Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Rocking the passive voice I

With due deference to the old venture, we begin this year's round of rejections.

From Filosofer PhD, the story of their first PFO:
I am excited to report that I have received my first official rejection letter of the season. (From a summer ad, not a fall ad.) Kudos to this institution for informing me promptly that I'm not on their shortlist, but shame on them for the passive voice:

While you were not placed on the shortlist it was our experience that a good number of the applicants were clearly academics with the training and ability to satisfy the professional requirements we had for the position.

What I really like here is the phrase "a good number of the applicants were clearly academics." Well, that's good, I guess! Of course, they didn't tell me whether I myself was among those who are clearly academics, but I'm going to console myself with the thought that I probably was.
In this spirit, my first PFO (which didn't even mention whether I am an academic or not; should I be concerned?!?!):
I am very sorry to have to tell you that your application has been unsuccessful. We received an overwhelming response to the advertisement with 160 applications received; an incredibly high number were exceptional applications and the selection process has not been easy.

I should like to take this opportunity to thank you for your interest in this vacancy and to wish you well in the future
Well, at least they're equal opportunity with the use of their passive voice [Update: As pointed out, I'm wrong about the passive voice being used in my PFO; oops. Still...only inanimate objects seem responsible.] . Almost makes me think no applicants or selection committees had any role at all in this process: just applications and ghostly selection processes.

Though, I'll take those well-wishes any day. I need them.

-- Jaded Dissertator


Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

So -- how should a rejection letter go?

How about simple:
If you don't make the first cut..
"Thank you for your interest in job _____. You are not on the list of candidates that will be interviewed at APA. We hope you have a successful job search."

Then -- after an APA interview.
"Thank you for interviewing with us at APA. You are not on the list of candidates that will be brought to campus for the final round of interviews. We welcome your application in future searches and we hope you have a successful job search."

For the last one..
"Thank you for coming to our campus interviews. We have filled the position. We would welcome your application in future searches. We hope you have a successful job search."

Do you really need the crap about the successful pool of candidates?

Polacrilex said...

"a good number of the applicants were clearly academics"

Isn't this a line from a song in the musical version of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips"? It's so sing-songy...

Filosofer said...

Personally, I wish that all rejection letters would be specific about the number of applications received. Obviously, sharing this information doesn't help me professionally in any way, but somehow it takes the sting out of it a little bit when they explicitly say "Out of 150 applications, we have selected 15 to interview at the APA." Then I can comfort myself by thinking that I might very well be better than 133 of you suckers. Nothing personal. This particular delusion is just one that makes me feel good.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it at least be refreshing to get a PFO that says something like this?

"We received over 300 applications for our position. While we were shocked at how crappy most of the applications were, yours stood out as even worse than the others. That's why we threw your application in the trash. Good luck with your job search. You'll need it."

Anonymous said...

How about this?

"We received over 300 applicants, and we rejected nearly as many. One of those was you."

Agathon said...

How 'bout:

"We received over 300 applications from highly qualified and impressive individuals. Yours, however, bore little resemblance to those. But fret not, we intend to have you join us! Your job-letter will be framed and hung up in the departmental library as a negative model for our own graduates. Best of luck in your fruitless endeavor to escape your parents' basement."

Jaded Dissertator said...

A friendly note was just e-mailed to me (I've always had trouble identifying the passive voice, and my writing sometimes reflects that):

Hey, just wanted to note, there are not actually any passive voice
constructions in the second passage you quoted, requoted below.


A verb in the passive voice has as its recipient as its grammatical
subject, but that's not the case for any of the verbs in the above

Just being "that guy"...

Search the blog "Languag Log" for several posts about the fairly
ubiquitous misuse of the phrase "passive voice."

Ben said...

I got the same PFO. I think, on balance, I prefer to be told than left to assume.

diss_or_death said...

Just received my first rejection email (which went straight to my spam box. It was remarkably curt:

"The Philosophy Department has now reviewed initial applications for the position.

