The conference job interview: time to kill it? A few thoughts.

First, some background for any readers who might stumble upon this post and not know the basics. (Academic readers in English and other fields that do first-round interviews at discipline conferences can skip the next paragraph.)

As all my regular readers know, fields in the literature and language in the US generally do their first round of job interviews for tenure-track assistant professor jobs (and sometimes higher ranked ones) at the Modern Language Association convention each year. That convention used to be held the weekend after Christmas, but has now been moved back to after the new year. This year’s convention will be next weekend, January 9-12. Department interview committees come to the conference to interview somewhere in the ballpark of 10-15 first round candidates for the job they advertised earlier in the academic year (the MLA “Job List” opens in September, but many ads get placed after that). Candidates come to the conference to be interviewed, but they often have to make travel arrangements before they’re sure they will *have* any interviews. I think that was the case for me the first time I did it, but the second time, I was lucky to be informed of at least one interview more than a month ahead, and so made my arrangements knowing that I had a purpose for being there. (A person *usually* doesn’t give a paper in the same year that they’re interviewing. First of all, there are only ever a few panels in one’s particular field, and it’s hard to get on them. I’ve given exactly *one* MLA paper, versus many multiple Medieval Academy, New Chaucer Society, and Medieval Congress — K’zoo and Leeds — papers. Second, you’ve got enough to worry about with interviews — who needs the worry of a paper, too? Third, you want to be as flexible as possible with times for interviews. But I do remember one year in which one of our candidates was giving a paper, so it’s not unheard of — just unusual.) After that round of interviews, departments then bring 2-4 candidates to their campus for the second round.

OK, that’s the background. There’s a lot of talk around the internet (blogs, Twitter, Facebook) about how much of a financial and mental stress this whole process puts on candidates, and at the present moment, I think that’s true. (There’s way too much to link to. Just trust me on this. You’ve probably already seen it anyway.) I’m not even that old in the field, but a lot has already changed since I was on the market in 2001-2 and 2002-3. My department gave some travel funding to job seekers, enough, iirc, that covered my airfare even cross-country, and I wasn’t even in a particularly rich department. The first year I shared a room, but the second year, I decided that managing my anxiety would be easier without a roommate, and I took the extra financial hit as an “investment in myself.” But as bleak as the job market was then, I could still believe in that kind of Pollyannish financial pablum. And that year I had 13 interviews, so the per-interview cost of the hotel room and other expenses was relatively low. But that is not the case for most job candidates today.

The last few years I’ve been to MLA — I went to LA and to Seattle recently — I’ve talked to seriously *outstanding* job candidates — people whose excellent work I know — who had 0, 1, and 2 interviews, even on their second and third go-rounds, with the PhD in hand. I don’t think I met anyone who had more than 3. I really felt bad for the ones who shelled out for the conference and ended up with no interviews. Even the year I had only 2 interviews didn’t feel as bleak to me as these recent years have felt — there was still a sense of hope for the next year.

Anyway, like many people these days, I’m generally in favor of moving to a discipline-wide practice of Skype (or other video) or phone interviews for the first round of interviews. Yes, both can be awkward in comparison to face-to-face interviews, but they also avoid some of the awkwardness of the latter. For instance, in a Skype or phone interview, I’ll never feel bad about the female candidate who realizes her skirt is a little uncomfortably short when she sits down, and I’m unlikely to see how a candidate’s hands shake when he’s understandably nervous. And no one will be sitting on the hotel bed! (Yes, that still happened in my interviews, but it was the committee person who had to make do with the bed, not me.)  A phone or video interview lets you ignore physical distractions (remind me someday to tell you about the committee that kept fighting over the thermostat) and focus on the things that matter. In my experience doing phone interviews as an interviewee and helping a friend practice for his Skype interviews, both are actually a little more relaxed once the weirdness of the technology is smoothed out.

I realize that there might be some technology cost associated with doing things this way, and perhaps some logistic wrangling, but surely that’s cheaper and easier for all parties than the conference, isn’t it?

