Spaf's Thoughts

Faculty Qualifications

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Tonight, I was reminded of an episode in my past that provided quite a bit of bemusement and amusement early in my career.  I thought I’d recount it to share.

When I was a grad student at Georgia Tech in the early 1980s, the field was growing significantly.  The faculty at Georgia Tech was no exception, and they were casting a wide net for new faculty.  Part of the process was to have a grad student serve as a non-voting member of the hiring committee, to provide a student voice in the process.

I was that voice one year.

I remember seeing a  number of interesting C.V.s and applications.  I found the experience helpful for my own career trajectory, and years later applied a little of what I learned to my own job search.  I also found it amusing — we had quite a varied bunch of folks who fancied themselves as potential university faculty.  Given that there weren’t a huge number of new PhDs at the time of the quality they were looking for at GaTech, this wider group was given some consideration.  After all, electrical engineers, mathematicians, linguists, and even philosophers all had some elements of possible study that meant they could contribute to the academic life of the program.  (One of my favorite professors was James Gough, Jr., whose background was in human languages, semiotics, and logic.)

Some of the applicants lacked any connection with computer science (that I could see), but apparently thought that having experience as a TV repairman or accountant was sufficient for a faculty position in the department.  A few had work experience using computers, but the department was really looking for applicants who had the equivalent of a PhD in a scientific or otherwise related field.

One applicant, who inspires this post, was writing from New Zealand or Australia — I forget which.  He had an advanced degree in mathematical logic, and the equivalent of an MS in computer science.  What really made him stand out was his cover letter.  It appears that there wasn’t a ready market for someone like him “down under” so he wanted to make the move to the USA.  If only we’d pay for a ticket to come interview, we would be sure to find his skills acceptable.  Not only did he know about advanced math and computation, but he was good with people and reckoned he’d make a fine teacher.  He could play the guitar and sing.  He was used to hard work, having been a ranch hand for the last few years.   And, under “special skills” he listed the clincher — right after mentioning his ability to program in Fortran and COBOL, and his ability to read and write Latin, he averred that he could “geld sheep with his teeth.”

Never before or since have I seen a job application in computing brag about one’s castration skills, with teeth or any other implement.  I suspect one or two colleagues who have worked in forensics and law enforcement have considered it, but none have bragged about their experience in this department.  I also know some female colleagues subjected to condescending “mansplaining” who may darkly imagine such drastic action (but are too polite to carry through).

What made all this all the more remarkable to me was that his application was in the folder for “Further Consideration.”   I asked one of the faculty members why that was so.  He replied, in all seriousness (I think): “He knows how to program.  That, and we bet he could keep the students in class well behaved.”

In the end, he wasn’t hired by our faculty, although there was a strong faction that wanted to bring him in for an interview “just because.”  Since then, I have always had a slight concern when meeting colleagues from the Antipodes…but I do notice their undergraduate classes seem better behaved than mine.

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