We have selected candidates to pursue further for the position. I regret to inform you that you are not among those candidates. Our decisions were based upon which candidates would best fit the position and our institutional needs."

I am dissapointed, and a little surprised, to see that the decision was based upon which candidates would best fit their needs. I had assumed they would just roll a dice. Still, at least I know now that I was rejected because of my incompetence, which is some comfort.

AppliKanta said...

Love the bit about other applicants being "clearly academics." It is a classic. From now on, I won't be able to read my rejection letters without thinking of that phrase. Thanks for the laughs.

Noam said...

Jaded D., your correspondent is wrong. "[Y]ou were not placed on the shortlist" is indeed the passive voice. It may be easier to recognize without the negation:

"You were placed on the list."

That's plainly passive voice.

I don't understand why so many of you dislike the passive voice, but that's another issue. You did correctly identify it.

Filosofer said...

Noam: I can't speak for everyone, but I dislike the passive voice--at least in these contexts--because it feels like a way of shirking responsibility. It's a virtue, in my humble opinion, to have the proverbial balls to stand up and say "we rejected your application" rather than "your application was rejected." I feel like I'm being respected as a grown-up human being when rejection letters are written in the active voice (ceteris paribus, of course).

Anonymous said...

'You were not placed on the list' is, indeed, in the passive voice. However, this statement was in the first passage and the email stated that the passive voice was not used in the second passage. (And I think they're right about this.)

Anonymous said...

Not to spoil the fun, but the scope of the word "clearly" applied, not just to "academics," but to everything after "academics" too. Still funny, but not quite as much.

Anonymous said...

Not a philosophy PFO (or even one for people who are clearly academics), but entertaining nonetheless:

Anonymous said...

Funny, I don't remember the proverb about balls.

Noam said...

Oh, you're right.

Anonymous said...

I'm with 3:45: the claim wasn't that there were lots of academics, but rather academics WITH "the training and ability to satisfy the professional requirements..." True, it follows that the applicants were therefore academics, but it's not what they were pointing out.

To be told that the winners of a dog show were 'dogs of the finest pedigree', can't be mocked for telling us that the winners were dogs. Same for 'academics with...'

I hate to be a dick, but perhaps if you can't tell the difference, the PFO wasn't completely off the mark...

Anonymous said...

Hey, Anon 8:18PM,

Not to be a dick, but nowhere in the rules for the Miss Bayside pageant does it say that contestants must be female.

Xenophon said...

"a good number of the applicants were clearly academics with the training and ability to satisfy the professional requirements we had for the position."

Anon 3:45 is right about the scope issue, but I'm not sure it's clear cut. An unambiguous way to have it restricted just to academics would be to say "a good number of the applicants were clearly academics and had the training and ability . . . " But I'm willing to accept that the author meant either interpretation: the latter meaning could be expressed in the language of the sentence with just a little inconcinnity, which is a common phenomenon in both speech and careless writing.

The larger question, however, is why they put the word "academic" in there in the first place if their meaning was as Anon assumes. How many people could have the training for such a position without being academics? Would a philosophy PhD not be an academic if, in this tough job market, he'd been working the last couple of years as a plumber, or at McKinsey, or simply unemployed and living in his parents' basement?

There's also a question of what the "clearly" is doing there anyway. Maybe some applicants could have been either academics, or horses seen in dark light at a distance?

There's something weird and condescending in the phrase, no matter how you parse it. And the more I think about it, the weirder it gets.

The worst part is that all of this crap is unnecessary. "We're writing to tell you that we have decided not to pursue your candidacy further" is really all that's necessary. And maybe it's interesting to hear how many applications they got. I personally like letters that tell me who did get the job, because then I can google them and decide how much to resent being passed over. Often I see who they hired and say "yeah, I would have made the same choice if I were them." But not always.

zombie said...

So what I'm getting here is that you all prefer your PFOs to be not in the passive voice, nor the passive-aggressive voice, but in the plain ol' unadorned aggressive voice.

My fave is still last year's "Good luck finding suitable employment..." (" clearly unqualified human detritus, and do not darken our doorstep again.") Wasn't that one from the Harvard of the Proletariat?

