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.