So I’m at the MLA, and I went to my first panel, Demonstration Interviews for Job Seekers in Foreign Languages. Professors Sibelan Forrester of Swarthmore College and Patrizia C. McBride of Cornell led two mock interviews with two folks playing the role of interviewees. I came late, but gathered from the context that these interviewee role players a) were not on the spot volunteers but rather pre-arranged; and b) had gotten jobs, but only recently, and the memories of their MLA interview experiences were still fresh. The 2 interviews covered positions in Italian and Slavic, respectively.
There were 45 people in the room, and nearly everyone stayed the entire session. It was a committed group. The description promised that the interviews “would be analyzed and critiqued by audience members, interviewers, and interviewees.”
Questions asked in these mock interviews included (this is not a complete list):
What is the status of your dissertation?
What is your research plan for the next 3-5 years?
How would you collaborate with colleagues?
What is the relationship of teaching and research for you?
What do you see as the role of study abroad for language students?
How do you integrate content into skills development in language teaching?
How do you structure a 50 minute language class?
We offer a Gen Ed film class, and the instructor is retiring. Would you be interested in teaching it?
Tell us about service activities you’ve been involved in.
What attracts you to our position?
Do you have questions for us?
I was pleased to see this panel offered, and I want to recognize Professors Forrester and McBride for taking the time to offer this kind of assistance to job seekers. They are both Full Professors, it seems, and I appreciate that they chose to devote time and energy to demystifying the interview process. The questions they asked were quite reflective of questions with which I was familiar from my years in an East Asian languages department, and helpful to hear in context.
However. This panel left a lot to be desired. When the interviews were finished, there was no critique at all. The interviews were not that good. One was decent—what I’d call an A- performance–and one was really quite problematic. I guess this person apparently got a job, but not on the basis of his interviewing skills. He committed some very obvious errors–the biggest one being to continually refer to himself as a graduate student and refer back to his graduate student days– and these were not identified. Eventually someone in the audience said, “um, I thought this was going to include a critique–can you tell us of any bad moments?” to which one of the panelists answered, “I didn’t see any bad moments; I think they both did a great job.” This helps exactly not at all. It was also not accurate.
That’s not to say there was nothing useful here. When the audience gave up trying to get a critical appraisal of the interviews themselves, and instead switched to general interview anxieties like, “should I bring sample syllabi?” and “how are MLA interviews different from campus visits?” the panelists had things to share. But when one audience member asked, “what should a new Ph.D. CV look like?” and one of the panelists answered, “well, 1 or 2 book reviews, 1 or 2 conference presentations at regional conferences, maybe a publication in a graduate student journal…” then I really wanted to ask, “Are you smoking crack?” And, “What decade was your most recent search?” A record like that may have been adequate at some point in the past, but is laughable for the purposes of the job market at this hyper-professionalized, insanely competitive point in time.
Job seekers deserve better, and they need better. They need fierce and unflinching and up-to-date feedback about the brutal criteria of the current job search process. The panelists at different point laughingly talked about how “tiring” interviewing is for the search committee, and how their “eyes were spinning” at having to deal with hundreds of applications for a single job, and later said, “how FUN the campus visit can be.” Such sentiments–sincere or not–cannot strike the desperate and tortured souls on the market as anything but an utterly unhelpful complacency. The same for other bland exhortations to “practice!” and “don’t be boring!”
When it was over, I paused before leaving to take in the mood of the crowd. A woman in front of me made eye contact as she was putting on her coat, so I asked, “what did you think of the panel?” “Meh,” she said, shrugging. “I got my Ph.D. the year the market crashed (2009). I was on a bunch of short lists and then got a bunch of letters—‘sorry, we lost our funding for the line’. I’ve been searching ever since. Two years here, two years there. This might have been good for people still in grad school, but I’ve been looking for a job for years, and there was nothing here that was useful for someone like me.”
(Then we introduced ourselves and discovered that she was in fact one of my clients. She threw her arms around me. And told me she’d just gotten a really nice two-year research postdoc with the help of the letter we worked on together. So that was cool.)
But, back to my point: there are more and more people like her. In fact, there are more people like her than not like her, I’d venture to say. And they need more than a couple vague, uncritical mock interviews and outdated advice. This is not a humane or ethical system and hasn’t been for many years. Interview advice cannot, of course, create jobs where there are none, or give hope where there isn’t any. But at the least the faculty providing it need to dig deep and not be afraid to say clearly and unmistakably, “that was bad, this is why, do this instead, now do it again.”