And there’s a kind of democratizing and leveling out that goes along with such a practice — one that benefits both candidates and hiring departments. I still remember the interview I had with RBU. They’d picked one of the mid-level price hotels, an old grand dame hotel that probably looked *fabulous* on the web site. Indeed, its lobby was absolutely grand, full of rich woods and Persian carpets. But unbeknownst to my future colleagues and to me, there was an unrenovated wing of the hotel that still had some SRO residents in it (!). Guess where the RBU committee’s room was. Yup. It was really weird. I got off the elevator and turned down a secondary hallway where suddenly the wallpaper and carpeting changed (I think I even had to go down a step) and the lighting got very dim. It turned out to be an ice-breaking kind of thing — the committee all laughed about my finding them on the edge of doom and asking if I’d been accosted by the lady next door (who was convinced my colleagues were being visited by prostitutes!), and explained that had they known, they would’ve picked another hotel, but I very nearly had a *bad* first impression of RBU (“This is all they can afford?”). And has anyone ever had to have an interview with a committee that met you in the mass-interviewing room, the one with all the tables? I haven’t, but I always felt sorry for the institutions who had to do that. What kind of impression does that make?

And believe it or not, the practice of interviews at the MLA conference was actually begun in order to democratize the process, so the move to phone/video interviews would be in keeping with that spirit. Michael Bérubé, former MLA president, writes about this in a public Facebook post in which he dispels a number of myths about the MLA convention and the interviews. He’s what he has to say about the interview process:

But it’s worth pointing out that the conference-interview system was created not to discriminate against anyone, but precisely to break up the deeply discriminatory and opaque system as it existed in the 1960s, whereby dissertation directors or directors of graduate studies got on the phone with their friends at other universities and let them know that Horatio Q. Shuttlecock was completing a most excellent dissertation and would like an assistant professorship in their department. Or, conversely, department heads called their friends to find out if they knew of any good prospects among the new crop of Ph.D.s. That, folks, was the old boy network, and guess what? It was run by old boys. Back then, making the job process into a national, centralized system with conference interviews at the fulcrum (followed, usually, by campus visits for a handful of finalists) was a way of taking the whole thing out of the hands of the old boys.

I think it’s really important to keep some sense of “national, centralized system” — or at least a practice that is universal. But for that to happen, everyone has to start doing Skype/phone/Google Hangout/video-conferencing interviews at once, or at least swiftly, and it has to start with the richest, poshest, most prestigious universities. A few years ago, our administrators wanted to know why it was our department had to go to MLA to interview candidates — couldn’t we do cheaper phone or video-conferencing interviews? It’s not that we were all dying to make a post-Christmas trip (this was back when MLA started on or around Dec. 27), but we were afraid that our department would look bad to the best candidates, who would also be interviewing with richer universities at the MLA. If there’s an uneven trickle of departments doing video and phone interviews, starting with the RBUs of the world, it’s just going to make things bleaker and more confusing and more stressful all around, and candidates will be shelling out money for MLA for even fewer interviews, and then trying to schedule video/phone interviews around that. (Of course, it might make the posher universities look like bigger assholes for insisting candidates come to MLA. Still, I don’t necessarily want that for them, either.) So it really has to happen pretty much all at once — like the change in dates of the conference did.

Here’s where the MLA (and other professional organizations that run conferences where interviews are held) might be of help. I realize that their word is not law and that they don’t decree or control how interviews are done, but they could strongly recommend that departments move to video/phone interviews for the first round. As Michael points out in that post I linked above, the MLA doesn’t actually make any money off the conference interviews, so it’s of no financial consequence to the organization how these interviews are done. But at some point in the 70s, they helped create this system in order to counter the old boys’ network, so they could have some influence in creating another system now. And other influential voices could join them — other organizations, present and past presidents of them, big names that everyone knows, bloggers, etc. It might take a loud sea of voices, because the MLA makes a whole lot of recommendations that get ignored (for example, if I’m not mistaken, they recommend that committees not ask for additional materials up front — but how many committees follow that?). And individually, if we know folks who are running searches next year, *especially* at prestigious places, we could urge them to set an example.

