VII. Conference Time Wednesday, May 18 2011 

I’m not sure who came up with the conference interview idea, but certainly that person (or committee…an idea like that had to come from a committee) harbored a great love for absurdity or torture. No doubt, most graduate students pondering the market have heard the usual conference tidbits:

* Interviews in small hotel rooms, where some committee members sit on the bed.

* Candidates meeting each other awkwardly in the hallway…

Okay. I’m stopping that kind of rehash/urban legend/horror story now. If you want ’em, google ’em. They’re easy enough to find.

On my successful job year, I garnered three conference interviews out of 55 or so applications. A five percent success ratio that, in the skewed statistics of English Studies, denotes terrific success. (Actually, I had 3.1 — more on that in a moment). Two of my interviews were at MLA, one at AWP.

MLA

Both of my interviews happened to be in the same hotel, so I booked my room for that same hotel. I figured it would prevent a difficult cross-town jaunt, which proved wise. This was the LA MLA, a spread out, not-great-to-walk location. Nonetheless, I didn’t want to appear stalkerish, so I agreed to usual protocols for meet-ups: this particular hotel had suites in a key-secured area, prohibiting direct candidate access to the rooms. The first interviewing school said they’d meet me in the lobby. So I got ready, rode the elevator to the lobby, and waited with several other applicants waiting for their own meet-ups.

We all tried to look nonchalant in our dashing interview get-ups, and we all whipped out our cell phones at exactly the same moment to call up and notify our escorts of arrival. In that moment, I overheard someone nearby calling the chair of the interviewing committee that I knew I’d be meeting in the afternoon. Competition now known.

My contact person came down, we made idle chit chat in the elevator, then arrived at a nice enough suite. Chairs in a little alcove, where I met with two members of the department I sought to woo. The conversation was amicable. I remember little.

In the afternoon, I followed more or less the same routine, although I met the committee on an agreed-upon public access floor instead of the lobby. There, I happened to run into a few committee members lolling around between sessions, and I successful greeted one by mispronouncing his last name and applying an unsolicited diminutive of his first name. I mention this because (spoiler alert) I got the job — so insignificant detail obsession has been proven to be worthless paranoia.

This brings me to what I’ll consider the theme of this job market posting: humanity.

It’s easy to forget that we apply not to committees and institutions, but to real people who happen to work in academic departments. Thus the kind of minor gaffes that populate the anxiety-ridden mind really aren’t that big of a deal. You know what I’m talking about — people who claim to have lost jobs because their shoes were the wrong brand, or because they slightly mis-spoke, or perhaps accidentally let it be known that they have actually applied to more than one school, or present themselves as human beings with interests that extend at all beyond their cv.

In my experience, the members of search committees are looking to hire future colleagues, not cvs. So they’re likely to overlook minor human foibles (unless they happen to be total @$$holes, and really, even in a bad market, you don’t want that job). More, I really think they’re looking to see candidates as people. They want to get a feel for them, who they are as whole beings. This isn’t to say that the entire interview should focus on, say, gardening, but I will say that in all of my interviews “gardening” came up, sometimes at length. True, “gardening” has a bit to do with my academic work, too, but I think the human angle mattered more. Both of these MLA committees seemed pleased to have an at-ease conversation, one that covered the necessary academic issues but also helped them understand who I am and helped me understand who they are.

Outside of the interview rooms, what struck me most about MLA this year (more so than in previous years I’ve attended…and unsuccessfully interviewed) was a palpable ether of desperation. Perhaps it was the layout, with the main entrance to the conference going straight through a bar to a multi-level escalator. But job seekers were on clear display: brand new suits and outfits generally accented with either a) fashionably retro shoes or b) hipster eyewear. To me, they all looked so young and so shell-shocked. And this even before I witnessed the pit of despair where mass interviews happen — more later when I write about interview 3.1.

The aftermath: 1 campus visit and 1 you’re-on-the-waitlist-if-one-of-our-top-three-don’t-work.

AWP

Same deal, different conference. More hipster outfits, but a generally cooler and more relaxed vibe.

This time, the interview was lower budget, in a small hotel room where one of the committee members had to sit on the bed. A little odd, perhaps, but not that big a deal really.

This time, I felt pretty darn prepared for the interview, having already weathered two at MLA and having already had a successful campus visit earlier in the week for the job that, y’know, I ended up getting. So relaxed would be the way to describe it. You want me, fine. If not, no biggee.