Anonymous said...

Well, after the letter states that someone DID get the job I stalk that person; just google the department's website, find the newest addition, and viola!

Then I can see how ridiculously padded their CV is, and I can laugh about it.


Filosofer said...

Anon 8:18PM, I feel compelled to defend my honor by noting that there was no point at which I was confused by the letter or failed to understand it. I just thought it was an unnecessary, unusual, and pretty funny way for them to make their point (for reasons nicely elucidated by Anon 8:03AM). Lighten up, my sister or brother. We need all the levity we can get around here.

Xenophon said...


When I'm rejected, I prefer a plain missive unadorned with attempts at rhetorical flourish. And I particularly don't care for letters that (1) pretend that the search committee and deans do not serve as agents in deciding whom to hire, but rather as passive tools in a system that is always fair and egalitarian, and (2) focus the reader's attention on the plight of the poor search committee. I just don't feel your pains. It's your job, after all, and in any case I'd think it would be fun (and important to faculty) as to who they choose to be their colleagues.

In sum: Zombie, if you think a direct, straightforward letter is "aggressive" then you've got more problems than simply being dead.

Anonymous said...

What about the following format?

Dear candidate:

We have completed our review of applications for the XYZ position. We received approximately 10^n applications and have selected 12 individuals to interview at the APA. We did not select you, but we wish you the best with your job search and would welcome your application for future positions.

Search Committee Head


This doesn't seem too bad to me, but... is the first clause of the last sentence really better than something like, "You were not among them," or some equally responsibility-deferring sentence (perhaps even one in the passive voice)? Do people really want that extra little punch in the gut?

zombie said...

Dear Xenophon,

Although my post did follow yours chronologically, you can perhaps see by the fact that it was posted a mere two minutes after yours that it was in no way a response to your post. In fact, I could not possibly have seen your post before posting myself, given the delay in posting comments on this fine blog.

You appear to take offense to my remarks, which were intended to address some of the (I thought) amusing posts above yours. I gather this from your (I think) not very amusing comment, and I quote, "In sum: Zombie, if you think a direct, straightforward letter is "aggressive" then you've got more problems than simply being dead." Since I was not in fact commenting on "direct, straightforward" letters of the sort you seem to prefer, but rather the comically meanspirited letters IMAGINED by others, your own remarks are snippy, humorless, and rather beside the point. But whatever. Since I am not a dead zombie, but a zombie of the absent qualia type, I only appear to care. Inside, I feel nothing. It is a great benefit in these trying times. Or so I imagine.


Anonymous said...

How about

"Dear candidate,

Thank you for your application for our position. It's certainly nice to know that you really really want to come work at our school, as you made clear in your cover letter. Unfortunately, you did not make our list of candidates to be interviewed. We realize that this will be disheartening, since you clearly had your mind set on living in our wonderful small town many hours away from those annoying airports, and engaging with our super-special student body composed of very talented people and farm animals. Please see a therapist to help you deal with this rejection, and please don't go on a murdering rampage."?

AppliKanta said...

Anon 8:18, not to be a dick, but dude, logical ability you sure have, but do you have, like, a sense of humor?

Convair B-36 said...

As much fun as it would be to watch a flame war between Zombie and Xenophon play out in this comment thread, I think we should all just agree on the following points:

1. Zombie is right that the early posters of faux PFOs prefer the active aggressive voice.

2. It was pretty funny when Xenophon said that Zombie has bigger problems than being dead.

3. We should not hold it against Zombie that he didn't find Xenophon's response amusing. After all, he lacks qualia.

4. You should not belittle me for point (3), despite the misunderstanding of Chalmersian zombies that it embodies, because (3) was meant to be amusing. If you didn't find it amusing, you might be a zombie.

Nobody meant to offend anybody. Let's all be friends so that we can concentrate on the real enemy: PFOs that are written in the passive voice.

Anonymous said...

(Off topic) Update on the Harvard of the Proletariat:

Anonymous said...

