Job Interviews I Have Known: Week #39 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On being tortured for Literature
This essay originally appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.
Where do you see yourself in ten years? What is your greatest weakness as an employee? What do you know about our company?
To the best of my recollection, I have never been asked any of these cliché questions during a job interview. Here are the kinds of questions I have been asked instead:
Can you drive a stick shift? [Newspaper delivery company]
Can you fit into this leotard? [Dive bar near the race track]
Can you fit into this gorilla suit? [Singing telegram service]
What is the most perfect comma in English literature? [We’ll get to that]
As discomfiting as the first three questions may have been (the answer to all three was Yes), I still contend that university faculty members—which is what I now am, having left my bartending and singing-telegram days behind me1—have crazier shit happen to them during job interviews than members of any other profession.2 Among that rarefied group, humanities professors experience the crème de la … shit. (Sorry.) The reasons are manifold: 1. We are desperate. (For more information, consult any article on the labor situation in the academy published in recent years. Here is one, and another one, and another one). 2. Our interviewing procedure is bananapants. Because academic positions ideally carry the potential for tenure (but see those articles again), and it can be very hard to get rid of an insane/unproductive/lecherous colleague, the interviewing stakes are high. Still, that is no excuse. Just no excuse at all.
Back in the day, when there were jobs, the academic hiring procedure involved a blizzard of initial application materials, including: multi-page cover letters, detailed C.V.s, fulsome recommendation letters, dissertation abstracts or book proposals, writing samples, statements of teaching philosophy and supporting teaching materials, FBI background checks, blood and urine samples, an audition video showcasing several different dance styles, a portfolio of original tattoo designs, and a perfect cheese soufflé. If you made it past the initial cut—and depending on your field there would likely be several hundred applicants at this stage—you would be among 10 or so semi-finalists chosen for a first interview, usually conducted in a hotel room where several people had to sit on a bed (if you were lucky, the beds would all be made up).
The reason for this last nutso detail is that most departments conducted initial interviews at the humongous annual convention in their field, and the majority of universities would not spring for a hotel suite with a separate living room. Most interviews thus took place in the individual rooms of interviewing professors attending the convention. At the Modern Language Association Convention, there was (probably still is) an additional “cattle call” room where interviews were conducted at long tables and you had to shout to be heard above the din of your desperate competitors. One could trace a class hierarchy of schools based on their interviewing infrastructure: at the top were universities with fancy multi-room suites—the very, very fanciest held cocktail parties where all their candidates were forced to sweatily “socialize” with the people assessing them for jobs, alongside their competitors for the same position3—followed by the unmade bed brigade, then the cattle call colleges at the bottom.4
If you survived this round of torture5 and you were very fortunate, you would be chosen as one of the final 3 or 4 candidates for the death-match stage. You (lucky bastard) would be invited to visit campus for a two-day interview in which you would deliver a ground-breaking job talk and teach a class to a bunch of skeptical students you’d never met, then interview with the chair of the department, the dean, the provost, the president, groups of graduate students, groups of undergraduate students, the local 4-H Club, and Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead. You could also look forward to taking all of your meals with people who were essentially interviewing you over your avocado toast. (Do not get the spaghetti! Repeat: Do not get the spaghetti. Closely related and even more important advice: Do not drink too much alcohol, but don’t drink zero alcohol. What is the perfect amount of alcohol for you to drink? Well, you will simply have to figure that out on the fly. Good luck!6) Of course it was of vital importance that you be brilliant, collegial, interesting, and perfectly coiffed every waking minute, including when potential colleagues followed you into the bathroom and asked you questions about Roland Barthes from the next stall, which you would be forced to answer above the sound of two streams of pee splashing into side-by-side toilet bowls.7
Really, I could go on—I haven’t even touched on the piquant pleasures of queuing up at the hotel lobby phones to call the room where your interview was to take place, or being late because the elevators were so busy it took 20 minutes to get to the appropriate floor, or running into friends and enemies leaving the room you were waiting to enter and thus discovering you were competing for the same job—but at this point I’m starting to really show my age, and besides it’s time to move on to the actual stories.