Meanwhile, I think it’s important to keep some sort of first round of interviews. Bullock is in a field that doesn’t do them — just jump right to the top three candidates, whom they invite to campus. And guess what? The field is overwhelmingly represented by people with degrees from about ten institutions, even among profs at lower ranked universities. (He’s in a social science, and some social scientist decided the crunch the numbers and publish this finding in their organization journal. This isn’t just anecdotal.) I don’t know the numbers for English, but my impression is that this is not the case in our discipline. It’s probably still true that there’s a *lot* of overlap in the 10-15 people who get first round interviews, but I suspect that that larger number allows for a broader range of candidates from a variety of programs. And from the conference interviews I’ve done (where we interview 14-15 candidates), I can tell you that there is *always* someone who looks great on paper but turns out to be not what you’re looking for in person, and *always* someone who just made it on the interview list, but who surprises and wows you in the interview, and moves up in the list. With only 3 candidates, you might get stuck with nothing but the former, and you’re unlikely to discover the latter.  And apparently, Bullock’s discipline is starting to realize this, because some places are *adding* Skype interviews to their process now (it’s still unusual, though, he says, but he thinks it’s a great idea).

I still like the idea of the conference interview, but in practice, it does seem an awful burden on candidates especially, but also on cash-strapped institutions. And I don’t see any real negative difference between an awkward hotel-room interview and a Skype interview (though phone interviews have extra challenges and awkwardness).

What say you all? How can we help make this happen in our disciplines as soon as possible?

Update: Michael Bérubé has posted a follow-up FB post (he really should just go back to blogging!) about what a post-Skype MLA without interviews would look like. The short answer: pretty damn good. I especially like his point that departments could easily interview *more* applicants via Skype over a longer amount of time instead of squeezing in 10-15 at the conference. And, for the record, I would totally drive over to a Cleveland MLA. (He suggests smaller cities could host the smaller resulting conference.)

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>RBOC – Gray winter day edition

>Blogging bullets:

  • You may have noticed that I have no blog roll. That’s because it was a Blogrolling blog roll, and Blogrolling has ceased to exist. That’s a shame, because it was a handy system (though the ads on it in the last year or so of its existence were annoying). But I cut and pasted the blogroll before that happened, and when I get the energy for it, I’ll repost an updated version of it.
  • I’m thinking of changing to WordPress. Those of you who’ve made the move, how hard is it to move the archive of the blog? What do you like/dislike about each platform?
  • I’m also thinking of claiming my blog as service/outreach when I do my 5 year post-tenure review or when I go up for full professor. Any opinions about that?
  • My partner has been known as Bullock on this blog because I named him in our Deadwood-watching phase, during which time he grew a Seth Bullock-style mustache and goatee. But Deadwood is long gone and my man is clean-shaven. Plus, even though “bullock” meant “young bull” in Middle English and that’s one of its meanings today, it also can mean a castrated bull, which is not the association I wish to project for my Bullock. (Though it is kind of a funny pairing with Virago.) But it would be confusing to rename him. I’m thinking maybe of just putting a “cast of characters” in the sidebar and explaining the origins of the name. Any other ideas?
  • I have been remiss in telling Pastry Pirate fans that she has long been blogging elsewhere. First she was in New Zealand, working and exploring, and now she’s working in Antarctica. No, really. I kind of think “Baking in Antarctica” should be the title of the blog, but since it started before her life on the Ice Planet Hoth (as I like to think of it), it’s called Stories That Are True.
  • Hey, cool, I managed to blog more than in 2009. Not exactly an awesome accomplishment, since I was really lame in 2009, but still an improvement. What should I blog about next?

