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.