Easier link for that Daily News article:

Xenophon said...


My apologies.

Anonymous said...

I also prefer it when letters mention the name of the person who got the job. Most of the time, it turns out to be an inside candidate or the spouse of someone who is already in the department. However, there was one appalling letter I once got that not only identified the guy who got the went on and on about how wonderful he was. Do they really have to rub salt into our wounds?

zombie said...


apology accepted.

Now let us never speak of this again.


p.s. Convair, what makes you think zombies can't find things amusing?

Anonymous said...

zombie -

I would guess Convair's assumption is based on the following:

1. amusment is a reactive attitude; an emotive response, if you will
2. zombies, by simple definition being all dead on the inside, lack an ability to have such reactions
3. zombies lack an ability for amusement

Anonymous said...

hey - we need a new post and a new thread. things are starting to happen on the job front. rutgers is doing the whole processes ridiculously early to avoid hiring freezes? is this true? are other schools trying to get in under deadlines like this too?

c'mon people, I am gossip deprived.

Xenophon said...

Yeah, now I agree with all the comments about Phylo's wiki. Great idea, not nearly as much info as the academicjobs wiki.

I held off checking either out until today, and now I'm starting to wonder. The one job I'm keen on has sent out both PFOs and emails indicating interest. I've gotten neither. What does that mean? Either they've got the world's slowest administrative assistant, email has been slow, or they're still deciding how far down the pile they want to go, and I'm somewhere in the middle. Shit.

diss_or_death said...


Check your spam box. If the job you're talking about is PLU, I know a number of people who applied, and everyone has heard back, but some of the emails have gone straight to spam boxes.

The email makes it clear that they have decided who they like, so it would be odd if they haven't emailed you.

Polacrilex said...

I realize that this fits into a different category than the current thread, but this is the most recent thread, so I will post here.

After this year's initial round of applications, I state with certainty that I very much dislike online applications. I realize that there have been previous complaints about these on here, but I think that this is an important issue because more programs are accepting applications online. Here are my problems with online applications:

1. They are not uniform. I have never filled out two online applications that were remotely similar.

2. Some of them are generalized university application forms that ask for previous employers. Because the applicant has to account for any gaps in employment, I am guessing that they want EVERY employer listed, including non-academic ones. This seems time-consuming and irrelevant.

3. I have yet to encounter an online application wherein I can upload every document the ad requests without some kind of strange manipulation or combination of documents. If you want that many pieces of information uploaded onto your site, make sure the applicant can do so.

4. I like the fact that you can view your documents after posting them. I do not like the fact that you cannot update the application after it is submitted.

There are a couple things I do like about online applications:

1. They are obviously less expensive than snail mail applications.

2. Sending letters of rec is also a less expensive process.

One other complaint (while I am doing so): wtf is up with schools requesting graduate AND undergraduate transcripts? Is this really necessary? If you look back at your undergraduate transcript, I imagine most of you will realize how irrelevant it seems now that you have finished a PhD. Plus, it is really long. Do SC's really need to see that I took Western Civ I & II as a freshman?

Xenophon said...


Thanks. I believe you. However, nothing in spam folder. Furthermore, the PLU deadline isn't until the 20th, so it would seem a little odd (and unfair) if they've made up their mind on all their applicants this early, when R. Edward Freeman's CV could still be in the mail. So I'm betting they haven't contacted everyone they want full dossiers from.

However, I've been wrong before.

Asstro said...

From a faculty perspective, I'll maybe argue on behalf of online applications. I am sure that they are a pain to submit, and there's part of me that hates opening them, but when I've used them in our searches, I've found them invaluable. (I'm a relatively young faculty member, but I've had experiences with at least five junior and senior searches in the past few years... maybe more.)

What online dossier submissions enable is a kind of instant-feedback possibility. In my experience, I've often gone back to look again, sometimes several times, at candidates who I initially disregarded. Depending on my state of mind, I may prioritize different aspects of a dossier. When I have access to files on my desktop, or at my fingertips, I can do this with relative ease.

