On Visiting

Tess Wilkinson-Ryan
Jan 6 · 6 min read

When I was a teenager there was this meme/prank where a boy would approach a girl and ask “Would you like to dance?” and no matter what her response, he would then announce loudly, “No, I said you look fat in those pants!” I did not have cause to think of this, which even then was usually deployed as a sort of meta-joke, until I tried to explain to a colleague how I felt about my lateral visiting stints. I think there is something about the mild humiliation of an appointments visit, particularly if there’s no permanent offer, that makes most people reluctant to talk about the experience at all. But that pluralistic ignorance is probably bad, because it distorts the cost-benefit calculus that law schools and candidates are employing for an already costly practice. So let’s talk about it.

In the early winter months of 2014, pre-tenure, I got really flattering phone calls from deans at Stanford, Harvard, and NYU, respectively. I agreed to a one-semester visit at Stanford, a three-week teaching visit at Harvard, and eventually to a two-week non-teaching visit at NYU. I was not looking to move, but you never know, and in any case visiting appeared to be the coin of the realm.

My family and I moved into an Airbnb in Menlo Park in August of 2014, and I started teaching 1L Contracts at Stanford. The faculty was largely kind and forthcoming, the dean both lovely and frank. But I had a displaced three-year-old and seven-year-old in tow, not to mention their 35-year-old father, who were not getting taken out to lunch and complimented. (Actually my second-grader was thrilled and had his own lunch excitement; he reported after the first day of school that in California you eat lunch OUTSIDE.) Two full-time jobs and two little kids is a hustle, for us at least, and I foolishly failed to anticipate how much harder that would be without our normal systems and crutches. We live lives of enormous privilege, so I don’t want to complain about dumb stuff, only to be straightforward in accounting for the costs — for us, as a family, they were high.

Some SLS faculty were explicit about their enthusiasm for me, others I have still never met. Their hiring committee went out for letters. My family got to enjoy November in California, and we went to Yosemite one weekend. My parents visited and we hiked the Dish. I finished teaching on a Thursday afternoon, and we were back in Philadelphia by Friday night, to universal relief.

While I was at Stanford, the hiring chair from Harvard called. He expressed his own enormous enthusiasm (thanks!) and asked if he could go out for letters before my arrival. I said sure! I went to Harvard in January, and taught a three-week winter term version of Trusts and Estates. This was only my second time teaching it, and a truly terrible decision on my part. I lectured from 9–12:30 every morning then prepped well into the evening. I FaceTimed with my sobbing preschooler each night while my husband assured me they were doing fine. I gave a job talk that was pretty good; neither the hiring chair nor the dean were present for it. I had to start teaching Contracts when I got back home, a week late into the semester and behind before I began. I was exhausted. I never heard from Harvard again.

I heard from Stanford that spring. My file would not get out of committee; I did not get an offer.

By the time I went to NYU a year later I was a little more clear-eyed and organized about the process. I was mid-semester at Penn, though, and hustling to fit the two-week visit in. My job talk, on Day 3, was not great by any measure, and multiple faculty members accidentally telegraphed their Intellectual Lightweight verdict. But they were mostly quite friendly and I went to some convivial dinners. My husband and my parents took my kids on spring break to Florida. I was exhausted. I never heard from NYU again.

It’s sort of embarrassing to recount these stories, a real tour of my bad decisions and poor coping skills. But it occurred to me recently in hearing a not-dissimilar tale from a colleague that there is a widely-shared experience that doesn’t get talked about, because it sounds like sour grapes just to describe it. I agreed to all of this! I agreed to be judged and now I’m mad that the judgment was negative! Also it’s just regular embarrassing — I was publicly rejected.

I think the imagined echoes of that particular Greek chorus are unhelpfully keeping people like me from being frank about how bad these experiences really were. Even when people are super nice — and there are always really nice people — it’s structurally demeaning.

Visiting is public. Literally, visits are listed on blogs and publicized by the schools themselves. The fact that I’m still in my old job suggests to anyone who cares (hopefully that’s a real small number) that I went out for three jobs that I wanted badly enough to go way out of my way to get, and I was turned down. Visiting is also just long; even a short visit is a really long time to be observed for evaluation. It’s a long time to have to be pleasant and outgoing and clever, which is perhaps why a subsequent rejection, however substantively correct or gently framed, can feel like such an indictment. There’s just something extra discombobulating and, frankly, insulting about getting serious attention up front, being heavily recruited, and then being turned down after the visit. That’s the dance/pants prank, the oh you thought we liked you?? part.

The aforementioned problems are universal about visiting, but the visiting system is pretty deeply gendered in ways that are both obvious and non-obvious. The obvious way is the family issues, which of course affect both men and women. Historically and still, though, more women than men have partners who work full-time, thus making a temporary move with the family unit intact especially challenging. Children make the whole thing more complicated, because one spouse commuting while another employed spouse remains at home base with kids is its own serious tax on family resources. This is not to mention the enormous challenges for, inter alia, single parents, nursing parents, and those with other family care obligations.

More subtly, I think the visit often demands a different performance from women than from men. There’s an intensity for women in being onsite and under scrutiny, I think because it’s a bit harder to overcome a presumption of intellectual mediocrity and a little more important to impress people with your high EQ. I would not presume to speak for my POC colleagues, but I suspect that they find themselves walking a particular tightrope, too, to make sure they have the “right” character traits on display. Often the subtext of the visit from the host school is: we need the candidate to show us that she is smart in the particular way we need her to be. This will manifest differently at Chicago than at Harvard, differently at Stanford than at Penn. Figuring that out is, of course, part of the challenge!

I still feel sort of awkward around people from Stanford, some of whom try to half-apologize when they see me. A couple have seemed to fear I still want a job and might ask them for one? I don’t know, but it’s frankly worse than it would have been had I never gone, which seems like a real cost to the academic community. And what about people who leave visits feeling more alienated, or worse about themselves? That seems like a real cost to me, too. I like to think that I am impervious to academic status nonsense, but these visits certainly help water the seeds of doubt in anyone with a touch of impostor syndrome — i.e., everyone.

Over the years I have talked informally about these issues, and often I hear of someone else’s demoralizing visit experience, almost as an embarrassed whisper admitting that actually it was really bad. So, here’s my embarrassed whisper made audible or at least legible, in hopes that it can be a constructive part of the conversation.

And I, for one, think you look great in those pants.

Tess Wilkinson-Ryan

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