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The Ethics of Fit

Like Donna, I've been finding myself blogging in the evening. More to the point, and a point I hope to change, I've been blogging each day in the 24th hour of the day, as the clock hits 11, and I realize that NotADayGoesBy Month will only be satisfied if I blog that very hour. I'm not sure that it's the best of strategies for me. But here I am again.

When I read Nels talking about searches yesterday, something he said stuck with me a bit. To wit,

It's hard to know who really wants to live in this area, who might have family they want to move closer towards (or further from). That's the stuff that really shapes who will fit here, but no one can know what all that stuff is. Even candidates don't always know. I mean, some people move expecting a certain kind of life (spouse finding a job, starting a family, hitting a certain kind of social scene) but finding something else. Some people end up happier in the process than they expected.

I wrote a while back about how I was only applying to places that I would seriously consider, but as I think I mentioned then, that's a luxury that far too few of us can afford. In other words, I think it's no secret that most of us must cast our nets widely in searches. Until academia's stripes change substantially, finding a job must take priority over finding the right job (and that's assuming that the "right job" is any less mythological than finding the "right partner," which I'm not sure about).

The problem with this, though, is that it leads to the kind of speculation that Nels talks about. This isn't a slam on him, because it's speculation that I've engaged in as well, and I presume that my applications at various times have been the object of such thought. But I want to suggest that this is a fine ethical line, one that gets crossed more often than we'd probably like to admit. Most of us harbor few illusions about the relative place of our institutions, and that may lead some to narrow down the mountainous stack of applications by engaging in a little prognostication.

And some forms of prediction have been rationalized approvingly in the field. Applicants to smaller liberal arts schools are advised to downplay their research, lest they be perceived as uninterested in teaching. At some places, "tenurability" is used in the same way that commentators at the NBA draft speak of "upside potential." I'm not sure, though, that these kinds of approaches to applications are all that different from more personal kinds of speculation. And I'm torn about the ethics of thinking in these terms.

I'm not suggesting that we can't bracket such speculation when we're making hiring decisions, or that it would be possible to avoid it altogether--I think it's natural to think in those terms, if we begin from the perspective that we're not hiring brains on sticks. But I also think that this kind of speculation is too far-ranging sometimes, that in the interest of making the "right choice," the concept of departmental "fit" is stretched to the breaking point. A lot of times, you can't know that you've made the right choice until a year or two into a person's time in a particular place.

For me, that's not justification to try and get it right during the search by trying to determine if a particular applicant will fit perfectly, and more importantly, it's not justification for deciding that certain applicants are applying just to be applying rather than out of genuine interest. It's natural to wonder, but impossible to answer. I've been thinking about this recently for reasons other than Nels' entry--I don't think he's crossing any sort of ethical line there. If anything, I think he's right to be honest about the kind of speculating that goes on in every search. I don't think we gain anything by pretending that it doesn't go on, or that we don't take some of these things into account as we make our hiring decisions.

I think it boils down, for me at least, to the conviction that if I'm not qualified for a position, so be it. But I'd just as soon not have strangers deciding that I wouldn't be interested in a position before I've had a chance to consider it. Even when we know that not every application that goes out or comes in is as serious as we might like, I think we're obliged to take it at face value, and to treat it as an expression of genuine interest. Anything less gets into real trouble, really quickly.

And no, I'm not talking here at the end about Nels' entry, about my own apps, or a search that we're doing (since we're not this year). I'm just saying.


Oh, you're right on. And that's actually my point. We can't know, so stop trying. And stop reacting negatively when people leave or look around.

I'm also an optimist who believes things work out in the end.

(The funny thing is that the genesis of that entry was people assuming I would be on the market this year and me responding to that since I have no plans to do so, but this post has been linked to twice for reasons I never would have thought. The wonder of blogging.)

Ah, just reread that paragraph in my entry alone, and I can see that it looks like I'm trying to figure such things like "fit" out as I read apps. Just to be clear, I'm not. My point is that we should never try because we never know, but I can see how I didn't make that clear at all.

I took your point to be not only the difficulty in knowing enough about the candidate, but even that "knowing" the candidate isn't always a good predictor...I hope I was clear enough about that.

If there's a critique here, it's reserved for the people who pretend this speculation doesn't exist, and then allow it to factor into their deliberations anyway. I'm definitely not accusing you of that, Nels, because I think one of the ways we work against it is to be open and honest about the fact that it happens.

Collin said: "one of the ways we work against it is to be open and honest about the fact that it happens."

...And be at least open to the *possibility* that we're walking a fine ethical line. In my experience on searches, the whole idea of "fit" (with the attendant speculation you mention) gets tossed around as if it's a perfectly monolithic, fixed concept. It's not. It's a slippery concept, to say the least.

And yet, when I see the time and resources and energy that departments invest in searches, I certainly see why such speculation ('is this person likely to be here in three years?') happens.

The "fit" is a guess. It is done well, at times, and at other times, it is done poorly. Good people are passed on because of guesses (do they really want to come? maybe they're just up for tenure? why would he leave there for here?). People who end up never producing an article are or who can't get tenure are the ones taken.

In some ways, it is like the draft. You can be a highly touted prospect and then fall to the second round b/c someone on some committee suspected the metaphoric "character issue." Or you can be taken #1 overall because of all your supposed potential (think Michael Olowokandi here or Tim Couch in football), and turn out to be a dud.

This is very upsetting if you feel like you were unfairly passed by (sometimes I look back to 2001 and think of myself as Rashard Lewis, flabbergasted that he's fallen to the second round). Sometimes, like Rashard Lewis has now done, you come up for your third contract renegotiation and realize you are finally appreciated for your ability and contributions. That second round fall no longer means anything. You've since proven yourself.

So, I'm waiting to get to that level of current Rashard Lewis-status.


I agree with everything you've said. I also have learned that "fit" changes over time. The place you begin doesn't necessarily stay the same! The chair leaves, new people come, old people go away, or your own plans change.

Of course you need to look over candidates with a certain concern for good fit with the program's needs, but there's really no perfect fit.

After all, I think the job is one big series of adjustments. Nobody "fits" into a job. You sort of fit, and then you have to alter here and there. It's like me buying pants. Being a short, curvy girl can mean a lot of alteration in clothes. Same thing with the jobs.

The real question should be: Will this person do the right kinds of alterations? Will we?

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