If I have all of the files in my office, there are simply too many files to lug around with me, so I won't. Once a file goes in the no-good pile, it's gone. If I'm looking at twenty or thirty files at a time, I can get pretty exhausted pretty easily.

Obviously, this could work for or against any particular candidate, but in my estimation, its good for the search. It allows me to filter out my biases a little more carefully. I can return to someone with a somewhat less impressive CV, for instance, and read their writing sample more closely. What once seemed to me obtuse and inaccessible can, on a second glance, seem much more relevant. I can do this with a fresh mind and a different perspective.

Also, if I'm not on the core SC (which is often the case), and the SC has all of the files, I still get a vote on who to interview and then who to fly out. With paper files, the SC keeps the files. I don't have a good opportunity to look at everything for my vote. I usually have to make a decision on the fly, at a faculty meeting, based on the overview presented to us at the faculty meeting. Sometimes an SC will give us photocopies, but that's usually only when all files have been significantly winnowed down. Online files allow non-SC voting faculty members to get a look at the whole shebang, to see the candidate in all her glory. I think that's a good thing.

Suffice it to say, I think there are some nice advantages to online files, even though I do believe that they are a _massive_ pain in the ass to submit. Seems to me that most anyone applying for a job would prefer a system that allows readers to spend more time with, and that allows for more glances at, files. But maybe it's not worth it.

Anonymous said...

Let me note, Asstro, that those benefits apply to electronic applications, while Polacrilex was specifically complaining about online applications. What is wrong with online applications is not the submitting of digital files, but the typically horrendous system you have to crawl through to attempt to upload those files. Email applications, on the other hand, are very easy. If I were part of a search, I would recommend creating a gmail account specifically for that search.

Polacrilex said...

Asstro: I agree with all of your points concerning the submission of electronic files over paper files. As Anon 1:50 pointed out, my complaint is really with the online submission process via websites. Emailing is definitely the best means to apply (from the standpoint of an applicant). For instance, I think Case Western did a great job with their requests for this year's job posting: clear and distinct requirements that were all to be sent as email attachments.

Popkin said...

"One other complaint (while I am doing so): wtf is up with schools requesting graduate AND undergraduate transcripts? Is this really necessary?"

I'd like to second this complaint, but I'd add that asking for even graduate transcripts is unreasonable. Someone should really start a petition demanding that search committee's stop requiring transcripts. This costs a lot of money (by far the most expensive aspect of the job search for me has been having to order transcripts), and it's a totally useless practice. Given all the information the committee will have about a given applicant's research abilities (publications, letters, thesis abstract, writing sample) and teaching experience/ability, why in God's name would they want to know what kind of marks you got in grad school?

Anonymous said...

I doubt any search committee really wants official transcripts. More likely it's some asinine university requirement imposed on them.

Xenophon said...

re: PLU.

I dug back to my inbox and found the email acknowledging my application, wherein they say:

"If you have not heard from us by December 8, you may presume that you were not among those whose candidacy we have decided to pursue."

So apparently they're assuming they won't contact all applicants one way or another. Yet why are they sending out select PFOs? Maybe these are the people they think are poser applicants, and the PFO is a passive-aggressive response? Or maybe people like me, who haven't heard squat, are the poser applicants who haven't even earned the right to be told to fuck off? It's all very puzzling, and a little irritating.

Crito said...

If it's an asinine university requirement (and I agree that's the most likely explanation), then the SC should say that a photocopy of the transcript is acceptable, adding that whoever is offered the job will be asked to have an official transcript sent too. Nobody is going to complain about that. Obviously.

Philosophy Prof said...

I recall that some places ask for unofficial transcripts initially (which are usually free and printable from an on-line resource), and then only request official transcripts later, if there's an interview, or even later than that. Seems like a fair practice, wish it were the norm.

Anonymous said...

Re. Popkin's comment:

Haven't we had this discussion already (last year, at least)? I thought it was the consensus view that unless a school explicitly asks for "official" transcripts, one should just sent them photocopies (perhaps with a note stating that your official transcripts are available at their request). I can recall almost no jobs ads in the JFP that explicitly ask for "offical" transcripts.

