The Conference Interview: Do or Don’t?

Originally published in the Winter 2014 MLA Newsletter

Most readers of this column began their job searches during an age when the MLA Annual Convention served as the site for college and university job interviews. Those who were “on the market” answered position announcements in the Job Information List (JIL), sent dossiers, and waited for hiring departments to set up interviews at the convention. Changes in the academic system that began decades ago now make convention interviews far less likely.

The number of academic positions relative to the number of PhD recipients is the primary change, but the timing of the academic cycle in which departments list their jobs has also changed. David Laurence, director of research at the MLA, recently completed the annual analysis of the Job Information List (you can read a report on the 2013–14 statistics on page 7), and we can spot some interesting trends. When the JIL appeared in print only, departments hurried to place their announcements in the October edition. With the advent of weekly updates to the open-access electronic database, departments list positions throughout the fall semester and—here’s the real shift—well into the second half of the academic year. It’s not just that position listings are scarce: even with the switch to January dates for the convention, they’re also ill-timed for the MLA convention to be the primary vehicle to interview candidates.

There were good reasons to extract the job system from the behind-closed-doors “good old boy” networks that dominated until the late 1960s. The MLA responded to the needs of its members by helping to level the playing field and professionalize the job search, so much so that, for many people, the MLA convention became synonymous with the “job market.” It’s time for that to change. It’s time to encourage departments to think more expansively when it comes to identifying and interviewing candidates. Doing so might alleviate some of the intense pressure that job seekers endure, and it might provide departments with a chance to look closely at candidates whom they otherwise wouldn’t consider.

The MLA facilitates interviews at the convention because departments want the service. The common interview area, for instance, provides an opportunity for departments that do not reserve hotel suites to meet with candidates in a professional setting. Increasingly, though, departments and candidates communicate directly by phone and e-mail, no longer counting on the MLA Job Information Service to act as an information conduit. I am frequently asked how many interviews take place at the convention, and it is more and more difficult to answer this query. With candidates and departments communicating independently, the MLA is often out of the market, so to speak.

I imagine what some of you have been thinking since you started to read this column: why not do away with conference interviews altogether and shift to a technologybased remote interviewing system? Recent articles in the higher education press and on blogs have hotly debated this question. Some writers think the MLA has a vested interest in defending the current system, but that is simply wrong. The MLA operates under the assumption that the interests of both candidates and departments must be well served. At times, however, those interests conflict. Cost is a major obstacle for candidates when it comes to attending the MLA convention. Although the MLA has doubled the amount of travel grants in recent years (from $200 to $400) and although every qualified applicant has received one, the expenses involved in attending the convention can be prohibitive to the graduate student or part-time faculty member who may have one interview lined up. This is a huge burden on the candidate, and departments need to adjust their expectations. There are good ways to do so and not-so-good ways.

The approach to interviews should have as its rationale the following question: how can the interview team connect with as many candidates as possible at the least cost and inconvenience for those who apply? For many departments, a remote conferencing system may be an appropriate interview technology, and a quick perusal of recent editions of the JIL shows that “Skype interviews” are often specified. The MLA and its Association of Departments of English (ADE) and Association of Departments of Foreign Languages (ADFL) not only support departments’ using technology for preliminary interviews, we’ve also devised guidelines for doing so (http://www.adfl.org/resources/resources_interview.htm). In these guidelines, we note that the Skype interview may be problematic, since the quality of the technology affects the quality of the interview experience; services such as Skype do not always provide stable connectivity. Ideally, departments and candidates would have access to campus-based conferencing technology so that remote interviews could be conducted with maximum professionalism.

In theory, remote interviews would allow departments to interact with more candidates for varying lengths of time. For example, interview teams might decide to arrange conversations with more candidates than in-person meetings could accommodate. Such a system would open a door to candidates who might otherwise be overlooked. I can even imagine technology-based interviews being conducted before the MLA convention, with more extensive second interviews at the convention for a small number of carefully selected candidates. However departments choose to interview, the candidates’ needs should be front and center. (The MLA, ADE, and ADFL policy statements on issues related to the academic job search and working conditions are available at www.mla.org/career_resources#infoandguide.)

Graduate programs have a responsibility to their students. To maintain a PhD program in these difficult times means committing the resources to support students in their nascent careers, whether in academia or beyond. Students should expect extensive assistance in preparing for the job search and in meeting the costs of attending the convention. After all, the MLA convention is much more than an event where interviews occur. It remains the largest language and literature convention in the world, and it offers nearly eight hundred sessions, professional development workshops, networking opportunities, and a host of other activities. Being on the job market is extraordinarily stressful, but there’s a whole convention out there that offers intellectual and professional engagement of a very different type.

