In academic hiring, universities are represented by two equally important groups: the job candidates, and the search committees interviewing them. Classy Claude, an American Studies scholar at Hudson University, spent most of last weekend in the Job Register, also known as “the Pit,” or “the Killing Floor.” These are his stories:
The wireless miraculously appeared when I turned on my computer this morning. I’m due to check out in an hour or so and head back downtown, but here are some thoughts:
AHA winds down today (panels through the early afternoon). In a change from the normal Thursday-Sunday routine, this year in NY the festivities began on Friday and continued through to Monday. My sense was that most people had hightailed it out of here sometime yesterday and, if not (and as in the normal routine) were using the final morning as a travel day with perhaps a brief stop in the book fair (Knopf paperbacks reduced to 3 bucks) before heading out.
I was on a search committee this year and am rather a junior member of my department so had not long ago been on the other side of the table. We interviewed in the room I heard referred to as the Killing Floor: the bad rayon curtains (red this year), the distracting voices, the Dixie cups for water, the crowd of anxious interviewees awaiting their fate.
I heard a few horror stories, but I’ll start with my own (admittedly basic) observations:
The fashion is still bad. With the exception of some standout dressers, most historians are not exactly chic. I was particularly struck, in the case of the women, by how casual some of them were. I know that there is more latitude for women in “business attire” than for men, but one woman showed up in a sweater and a pair of cords. Too casual, methinks. (Ed. note: me too!) While most interviewers (perhaps with the exception of your intrepid reporter) don’t much care about how fashionable job candidates are (and are wearing bad suits themselves), some sense of formality is a good thing. It shows you’re taking it seriously.
Some people didn’t answer the questions. When asked about how he would teach a class in nineteenth-century U.S. history, one candidate handed over a syllabus on comparative slaveries and proceeded to explain how he would teach that class. When asked, helpfully I thought, if he meant to use slavery or race as a theme to explore the whole of the nineteenth century, he seemed slightly flummoxed and proceeded to explain the particulars of this course. This is a prime example of Not Answering the Question.
Some people were perfectly able to say what their dissertation (or book) was about and what sources they had used, but were not very good on saying why it mattered: what historiography it took on, which paradigms it disrupted, what contributions it made. There needs to be a good punchy sentence or two in there.
When asked what questions interviewees had for us, most people knew that this was in part a trick question and continued to perform by asking about our students, our department collegiality, etc., but one man actually got out a checklist of questions that were almost exclusively related to the particulars of the job that would only affect him (load, tenure process, research funds, travel money, etc.). Bottom line: the interview isn’t over till you actually leave.
Some people are so nervous that it’s difficult to see how they could possibly stand in front of a classroom. This is a problem. Some people are so bland or monotonous (even if confident and prepared and highly capable) that it’s difficult to imagine having an interesting conversation with them. These are the moments when one remembers that simply being oneself (with all the genetic or environmental accidents this might entail) can either really help you or be your biggest obstacle, and I’m not sure what can be done about that.
Horror stories: I was near a booth where the interviewers spent most of the time explaining all of the shortcomings of their school (open admissions policy, no tenure track jobs at all, 4/4 load where everyone teaches 3 U.S. surveys no matter their specialization, no accreditation), and then asked brightly, “So what attracted you to our school?” A couple friends told of interviewers who were so exhausted they seemed to have little sense about which job the candidate had applied for or who in fact the candidate was. Another friend was asked if she was capable of teaching a class on comparative colonization in the U.S. and gave what she thought was a bright and insightful answer about how she would do that. The interviewer said, “Oh good, because one of my colleagues teaches that now and hates it” while making a notation in her little book. All in all some poor performances by interviewers as well as interviewees.
There was, of course, all the usual competition and angst and bizarre preparation–for example, a friend of mine walked into the Ladies’ Room while a candidate did lunges and other calisthenics in front of the stalls–and it all seemed worse this year because of all the job cancellations. Anxiety was really high with far too many people competing for far too few jobs, and bear in mind that those were the ones who had made it to interviews at the AHA. It was not wholly dissimilar from other years, but it seemed worse to me. Also new this year was historianstv.com, with large flat screen TVs throughout the conference broadcasting previously recorded material and on-the-scenes reporting with interviewers, candidates, panelists, and chirpy undergrads extolling the virtues of Phi Alpha Theta. A little surreal, perhaps, but as in all conferences, the entire experience always feels like a bit of a time and space warp.
Signing out, and back downtown to return to real life…