30 January 2008

Best in Show

Cold City U. is currently hiring in my home department. Being on leave at Prestigious Lil’ College, of course, I am also far, far away from the actual drudgery of the hiring committee, with all of its petty, seething passions and endless meetings and email memos and candidate schlepping and humourless dinners. But I have made it a point to dress properly and get into the car to travel across town for the job talks, as the candidates slowly wend their way through their presentations. These visits are a professional obligation, of course, but also a chance to showcase my presence, on the margins, of the department. I always make sure to look appropriately put together (which nowadays consists mostly of shined shoes and hair gel) and be attentive, solicitous and interested, even if my presence is largely formal.

Being a silent witness, my critical interpretation has been based in the immediate performance of the vaunted “job talk.” I am not privy to the dossiers, have not participated in the phone interviews or preliminary vetting, and only have the vaguest notion of where these people are, what they “do,” or other potentially fetching qualities. Their very names escape me, as I focus completely on their talks and how well they may or may not meet the expectations of the department, the university, and the specific and perhaps peculiar qualities of the search. At the last talk, I had to discreetly inquire from a member of the committee the name of the candidate, as it went in one ear and directly out the other. Talk about blind review!

Now, of course, I’m no slack when it comes to the old job talk. I’ve given plenty, and I’ve flubbed probably more than a couple too. For the candidate, the campus visit in general is a sprint that is exhausting, daunting, and suitably depressing in its post-visit regrets. In my experience, there’s barely time to go to the bathroom in peace, much less have the time to adequately compose oneself for the hyper critical (and yes, bitchy) audiences one is expected to entertain, like a glossy-haired specimen. There’s nothing quite as ugly as an academic crowd that smells blood, and there is quite a lot of blood spilled at job talks, with the smirks, sighs, aggressive questions, early departures and late arrivals. At the end of the day, in the quietude of one’s beige, anonymous hotel room, self-doubt can creep under the door and through the window like a bad odour.

But that, as they say, is another story. Currently I am a part of that bitchy, egghead Skepticon audience. I try to be kind, realising what it is like on the other side of this strange looking glass. And Cold City U., relentlessly unpretentious, does not consider itself quite as special as some of our sister institutions. Modestly hardworking, humble yet fierce in our task, we tend not to be too terribly interested in the latest intellectual debate between schools of thought, or how well one can elucidate the currently hot theories of disciplinary specialty. We are not the barracudas of the R1, with their shiny eyes and suffocating sense of intellectual rightness.

This does not mean we hire anyone off the street, however. And one of the surprising things I have noticed, in my scopophilic evaluation of the current Dog-and-Pony Show, is how poorly candidates listen to the instructions given to them for their specific job talk at Cold City U. In this instance, each candidate was given a single, broad but focused interdisciplinary question to respond to in his or her talk, primarily in the name of fairness but also to judge his or her relative intellectual merits against one another. I know this question well, because it is the same one that was given to me when I came to present at Cold City U. With one exception, the candidates have basically ignored the assigned question in favor of talking about something else: their research. While interesting on some sort of esoteric level, such presentations do not speak well to an innate ability to respond to instructions, think flexibly, or take our institution seriously, in terms of its demands and needs.

Another way of putting this would be that there is an overwhelming formal idea of the job talk focused on one’s research that dominates the profession, and I have been jarred by the fact that this hegemony of idealisation has been largely unshakable for certain candidates. However, we are not all Research One Institutions, we cannot all support research as the primary function of faculty work, and the consistent inability of candidates to modify their presentations to local circumstances not only undermines their candidacy for employment at Cold City U., but speaks volumes about what is considered important in the profession, and how that importance communicates itself through mentorship, or lack thereof, to vulnerable doctoral students.

One of the most important things I ever learned, before I left graduate school, was about modulation, audience, and the job talk, from a late-day panel at an MLA many years ago. That panel, which had one faculty each from an R1, an R2, a baccalaureate college, and a community college, was deeply influential in my approach to the job market. The panel’s message: all politics are local, craft your application to our specific institutional needs, and respect our potentials and limitations. Common sense, but evidently not that common.

