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.)