Each year, University academic departments conduct job searches to fill permanent teaching positions, a task that falls on professors within the department. The search for one position can induce plenty of stress, but this year, the History Department is looking to hire three new faculty members, placing enormous strain on professors.
“I don’t really how to quantify it, but it’s taken an awful lot of time,” said Professor of History Richard H. Elphick. “We are reading materials for one candidate while we are busy discussing for another search all together. I think basically most of us are spending all our weekends or evening and every bit of spare time.”
The History Department is currently in the process of conducting three separate searches for professors in nineteenth-century United States history, Spanish history to 1900 and African American history with a focus in the post-reconstruction period.
The selection process begins with a search committee composed of three or four professors who must sift through anywhere from 40 to 200 applications. A look at this process reveals an aspect of professors’ work outside of the classroom, which is not often considered by students.
“[Applicants] have to submit a writing sample, three letters of recommendation, and a letter of application,” said Laura Nussdorfer, a professor of history who heads one of the search committees. “They talk about their research, and they talk about their teachings in their letters. The search committee then reads the applications and decides on a group of about a dozen people to interview in person.”
After interviewing the selected applicants, the search committee, with the approval of the academic deans and the provost, chooses three or four of the candidates to invite to campus.
With the search committee’s job complete, a rigorous selection process begins. This year, three search committees—one for each position—invited a total of 11 candidates to the University to vie for three positions in the History Department.
In the next phase of the selection process, each faculty member in the department reads every candidate’s work.
“Between the first week of classes and the end of February, all members of the History Department will have been required to read 11 dissertations or books in addition to other writing samples for the History Department searches alone,” said William D. Johnston, the Chair of the History Department. “Keep in mind that most members of the Department are also active participants in other ongoing searches.”
Putting additional stress on faculty within the department is the limited time given to complete these readings.
“It is imperative to move as quickly as possible,” Johnston said. “[This] means having intense discussions over a short period of time, so that Wesleyan does not lose top candidates to other schools.”
Nussdorfer said that in her 23 years at the University, she could recall only one other time when the department had to fill three positions in one year. This extra workload has severely cut into professors’ time.
“I guess at this point in life I would sometimes take a day off or at least half a day off during the weekend, but now we have to read through these things,” Johnston said. “Right now, laundry and shopping are what I think of as free time.”
Also involved in the selection process are student major committees, who have a chance to meet with candidates and make recommendations to faculty. The History Major Committee has lunch with each of the 11 candidates and attends the candidates’ lectures, which are also attended by faculty members. When the meeting is held to make the final decision, the student committee presents its own report about that candidate.
“The very first thing that happens is that the student committee comes in and gives a report,” Elphick said. “They ask questions about whether this person fits into the department or whether this person fits into the field and they tell us who they prefer. I can’t remember a case where the students hated a candidate and the department chose that candidate.”
After the student committee’s presentation, the department democratically decides which candidate they want as their colleague. They then submit their recommendation and a report of the candidate to the Office of Academic Affairs to review the report. Upon approval, a formal offer is made to the chosen candidate.
Even though the selection process is draining, there is a general consensus that it is a necessary process essential to the long-term success of the University.
“This is the most important decision we make as faculty members because these are the people who will be the teachers of the future at Wesleyan,” Nussdorfer said.