Obviously, other important silent factors here would be the glamour of the R1 and the pecking order of institutions and “good jobs.” The R1 is where we receive our training, and subsequently, most of our ideas, however wrong-headed, about the profession. Yet, there is life, in some sense a more beautiful life, beyond the precincts of the R1. Teaching and service are important and do count at some universities, much more than whether one’s manuscript has been accepted at HUP. Additionally, I do feel that some of our candidates are toying with us, little non-ranking Cold City U., as a practice job run, or the academic version of the safety school, which is connected to the arrogance of some candidates emerging from high-profile graduate programs. But I know those people, and I know those programs, and suffice it to say, Hubris has its price. One shame in the popular decline of Classics is that increasingly people forget (or never learned) the lessons of Greek mythology and tragedy, and therefore reenact them in depressing, less interesting, imminently predicable ways (not to be too Cassandra about it).

In the end, some of the algebra of the job market will always be hidden from us, but other aspects of the equation are right in front of our eyes. So open your eyes already.


Sisyphus said...

maybe it's because we've all had practice in presenting our research before and we (ABD candidates) just go into denial about what the dept. really wants?

So a bunch of our ABDs are just back from all their flyouts and all of them were complaining about how viciously they were attacked and disrespected in their visits. They felt unfairly and overly rudely singled out and jumped on in their interviews/talks/dinners/etc.

I pointed out that we tend to haze our candidates and treat them pretty shitty, so maybe it's just the standard "see what a candidate can stand up to" and all interviews are kinda antagonistic. But they thought it was extra so, because of their work and their identities (queer, working class, person of color, respectively).

So, what do you think? How antagonistic or testing or pushy are campus visits and talk Q&As in general, and how much is that a sign of a dysfunctional or resistant department?

And you don't mind me coming over to take over your blog comments, do you?


Oso Raro said...

Well, as I mention in the post, the candidate experience of the campus visit is a whole 'nother kettle of fish. But suffice it to say that hiring committees and departments can be unkind to visiting candidates, mostly unconsciously in my experience, but sometimes very intentionally, as a means of vetting or testing, or indeed punishing, if there is already a preferred candidate and the department is just going through the motions.

I would say that often what passes for good or bad behaviour is more a question of professionalism than anything else. Do departments take care of as much accommodation and travel as they can, and are those limits made clear before the candidate gets on the plane (some schools can't offer all expenses pre-paid, for instance)? Do they inform the candidate of his or her schedule beforehand, along with the names, ranks, and departments of the faculty he or she will meet? Is there a welcoming contact faculty with personal phone number for any questions the night before the visit? A welcome packet of information about the school, region, and neighborhood, especially if a candidate is stranded in a strange, isolated hotel the night before? Are sociable activities planned for the candidate, and are they well-attended? Has the committee planned for down-time for the candidate for bathroom breaks or just a breather, especially before the actual talk? Is the candidate given a clear timeline for decision-making, and is that time line followed? If there is a teaching demonstration, is the candidate given a course syllabus and does she or he have a chance to discuss the demonstration with the instructor of the course beforehand (if it takes place in the context of a current course)?

Some schools are much better at this than others, and in my experience, that better effort is usually driven by sensitivity on the part of individual committee members as to how labourious the campus visit can be. But as the MLA Guide to the Job Market says, a campus visit is also a chance for the candidate to see how a school runs. It is a mutual interviewing, although that seems less than transparent to candidates.

The campus visit where a candidate is obviously and blatantly mistreated is, needless to say, a bad sign. How to measure what we mean by mistreated, as well as not knowing the specifics of your candidates' experiences, it is hard to say exactly what this might be. In the case of Cold City U., just given the nature of the institution, some of the bells and whistles of R1 campus visits are missing (such as elaborate expensive dinners and lunches, as there is no reimbursement for faculty and a per diem limit on candidate expenditures. Therfore, attending means, well, shelling out for an elaborate and expensive dinner or lunch). That doesn't mean Cold City U. is a bad place, just a particular place. Sometimes candidates can arrive expecting, like the Princess and the Pea, a certain sort of treatment, especially material treatment, and when they don't receive this treatment, respond with disdain. But not all schools have bottomless pockets for campus visits.