The important part of this interview is the often overlooked portion — the committee and the school are being interviewed too. I think candidates sometimes forget this, but even by the point of a conference interview, you’ve earned a bit of leverage. They want to convince you of their merits, even while you’re trying to win a visit. Now, I’m not saying one should be huffy and superior at an early interview, but you can notice things. And at AWP I did. The questions and conversation revealed that the school had quite a different profile than the others I’d interviewed with. Not bad, just different — a bit more cash lean, so a bit more like my non-TT institution. Even the room revealed something — schools that don’t spring for suites at conference time probably don’t spring for the good cheese at dean’s meetings. Again, this isn’t a criticism of the school (which I liked very much, more so when they invited me to campus), just a recognition that the subtexts of an interview can and should be read by a candidate.

Which leads me to:

Interview 3.1

One nameless school sent notice to applicants that they’d have a table in the Dante’s Inferno interview ballroom at MLA. Feel free to make an appointment for an informational meeting, not to be confused with an interview. “Our students are not illiterate” the interviewer told me, and that was all I needed to know about the school. Better put, that’s all I needed to know about the department and the faculty, that a person with that kind of disdain for students would be the official representative at MLA speaks volumes for the negative community there.

Wrap Up, or, Specific Details

* Research the schools with whom you’ll be interviewing. This is obvious, and I’d think everyone would do it, but I guess they don’t. It pays to have a sense of the culture at a given school.

* Prepare specific syllabi for each school. I don’t mean sample syllabi of courses you’ve taught. I mean syllabi for the courses you would be teaching at X State. Put the school’s unique course title on there (English 91, Rhetoric of the Garden), and write the syllabus as if it were really for that course at that place. Show that you can do this job, not a similar job.

* Just like a first date or the first day of kindergarten, be yourself. You don’t want to misrepresent either your personality or your academic credentials. Stand up proudly with what you have. If it’s a good fit, that’s all you can offer. If it’s not a good fit, you really won’t be able to fool anyone for very long.

* Expect to sweat through at least one layer of undershirt, so dress appropriately.

* Always remember that you’re talking to people, not committees.

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Too Soon Saturday, May 14 2011 

I suppose if you show up on campus the day after final exams, before commencement, three months before the job starts, it makes sense that HR isn’t ready to have you fill out forms.

Cleaning Out the Office Saturday, May 7 2011 

Four cardboard boxes, an end-roll of blank newsprint, one umbrella, and one plant. I carried these objects across campus today, to the parking lot behind the only two dorms left standing since I was a student here in the mid-90s. While shell-shocked parents tried to figure out how to fit a year’s worth of college accumulation in the backs of their family cars, undergrads said goodbye to each other, promised to keep in touch, shot beams of lingering-adolescent embarrassment at fathers who didn’t properly conceal the tampon boxes in the trunk.

I packed my own trunk with the streamlined jetsam of a three-year career at my alma mater. And I couldn’t help but feel the melancholy of this departure, even as I now head to a new, better, brighter college. I’ve traded a 4-4 load of composition and, when I’m lucky, a 45-student general lit survey for a 3-3 load of majors courses in my field. This year, I averaged about 120 students a semester. In the fall, I’ll have…um…19. Total.

But six months ago, I wanted nothing more than to stay at this financially-strapped, open-acceptance, state-underfunded, in-fighting den-of-vipers infested soul crushing regional comprehensive uni that markets itself as a doctoral I.

Why?

Because I knew it could be better, and because I like and understand the students here. Yeah, many come for the beer, and way-too-many come for with the get-a-degree-to-get-a-job mentality that lies in stark opposition to my educational fiber. But many also come because they have to come here. They can’t afford to go elsewhere. They need to stay near family. They screwed up in high school and couldn’t get into fancypants schools like the one where I’m headed. Many feel badly that they go hear, are apologetic, nurse inferiority complexes.

That’s why I wanted to stay. For those students. For the lightbulbs of intellectual curiosity, the gradual limbering of rigid minds, the nurturing of psyche and grey matter that shows that, yeah, good students are here too, damn it.

I understand hating the place, because I did as an undergrad. I was forced to go because it was free, and the national liberal arts college where I wanted to go was not. So I came here, and I found myself. And years later, I forgave myself for my resentment. Eventually, as well, I recognized the uselessness of that resentment and, better, the gifts my school had granted me.

Thursday, I saw those gifts outside of my office. An English major Poe devotee chatted with a business major karate tough guy. Poe wears funky glasses and dark clothes, does well in school and plans graduate study in literature. Karate was hoping just to pass my non-majors course, and chortled strains of rapture down the hallway when he learned of the B he earned on the final (this following a sub-50% F on the mid-term). That they can sit in a hallway, chatting about boxing and karate, that they can be in the same space at all, learning with and from each other, marks one of the great values of the public-access uni. Here, the cross-section of community stretches wide. Students at such a place (and, really, professors at such a place) have an opportunity to meet so many others who are not like themselves.