Work/Life bullets:

  • Our Christmas tree is up, all the Christmas shopping is done, and all but one present is wrapped (because it hasn’t arrived yet)! Hooray!
  • On Thursday, I wired the deposit for the studio flat in Belsize Park. It’s non-refundable, so this makes it official. I’m going to be living, however temporarily, in a flat in London! I’ve never lived in a flat in London before! Heck, I’ve never lived in a flat before (American apartments, yes). How cool is that?!
  • The one-week rent for the studio flat in Belsize Park (the amount of the deposit) is just over my one-month rent in my awesome two-bedroom Rust Belt Historical District apartment and only about $175 less than our monthly mortgage payment. I’ll never be able to live full-time in a big, expensive city again — I’ve been too spoiled by the low cost of living here in Rust Belt. But hey, now I can afford 6-week jaunts there! So, I may live in Rust Belt, but I can better afford life in the big city in small doses. This is what I keep telling myself, anyway.
  • OMG, my sabbatical is half over!!! Ack!!!
  • Something I realized at the various holiday parties this week: asking me “So, how’s sabbatical going?” is as crazy-making for me now as “So, how’s the dissertation coming?” was for me once upon a time. Also, faculty on sabbatical don’t want to talk about work issues. Come on, people, surely we can talk about something else!
  • Bullock is grading finals. He just said to me, “It must be Christmas time, because a student just spelled Commerce Clause like Santa Claus.”
  • Bullock and I are going to BullockLand for the holidays (with Pippi). I spent Turkey Week in Cowtown with my side of the family and starting this year we’re alternating where we go for Christmas so that we don’t have to do the crazy-making hurryhurryhurry to get to one place and then the next. That makes my going out to LA to visit Virgo Sis and go to the MLA much less stressful (so does going to MLA just to go). Of course, so does being on sabbatical, because otherwise I’d be doing MLA back-to-back with starting our Spring semester.
  • Speaking of holiday plans, in case I don’t blog again before we leave:

>Disconnecting from the social network / looking forward to social networking

>I deactivated my Facebook account today. Deactivation isn’t permanent — my profile and all its contents are still there, somewhere, but those of you who are my FB friends can’t see it. In fact, a lot of you now probably seem to be talking to a ghost in many of your threads.

I plan to return to FB Jan. 1 or thereabouts. I just got a little freaked out about how little time was left in the first half of my sabbatical and how much time FB was taking, despite all my leechblocking. See, the thing is, I have an iPhone, and on that phone is a Facebook app, and there’s no Leechblock for the iPhone, alas. And I have no self-control. I’ve been tossing around this idea for awhile now, but last night, as I was curled up on the couch with a book, a glass of wine, and Pippi, while Bullock was at a job candidate’s dinner, I realized how nice it was to slooooow doooooown and read for a good long time. And since I was reading a book set in Los Angeles, with many scenes in a neighborhood I knew intimately, I realized that there were other ways of being connected to the world than through Mark Zuckerberg’s way of doing it. Even though what I was reading wasn’t high art (it was detective fiction — though its author’s work has been promoted from the “mystery” section to the “literature” section of bookstores near you!), it felt more like a Forster or Woolf way of being connected — like the “only connect!” motif of Howards End or the thin thread of Mrs. Dalloway. Both are vulnerable, fragile, abstract connections, of course, but that’s what makes nurturing them and recognizing them important. It’s not that FB prevented me recognizing these threads or of slowing down, but the moment made me realize that I could leave FB for a little while and not feel outcast or at sea or unmoored from the world or from my past. (I haven’t thought this all the way out–it’s really just a feeling, a hunch now–so my writing about it is a little flabby and cliche-ridden. For a blogger, I’m strangely not very good at writing about our socially networked world!)

Of course, as some of you know, the irony of all this is that I took a photo of that moment with the dog and the wine and the book (and fuzzy slippers!) with my iPhone and posted it to Facebook! Of course, I think there’s something fitting that that was my last post before my hiatus. And it is just a hiatus, I promise (especially to Sisyphus, who is looking forward to beating me in our currently suspended game of Scrabble). In the meantime, most of you know where to find me at my real life, university e-mail address, and if not, there’s my Dr. Virago g-mail address (see sidebar).