My plane landed at 5:00 p.m., which is already the middle of the night on the 49th parallel in February. I had been told to get a cab to campus from the airport; I would be staying at a place called Green College and was to fend for myself until 10:00 the next morning, when I should find my way to the English Department building (PDF of campus map helpfully provided) for my first interview of a long day. My cabbie dumped me somewhere vaguely near my intended destination with my carry-on bag and my pathetic raincoat, and I spent the next 15 minutes wheeling around a network of rain-slickened pathways under a grove of dripping firs until I stumbled across an envelope pushpinned to a closed office door. In the light of a flickering hallway safety bulb I read the words “Job Candidate” and made a quick executive decision. I didn’t care if I was indeed the Job Candidate for whom the envelope, with its reassuring key-shaped heft, was intended: I was certainly A Job Candidate, and that key, and the shelter from the elements it promised, were now mine.8
After a brief toweling off, I made my way back through the Blair Witch Project set in search of food. At the College dining commons I announced to a sleepy student cashier that I was A Job Candidate, a weary traveler in search of rough provender, perhaps a simple basin of gruel. I was pointed to the cafeteria line, where I procured some perfectly non-Victorian food, and then wandered into a dining hall lined with long tables under a soaring vaulted ceiling. Clutching my damp polypropylene tray like generations of eighth-graders before me, I slid my way onto the end of the least intimidating clump of diners, where I picked at my veggie pilaf and bobbed my head idiotically in order to look like I was part of the conversation. Eventually I became aware of an older woman across the table staring at me.
“Here for an interview?” She had a British accent that seemed posh to my untrained ear.
“Yes! Yes I am!”
“Very good,” she replied. “What department?”
“English!” (Apparently I was no longer capable of speaking at a normal conversational volume.)
“Ah, most excellent! I am a retired member of that august department.”
“Oh! That’s great!”
“Tell me,” she intoned, with great seriousness. “What—” and here she paused to bore her eyes even more insistently into mine. “WHAT … is the most perfect comma in English literature?”
“I … I’m sorry?” My mind was racing now. Perfect … comma? What does that even mean? I shoveled in another forkful of pilaf to buy some time. “Um—do you mean, like” [chew, chew] “the best placement? Or…?”
“Yes, yes!” she cried impatiently. “If that’s how you want to put it. I mean the most perfect comma!” she repeated, as if I were slightly touched in the head.
“Uhhhhh….” I couldn’t even generate a guess, or a witty deflection, or a quick distracting excursus on commas, anything to make this horrifying line of questioning come to an end. My mind was an utter blank, wiped clean by a day of international travel and then fighting my way through a Hunger Games-type scenario with another invisible job candidate.
The weird, imperious British lady could wait no longer. “It’s in Paradise Lost!” she cried triumphantly. “The very beginning of Milton’s great epic poem, the very first comma to appear in that august work!” (She was very partial to the word “august.”)
“Ah….” I said. And now my real nightmare began. I could not remember the opening of Paradise Lost.“Errr….” I went on, even more articulately. I stabbed around inside my hippocampus for any other poem I could wave in front of this woman, anything to distract her from the vision before her of a job candidate with a Ph.D. in British literature, interviewing with her august erstwhile department, who apparently had never heard of Milton. “You know!” I shouted desperately. “One might say that Keats is pretty good with a comma! How about ‘Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last—’”
But she would have none of it. “Of Man’s First Disobedience” [dramatic pause to indicate comma placement], “AND the Fruit of that Forbidden Tree!” she declaimed at me across the table
“Yessssss!” I replied. “Yes, that is a … very good comma!”
Then she started nattering on about why it was such an excellent and important comma, an august comma, the most perfect comma, in fact, in English literature. I am embarrassed to admit that not only do I have no memory of what she said, but I really had no idea what she was talking about even at the time. I furiously nodded and chewed, nodded and chewed, until she paused to take a breath, at which point I yelled across the table, “Actually, I’m a Victorianist! My job talk is about Thomas Hardy! I work on political economy and the novel!” She then proceeded to ask me a series of nitpicky plot questions about Jane Eyre, most of which, thank the goddess, I could answer. As soon as my last morsel of pilaf was swallowed, I grabbed my tray and ran.