Community. That’s really the focus of this post. Forming it, having it, supporting it.

To me, there are few things in the academy that matter more than community, as a healthy one serves as the cornerstone for fruitful intellectual growth. Without community, differing points of view become negative conflict. With it, they become mindful debate. Community doesn’t mean everyone agrees, or is the same, or has the same goals — just that everyone is similarly committed to the place.

My melancholy, as I moved out, drew from a withering erosion of community. I wanted to teach at this institution because of the value and potential I saw in the community, because of the many students who crave more and better intellectual life. I wanted to stay because I wanted to be part of this community, and I wanted to help cinch the fissures that have opened.

I’ve written before about some of this. In brief: faculty hate administrators; union fights myopically; administrators count beans foolishly; rural students fear urban students; Philly students disdain Pittsburgh students; urban students see only cow pastures and rednecks; faculty see only underprepared, under-motivated students; students see only grades…

…nothing new for academia. Common issues that plague many, if not all, large campuses to some degree.

Yet as I start afresh in a new place, still at the front end of my career, I find myself thinking about community a great deal. And I find myself refusing to accept the inevitability of the anti-community forces of academe. I think, then, of recent posts by Horace and Dr Crazy, both of which center on issues of failed community. Each laments the spirit of their institutions, where community has begun to lurch and wobble. For Horace, it is the perennial departure of colleagues seeking “better” positions. For Dr Crazy, it is the refusal of her department to recognize the necessity of academic community beyond the provinces of the department. For each, I think, community has eroded (long ago, I’m sure) because of the siren of career, narrowly-defined.

In the case of Horace, I fear the turnover in his department is related to a conscious effort within that very department to “raise the profile” of the program. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s very good and noble for a school (and state) too frequently overlooked by the rest of the country. But I wonder if the effort to build a profile has led to the hiring of junior faculty who feel little sense of community, who instead maintain unbroken focus on ambition. Community can’t form when many are thinking in terms of stepping stones, comparative resources, and moving on for greater and better things. That leaves Horace, who has made himself part of the community, reeling at the vacated offices around him. Somewhat ironic in a department where the chair literally wrote the (a) book on academic community.

For Dr Crazy, the community is shattered by the inverse, by a failure on the part of her department to recognize that a community of scholars is more than just a kaffe klatch that doesn’t really like itself very much. No, indeed, a community of scholars is predicated on the celebration of intellectual success and on the inter-departmental, campus-wide community that it comprises. Everyone (almost) has the same degree, after all, is a philosopher in title. So as academics we must see ourselves not as members of a department housed within a university, as a bit of an amorphous and impersonal whole but, instead, as a unified whole. The university is the community, and dean’s parties are important components of that. Not because of the hobnobbery. Not because of potential favors. Not because of glad handing. But because we’re all part of the same place. We’re all devoted to the same mission of the mind. We’re all…

…okay…we’re not all in it for these reasons. And this, truly, lies at the heart of my melancholy. I see at my own, now former, university the same problems of community. And I see new hires coming in disdainful of the students and the teaching load (the students are too provincial, they think; the teaching load too teachy). They’re repulsed by the town. But they love the pay and benefits. So they come, and they put in their time, and commute to Pittsburgh or State College or some other far-flung “better” place to live. And they worry not one whit about shaping and creating a vibrant community at their intellectual home. I imagine, rather, that the university is not their intellectual home at all, and that’s the very problem.

I’m not saying I could solve the problem. And I’m not saying that I should have been hired because I care about the community if my credentials didn’t fit (but they did). And I’m not saying I’m not lucky to be getting out of dodge (because I am). I’m just saying that the place could be better if academics started generally thinking about issues of community more. If they decided that roots are good things. If they decided that staying in one place for a career is a worthy goal. If they accepted the mission of their own place of hire, embraced its unique balance of teaching/research, and sought to make it the best IT could be. Not to transform a regional teaching school into a doctoral place. Not to de-emphasize research at an R-1. To take schools, and colleagues, and students, and towns for what they are. Learn to be part of that community, and desire to be part.

Too sappy?

Maybe. But I can’t help but think that the current crisis of adjuntification and budget dissolution may be directly related to the general weakness of academic communities. We fight so much with ourselves in an effort to fashion a place in our own image that we’re left without energy to fight for our community. The budget axe cuts freely through a loose collection of narcissists. When that same axe hits the tight grain of a community…well, there I think a college has a chance.