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Saturday, December 30, 2006

MLA if you ARE doing interviews...

Receiving, that is, not giving. Or is it the other way around? Anyway, State U is looking for a Friend For Me, so I was sitting in a little room for those three days in Philly, talking to a lot of people I had (by and large) never met before. We interviewed a long list, so that took up most of my time -- except for when I was eating $3 burgers with Hieronimo, or crashing parties. On top of all that, in the rush to catch the Plane/Train/Car/Boat that I took to get from my usual location to Philadelphia, I decided to leave my laptop behind, which means that I couldn't make use of my hotel's free wireless to get in a little conference blogging, as Hieronimo was clearly well and able to do.

So, that's an answer to your question, Simplicius.

Because of the interviewing, I didn't make it to a single panel, so I have nothing of intellectual substance to report. In fact, I didn't even register for the conference -- though I did sneak into the book exhibits. Like Flavia's partner, I went to go and see the stall of the publisher who will be bringing out my book this summer -- and there I managed to have my first face-to-face encounter with my editor. She was very pleasant, though it was perfectly clear to me that she had no idea who I was. Somehow I had imagined, I guess, that when I stuck out my hand and said "I'm Inkhorn," she would light up and say how delighted she was to meet me. Alas. She did briefly run through the production schedule, so that was sort of helpful. But then I almost immediately was introduced to an early modernist whose book I admire, who promptly confused State U with Nearby Community College, which was also a little dispiriting. So the foray into the book exhibits was not an emotional high point.

Although this was my third search committee, it was my first experience on an early modern search -- which meant I spent a lot less time composing my features into that look of intent comprehension that people wear while other people are talking in interviews, and a lot more time actually leading the conversation. Also I found myself asking questions because I wanted to hear the answers -- or the effort to answer -- instead of because I wanted to sound smart in front of my colleagues, or to not appear to be lurking silently in the interview room.

The interviews are always an interesting moment in the decision process. A lot can change. One of our strongest candidates going in completely imploded, I think out of shear nervousness. Another strong candidate was also disqualified -- partly for antagonizing me through a series of responses that were at once arrogant, dismissive, and incredibly reductive, and partly for appearing to be unable not to use the Stage Voice. S/he was more or less shouting at us the whole time. I found myself wishing to be about 10 rows back.

On the other hand, a number of people who had not been at the forefront of our list going in really pulled themselves up based on their performance in the interview.

But this whole thing of course raises all sorts of questions about the criteria that actually clinch a job: being smart is always important, but it's amazing to me how much of getting a job is about social rather than intellectual performance. There's the performance of intellectual engagement, on the one hand, but then on the other hand there are all the less tangible performances that make for a strong interview: humor, being relaxed and yet energetic, speaking well, maintaining eye contact with everybody in the room, seeming genuine (or, as one of my colleagues put it, human). It's amazing to me how many smart people end up disqualifying themselves because they can't maintain that social performance -- and so either can't communicate themselves well to the interviewers, or come across as the kind of person no one really wants around their department. It makes sense, of course -- we all want colleagues we can live with and like, and if you can't communicate your ideas, then you're obviously in trouble as an intellectual. Didn't the Roman rhetoricians say that delivery was the most crucial aspect of rhetoric? But on the other hand, maybe we're actually eliminating some of the smartest people by insisting on criteria that are really about socialization -- not to mention underlining an inherent bias toward those people who have really mastered the finer aspects of social performance. (Among whom I would absolutely not count myself, hence my suspicion of the whole thing).

Favorite piece of interview advice I've ever received: "sit forward in your chair and don't take any shit from anybody."

One other MLA rumination: MLA is exactly like Harry Potter. In that, while walking around downtown Philadelphia, you discover that you have a kind of special double vision. On the one hand, you see all the Muggles walking around having their normal day. On the other hand, you see, among them but apparently invisible to them, another population, totally divorced from them in habits of dress, self-presentation, speech, and life, but oddly mingled among them on the street, in the restaurants, in bars. How is it that you can always pick out an academic, instantly, in any setting?

When I said this to Hieronimo, he pointed out that we academics might be the real Muggles.

