Professors of poetry -- and how universities really make appointments
I was rung up at 7.30 yesterday morning by the Today programme, who wanted me to talk -- this is my gloss -- about how "the academy" conducted itself. Was the Oxford scandal typical of how people get jobs in universities? What role did gossip and back-stabbing play? I was to be talking with Lisa Jardine.
Big mistake, Beard? Lisa was as usual wonderful and persuasive. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Oxford case, universities -- she argued -- should clean up their act. There was too big a role in the academic job market for gossip and back-biting. Indeed it was still an area, she said, where people asked for references BEFORE they decided who to short list.
I am, of course, in trouble again -- last week I was spilling the beans about Newnham grace, this week I ended up saying my colleagues were all pretty boring. More to the point, as I ought to have said (sorry guys!), they are far to busy doing their jobs to spend hours gossiping.
If only we had time to gossip and plot the downfall of our (academic) enemies.
The most important thing to say is that the Oxford Chair of Poetry is not a normal academic appointment. It is, as the husband insisted, an ELECTION. All Oxford graduates have a vote - that's not the case for your average university lecturer.
The normal procedure is much more low key -- involving (in my particular neck of the woods, at any rate) an advert, a selection committee, a short list, meetings with various key players in the Faculty (sometimes including graduate students), an interview, and a decision. I have never seen anything other than fair play going on, even though it's about as hard to spot the winners
Lisa was worried about the idea of taking references before short listing. This was apparently against current HR practice. I didnt say so, but I thought references were sort of crucial in the shortlisting process. Imagine having twenty equally well qualified, recently "doctored" applicants for a junior lecturing job, plus another twenty slightly more senior characters -- all having a stunning paper record. You really need to know from trustworthy references who is REALLY STUNNING and who isnt. There really is no other way. In fact the problem is not the backbiting reference; it's the dishonestly favourable one. (How do you stop that? I've tried in college saying on the letter of instruction to referees for Research Fellowships that blandly favourable references will not help the referee's prize candidate -- and that has had some effect, but not much.)
It's a matter of trust and judgement, which you cant do without.
Anyway, in Cambridge Classics, we now have a complicated series of steps that try to see the fairest of fair play when we appoint someone (similar , I think, to the steps taken in any academic institution in this country). The candidates for a lectureship come to Cambridge for a night. They have dinner with members of the Faculty (not anyone directly connected with the process of appointment, and not a 'knife and fork test'), they get a chance to find out about the place in meetings with the chair and other serving academics, they give a paper to a mixed group of lecturers and graduate students, and they ave an interview.
I cant see how you could do it fairer. Whether it produces a different result from the old days when you just showed up on the designated afternoon and had an interview (your referees having spoken), I don't know,