? What has happened to the collegiality that used to exist in situations like this? I was hurt and offended. Is this the height of rudeness, or what?
Answer: At least "Or what."
You, of course, know the personalities at Juneville State, or how they comported themselves a decade ago. You know who was a good teacher, who was generous, and who was out of the loop. But Ms. Mentor, in her infinite wisdom, knows how academic units work, and she suspects you are the victim of bad practices that proliferate in our troubled times.
One villain may be simply bureaucratic: A human-resources office may now be in charge of hiring at Juneville State, and it may be treating all job applicants with an absolutely equal and abysmal lack of tact. Few colleges and universities have the time or money to send individual letters updating applicants on the search, but e-mail messages can include the names of individuals and be written with some kindness ("We are sorry that the volume of applications from excellent candidates is so large . . .")
Still, Ms. Mentor knows many reasons why a program will not hire its own graduates, and you may have unwittingly run afoul of certain sacred beliefs and peculiar practices. To wit:
The Grass Is Greener. "If he's already here -- or if he's already been here -- someone else from somewhere else must be better." That way of thinking applies in all hiring, and it especially hurts those who have worked as adjuncts for years at the same campus.
The Grass Is Greener phenomenon suggests that most academics do not think highly of themselves -- which may be true. They think that somewhere, over the hedge, is the Perfect Candidate who -- especially when a program is troubled or underfinanced -- will lead them into the Promised Land of huge raises, waves of acclaim, and joy without end.
Such a savior has to be a stranger riding into town, hired from somewhere in the vast world outside Juneville. That savior can't be someone they've known since she was a freshman. Besides, she might notice that . . .
The Bodies Aren't Buried. Your professors may have trouble envisioning you as an adult, as a peer. Like parents, they saw you when you were baby-faced, and they have trouble imagining you as a fully functioning, self-diapering scholar and teacher. They may also fear what you remember about them.
Many academics are really shy people who -- because they love school, or love research -- have been forced to perform in public. Many feel very exposed when they teach, and scarcely anyone ever wants to be observed while teaching ("I'd rather have them watch me in bed," says one assistant professor Ms. Mentor knows. "I know what to do there.")
Your former teachers may recall being awkward or inadequate in front of you, even though you, as an intelligent student, probably admired and appreciated their work. Even worse, there may be faculty members whose lives have changed scandalously in the last 10 years: They've dumped their spouses for younger models; they've come out of the closet, or gone in; they've joined or rejected certain religious callings; their kids have humiliated them in exotic, soul-searing ways. There's no shortage of things they may have done that they would rather not have anyone know about.
You, as part of their past, are, inadvertently, a witness to those follies. That makes many people twitchy. And finally . . .
Inbreeding's Not Allowed. There may be a simpler explanation for the program's lack of interest in hiring you, or in even bestirring itself to be gracious about it, and that's the policy that most universities have against "inbreeding." That clumsy agricultural term, which reminds Ms. Mentor of udders and snouts, means "Thou shalt not hire thine own graduates."
Such a policy appears in the faculty handbooks of most institutions, except for the Ivy Leagues and very religious denominations -- both of which prefer their own. Most universities seek to diversify their gene pools, so hiring their own graduates won't do. Ms. Mentor wonders why your mentor didn't just say that, instead of encouraging your hopes.
Having explained all that, Ms. Mentor will finally agree with you. A "Dear Applicant" rejection is indeed the height of rudeness, and she's sure it is no comfort to think that others have also been victims. Misery does not love company, and the next time Juneville wants you to donate money, you might consider writing a letter about their treatment of worthy job applicants. "Why should I donate to an institution that does not respect its alums?" might be the beginning of a soul-satisfying, scorching letter.
Among academics, a colorfully worded, clever and ruthlessly belligerent letter can be a thrilling revenge. You can imagine the recipient curdled in shame, weeping, writhing in guilt and self-loathing. You can wonder why you would want to teach at a place where people behave so rudely, crudely, and pusillanimously.
Ms. Mentor hopes you feel better already. They are not worthy of you.
Question: Fed up with my food-fussy colleagues, I'm starting to agree with Anthony Bourdain's claim in Kitchen Confidential that "vegetarians and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans" are "the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit" -- but is it possible that I'm turning into such a hopeless grouch that I'll have to eat my lunch all by myself?
Sage Readers: Ms. Mentor's invitation to recommend "viciously witty academic novels" yielded an overwhelming favorite: Richard Russo's Straight Man. Other suggestions include Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, Jane Smiley's Moo, Francine Prose's Blue Angel, Michael Malone's Foolscap, and James Hynes's Publish and Perish. For more, Ms. Mentor directs still-hungry readers to Elaine Showalter's Faculty Towers: the Academic Novel and Its Discontents.
As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes rants, gossip, and queries. Anonymity is guaranteed, and identifying details are always masked (although the paranoid will find themselves in every column). This month she especially invites correspondence about academic food fetishes, a subject of some moment at the moment.
Ms. Mentor rarely answers letters personally, but many readers have found help in her archive; in her tome, Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia; and in The Chronicle's forums and other columns on this site.
Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her e-mail address is email@example.com
Her views do not necessarily represent those of The Chronicle.