Return to Sender; or, the Art of Rejection

April 16, 2008, 9:24 pm

In response to recent accusations of smuggery, I would like to say that, although I occupy a privileged position in the world, I am still subject to rejection from time to time. I hate rejection. It makes me feel unwanted. I hate it when students reject me by writing mean teaching evaluations. It makes me feel misunderstood and resentful. Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often.

I have had to get used to rejection, though, since between my exalted position as Chair of the Program and the never-ending project of keeping my scholarly life vital, I have to apply for things constantly — internal to Zenith as well as external — and, as they say, you can’t win ‘em all. One year, during the Unfortunate Events, because members of my department were giving me the Big Raspberry and because I couldn’t really sleep, I applied for everything under the sun: five jobs, three year-long fellowships, and a tiny research fellowship that the actual fellowship committee chair at the archive had urged me to apply for. It was that last one that tore it — I sat down on my front stairs and wept. Never, I vowed, NEVER will I apply for anything again — not even an extension on my taxes.

I got over it. And now, because of “my privilege,” as my Zenith students would put it, and because I am really an optomist, I apply for things all the time without worrying much whether I will get them or not. Jobs, fellowships, symposia where your work has to be accepted. And sometimes I do get them, or in the case of jobs, I get a nibble here and there. This is an ideal outcome, by the way, if you are already employed in a good situation: I know I am appreciated, but I don’t have to move or say goodbye to my friends. Although I must admit, my friends seem to say goodbye to me with regularity — another story, for another day.

But because I have been getting a few rejection letters myself, and because I recently sent sixty or so of them, I have been following the discussion in the blogosphere about rejection letters rather avidly. These are people being rejected for tenure track jobs — one fellow apparently took to papering the wall of the TA lounge with them. This is what I have learned: many of you do not do such a great job rejecting people — some of you never send a thing, assuming that time will pass and people will just get it after a while that they aren’t going to be interviewed. So pay attention, search chairs of 2008-09:

1. Do not send rejections by email.
2. Do not send rejections by post card.
3. When writing a letter to candidates, if you actually met them, or solicited the candidacy, take two seconds to write a personal note. This means not having your departmental secretary sign them, of course.
4. Send rejections in a timely way: at least when the search is over, if not before. In fact, although wisdom has it that you reject no one until the chosen candidate has signed on the dotted line, truth be told, a large part of the pool is out of the running after the first cut. Why not tell the people who didn’t make the semi-final cut — say, in January, rather than April?

I suspect I get the special handling variety of rejection letters because of the rank thing, but there is no reason that has to be so. Being respectful to job candidates goes a long way, from my perspective. I would like to say that this year I got no response from one search chair, one ordinary “We hired blah blah blah…” letter, and two particularly nice letters, both from (cough, cough) women. Odd coincidence, no?

One letter – that came by email, true, but I don’t really care — said it was so good to have read my materials because there might be a position that suited me better some day (isn’t that nice? It was the posiiton that didn’t fit the candidate, not the candidate that didn’t fit the position. Sweet.) The other said that I was not a candidate because of how the position was ultimately defined, not because of “any deficiencies on [my] part.” Again — nice.

Of course, the last letter struck exactly the right note, since this is the letter I always fear I will receive:

Dear Professor Radical,

Are you kidding? We have people defending dissertations who look better on paper than you do. And full professor? Puh-lease.


Sherman Pinprick
Distinguished Tinky Winky Chair of Queer Studies
Venerable University

P.S. You also didn’t get the job because of your stinking blog.

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