Really? An #MLA14 Panel on Interviewing

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.”

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Really? An #MLA14 Panel on Interviewing — 10 Comments

    • I answer that best in the column I wrote for the Chronicle, Graduate School Is a Means to a Job. Please read that. And be aware that peer reviewed publications in major journals are simply not optional at this point in time.

  1. I appreciate your candor and blunt appraisal of the session. More constructive critique is certainly needed in the profession, starting in the early years of grad school (don’t pass people along without comment — only one faculty member ever gave me feedback about my in-class presence/comments and yet that’s what prepares people for conference presentations and interviews!). I also think more praise is needed for those who are, like the faculty mentioned, doing what they can to help students. I don’t think I’m unique in benefiting from senior academics who have kindly offered their wisdom and reviewed materials, conducted mock interviews, and discussed how to dress, how to speak, and how to handle the job market. Not everyone out there is stuck in 1982, mean, or unhelpful!

    (I would note, however, that CVs remain discipline-specific, and despite credential creep, I still know of people in the humanities getting jobs without articles as long as they have major conference presentations, book reviews, and a compelling and innovative dissertation).

  2. Karen, I made the experience of going to the market. Several positions announced are for associate professors or assistant professors. They interview associate professors along with ABD in the hotel rooms of professional meetings. I certainly agree that 2 book reviews is ridiculous, but what these professors from Cornell, Columbia, Harvard, etc are saying is the following: if you have a PhD from an Ivy League, excellent contacts in the top 5 universities in the country, if your parents are academics, you can afford to go to the market with 2 book reviews and constantly evoke your experiences as a graduate student. If you are not in these top five universities and if you are a person of color, be prepared to have two books published, and not even get a campus visit. To give you an idea I saw a committee (am changing the fields here to avoid trouble) for a position in Middle Eastern studies in which all interviewers were in the field of Slavic Studies and the only person in the field of Middle Eastern studies and who was able to ask questions about the field was an Assistant Professor who in theory should be going for tenure but who does not even have a book published, which leads me to think that either he will have tenure denied (despite having the power of doing interviews in his field) or will be tenured without having a book. This is a R1 institution. There was a job market in the US, but after the economic crisis, the system of personal advantages, privilege, and lack of mobility that we see in other countries is becoming the rule here in US as well. Of course privilege always existed, but there was more place for people who perform. Now performing will not suffice without pedigree. Wish you a great MLA conference and keep doing the good job !

  3. Karen, if I ever meet you in person I am going to give you the biggest hug. Seriously, thank you. Thank you for telling the truth. I’m ABD and have had it up to HERE with the conflict-avoidant liars at my institution and the liars publishing these horrible job market preparation books that were recommended to me as containing “useful” advice. At a time when I didn’t have any publications yet, I had profs telling me they were “sure” I would be competitive for graduate-level research institution positions. Excuse me, but how the fuck do you think I’m going to land those jobs without a SINGLE publication? No one has any idea what’s going on and they would rather pretend to know or avoid what they know at the expense of their students’ LIVES. It was the panic that accompanied this realization that no one at my uni or in these books was going to tell me the truth that compelled me to *actually* start succeeding in publishing my ass off. So again, thank you. And I look forward to hiring you in the coming months this spring. 🙂

    • I agree, JBF! It’s one thing to live in denial and evasion and avoidance of the truth. It’s another when your evasiveness is impacting, as you say, “students’ LIVES.” It’s unconscionable.

  4. I’m unclear as to what your disappointment with this panel is. Are you upset that there was no room for critique? (that could be a suggestion for next year’s MLA– including breakout sessions and discussion afterwards) or about the misinformation on the CV comment?

    Regarding the panelists’ performance, they did do the best they could (as a gesture of service to the academy, and not as trained professional ACTORS). Thus, any “mock interview” environment with 45 people looking on, minus the adrenaline and stress of an actual interview, is obviously not going to feel the same as a real, actual interview (I say this in defense of the person who ‘apparently’ got a job). You might reconsider your attack on a person who got a job based on his or her presentation of interviewing skills in an artificial environment. Many things lead to getting a job, including, as you revendicate so forcefully, the hard work that goes into publications, teaching experience and more. To minimize this effort with an “apparently” as a snap judgment of an interview performance also contradicts your main point that any successful MLA run requires a nexus of efforts, not MERELY a brief dazzling 40 minutes in an interview room.

    It seems to me that you are saying two contradictory things: that either it was too scripted (ie your disappointment about pre-arranged participants) or that it was not scripted enough (ie it did not give the sufficient illusion of disbelief that we were not a crowd watching two people who already got jobs).

    I do understand your frustration with the job market and the circulation of misinformation. I personally have read and enjoyed all of your advice on this blog leading up to my own successful job market run last year (TT R1 job, I had no peer reviewed publications). However, I think that you can voice this frustration without personally attacking the interview participants or the panel organizers.

    • Any live interview role play should include critiques of the responses. Even when they are strong, it’s important to say why they were strong. But most importantly when they are weak, it is critial to show why they are weak, and then how they could have been improved. Otherwise, what’s the benefit of live role play? If you are just revealing the types of questions asked, a paper doc would do as well.

  5. Thanks for these critical comments, which we’ll certainly take into account in formulating next year’s mock interviews. One thing you wouldn’t have known if you came in late is that one of the prearranged interviewers was unable to be there (when the ivory tower in Cornell got snowed in, or at least the Ithaca airport did), meaning the person who actually knows something about Italian had been replaced a few hours before the interviews by a generous German professor. That whole interview therefore had to be conducted in English (NOT realistic, as we pointed out to the audience), without a ritual section in Italian or specific follow-up questions that the original, more knowledgeable interviewer could have asked in response to the way the scripted part of the interview unfolded.
    Of course, that kind of seat-of-the-pants adjustment happens in real job interviews as well.
    Please note that MLA members who want more personalized responses to questions about the job search are invited every year to sign up for job counseling sessions (held in the same job center with many actual interviews). This year only one person signed up for the three slots I agreed to do. (Of course I realize that a serious job seeker would be happiest to choose a counselor from her or his own part of the profession – and the Slavists seeking jobs were all interviewing over at the AATSEEL conference. But I didn’t see names crossed out after people saw me in action in the mock interviews on Thursday evening.) I recommend the job counseling sessions to anyone who wants more mentoring than they’re getting in the graduate department, or who just wants a different perspective: the volunteer can look at your CV, your application letter, teaching statement and research description – many of the things I imagine you’d get with The Professor Is In. About whom, let me add, I have heard nice comments from younger colleagues who read the blog.
    It looks as if job seekers aren’t taking full advantage of the job counseling that the MLA does offer. Just saying.

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