One Minute of Magical Thinking

11:30 p.m. Me, cross-legged on the floor of our terrible apartment in Cleveland, eating donuts until I made myself (very literally) sick. What happened in 2003 stayed in 2003. Fireworks in the parking lot. Fireworks or gun fire. At Harbor Crest, it was a toss-up.

We were living in Ohio the last time I made a formal New Year's Resolution. I quantified my goals. I made plans, people. I made plans for my plans. I reorganized my plans into hierarchies and timelines. I've always struggled with my weight and my relationship with food, and "lose weight" had made my resolution list since the early 1990s. I also needed to settle on a more stable life path, since working in an office wasn't satisfying and paid little. I needed to improve relationships with the people I loved. I had been married less than a year, and we were living in Section 8 housing in a very dangerous part of the city. We stepped over homeless people to get in the front doors of the complex. I was mugged. Twice. Directionless and drowning in bills, I hefted this anxiety onto the shoulders the people who cared the most.  If anyone needed resolutions, it was me.

I bought a planner WITH POCKETS FOR MY PLANS.

On December 31st, 2003, I  ate and drank my way across the city in a binge that would make Chris Farley proud. It's cool, I thought. Tomorrow's a clean slate. All fresh, with no mistakes in it. I hated Annie, but that line was my mantra for awhile.

The New Year's Resolution, constructed as it is in over-consumptive American culture, presumes blind optimism and magical thinking, all tied up in an arbitrary date and time. We can always be who we've always wanted to be next year, the next time, in the next week, because this time it's different. That's what I believed, at least. Just let me get through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's. I know I'll want to eat and drink, and denying myself these human pleasures is inhumane. You don't have to point out my disordered thinking there. I see it.

If the barrage of lose-weight-fast advertisements in my email is any indication, others fall into the same pit. Hop on Blogger and search for "New Year's Resolutions." It'll take until next New Year's to get through them all.

New Year's offers endless opportunities for renewal, a dangerous and solipsistic reset button, the thrill of the quick reversal. I was once lost, fat, tired, totally out of control, and unhappy. Tomorrow, nay TONIGHT AT MIDNIGHT, I will be found, rested, totally in control, and content. As if by thinking that New Year's Eve is magical, we become magical. 

There may be party hats to celebrate, but that doesn't make the new year significant to anyone but tax advisers. No seismic shift occurred between 11:59 and 12:00 on December 31st, 2003. The 10,000 calories I ate that day would still be there the next morning. So would the hangover. And the debt and disrupted relationships and lack of solid life plans.

I do put stock in reflection, however, and in continual self-improvement. Happiness is a sliding scale. Goals are useful when they're recognized as components of systemic thought and action. Motivation isn't as much of an extrinsic force as it is a fleeting glimpse of magic. 

Making self-improvement reliant on the calendar ties closely to corporate needs to recoup profits after low holiday sales, and it explains why I won't be able to access the gym in January but why everything's back to normal in February. Advertisers say, We know you've overindulged in many ways since November. Let us help you. We care. I'm singling out weight-loss and debt-reduction services here, but the applications are broader than that. And there's nothing magical about shilling pills.

Hope springs eternal, sure, but it does so today and last week and for all time. It does so without the advertisements, without fanfare, without party hats. Change relies on consistency, and while magical thinking offers us many exciting fantasies, it's not reliable. To thrill in the daily toil of the doing disregards email promises for a tighter this or flatter that in four weeks, but it's exciting in its nearly limitless horizon.


For the Ladies

Someone found my blog by Googling "Buying an MLA suit," so I thought I'd toss up a quick note about the process.

I've also been talking to a few of my anguished female colleagues who are going on the market. Everyone's concerned about purchasing a well-fitting suit on a grad-student salary. I just perused Nordstrom's online, and I still (with the job) can't afford their $300-$400 suitings. I think there's a Nordstrom outlet in Durham, but if you don't have access to such things (as I didn't in Knoxville), that leaves you with local department stores like JC Penney and Marshall's and shopping online.

