Leon Fink: How History Departments Hire
I recently received a request from the chair of the Harvard University department of history for help in a search to fill a tenured position in a designated subfield (I'm being intentionally vague here) of U.S. history. Neither an invitation to apply myself nor a request for other nominations, the letter rather asked me to evaluate a list of seven scholars, and add others if desired, "both in absolute terms and relative to one another." Less than two years previously, as part of the promotion-and-tenure process within our department at Chicago, I had similarly been asked to rank a particular candidate in relation to an enumerated list of academic peers. Complying with the request on that occasion, I had nevertheless expressed serious reservations about the process.
My complaint in that instance having obviously fallen on deaf ears, I have chosen this time to air my protest more publicly. My hope is that it might trigger discussion both inside and outside Harvard -- and other institutions that duplicate its procedures -- about the norms of the peer-review process.
My objections are threefold. First, it is too much work. Taken up responsibly -- i.e., doing more than funneling back residual impressions of scholarship recently encountered or, worse, boosting colleagues you know over those you do not -- the task requires an exhaustive, comparative review of a rich trove of recent work. It is one thing to vet the credentials of a particular candidate, but quite another to do it fairly for a field of seven....
Second, Harvard's preoccupation with outsider rankings of candidates bespeaks a persistent (if unspoken) quest for a dubious "best and brightest" academic pedigree....
Finally, I object to the imperial conceit that we all have a stake in whom Harvard hires. My own department recently conducted a search to fill a position in the field of early American history. If I had written Harvard's doyens of the field with a request for a comparative evaluation of our semifinal list, could I have expected a substantive response? Somehow, I doubt it....
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