But again, open antagonism or aggression, either through openly violating labor law with illegal questions (this is a tough one, and just to remain humane, some illegal questions will slip through, but the President of Sadistic College was famous for violating this prohibition repeatedly and flamboyantly, driving some candidates to rightly flee) or a deep, openly expressed skepticism about the nature and focus of their work, should be listened to as signs of possible intra-departmental or intra-institutional tension around his or her candidacy. Sub rosa research, as well as conferencing with references and institutional contacts, is always more instructive in this regard than anything the committee might actually say.

In the end, it is an intangible, but like the Supreme Court and pornography, one might not be able to define it but one knows it when they see it.

Oso Raro said...

Addendum: The Bitchy Audience

I forgot to add something about audience. I've given job talks that have been attended by a cast of thousands and some that have only just half of the committee in attendance (always a bad sign, btw). The tenor of audience reception and Q & A is always instititionally specific, I think. Some audiences have been openly disdainful, others helpful in guiding the candidate towards areas she or he might have missed. Sometimes both these qualities are present. At Cold City U., candidate audiences tend to be small and focused, cheerful and positive. Even though I have been pretty skeptical of the current raft of candidates, I have only asked one pointed question, and that was designed to steer the candidate towards the question they had elided in their presentation.

Grace and self-assurance are qualities that are more important in handling the talk and Q & A than anything else, I think, although it helps to keep track of the questions (take notes, esp. on multi-part questions!). Respond vigorously and generously to both positive and negative questions, acknowledge elisions or areas of "further thinking" (i.e., I don't have any clue as to what you are saying), and remember to smile. This is, after all, a beauty contest. But try not to be defensive, or something you aren't. If they want you, they want you. If not, well, fuck them.

Paris said...

Very timely as I just finished a practice job talk (although the likelihood of it seeing real use this year is decreasing mostly rapidly). I'm with Sisyphus in that I found myself falling back into the kind of presentation I am most comfortable with: conference-style presentation of my research. Thankfully the practice run demonstrated to me that this is completely wrong and that I need to back up four or five steps.

On the flip side, I think I ended up producing something that will beat into a respectable article with limited reframing, so all was not lost.

cero said...

"With one exception, the candidates have basically ignored the assigned question in favor of talking about something else: their research."

I think they're looking out for #1. Because even at non-R1s, which say they are more interested in teaching / service, research is still the only thing which is concrete, and people who get taken in by the "teaching and service are important" hype may be laughed at later, when an administrator explains that was only to justify the weight and breadth of the teaching load, they didn't really *mean* it!

In conferences, job talks, etc., I *always* speak to the question asked, *not* bending it to my purposes, and it has kept me employed, but not enabled me to do well, as I am always focused on what someone else wants, what someone else asks, not on what I might really be interested in.

These candidates aren't doing it quite right, of course: they should not be so bald faced about what they are doing. But they're on the right track, van a lo suyo, which is the only way to fly.

cero said...

P.S. You can't do a conference style presentation of your research in a job talk because you are not speaking to a specialized audience.

You have got to be personable and flexible, both in the presentation and in the q and a part.

cero said...

PPS. Where I went to graduate school, questions at the job talk were very challenging intellectually. It wasn't hostility - it was that people tended to be incisive there on everything.

Everywhere else I've been, that level of Q and A is either considered rude, or people are too tired and befuddled to do it, or one is so anxious to hire that one does not want to make the candidate uncomfortable in any way.

The way I can tell if things are going well or not is how bored people seem or not. I also note that in very large departments, people being too busy to see you or whatnot is *not* indicative of a lack of interest *or* of departmental dysfunction - it only means there is too much going on.

GayProf said...