  • At 12/30/2006 10:32:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Gah, this post makes me feel both slightly hopeful and incredibly depressed. Sigh.

    Any chance you might explain what a total implosion looks like from your view, that is, giving the interview.


  • At 12/30/2006 11:15:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Total implosion story #1: I was interviewing a senior scholar a few years back, and the senior member of our committee began the interview with a typical opening question of the "Tell us about your current project" variety. At which point the interviewee proceeded to speak for--literally; I checked the clock on the microwave in the suite--16 straight minutes. This included a moment at about minute 6 when my colleague attempted to cut her off (to save all of us from embarrassment), only to be rebuffed when the interviewee held up her index finger in that "wait, just a moment" gesture. Suffice to say the 16 minute monologue was not the most lucid or engrossing thing in the world.

    Total. Implosion.


  • At 12/30/2006 11:21:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Wow. Brilliant.

    Simplicius: I'm not sure I'm comfortable going further into that particular interview. The person was nervous. They weren't able to be very coherent, as a result, and, more generally, there were all those awkward symptoms of nervousness: the laugh that sets your teeth on edge, the excessively rapid speech, etc. What I hope is that this was all symptomatic of a larger intellectual issue -- specifically, that this person wasn't as far along in the dissertation as we had thought going in. That would explain the nervousness, and would also suggest that, with a little time and more development on the project, things will look very differently. But who knows? We actually had a conversation in the room afterwards, in which people debated whether this was a nervous moment or a nervous personality.


  • At 1/01/2007 07:35:00 AM, Blogger dhawhee wrote…

    Great post, Inkhorn!

    And yes, the Roman rhetoricians did say that delivery was the most crucial part of rhetoric, and in doing so they were following Demosthenes, who is reputed to have said that the three most important features of rhetoric are Delivery, Delivery, and Delivery.

    Also, weirdly, they were big fans of the index finger. But that was in a situation where the speaker was supposed to, you know, hold forth. I was on an interviewing team where the interviewee index fingered the department chair, and the chair ended the interview 15 minutes early, about 3 minutes after the index finger.


  • At 1/01/2007 03:16:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Thanks! We used the early close once, too. In fact, we had just had a discussion about that immediately before the interview, and then there it was: do you have any questions for us? In other words, thank you, you're done. We were never index-fingered, though.

    Somebody should open a place called Demosthenes Pizza. Little joke for the rhetoricians.


  • At 1/03/2007 03:33:00 PM, Anonymous Aldo Manuzio wrote…

    A very interesting post--there's a ton of material on the web about being interviewed at the MLA and the various horror stories, and comical ones, of course, but there's very little about interviewing from the other side of the table. That's where the power is, of course, which is what makes it a bit mean-spirited to say "why can't these interviewees get it right?" But at the same time, it's a very interesting experience from which one learns a tremendous amount, and its especially good for prepping graduate students.

    The Harry Potter observation is exactly right. This "MLA effect" typically only holds during the MLA, where so many academics in their poorly chosen clothes running the color gamut from charcoal grey to black, the women with their 80s bobs and leggings, are so densely compressed into a small area. Every now and then, however, I'll be in another town at a cafè or bookstore, and spy one of these invisible academics.


  • At 1/04/2007 06:23:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Aldo: I agree that the Harry Potter rule applies to ordinary life as well as MLA. I had the experience the other day of walking down a street in a city I don't know very well, and finding myself mysteriously drawn into a rather dingy little coffeehouse -- where, it was immedately clear, our people were busy at work, each with their own laptop or book.

    Not being a great interviewer myself, I certainly wouldn't want to seem mean-spirited about the things people do and say in interviews. It's a high-pressure situation, and in some ways much more is at stake (everything) for an academic in a job interview than for someone in another line of work, since we have a radically different work/life distinction than other people. If anything, I'm suspicious of the inherent bias toward certain modes of, say, elegance or style that interviews seem to produce -- and about which most academics would, I think, be quite critical, at a more theoretical level. I'm thinking, I guess, a little bit in terms of the introduction to that Joe Litvak book "Strange Gourmets," which talks about the notion of "sophistication" in part in the context of academic discourse. But one could easily expand it to think about certain kinds of personal style more broadly.


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