It’s time for us to reconsider how and where we interview and to look to the convention as a renewable source of intellectual energy, created by and for MLA members. Now that the new forum structure is reshaping the way we organize our fields both at the convention and on MLA Commons, we should turn our attention to the convention as a whole. Contrary to what I’ve heard being said, the MLA does not count on the convention as a major source of association revenue, unlike other scholarly associations. Our fees are among the lowest, while we provide more services than most. It’s an exciting, rich occasion for intellectual, pedagogical, and professional exchange. The convention exists to serve members, and as long as the structures that undergird it are supporting that mission, they should remain. The MLA has no interest in forcing an interview model on the profession if it no longer works. Quite the opposite: the MLA has every interest in documenting and promoting best practices, recognizing that there are many. What if departments always offered candidates the option of a remote interview and treated candidates equally whether or not they planned to attend the MLA convention? Some departments have already adopted this practice, and it sounds wise to me. I very much enjoy seeing graduate students at the convention, hearing their presentations, and meeting them informally. It would be in all of our best interests to make the convention a less tense and burdensome experience for the next generation of the humanities workforce.

8 Comments

Elaine Treharne

I had managed twenty-five years in the profession without ever having to attend an MLA conference until last year in Chicago. I cannot understand how it can still seem like a good idea to bring candidates (but note–not senior candidates) for posts to a working conference, which then might need to be followed up by lengthy campus visits. The tension at the MLA was palpable; many young colleagues seemed visibly distressed during the four days. Moreover, these candidates have to pay their own expenses, which is outrageous; and universities have to foot the bill of sending whole teams of interviewers who would not otherwise attend. The British system of bringing all finalists to campus at the same time, reimbursing them all, and responding with a decision within days is humane, professional, and, frankly, it works. Without the job round, I suspect the MLA conference would shrink to a quarter of its current size and the MLA would lose its hold on the job market. Both strike me as very good outcomes.

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Amanda French

I’m not employed on the tenure track, and I’ve voluntarily gone to the MLA for the last five years (I think all five), just because it has turned into kind of a Digital Humanities get-together for me. I go solely for the intellectual content, in other words, neither interviewing nor being interviewed, and I always have a great time because of it.

Couldn’t agree more that hiring departments need to be generous to candidates: it’s perfectly ridiculous to expect them to pay their own way to MLA to be interviewed. So glad you’ve issued this recommendation that search committees at least consider interviewing remotely. I’m job-hunting right now, often for alt-ac positions, and I’ve had three Skype interviews so far (frankly I’ve never had much of a problem with Skype, technologically — works fine most of the time) with very reputable institutions. Kudos to the MLA.

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James Morey

The Executive Director’s column makes perfect, and humane, sense. It is really up to the hiring departments to adopt new practices for interviewing. I am very glad to see the MLA making these kinds of suggestions.

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Profile photo of Rivka Swenson Rivka Swenson

Terrific piece, extremely well-considered and well-executed.

First, thanks for giving the concise history, about which many newer MLA members aren’t aware:

‘There were good reasons to extract the job system from the behind-closed-doors “good old boy” networks that dominated until the late 1960s. The MLA responded to the needs of its members by helping to level the playing field and professionalize the job search, so much so that, for many people, the MLA convention became synonymous with the “job market.”’

Second, I love that the convention brings together colleagues across fields (e.g., English, French) — and across temporal and other divisions (i.e., subfields, e.g., “Victorian,” “Early Modern,” etc.) within those fields. It’s true it’d be a less stressful, and more enjoyable, meeting without the job market stressors, so I wouldn’t be sorry if the convention eventually evolves into a non-job-interview-oriented convention:

‘The convention exists to serve members, and as long as the structures that undergird it are supporting that mission, they should remain. The MLA has no interest in forcing an interview model on the profession if it no longer works. Quite the opposite: the MLA has every interest in documenting and promoting best practices, recognizing that there are many. What if departments always offered candidates the option of a remote interview and treated candidates equally whether or not they planned to attend the MLA convention? Some departments have already adopted this practice, and it sounds wise to me. I very much enjoy seeing graduate students at the convention, hearing their presentations, and meeting them informally. It would be in all of our best interests to make the convention a less tense and burdensome experience for the next generation of the humanities workforce.’

Third, I’d like to highlight a point that seems a bit buried near the end of the piece, an important fact-kernel about which far too many people remain ignorant:

‘Contrary to what I’ve heard being said, the MLA does not count on the convention as a major source of association revenue, unlike other scholarly associations.’

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