Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tis the MLA Season -- some academic job market tips.

It's a hell of a way to spend the holiday season, but there it is -- MLA. This is where the creative writing professorial job market shuffles along from hotel-room interviews, to anxious hotel bars and lobbies, to packed elevators of people unaccustomed to wearing suits are wearing suits.

So some really basic tips here. You know these, people, but let's review.

A. Don't assume you're a shoo-in if someone says you're a shoo-in. These are hires-by-committee. No one is shooed anywhere. And this is academic logic, which means it's like many otters in a box not made for otters. You can't try to outguess it.

B. Don't assume you'll never get it or that you're under-qualified or that this is just a clerical error and somebody's going to get a real tongue-lashing for misdialing numbers or or or ... Again, otters in a box, people. Anything can happen and does all the time.

C. If you're kind of naturally casual -- and writers, left to their own devices, tend toward jammies -- go against your natural inclinations. This isn't what you'd wear to a reading when you're the artsy type they've hired to be artsy, get tipsy, and tell outlandish tales about [insert lewd poet here]. Suit up. Look like you're going to show up to committees. Funky glasses, that's fine -- but don't wear your pajamas under your suit so it kind of sticks out the bottom.

D. Prep. If you can, nicely, find out who's going to be interviewing you -- usually a few -- do. Find out about their work, their research. It'll help. Know about their school -- the number and demographics of the students, the mission of the school, a little about its history. Why would you want to teach here and not someplace else? Why this town? They don't want to hire you just to have to come back to MLA and this little hotel-room Q and A in two years to rehire for the position. Are you gonna stay? If you've done your prep, you've already invested. They know you're serious.

D and a half. Do they have a reading series? A lit mag? A cool student-run lit blog? Let them know what stuff you find cool and interesting about their program -- stuff you could add to and enhance. Enhance is a good word.

E. Have stuff down pat -- know what you're working on, sound smart about it, memorize it if you have to. It's hard to discuss work in progress. Don't get caught flat-footed on what should be a softball question, asked to make you feel more comfortable. Know your teaching philosophy. Know the books you use in the classroom for course you've taught and want to teach. Memorize these too if you have to. Be ready to answer -- what are you reading now? Seriously, it sounds idiotic, but if someone asks you something basic you can go blank. And, unlike Palin, you should have good answers here. This is a nice question.

F. These interviews can be really socially awkward. Human beings generally don't like awkward situations so try to stay calm but also remember that they're not here to nail you on some prelim question you didn't choose to answer. They want this to go smoothly, too. They're on your side and will try to set you at ease.

G. Unless they're kind of hostile. If they are, this has nothing to do with you. They might not like each other and have been forced to spend long hours in a room together for a couple of days. Don't take it personally. One of them bought all-onion bagels on the bagel run and this has pissed them off. Factions have formed over bagels. Just be congenial.

H. Look, you're at the interview because you probably want the job. Act like it. Be enthusiastic.

I. Don't drink too much in the hotel bars and act sloppy. This is a small conference after all. It only seems big. These people will recognize you, might want to chat. And don't stay out late. You know, try to rest up. You could keep granola bars on you and a water bottle or something -- stay hydrated and no sugar lows ... that kind of thing.

J. Oh, go to some panels! You're at MLA and, frankly, they might ask, just to make some banter but also to test your natural curiosity. Have something to say.

K. Talk to people who pump you up. You might want to avoid overtalking this stuff with friends in the same boat if they up your nervousness.

LMNOP ... I don't know. This is the best I can do at this point, from afar.

Go get 'em.