Monday, November 27, 2006

The Dreaded (and Dreadful) Job Search

Last year I decided not to blog about the job market because we were searching. This year we are kinda searching, but not at MLA and in a really weird way, so I am blogging. (Actually, it's more because I was inspired by this post at Ancrene Wiseass about job interviews and creating the "right" image).

I've now been involved in about ten searches, once as a candidate, twice on MLA interviewing committees, and the rest of the time as part of a department that delegates only the MLA interviews to the committee (we all jointly do everything else). Of course Wheaton is weird, is a small liberal arts college, a department where people actually try to behave like human beings, etc. But I think I have a few insights into the process. I also hope that this is a good time to write, as (hopefully) my friends on the market are starting to get requests for dossiers, interviews, etc.

So, herewith, a few comments and tips.

First, the MLA hiring process is the most dehumanizing, soul-killing, loathsome job process ever invented. Cattle-call auditions for Annie, the NFL combine, and that gross scene in Showgirls are all pleasant compared to the process that has evolved for hiring for professorial jobs. From the utter bogosity of the original sorting process (in which two department members could, theoretically, decide to boot every person whose last name begins with "D", and no one could stop them unless they admitted it), to the incredibly stupid reasons that people are left in or tossed out of the MLA pool, to the ridiculous situation that is the MLA interview--all of it probably could not be worse if you hired Dr. Evil, Stanley Fish, Newt Gingrich, Sideshow Bob and Stalin to put together a process that is simultaneously bureaucratic and subject to the whims of insane people, tedious and capricious, utterly stressful and incredibly boring.

This isn't meant to be scary so much as to say that if you hate the hiring process, you are a normal human being. And if you don't hate it, please don't sit near me, k?

But that said, you need to work the process to your advantage without getting too hung up on it. And you need to recognize that despite all the intellectual effort you put in, a lot of it is a crapshoot (which is to me why the process is so horrible: we make people strive and strive and then much of the final decision is luck).

How to work the process to your advantage?

Here is my deep dark secret: Most academics like to talk. A lot. And they think very highly of their own talking. You, being an academic, probably do, too. Think about what happens when you put a lot of people who like to talk into a room and make them sit there and listen when they'd rather talk (to paraphrase Scott Adams, your mouth is much more than twice the size of your ear holes, you know). Think how you feel when forced to sit and listen to a speaker drone on and on without letting you get a word in edgewise.

Yes, you are supposed to be being interviewed, and the committee is interested in you. But think through the dynamics and play them to your advantage. It's sad but true, but the more people hear themselves talk, the more brilliant they think you are.

Prep, in advance, a pithy answer to the question: "So tell us about your dissertation/research": Think about how long you would want to sit and listen to even the most fascinating graduate student in the world talk about a dissertation. Keep your answer that short (this is a judgment call, but I would say that if you get up over 4 minutes you are heading for trouble, and if you can say what you are about in 2 minutes, you are golden).

Then, end with an entry point for another person to talk: Do you think this work would fit in with anything anyone is doing in your department? (this can be risky due to toe-stepping). You can fix it by doing research and saying "I noticed on your web site that Dr. Q published on M. I don't work on M itself, but there are some parallels--do you think Q would be able to guide me towards good resources?" This is esp. helpful if Q is on the committee.

At every opportunity, ask an intelligent question, particulalry about departmental cohesion and mentoring. Also, find out about service courses (show enthusiasm even for lower-division courses and say "that's where I recruit my majors/grad students, etc".), the path to tenure (is there an open line for this position? is the jargon term that shows you are in the know). Ask about research opportunities. Not all at once. These need to be worked into the conversation so that there is give and take. End with a question about publishing expectations and look happy about the answer, whatever it is.

When asked teaching questions, give specific anecdotes first and the principles they illustrate second. No one wants to hear "sometimes I do group work, but sometimes I lecture." Duh! We all do that. Rather, talk about a specific problem with a specific student --- I was teaching Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life and had an absolutely unexpected reaction by a student who said "I didn't come from no fish"; here's how I worked that out and made that student such a close reader of Gould's work (looking for logical errors) that he managed a B+

Gamble question: "Is there a lot of political diversity in your department?" Wait for the answer from all three interviewers, if they all speak, and observe how they interact. Then, your answer is "Oh, that's a relief. I can certainly fit in there." [I'm sorry; people don't want you to be honest about your politics; they want to fantasize that you'll agree with them about everything].

But the key is to try to listen without seeming shy or overwhelmed. You will be tagged as "thoughtful" and "genuinely interested." Make sure you express that genuine interest for the actual institution and not just for the region of the country, etc.

Physical presentation: I would say "wear what makes you feel good" (though I'm a hypocrite here, and used that nasty Rogaine until the day after I signed my contract--it worked, too). But seriously, get a suit that you like and that you are comfortable in. Accessorize the way you want. Wear your wedding ring (I think). No matter what you do, it will offend a bunch of people (too stodgy, too edgy, too New York, too young, too old, too married, not married, possibly gay, not gay enough, patches on the sleeves??? But that's a Harris Tweed!! Heels too high, heels too low, tassles on loafers good, tassels on loafer bad, etc., etc. etc.) It is not possible to win, the way it might be if you were trying to get a job in the fashion industry: here, there is just as good a chance that the person interviewing you has no knowledge whatsoever of what is a good shoe or a bad shoe. I know one eminent professor who wore gardening boots with mismatched socks to a meeting with Chancellor. So make yourself comfortable, and some of that should rub off on your confidence.

More of a gamble, especially, especially for women: think about not wearing black. The MLA looks like and has the social dynamics of the funeral of a particularly powerful but child-molesting uncle. You don't want to participate in that. If you can bear it, try not to wear a black suit. You'll stand out. You might not stand out as "I wear black on the outside because that's how I feel on the insidge", but you will stand out. It may be that going in yellow or powder blue will work--if that's really you and you're comfortable in it.

Finally, roll with the surprises. I was asked at one point if I could teach contemporary American poetry. Well, I had a copy of a new Denise Levertov book in my bathroom, so I went with that. Three minutes later someone asked another question, so I was off the hook on that one (I actually read a fair bit of contemporary poetry, but I would never presume to teach it).

The best candidates I've seen (who have been the ones we've hired) are those that are sincerely interested in our college (and if you can fake sincerity, you're set) and have thought about how they can contribute to the institution.

They are not hiring you because you're a cute kid or you're top of the class or even that you're a soon-to-be hot scholar (according to the letters of recommendation, everybody is a budding superstar) . They are hiring you to contribute to the department's mission (whatever, and however poorly articulated that is) and to be their colleagues. So present yourself as yourself: a person who does certain things in English, not a person who is a certain thing in English.

Good luck on your quests. May your mailboxes fill with dossier requests and your many interviews give you no time to go to the stupid papers (no one even giggled at my Beowulf/penis joke--and it was a good one--so I shall never again present). Go, look up your friends, drink quickly but not too heavily, and try to relax as much as you can. Like a really strong bout of rota virus, it will soon be over.


Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

You can't do that do us. Now you MUST post your "Beowulf/penis joke."

Ecce Equus Pallidus said...

I have to agree with Dr. Nokes.
After all, odds are good that your reading audience will giggle.

Ancrene Wiseass said...

I wanna see the Beowulf/penis joke, too!

I somehow only now saw this post: it's quite helpful!