I had really wanted dessert.
My mind was reeling as I used my stolen key to re-enter my wrongfully seized room. What did this bizarro department expect of me? Was I about to be grilled on commas for an entire day? Did these people expect me to have every canonical work of British literature memorized?
In my haste to dry off and get some dinner an hour before, I hadn’t fully twigged to the fact that I was in a dorm room: twin bed against the wall with a grim coverlet, small blond wooden desk with a hard plastic chair, harsh overhead fluorescent light, wastebasket in the corner. No armchair, no reading lamp, no TV. Bathroom down the hall. There was an ethernet jack in the corner (this was 2006), but I hadn’t brought a cable. I didn’t have a cell phone. It was pitch dark and pissing with rain, there was nowhere to walk, and apparently cabs had no idea how to find me. It was 6:15 p.m.
I assume that half the people reading this description (anyone with kids or elderly parents, anyone who lives in a group home, a prison, or New York City) are currently feeling waves of envious longing at this description. What a paradise of solitude and peace! Why, I can almost hear the rain dripping from the trees outside! Did you say the wood of the desk was blond? The other half—which would include me—the half who can’t go 15 minutes without some kind of interpersonal contact, who regularly engage grocery clerks in lengthy political conversations, and who organize their social events like air traffic controllers stacking planes over O’Hare, are currently imagining chewing off their own arm rather then be in this situation. In order to kill some time, I promptly decided to have a panic attack.
Once I had figured out how to dial out on the landline phone and reached Scott back home in North Carolina, I really let it rip.
“I can’t do this!” I gasp-sobbed over and over again. “This place is horrible! It’s like Hogwarts but awful and with literature!”
Scott clucked sympathetically.
“I really mean it. I am going to cancel this interview. I’ll take an Ativan, go to sleep, and when I wake up I’ll call the department and tell them I have food poisoning. I’ll stay here in this room until it’s time to fly home.”
And here is why my partner is the best partner of all time in the whole universe ever, at least for me.
“Good idea,” he replied soothingly. “You go ahead and do that. Whatever you need.”
So I took my pill and went to bed and woke up the next morning and made my way to campus and had my day-long interview and fell in love with everyone and everything and called Scott that night to tell him I was desperate to get this job and he clucked sympathetically and then I got the job and we moved to the dripping rain forest where we both taught for 13 years and even though we eventually decided to leave it was a time of my life I wouldn’t trade for anything.
The point of this story, one of my many job-interviewing stories, is that as brutal and terrifying and dehumanizing as the process is—and all of these conditions were inadvertently and unintentionally imposed by well-meaning, lovely people who turned out to be my friends—this is a good version of events.
Here are some things that have happened to academic friends of mine while interviewing for jobs:
Committee member announces during the interview, about me: “We already have one of those here [a gay person]”
The chair drove me to the airport with him to pick up the next job candidate. Later, when I didn’t get the job, he urged me to sue the department and fed me confidential information to convey to my lawyer
Interview with 8-member committee, all sitting in a circle. Faculty Member #6 to my left fell asleep and started audibly snoring. I had to pretend I didn’t notice, and when I did my eye-contact sweep around the circle, had to stop each time at Faculty Member #5
After placing second for a job at a large Catholic university I was told by a department member that the dean overruled my hire because in his view the department already had “too many Jews”
During my interview with the dean, he read my application letter for the first time in front of me and then got angry because I considered H. G. Wells a Victorian
“Can you please scan the opening lines of ‘Goblin Market’ and comment on how the prosodic techniques contribute to the meaning of the poem; we assume you can do this from memory” [this one is uncomfortably close to my comma nightmare]
During an otherwise pleasant interview for an LGBT lit job, a committee member suddenly blurts out, “Are bisexuals more promiscuous than other people?”
