Emotional labor and ethical hiring practices in academia



We all know the score: despite the continued growth in post-graduate degrees, full-time, permanent positions in academia are increasingly rare. In 2009, part-time faculty members represented more than half of all faculty in teaching positions and only 30 percent of all faculty held tenure track positions. Certainly, to search for work in today’s over-saturated academic market, in the depths of a recession, is no easy task; as a newly minted PhD, this is a fact I know all to well. In such a market, every position opening receives scores – if not hundreds – of applications. With so many qualified individuals for each post, the question arises: how can one ethically respond to unsuccessful applicants?

The problem here is multifaceted. With many more new graduates than positions opening each year, the market becomes increasingly competitive. Thus, while some Departments may boast higher placement rates than in recent years, what they seldom note is how long their graduates have been on the market, moving from one short term post to the next, many times for a number of years. Not only does this fact mean that a large number of post-graduates are under a high level of stress in the face of an uncertain future, but it also means that, often times, recently matriculated PhDs enter the market and compete for the same entry-level positions with those who have been in the workforce for several years already. Thus, when resumes are received and judged by human resource departments in the first instance, those with greater experience are often chosen over those with less, regardless of whether the latter meet the minimum requirements. In other words: there is no limit in terms of ‘overqualification’ for hires. In fact, under the current context, the word ‘overqualified’ itself has ceased to carry its previous meaning – that one ‘won’t get hired’. In the neoliberal university – where departments are judged on the number of publications and research grants received by their faculty – how could we expect less? But we must ask: does this leave entry-level academics in a holding pattern, doomed to repeat the same struggles in precarity as their predecessors? And further, how might we more ethically and compassionately interact with those who are struggling – particularly those with whom we have personal relationships, whether as former students, mentees, or graduates of our programs or departments?

As with my previous article for University of Venus, I’m interested here in how our affective experiences influence and are influenced by the academy. I think that there should be more exploration, not only in terms of the emotional labor of teaching that Janni Aragon discusses, but the ways that our emotional life colors both our research and our interactions in academic settings. I want to argue that responding to unsuccessful job applicants with kindness and consideration is part of this process.

I do not claim to have the answers to how this can be accomplished. What I can claim is that I have witnessed the way that ‘toxic’ and ‘careless’ behaviors in contemporary academic culture have strained both personal AND collective relationships within Departments. For example, an applicant for a position with a Department in which he/she has a relationship warrants a personal message from someone at that Department, not a form letter from Human Resources, yet seldom does that message materialize. The denial of the emotional attachment on behalf of parties in such an instance is thus ignored, demonstrating how the secrecy and silences of academic culture further exacerbate the negativity practices inherent to the neoliberal university. There has to be a way out of such patterns of toxicity.

Of course there must be a balance here – as mentioned at the start of the article, there are dozens of applicants for each position opening. A sole Department Head (or even an entire hiring committee!) cannot personally respond to each and every application. Nevertheless, I believe that the current state of affairs can and should be improved upon. With the number of people with PhDs receiving public assistance at an all-time high, and the precarious existence of those off the tenure-track in general, isn’t post-graduate life difficult enough without dealing with inconsiderate rejections during the job search, especially from those to whom we are emotionally tied?

When writing this article I was reminded of my two great loves: feminism and yoga. Both are concerned with ‘living your philosophy’ – in the case of the yoga, this involves taking your practice ‘off the mat’, and in the case of feminism, taking it ‘inside the classroom’, in the form of feminist pedagogy. Sometimes we need a reminder to live the aspects of our philosophies in all aspects of our lives, including our institutional practices.

In that spirit, I hope that this post sparks a dialogue at University of Venus on ethical practices of academic hiring. If you have a story to share on some of the best (or worst!) ways you’ve been let down as a job applicant, or some of ‘best practice’ strategies you’ve used to reject applicants as part of a hiring committee, I invite you to share them in comments. I hope to put the comments and suggestions together in a follow-up post on ethical hiring in academia.

Brooklyn, New York in the US

Gwendolyn Beetham received her Ph.D. from the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics. She lives in Brooklyn, where she does freelance work for gender justice organizations, edits the column The Academic Feminist at Feministing.com, and teaches yoga. Follow her on twitter @gwendolynb