Those letters were written by people who were imagining readers on the other side. They were written by people who were self-conscious about the rhetorical situation. They made me feel good about my work, because both letters showed me that real people were out there reading them.
Tenured Radical recently posted on the art of rejection letters. Her tips, as always, are sound, and search committees would do well to heed them:
1. Do not send rejections by email.I'd add a bit to TR's excellent list (framed in the way that English searches happen, which is to say, with deadlines in the fall, interviews at or around the time of the MLA convention in late December, and campus visits anywhere from January through March):
2. Do not send rejections by post card.
3. When writing a letter to candidates, if you actually met them, or solicited the candidacy, take two seconds to write a personal note. This means not having your departmental secretary sign them, of course.
4. Send rejections in a timely way: at least when the search is over, if not before. In fact, although wisdom has it that you reject no one until the chosen candidate has signed on the dotted line, truth be told, a large part of the pool is out of the running after the first cut. Why not tell the people who didn't make the semi-final cut -- say, in January, rather than April? [just to be clear: these 4 tips are the Radical's words, not mine]
- Do not send rejections by voice mail on people's home phones.
- Send rejections in ways that acknowledge interactions with the candidates (at least the formal stages of the search): a letter to someone you interviewed at the convention should be a bit different from someone who didn't make that cut. It should be clear to the candidate that you remember meeting them, and that you remember something about their work. It is easy to personalize letters given the wonders of mail merge.
- Send rejections. Does the fact that the campuses who never wrote to me back in 1990 when I applied mean that I'm still in the running? Probably not, and in any event, I've not found the job I want for the next phase of my careers.
- Send rejections in waves. When you advertise for a position in Magical Forestry, and specialists in Green Peas who took a single course in Magical Forestry apply, it's pretty clear that you wouldn't hire a Green Pea specialist for the position even if everyone else in the applicant pool fell away. There are probably other candidates who are clearly not going to make the final cut. So send those rejections promptly (I wait until the affirmative action review of the interview list is settled). There's no reason to wait until after the search has concluded, which in English can sometimes be 6-8 months after applications are first received.
- When you interview candidates at MLA, and a few of those candidates are clearly not a good fit, send those rejections right away, too.
- When you invite your top candidates to campus, but think that the next few people on your convention interview list might be fine to invite if some of your top candidates withdraw, let the other candidates know. Yes, this will let them know that they are not your top choice, but they're likely to figure that out when it's mid February and you still haven't called. This gives you a chance to say, "We've invited some other candidates to campus. We had strong applicants and we're impressed with you and your work. We'll keep you posted." This kind of honesty lets candidates know where they stand. OK, this isn't exactly about rejections, but it's related.
- When people come to campus, and they don't get the job, write them a personal note that acknowledges the ways in which they interacted with you. Yes, it is difficult to write such a letter, especially when the reasons for ranking candidates sometimes turns on things candidates can't control (like whose secondary interests overlap or don't with other members of the department), and when candidates 2 and 3 may be really quite good. A short, general "We're reviewing applications and unfortunately your application will not proceed any farther in the search" kind of letter is fine for an early refection, but rejections later in the search should acknowledge the nature of the contact with the candidate.
And yes, I do like to read Ms. Manners, in case anyone was wondering.