Blog Post

Mistakes Were Made, or The Language of Rescinding

Nazareth College (Image from Flickr)

“You never know exactly what’s going on there”:  the adage about other peoples’ marriages applies equally to the academic job market.  Bearing this in mind disinclined me to contribute to the recent Internet storm of commentary about Nazareth College’s withdrawing a tenure-track job offer from a candidate (“W”).  But two other factors contributed to my reluctance to chime in.

First, most of what I would say about this story seemed to have been stated, or at least raised, on various academic and other blogs and social media outlets already.  The major threads have been gender, maternity leave policies, the mentorship of graduate students, the “fit” problem, the shifting expectations of professionalism, the delicate business of negotiating and the inadvisability of doing it over email, and the ethics of Nazareth’s decision. (I’m linking to examples of these necessarily overlapping threads, rather than rehearsing the arguments here.)  By the time I even heard about the story, last Friday, discussion of the incident involving “W” and Nazareth on most websites had devolved into mean-spirited moralizing, ad hominen critiques, and the ultimate occupational hazard of academia, grandstanding.

Second, I am an assistant professor at a small liberal arts college at which I enjoy teaching in ways I couldn’t have anticipated during my doctoral training. I am also a junior faculty member at a small liberal arts college that expects that faculty be excellent teachers and that they maintain active, engaged, and significant scholarly careers.  Crucially, my home institution facilitates that pursuit with paid student research assistants, a solid grants office, pre-tenure sabbaticals, and other forms of support.  Thus for me and for many of the job candidate and junior professor peers with whom I have, inevitably, discussed it, the Nazareth/“W” story hits a little too close to home.  One friend described it as “the stuff of academic job seekers’ nightmares.”  Indeed.  So can any of us really be as objective as we’d perhaps like to in our thinking about this story?  And besides, doesn’t this whole storm have “time-suck” written all over it?  Well, no and yes, respectively.  

Disinclination aside, there are two related points—about language and narratives—that I have not seen raised in online discussion of the rescinded job offer.  On language: while the phrasing of the candidate’s email enumeration of her “provisions” for acceptance of the job offer has provoked much comment, the College’s language, as opposed to its questionable ethical behavior, has not.  To this point, one sentence of Nazareth’s rejection email strikes me as particularly noteworthy.  After stating that the search committee and administrators have discussed the candidate’s provisions, the College writes:

It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered.

The phrase “it was determined” uses the passive voice to convey a certain determination, while the point of ostensibly logical reference here is a constrictive dichotomy of the kind scholars across disciplines are trained to suspect:  it’s “Us” (“a college like ours”) versus “them” (the research university where the candidate has, necessarily, been trained).   It’s obfuscating language, designed to leave ambiguous who exactly did the determining. Were Nazareth’s sentence found in a student essay, most of us would direct them in our comments toward writing more precise prose.

The “it was determined” sentence also bespeaks a tendency of search committees in particular, but perhaps faculty in general, to create and then consolidate narratives about a candidate or, later, about a new colleague, that do not accord with the candidate’s articulation of her professional aims in the areas of research, teaching, and service. The converse is true, too, especially during the job search:  many candidates are coached to tell the institution what they assume it wants to hear about teaching and research—or, all too often, about teaching versus research.  In the present instance, what the Nazareth administration and search committee agreed upon was a reading of W’s email.  And an unoriginal reading at that.  If we need any proof that the College’s reading of W’s email aligns with standard narratives about job-seekers and search committees, look no farther than the “Comments” sections I mentioned above:  there, you’ll see an assumed mismatch between what commenters dismissively call “fancy” R1 institutions or candidates and implicitly un-“fancy” colleges or colleagues.

To expand the problem of such readymade narratives out from “W” and Nazareth to candidates and colleges or universities more broadly:  the response to this story online has relied on and reiterated similarly pre-fab stories about how “all R1s care or know about is research” and “all LACs care or know about is teaching.”  Snobbishness, inaccuracy, and a baffling datedness underlie both of those narratives.  Any good teacher at an R1 or any solid researcher at a liberal arts college can tell you that much.*  But such anecdotal evidence of good teachers at research places and good researchers at teaching places, however, leaves those dominant and, as the case of “W” and Nazareth makes clear, damaging narratives intact.  Such narratives can come to inform, or misinform, scholars’ expectations of ourselves as much as of our fields, careers, employers, and even colleagues.  They inform—or misinform—the infamous “name tag affiliation check” at academic conferences.  Why perpetuate such reductive thinking about scholarly life or institutional practice? 

Just think about the current graduate student reading the rapidly accumulating discussion of this incident among the academic community.  What does she read?  She reads, by turns, the story of a candidate who either cluelessly made a mistake or rightly advocated for her needs, and of a teaching institution that either behaved shabbily toward a woman graduate student or heroically held the line against a culture of prestige entitlement.  What that graduate student also reads, however, is an academic community responding in language and narratives that, while perhaps cathartic in the short term, do very little to challenge lazy assumptions about the kind of career that is possible at an R1 or an LAC (or other kinds of academic institutions, for that matter.) We’re assessing the mistakes on both sides here according to the kind of readymade narratives through which a committee arrives at “It was determined…”  Might continued community propagation of these dated narratives constitute an indirect failure of mentorship? 


*There are, of course, many important differences between the expectations and rhetoric around being on the job market versus being on the (tenure-track) job.  But if it wasn’t clear before the most recent market collapse in 2008-09, it should be clear by now that many R1s and LACs alike will not grant tenure without demonstrated achievement in both research and teaching.  Different kinds of institutions will, of course, emphasize different kinds of things in their job listings, interviews, and deliberations. The MLA Committee on Professional Employment addressed the structures and assumptions that inform such variations in expectations in its 1997 report on what it referred to as the “job system.” The MLA website also maintains a link to this relevant article from 2001.

Assistant Professor of English, Dickinson College
Claire Seiler's research and teaching focus on modern and contemporary literature and culture in the U.S., England, and Ireland. Her work makes an inquiry of inconspicuous terms that inform twentieth-century literary criticism, among them "midcentury" (which she investigates in her first-book-in-progress, titled "Midcentury Suspension") and the "generation" (the problematic category that organizes her next project, on twentieth-century poetics). Her work has been published in Twentieth-Century Literature, Comparative Literature, Modernism/Modernity, and elsewhere.