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February 17, 2008, 7:50 pm

Cruising around the blogosphere as one does, and following link to link, I ended up on Academic Cog’s December post about the academic job wiki. My favorite Cog was upbraiding midnight raiders who erased sections of the wiki, claiming that they had done so as a “political act” to protest the oppressions of the job market. I agree with Miss Cog, mutilating the wiki was a mean thing to do, although I think it was probably a function of wiki-madness itself, perhaps enhanced by drink, that gave some jerk the idea that hir own rotten year on the job market could be made better by destabilizing other people’s peace of mind. Having never really thought much about this job market wiki before last year (when I stumbled upon it and, to my horror, found a colleague’s divorce detailed by a disappointed job hunter as the reason why s/he was given a job, purportedly by sympathetic friends, that “should have” gone to someone junior), I have now encountered it accidentally several times in the last six weeks.

The first was at the AHA, where I had an exchange with another colleague who I don’t know particularly well. Both of us are tenured full professors at SLACs, so neither of us (I think) fall into the category of people who might justifiably be enraged on our own, or our students’, behalf by the state of the job market. I mentioned the incident I have sketched out above as a reason why I thought the wiki was not so great (not that there is anything one can, or should, do to stop it, as it is a wiki.) My colleague got fighting mad — or at least it seemed so to me — because, as s/he pointed out, the job market is so stacked against the job-seeker, anything that could give a candidate more information was justified.

OK, I said, trying to de-escalate, but any and all information? Including putting the personal business of strangers up? And how did more information about others really help a job seeker? (Academic Cog, by the way, makes a good point that being allowed to deal with disappointment privately is a benefit of the wiki.) As I also pointed out, one had to rely on the good will of other strangers that the information posted was accurate. And, although some of it seemed to be good sharing – “received phone interview 11/21″ – some of it was bad sharing — “I hear that there is a short list already.” “I hear there is an inside candidate.” Well, from whom did you hear that?

My colleague was unmoved by my skepticism and we agreed to disagree. I shimmered across the room to get another beer, and forgot about the wiki for another few weeks.

But once I started to ask around, I found that people actively on the job market give the wiki mixed reviews. For every jobless soul I have talked to who finds it helpful to have “more information” there is another who is made anxious by the compulsion to check the wiki and its inevitable failure to offer any concrete help in the job hunt. “I try to stay off it,” more than one has confessed. “It makes me anxious, but I keep checking anyway,” said another a few weeks back. And I get that: if you are a blogger, how many times a day do you check to see if there are any comments? Any comments responding to your response to a comment? A visit from the Diva that might need to be purged? (nb: the Diva has been very civil of late and we at Tenured Radical appreciate it.) How could you help but go on the wiki if you were on the market?

Okay, so when I decided to write about the Academic Job wiki, I went to the original wiki, and then followed Academic Cog’s link to the scratchpad version that was established when the Raiders of the Lost Wiki took a number of pages down from the real one. And I found, in relation to my own American Studies searches at Zenith:

NB to candidates: Caution when applying here. Institutional cultures vary by department, last year’s search for a [field censored by TR] specialist in [department censored by TR] was tanked by a hostile admin, and several junior fac of color were not granted tenure. Research well, ask around, and get the specs.

Now, this information is only partially accurate, to begin with. Furthermore, as neither of our American Studies searches were partnered with the named department, or in the designated field, and the search chairs are reporting to an entirely different administration (president, provost and divisional dean are all different people), I ask you: what did this have to do with the actual searches that candidates would be participating in? What does the wiki tell them that helps them be better candidates for our jobs? That there is racism at Zenith? Well I could have told you that if you had asked. And those who work at universities where there is no racism might want to write a comment for this post about what it is like to work under those conditions. Enquiring minds want to know.

I suspect that the person who wrote the wiki post is the same anonymous commenter who occasionally shows up on this blog to hint darkly about my naivete about the “troubles” at Zenith. I don’t mind the insinuation, although as regular readers of this blog know, having been among the first round of casualties in those troubles, aka, the Unfortunate Events, it is not I who needs to be reminded that the past is not always a place we want to visit. But at what university or college have these things not happened? Where have deserving people not been misunderstood? Welcome to the academy.

Furthermore, I wonder — is such a comment actually intended to hurt rather than help? Certainly suggesting that job candidates ask directly about whether the tenure process is biased against candidates of color seems like a bad strategy. Ask me that and you are asking the person who will be candid and think it is a reasonable conversation in a recruiting situation; ask some other search chair and they might suggest you pick up your dossier on the way out the door. You really have no way of knowing. But let’s assume encouraging people to make themselves conspicuous by collecting gossip that they have no way of evaluating is not malicious: how would a candidate act on that advice? Not apply for a job s/he is qualified for and increase the risk of remaining an adjunct instead? Or apply for the job, perhaps get it, and then be permanently vigilant about what terrible thing will happen next at the hands of unknown enemies?

Alright, I’ll stop fulminating. I know that it was a spiteful attempt, probably by someone who has all the reasons in the world, to slam Zenith more generally in response to having been slammed by the Zenith personnel process. But as to whether such comments “help” others? Let’s not be naive. And this leads me to the problem with the wiki: there seems to be no wiki administrator who is in a position to address the question of whether a post, disingenuously claiming to be helpful, actually hurts job candidates in the end by complicating their f
eelings about places that people inevitably experience differently and search processes which do not privilege the individual.

As to what I learned from the wiki, I think it would be helpful for people running searches to read it to think about what not to do and how to be as respectful of candidates as possible. As Academic Cog points out, search committees keep candidates on the string for far too long. Candidates receive interview requests so much at the last minute that even knowing whether to pre-register for the convention is impossible — a convention you really might not be able to bear going to if you have no interviews. (The Radical once received such an invitation on Christmas Eve.) These endless timelines are something we need to re-think, since job searches may be disappointing on many levels, but they don’t have to be gruesome or dismissive: to this extent, I agree wholeheartedly with my AHA colleague that more transparency would help. Reading the wiki comments should be sobering about the level to which those running searches do not feel bound by common courtesy. Not returning response cards included in the application by the candidate; not acknowledging the receipt of applications; not letting people know they are out of the running; personal rudeness on interviews: the list is long, and these careless things happen everywhere, including Zenith, I am sorry to say.

After my own search is over, I will do a post about how to do a search that will include some things I wish I had done better this year — maybe an article for AHA Perspectives. Someone should, at any rate, and I hope some of the comments on this post will give advice on that. But let me say that although the wiki does no terrible harm, the good it does may be undermined by the level to which it incites insecurity among job seekers and distributes questionable information (some of the clothing advice is truly useless obsessing: no one does– or doesn’t — get a job because s/he did — or didn’t — wear a dark suit.) What might make sense is if, alongside the wiki run by job seekers, each professional assocation maintained a wiki in which search chairs who had advertised with that association’s newsletter posted a tentative schedule at the time of placing the ad, and were asked to either maintain that schedule or alter it if circumstances dictate. Comments about discourteous or unprofessional treatment that go directly and confidentially to the Vice President of the Professional Division of that association could also be a feature of this page. Job seekers have a perfect right to do what it takes to feel empowered, but having information made publicly available by the search committees themselves strikes me as an intervention that would allow those who want to get off the wiki to do so.

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