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Department Seeks Aesthetician
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Daniel O. Nathan

Well, not really. At least not this year. While in my department the faculty has just begun discussions of how to advertise the two tenure track positions, in neither of those searches will we be seeking to hire an aesthetician. That, of course, is not unusual, either for our department or for the vast preponderance of Philosophy departments nationwide and abroad. What is unusual about our department is that we happen to teach quite a number of aesthetics and aesthetics-related courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and that one-third of our regular faculty can claim either a research specialization or serious competency in aesthetics. And, over the past dozen years, we have explicitly sought and hired aestheticians on four separate occasions. So, I have had the opportunity to observe the aesthetics search process up close on several occasions and, probably as a consequence, was asked to provide the perspective of a hiring department to this forum on the job market.

Naturally, I must offer a caveat at the outset. It may well be that the searches I have observed and participated in are not representative. The needs of my department and university are more idiosyncratic than most: aestheticians here teach required graduate courses as part of an interdisciplinary fine arts doctoral program, a program that is populated by advanced graduate students in music, theatre arts, and the visual arts. At the same time, our department is firmly analytic in its orientation, while many aesthetics job postings I have noticed seem to come from departments with more of a continental drift (so to speak). Moreover, in my time here, all the aesthetics search committees have included an aesthetics specialist (me). That is probably even more rare than the first idiosyncrasy. For one thing, it makes the committee perhaps more respectful of the field of aesthetics and, for another, possibly more acutely critical of the aesthetics credentials and work of the particular applicants.

With that caution, there may still be some useful advice I can pass along. First, here is some data about our previous searches. When we have advertised specifically for specialists in aesthetics, we have received in the neighborhood of fifty viable applications. In the one case where aesthetics was listed among three possible areas of specialization, we garnered about 180 applications. I know that schools in more desirable urban or geographical settings attract even greater numbers of applicants, other things being equal. Suffice it to say, as we all know, that the field of philosophy is quite competitive.

So how does one mark oneself out for positive attention at the very first contact? Certain things are likely pretty obvious: Even though our field is aesthetics, don’t try to make a mark by including a photograph of yourself on your CV. Heed the advice of your mentors and placement directors about assembling your application. Carefully review all your materials before sending them out. All those things help to avoid receiving negative attention. What do departments look for on the positive side? Our department (and here I suspect we are fairly representative) looks for the quality of your doctoral program, the reputation in the field of your referees as well as the tone and assessments found in their letters, the presence of one or more publications in serious journals and/or presentations at refereed conferences like the APA or ASA. All of these elements will clearly draw the interest of the hiring department. Our department gives a reading to submitted writing samples, though my guess is that not all departments do so either out of lack of time or interest.

It seems worth mentioning that even when our searches were for aesthetics specialists, it helped candidates if they could show strength in some other core area of philosophy. This was not only because, as a modest-sized department, we need folks who could bridge to other areas we regularly teach, but (more importantly) because such breadth can translate into greater depth and significance when it comes to one’s work in aesthetics. By comparison, a narrow specialization in, say, epistemology will be viewed (at least by analytically oriented departments) with less suspicion than a narrow focus in aesthetics.

Those candidates who reach the APA interview stage (roughly 10% of the initial cohort) have different demands placed on them. Our forty-five minute interviews largely focus on research work: dissertation, publications, and work in progress. It goes without saying that candidates should come in primed to discuss their research, able to sketch their work in brief, clear terms, and to anticipate the range of possible critical responses to the central theses they are defending. There should also be some apparent justification for their approach to teaching several courses, their choice of texts, and topics covered. It would be ideal if doctoral programs prepared their students for this short interview format much like many do in having them do dry runs of their job talks.

The on-campus interview calls for somewhat different skills and, as Sherri points out, is a bit more evenhanded in making demands of both the candidate and the hiring department. (Though it is also the case that even the preliminary convention interview can tell the candidate some valuable things about the department—its relative seriousness about teaching and research, and sometimes a bit about its collegiality.) Departments, like candidates, will try to show their best sides. So it is, for example, unlikely that my colleagues or I will mention West Texas dust storms or the quality of the local newspaper. More seriously, candidates should be alert for such things as rifts within the department and faculty members whom the department appears to wish to hide or who choose to absent themselves from the various activities. (Naturally, at my university, the only real concerns are geographical and climatological ones.)

Our on-campus interviews are fairly intense, two day affairs that include a formal research presentation, the teaching of a class (usually some introductory class), one-on-one interviews with each member of the faculty, a group meeting with our graduate students, an extended visit with the department chairperson, a short visit with a college administrator, an evening reception, and plenty of meals. Sometimes special meetings are arranged with colleagues in affiliated areas (fine arts, women’s studies, linguistics, environmental science, for example) if the candidate has special interests that might ultimately link him or her across disciplines.

From the hiring department’s perspective, what counts most in all of this? Unsurprisingly, after the candidate departs, by far the most discussed aspect of the visit is the candidates research work as revealed in the presentation and in the personal interviews. But other aspects clearly have weight as well, with the teaching performance coming next in line. Then table manners.

A word about the teaching demonstration: Departments usually understand that the teaching exposure is a bit bizarre, and not fully representative. Being dropped into a classroom of strangers and asked to do something of substance in the midst of a basically unknown course context surely will not necessarily produce the most accurate picture of one’s teaching ability. But some things do come through: clarity of explanations, seriousness of topic, good efforts to engage student interest, and broadly construed interpersonal skill – each of which will factor into the assessment.

All that then remains is the eventual offer of employment (or not). I take it that departments generally try their best to be quick in getting offers out. It is certainly in their interest to do so. But various things may intrude, from delays imposed by the university administration to interruptions in the sequence of on-campus visits. So offers can come within a day or not for a month or more. Candidates should be made to feel comfortable about asking about the expected timetable and their own status as time passes. And the hiring department should be smart enough to ask potential hires to keep the department apprised of their status as well.

George Dickie once told me how he came to teach aesthetics at his first job out of graduate school. He said that, at the time, the pattern was that the last person hired was the one who had to teach aesthetics. The aesthetician, I guess, was sort of the rotten egg. Fortunately, we have made some progress since those days. Still, I fear that there are still some departments out there with a nose for sulfur. So, watch out.

2007 © Daniel O. Nathan

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