I've already mentioned how much I love JCP's Worthington seamless tanks under suits. They're not too low cut, you never have to worry about wayward lapels, and they're super easy to pack.

I had an issue buying suits because my body isn't proportional. I found Victoria's Secret's suits to be the right cut for my body. (Sans come-hither look, though I guess that might work for some people in some jobs in some departments.) I struggled with designers like Calvin Klein selling their suits in top/bottom sets, so I couldn't mix the sizes. VS's suits are sold as separate pieces, and the jackets are cut with a slight nip at the waist, so no boxy silhouette. I chose the trouser pant in one size larger than my regular size, but the jacket in my regular size fit just right. I caught the suits on sale (both pieces for $100). These VS suits don't boast the same fit and finish as the $400 Nordstrom pieces, but for $100, they offer everything I needed to feel put together and comfortable.

I'm in no way compensated for my review here. I'm sure I'll get some kind of cease and desist email from one of those companies, but in the meantime, maybe this info can help. Guys, apologies. I'm sure you have just as much trouble searching for well fitting and reasonably priced suits as we do, but I can't attest to the boxiness of your jackets.


I Apologize: A Note for Iowa (and Beyond)

When I submitted my application to Michigan Tech--in Houghton, one of the most Upper corners of the Upper Penisula--I remember thinking that I likely wouldn't survive my first winter. Houghton's nestled against Lake Superior, right across from Thunder Bay and 10 miles from an alpine ski center. The university hosts annual snowmobile races. People *ice fish*.

The school itself is nationally known for its engineering curriculum, and their tech writing faculty is top-notch. The faculty members I've met from MTU enjoy being a part of the small Houghton community and work to be visibly active citizens. The local culture is one part Midwestern, two parts Nordic, one part Native. Though the climate ran counter to my biological need for 55 degrees and above, I was excited at the prospect of contributing to their department and taking advantage of the many natural features of the area. I hate snow, but I looked forward to learning to snowshoe if I landed a job in the UP.

I didn't, and I'm settled in an ideal, for me, locale. The academic job search holds much in common with the military: You go where the jobs are. Many times, these jobs are housed in small universities in small towns with one-gate regional airports and no Broadway company tours within 200 miles.

Responding to Bloom's protracted Iowa dirge, Krueter argues that graduate students who fantasize about an urban, cosmopolitan first-job appointment are "delusional." He credits the Net for saving culture-starved academics from relying on commercially popular films, since Netflix streaming makes the most obscure fare infinitely accessible. Firefox shall save us from the degradation of the ordinary. So help us God. Praise be to 3G.

What would the hinterlands do without Skype, friends?

To stand in praise of the art house film necessarily makes "culture" prohibitive and redraws those tired lines between low and high, between educated and common. I'm uncomfortable with that definition of culture, but perhaps that's because I dislike art-house for art-house's sake. There's a point at which the definition of "academic" becomes synonymous with "high-culture." The conflation is self-congratulatory at best, prejudicial at worst.

I agree with much of what Krueter writes. He and I share strangely similar backgrounds and interests. We both self-identify as Appalachians and value conservation and outdoor recreation. He returned to his home state as an Assistant Professor. I interviewed in my home state of West Virginia but accepted a position in North Carolina, adjacent to the Appalachians but no longer in them.

Krueter acknowledges the most troublesome subtext of Bloom's piece: The article ("Observations from 20 years of Iowa Life") fronts itself as a public service: "Considering [Iowa's] enormous political significance, I thought this would be a good time to explain to the geographically challenged a little about Iowa, including where Iowa is, and perhaps more importantly, in both a real and metaphysical way, what Iowa is." However, with the demographic and historical data excerpted (all such information as could be gleaned from most any history of the state), what remains is a statement on Iowa's lack of culture, or more specifically, Iowans complete inability to make thoughtful political decisions. (Contrary to the point that Iowa is one of the few states to legalize same-sex marriage.)