Meanwhile, I’m planning to go to MLA to do some old skool social networking, the face to face kind. Virgo Sis lives on the east side of the Cahuenga Pass, so I’m going to stay with her (and arrive and leave a few days before and after the conference) and take the Red Line subway from Universal City into downtown. I’ll be going to all the medieval panels and to any meet-ups y’all want to plan (just let me know!), and presumably to my grad school’s party, if I can find out when and where it is (it’s often a big secret). I haven’t looked at the program yet, so there’s probably other stuff (besides the book exhibit of course!) that I’ll want to go to. And I promise I’ll start up Facebook again before that for easy contact. 🙂

And one other thing: I’m kind of hoping that less Facebook will mean more blogging. We’ll see if I’m right.

>Thanks!

>Thanks to everyone for all the suggestions and encouragement in the posts below about my Chaucer class and my medieval lit. survey course. You’ve definitely convinced me that doing adaptations of Chaucer in a Chaucer course isn’t crazy, and you’ve given me lots of ideas for the medieval lit. class. After this year, I won’t be teaching either again for three years, since next year I have the Old and Middle English linguistics classes, the research methods class for the grad students, and a special topics honors seminar on the subject of my book, and then the year after that I hope to be on sabbatical for the whole year. But that just gives me plenty of time to plan for big changes.

Anyway, I suspect things are going to be a little quiet around here for awhile because of various end of the semester madness. But I’ll see y’all at your blogs. And hey, who’s going to be at MLA? Medieval Womanis organizing a get-together.

>Via Chicago

>I’m coming home, I’m coming home, via Chicago.*

Actually, I’m already home, but I did get here via Chicago, after a whirlwind tour that took me from Rust Belt on December 19th to the land of Robber Baron mansions for the Pastry Pirate’s graduation from cookin’ school (detailed here, complete with pictures from my camera) and lots of fine dining, to Cowtown for a few days including Christmas Eve (which in the Virago family is the traditional time of present-opening), then to Chicago’s suburbs on Christmas day to meet up with Bullock and his family, and then into the city on the 27th by way of O’Hare to pick up my bestest grad school friend D. and to eat at Frontera Grill and catch up for a few hours before heading off for the fabulous MLA blogger meet-up (thanks Dr. Crazy for organizing it!), and then back to Rust Belt the next day — whew! (Yes, that was all one sentence. That’s how it felt to me, too.)

I am exhausted. I’m also way behind on all things bloggy — indeed, Dr. Crazy chastised me for falling down on the blogging job! Ack! — as I had internet access only once in those 10 days, and that was on Christmas day in the Cowtown airport. I purposely got there early to use the free wifi and check my e-mail (how sad am I?) but didn’t have time to blog or read blogs.

But one of my goals for the coming semester is to better organize my time, or at the very least to take control of it a little bit, and to build in more time for blogging (including reading yours). I’m going to do a little blog maintenance and get rid of some of the sillier posts from the early days, and then in a few days I’ll start back in with some quality posts, which have been sorely lacking around here lately.

Our semester starts up pretty quickly and already I feel busy, so I might not be the most prolific poster, but I’m going to make my posts count more (I hope, anyway). This is all in a lead-up to my plan to move from a pseudonymous blog to a persona-based blog (where my real life identity will be known, but “Dr. Virago” will still be the author of the blog) after my tenure process is complete. (Quick update on that: all that’s left in the process are the approvals of the Provost, President, and Trustees, and around here that’s really just a rubber-stamp process. Knock wood, of course.) But for the rest of today all I’m doing is unpacking, straightening up for our New Year’s party, and playing with my Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS-enabled trainer and heart-rate monitor (my Xmas present from Bullock) and going for a run to try it out.

*For those of you who don’t get the reference, the buildings in the picture are featured on the cover of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (as seen here), and “Via Chicago” is a song on their earlier album Summerteeth.