One committee member leaps to his feet in the middle of the interview and cries “I believe in the canon!” and I had to talk him down
Graduate student comes on to me at the post-job-talk cocktail party
From a Victorian literature specialist: I had an interview in which they grilled me about post-colonial fiction. On my way out I saw the next interviewee, someone I knew, a post-colonialist specialist; later we ran into one another, and she mentioned, puzzled, that they’d grilled her about Charlotte Brontë
I gave a job talk on cultural relativism in South African literature and the first questioner asked me to define Einstein’s theory of relativity
And from approximately 942 different people: “Forced to sit on the edge of a hotel bed for the whole interview”
Why share these stories? I’m acutely aware of the fact that an entire generation of humanities scholars now has nearly zero chance of ever landing a job interview, let alone a tenure-track job, and would probably give their left earlobe for the chance to be tortured and humiliated in the manner I’ve described.
Part of the reason we early-Millennial, Gen X, and Boomer academics like to share our interview horror tales is simple: everyone loves a war story. But there are also deeper motivations. Those of us who’ve remained in the profession are intensely aware (or should be) of how lucky we are, and there’s a certain kind of grim reassurance to be taken in remembering how hard it was to get here. We’re not fat cats gorging on the misery of the young! we like to tell ourselves—and one way to do that is to revisit our own traumas and trials by fire. (The other way is to complain constantly about how hard our jobs are. I am guilty of doing this myself, all the time, but—come on.)
But precisely because things are so bad now, I think we elders are also starting to romanticize what it was like in the Before Times. Our collective memory is fading. These stories are a way of reminding ourselves that the whole process—from applying to grad school straight through to noticing the toilet paper on your high heel halfway through a long day of campus interviews—has always been brutal and dehumanizing. The structural conditions of academia have been exploitative for a very long time now, at least since the profession stopped being a sinecure for white British men educated at Oxbridge working on the juvenilia of Wordsworth. Is it a coincidence that the hiring process became more cruel around the time that women and people of color started knocking on the door of the ivory tower? I dunno. In some ways it also became more equitable, in the sense that there are now actually interviews instead of glad-handing and the old boy network. It’s complicated.
My most optimistic take is that remembering the travails of one’s youth can be a way of accessing a crusted-over well of empathy for those coming up behind us. I think there’s a deep and ancient reason for this genre of folk tales. May we use them for good.
Oh, and that terrifying British woman with the august comma? Born and raised in Toronto.
Thanks for reading Doctor Waffle! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
My version of the Great Resignation has been to fantasize about tending bar or delivering singing telegrams again, instead of [insert whatever indignity was happening to me as a university faculty member at the time]. Then I remember. Then I remember.
I am more than happy to be disabused of this notion. Does your profession (deep-sea pearl diver, organ harvester, contemplative monk) subject its practitioners to outrageous vetting processes? Let us know in the comments!
I always ended up talking only to the grad students at these parties, which is probably partly why I never got a job offer from a truly fancy school.
Please don’t @ me. I’m not endorsing this system—just limning it for the uninitiated.
Most first-round interviews are now conducted on Zoom, which has obvious advantages and obvious drawbacks.
I was once on a campus visit where everyone at dinner abandoned me to the two older male colleagues at the table, who turned out to be hard-core drunks. “We’ll get ’er home!” they cried at their colleagues’ departing backs. Bee-tee-dubs, there is nothing a job candidate can do in this situation without jeopardizing her chances of, you know, getting the job. They kept me out drinking whiskey with them (as slowly as I could decently manage) until 1:00 a.m., when one of them finally drove me back to my hotel in his pickup truck. My big interviewing day began at 8:00 the next morning. (Reader, I got the job.)
This is an actual thing that happened to me. Name of literary theorist changed to protect the innocent.
Maybe it was not meant for me, and the Job Candidate for whom it was really intended wanders the pathways of Green College to this day. They say that on a still night you can sometimes hear an eerie squeaking sound emanating from the groves of towering, sodden trees: it’s the wheels of the carry-on bag of the forgotten Job Candidate, doomed to roam for all eternity in search of a pilfered envelope with a purloined key.