Bloom ends the article with this charming anecdote (Hannah is his dog, for clarification):

"I can't tell you how often over the years I'd be walking Hannah in our neighborhood and someone in a pickup would pull over and shout some variation of the following:

'Bet she hunts well.'

'Do much hunting with the bitch?'

'Where you hunt her?'

To me, it summed up Iowa. You'd never get a dog because you might just want to walk with the dog or to throw a ball for her to fetch. No, that's not a reason to own a dog in Iowa. You get a dog to track and bag animals that you want to stuff, mount, or eat.

That's the place that may very well determine the next U.S. president."

Midwestern culture--so much like my native Appalachian culture--stands in for Bloom's fear of the radical right and supports his call for Intellectual Colonialism. He all but calls out the state's residents for making their political decisions based on Fox News, though he stands amazed that he must teach real journalism in a culture where it's commonplace to print Bible verses on the front page. He bemoans his struggle to train his students to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." In short, Bloom's article successfully presents every negative stereotype about academics, masked by his concern for the future of liberalism in America. 

As a radical/leftist professor from Southern West Virginia--who likes to fish and couldn't care less about art museums--I'd like to apologize for Bloom. We're not all like that. We all don't denigrate the communities which we're tasked to serve.

Some of us see the importance of the cultural heritage of practices like hunting and fishing. (My high school didn't hold classes during the week of Thanksgiving because so many people were absent. It's deer season, folks, and that venison isn't going to throw itself on your doorstep, field-dressed and ready to be steak.) Some of us find value in political opinions contrary to our own, not because we wish to change those opinions, but because we wish to engage in progressive discourse. Some of us recognize that the land both enables and constrains labor, so much so that the industrialization of heritage jobs (as with the family farms in Iowa) can lead to other systemic social problems, like drug use. If we're working in your town, at your colleges and universities, teaching your children, we're not always and already counting the rungs between where we are and where you are, because some of us realize that there isn't really a ladder and that our jobs aren't somehow more intrinsically valuable than yours. Our ideas aren't better. Our beliefs aren't more fully vetted. Our lives and histories aren't richer or more thoughtful or more important.

As for Iowa and its citizens, I see many overlaps with West Virginia. As the mines and coal-fired plants close, people are left without work. Desperation sometimes breeds extremism, but that's always been the case regardless of geography or class. Bloom's article provides a written-to-order description of the GOP monster under the bed, a harbinger for other academics who see the Midwest as a value-free, critical-thought-free flyover-zone (on their way to San Fransisco or New York, where critical thought and Real Culture lives). Bloom frames Iowans as too culturally deprived to make informed political decisions, yet he reveals himself as too culturally insensitive to recognize his short-sightedness. Bloom writes, "[H]ow screwy it is that a place like Iowa gets to choose -- before anyone else -- the person who may become the next leader of the free world?" I ask, "How screwy it is that a professor of journalism--who has made his reputation by writing about and photographing rural Iowa culture--will so quickly move denigrate that culture?"

You can read the response of Sally Mason, President of the University of Iowa here.


Campus Visits: Manners Matter

The campus interview: A chance for academic job candidates to put their best exhausted, stressed out, overworked, anxiety-ridden foot forward.

I found that, by the time my campus invites came in, I was too tired to worry. It never edged toward fatalism, but the previous months' demands had stripped me of the energy to pretend. Most candidates can stand on their heads for the first interview, but by early January--with classes resuming, dissertation revisions, and post-holiday stupor settling deep--everyone's a little raw.

If you get an invite, the committee has decided that they could see you in the position, even if you're their last choice. They've likely extended invites to three candidates, and depending on their timeline, their top choices may have already committed to positions. If you have campus invites before January--not common, but it does happen--the department may need to fill the position before the tenure-line funding evaporates. The Academic Job Wiki earns its keep during campus-visit time. If you feel flush about your phone/Skype/video/MLA interviews, the Wiki may give some indication of the school's correspondence with candidates.

