Those familiar with the lateral appointments process may have encountered what seems to be a reasonably common practice: the appointments committee will often ask the candidate to identify a certain number (say, five) of her best articles. Presumably this serves as some sort of guide to the committee in determining which articles they will read or send out for review, thus saving appointments members some work.
But many candidates also wonder what exactly this question means. Is it purely a time-saving device or is it also some sort of signaling device? What does my selection say about me? Do they want to know which of my articles other people like the most or do they want to know whether my judgment about which are my best articles matches their own? Will they only read or send out for review the articles I name? What if I only have five articles? Though the exercise reveals information about the candidate, it can also be stress inducing for those who ponder the alternatives in much depth.
But, given that appointments committees seem intent on using stressful information-forcing tactics, why not also ask candidates to name their least successful articles and explain why they didn’t work? It seems to me that this elicits more relevant information about the candidate and her probability of future success. Does her self-assessment of failure match that of the committee’s? Has she learned over time? This could reveal valuable information about whether her work is likely to improve in the future, and whether she is introspective about her own strengths and weaknesses.
Although this tactic reveals similar (though, to my mind, more useful) information, there’s something about asking people to explicitly focus on their weaknesses, as opposed to their strengths, during the appointments process that just seems more anxiety inducing to many people. My initial empirical study (i.e. I asked some people at dinner last night) suggests that others don’t like my idea and consider it inappropriate. I will add appointments to the list of processes and policies at my school that I won’t be asked to revamp anytime soon.