Indeed, I think someone commented last year that, from the SC point of view, when an applicant sends official transcripts, it just looks naive.

Polacrilex said...

Xenophon: It's not December 8th yet. Calm down...and for your own sanity stop paying attention to the wiki! That thing is like a one-way ticket to the job market asylum for candidates.

Popkin said...

Well, the placement committee at my school (a large institution with lots of experience with this sort of thing) explicitly advises us to send official transcripts unless instructed otherwise. So, I'd be surprised if most schools don't actually expect official copies, but maybe you're right. If they don't want official copies it would be nice if they'd mention that.

Asstro said...

Two things:

First, send your official transcripts to Interfolio or some similar dossier distribution service. Your transcipts will have all the rights stamps, and it costs as much to send the official transcripts directly to a school as it does to send out your whole dossier through Interfolio.

Second, on the question of the online application. I agree that it would be much easier to simply e-mail a copy of your dossier to an SC chair, but there are several considerations that make this difficult. One is that e-mail boxes get filled, as someone mentioned above. Two is that e-mail boxes often have spam filters. Three is that organizing documents would be a _nightmare_.

The third is the biggest. Apparently you've never asked your students to submit their papers to you by e-mail. Try it. You'll see how unwieldy it gets. 30 documents come in at once, all with different titles, all to be held in a single folder for you to sort out and grade. It's a nightmare.

Now try that with 300 applications, sometimes involving several documents (CV, writing sample, cover letter, sample syllabi, teaching statement, and so on.)

Night. Mare.

Much better to use the online system provided by the university.

Don't get me wrong. I'm no apologist for blackboard, or peoplesoft, or whatever the hell it is they use. The software is completely asinine. I hate it too. I also hate logging in and doing the little chi-chi dance I have to do to get through the right gates to view the right files. So too with ManuscriptCentral (puh-lease would some of these publishing houses get better software??)

At the same time, those things won't likely be improved for a long time, so we've gotta deal with what we've got. And, truth be told, once you spend a bit of time figuring out how to drive the interface, it can end up being quite a bit better than the old way.

Xenophon said...


That was my point originally. The wiki is insidious, yet alluring.

(Yeah, maybe that's a bit over the top. But you get my point.)

Polacrilex said...

Asstro: I fear, yet find myself drawn to, the little chi chi dance.

Especially good point about receiving 300 applications via email being a problem. Let's just hope that online application forms are improved substantially sometime soon.

Xenophon: well put, although I no longer find anything alluring about the wiki. The pure ignorance of not looking at the wiki is favorable to the oft mis-informed belief (and subsequent paranoia) of looking at it.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, do not waste money sending 'real' transcripts. Just send a copy. I'm on a TT philosophy search presently with about 300 apps. No one cares if the transcripts are offical or unoffical for a cut down to APA interviews. Sure for a cut down to on-campus we'll probably just ask people to send over the real deal. Transcripts are almost always the last thing to get looked at anyway. No one cares if you got a 4.0 or a 3.7 in grad school. Seriously, people who are impressed with their grad school grades are really out of touch with what matters for getting a job. If anything, grad transcripts can be very misleading because while many programs just give out A's as the normal grad seminar grade, many don't do this. But seriously it is the least important part of your transcript and not worth paying the money to send in an initial cut.

No search committee (at least not one I could imgaine as even remotely reasonable) would refuse to look at your stuff if it lacked a real transcript. If they like you, they'll just ask for one.

When I was a grad student desperatly applying to jobs, I paid to have the real deal sent when the ad said to do this. So I get it. But looking from the other side I see it is just an occasion BS administrative requirement and nothing a serious search commitee would care about in an APA cut.

Anonymous said...

"If it stinks, if it rots your little conscience, in the passive voice it goes! Nuclear devices were dropped--shots were fired--feelings exist--No! Say it in your person, I dropped, I fired, I feel!" (Bela, 'No End of Blame' II.iv, by Howard Barker)