At no point does the AcJoSer most closely resemble high school dating than the campus interview. When a school contacts you to arrange a visit, you may have to play the I'm-busy-with-another-school-that-day game. They know what's up, but protocol says that we pretend the relationship is monogamous. And just like high school dating, the juggle can lead to slips. I was regaled with football stories about another candidate's university, a friend received documents with the previous candidate's name printed on them, and I had a lengthy discussion with an undergraduate student about the pros and cons of my competition. (The interaction was sweet and sincere, not awkward, as undergraduates can't possibly be expected to know the unspoken rules of the search.) The search is series of overlapping human relationships, so I wasn't shocked to see a little lipstick on the collar.

However, with some planning, the campus interview can be a truly delightful experience. I met engaged, thoughtful scholars who I am proud to call friends and colleagues. I was taken to dinner at really nice restaurants that I couldn't afford myself. More than any other experience, the campus visit professionalized me, as I lived the role of professor before I had rightly earned it. I found people outside of my committee who saw value in my work.

Know this: Every moment of a campus visit requires preparation, from airport pickup through casual lunches to airport dropoff. Feeling "on" for two solid days can zap even the most stalwart candidate. Still, there's something gratifying about being treated like someone special. It's a courtship in the best sense.

1. Once invitations start, they'll come in a flurry. I kept a blotter and marked out unavailable dates. Nothing says unprofessional like double booking. That said, if you are especially interested in a position, and they've contacted you with a range of dates that lands weeks after your first campus visits, do ask if they can host you a little earlier. That way, if you receive offers, they're coming in at once.

2. Invest in yet another suit, if you have the funds and are getting multiple invitations. Dry cleaners take days, and you may not have the time to spare. Also, one visit may demand two days' worth of suit-wearing.

3. Wear business casual when you travel. The interview begins at the airport, and yoga pants won't cut it. I wore jeans and a nice sweater. Part of my research talk detailed the performance of academic identity vis a vis dress, so I tried to live my work. I am also most comfortable in jeans and a sweater.

4. Pack your suit (in a dry-cleaning bag, folded lightly), one other nice outfit (think slacks and a button-down or a skirt and blouse), and a business casual outfit for the trip home. Visits vary in terms of scheduling, so you may find yourself flying home in your suit. I also invested in a cheapie travel steamer. Pack your business tote. Don't check bags.

5. A gendered piece of advice: Pack comfy-yet-professional shoes. Orthopedics aren't necessary, but you may be taken on some kind of campus tour, and it's likely to be cold outside. As cute as you think your peep-toes are, this isn’t the time to trot them out. Pack for local weather.

6. You'll be asked to present to the faculty by giving a job talk (probably 45 minutes or an hour) detailing your research. These job talks should consider local contexts and the job requirements. If it's a smaller teaching-focused institution, make sure to split the talk between your research and its connections to your teaching philosophy. If the job is administrative, connect your work to your admin philosophies. If it's a research-focused position, outline implications for future work and intersections with current local initiatives.

7. If you plan to use a presentation format like Prezi or PowerPoint, save it in multiple places. Prepare for disaster. Handouts get printed and packed at home.

8. You may be asked to give a teaching demonstration. These presentations take a number of forms. You may instruct actual students enrolled in a faculty member's class. Collaborate with the regular instructor so you don’t make their next class coverage of what you should have taught.  Faculty members sat in on one of my demos, and I treated them like undergraduates, which made the regular students laugh. One tip: Bring index cards and have students fold them in half, write their names on them, and prop them on the desks. It's easier to approximate a teaching environment—and gain control of the situation--if you can use names. If your demo involves teaching faculty pretending to be students... well, good luck. I tried and failed miserably. Even with the name trick, I had a hard time teaching full professors the rhetorical triangle. I learned afterwards that a number of the faculty members didn't know the rhetorical triangle. The teaching experience was more authentic than I gave it credit for. Maybe the lesson here is to find something that you think they don't know and teach that.