I can't say that I like the notion of expecting job candidates to answer a canned question. This seems like a) the university is far different than what ever other institution expects during a job talk (and therefore shouldn't be surprised that candidates are confused by the request) and b) doesn't really show a sincere commitment to individual research interests. It also smacks of making the job talk a "right" or "wrong" answer. Nope, don't like the idea one bit.

adjunct whore said...

i agree with gayprof: that seems really daunting and perhaps unfair--it makes the "competition" between candidates far more direct and immediate and seems to favor the job talk exclusively rather than overall quality/tenor of the candidate (would they make a good colleague, is the direction of their research promising, even if still tentative, is their intellectual engagement sincere?) it would absolutely feel like there were right and wrong answers to a specific question, horrifying.

i do love your description of the process, however.

i had rigorous, intellectually challanging questions in my job talk, which made me feel good. because who wants to be either a)toyed with, even if a sign of kindness; or b) not taken seriously enough to bother putting pressure on their ideas?

Anonymous said...

Well, when my regional comprehensive invited me on campus to interview, they treated my so shittily (i.e., for lunch on my first day, they sent me to one of those working class pit stops where you can get all the canned corn you want with a side of freshly rehidrated mashed potatoes and greasy wwII protein rations, yummy) that I called them on it after I was hired and made them put up subsequent candidates in better hotels (oh, mary, don't ask, but it was purrrteeee bad)and shell out $$$ for meals. They have since incorporated tours, put together a nice info package, and have even begun to create impromtu "socials" . . . So, I would say, work hard to improve the climate WHEREVER you are. There's also something to be said for the level of snobbery and naivete that R-1 candidates have about them, but that's material for another posting . . .
La Vicks

Oso Raro said...

Perhaps I wasn't terribly clear on the question posed to candidates, in the name of discretion. But suffice it to say that it asked candidates to address what was going on in the field, and any candidate, nay any academic, worth their salt should be prepared to give a talk like this, at the drop of a dime. The question did NOT presuppose a right or wrong answer, but rather sought to measure the generalist capacity of the candidates in comparison to one another. This does not strike me as terribly unusual, the measurement part. In some senses, it is much more fair than taking candidates X, Y, and Z working on three completing different things and attempting the fantasy of fair-handed comparison.

Smaller institutions need generalists, not specialists, to fill their curricular needs with maximum flexibility. And research-based presentations tend to be niche-based specialisations that don't tell a committee here what they need to know. Different institutional methodologies are not bad or worse based solely on their difference from the R1 "norm," but then again that is what the entry is about, right? If you want a job, then you better learn to be flex, or else don't expect to work in the profession. The Star System is over, and they don't call it a job for nothin'. I don't think I'm being cynical here, just practical.

Also, I'm not sure we need to reify individual research agendas as the true and free geist of a candidate, as opposed to the purported drudgery of, heaven forbid, having to answer a universal question, like it was a test or something. But, ready? It IS a test. The campus visit is littered with right and wrong answers that are implicit, and often times submerged and therefore more dangerous, especially at R1s with their byzantine intrigues and petty courtiers. At least a direct, clear question makes those expectations more visible.

adjunct whore said...

fair enough...i didn't mean to suggest it was ever fair or that time bombs don't litter the campus visit. your explanation of the "question" makes far more sense than your initial post made it sound. to wit, everyone should be able to answer the "field" question and, i imagine, it would be a terrific gauge for if the candidate were a good fit in your department.

and finally, i agree that reifying the star-system and fantasy of original research or in-born genius is destructive.

Ms.PhD said...

really interesting post & discussion, thanks.

cero said...

It occurs to me that that sort of a talk would also be an interesting replacement for the teaching demo, since it's so awkward to have someone come in and teach a class that isn't theirs, in the middle of the semester, in a new place, etc.

cero said...

p.s. I'm also thinking about it from a candidate's point of view - preparing that sort of a talk might well be a lot more interesting and affirming and so on than preparing to teach a mystery class, which can be a sort of shot in the dark. What you show in a teaching demo - that you can prepare and stand up in front of a group, be responsive, and so on - you can show in this kind of a talk, too. Most teaching demos I've seen are competent but flat, and this not by anyone's fault but just because the situation is so artificial.