9. Prepare to talk to non-experts in your field with two-minute definitions of your specialization. ("Rhetoric? What's that?") You'll meet with provosts, deans, and possibly college presidents. Be clear with what you think you bring to the institution. Review the school's mission statement and strategic plan. How do you contribute? If you're looking at a research-focused position, prepare good questions about internal and external grants. (Research, research, research: the institution, the department, and the program. Know who your students may be and what you’ll be expected to teach them.)

10. You'll also meet with the Department Chair. If the position is tenure-tracked, prepare questions about the TNP process. Ask about travel and research funding opportunities. Chairs like to see that you're thinking ahead in terms of your Statement of Mutual Expectations, so it's never a bad idea to have 1-year, 3-year, and 5-year plans articulated. Local contexts, as with every interaction, are paramount.

11. Don't get drunk: You'll be taken to dinner and lunch. Your nervous system may scream DRINK DRINK NEED A DRINK. Stick to the soft stuff. Goes without saying? You'd be surprised.

12. Like the MLA interview, pack snacks. Candidates have been stranded at hotels without access to food. Instant oatmeal may be the only thing between you and a two-mile trek to the closest gas station (in the dark, in the dead of winter).

13. Ask for downtime if you need it. I remember feeling weird about asking for a bathroom break. Don't. We're all adults. People need to go to the bathroom.

14. Keep granola bars in your business tote and carry a water bottle. You might find yourself in the humiliating position of speed-eating a NutriGrain bar in a bathroom stall. That's normal.

15. Keep it positive: These last few points frame campus interviews as opportunities for disaster and mistreatment. Visits are scheduled and staffed by humans, and humans make mistakes. It's your job to prepare for the worst case. Things may happen that leave you feeling slighted or even offended, but keep negative rumblings to yourself. A handful of confidants graciously listened to my complaints, but I made these calls in my hotel room, under the cover of darkness, and far away from the committee. Practice your I-am-in-shock-that-you-just-said-that-but-won't-show-it face. You'll get to use it.

16. I wasn't prepared for the gossip. During your visit, well-intentioned faculty may "warn" you about other professors or staff. Don't participate. If, indeed, Dr. Smith really does do those horrific things, the campus visit isn't the time to express your disgust or amazement. Ditto for committee members who feel confessional. Practice good listening and non-committal responses. Then change the subject. Your visit isn’t the only thing they’re doing that day, and everyone’s tired. Exhaustion can lead people to act out of character.

17. Understand that you're also interviewing them. Desperation isn't professional, and knowing your worth will (again) move you from candidate to colleague. You're there to assess the school, the faculty, and the area to in order to make a life-changing decision.

18. Be kind, be diplomatic, be professional. I had first written "be yourself," but if you're someone who is routinely snarky or high maintenance, you'll want to curtail those urges. I'll frame it this way: snark and dramatics may make a committee's job much easier, and not in your favor. You'll meet approximately 700 people in two days--from realtors to presidents, graduate and undergraduate students. Be nice to everyone, regardless of their access to decision making. It reflects well on you, and it's just a solid life philosophy. Nothing says “Work with me!” like condescension. Manners matter.

19. I am an outgoing person, so campus visits were fun for me. If you're more self-contained, I recommend practicing at holiday parties. Sounds ridiculous, but small talk is an art. Ask about their work, be interested, find common ground.

20. Send thank-yous. Departments spend ridiculous amounts of money, time, and energy hosting candidates. Send a nice thank you email or even a handwritten card. I served on a search committee as a graduate student, and I remember distinctly when a candidate took time to email me and thank me for my time.

Campus visits were the first time I felt like the search process would lead to an actual conclusion. Before that, even though I had interviewed face-to-face with a few schools, the process felt very abstract. Visits represent the culmination of years of work, and they can serve as celebrations if you hedge your anxiety enough to let them. Understand that, by the time you make it on campus, you’re already a top candidate. Let confidence (coupled with good planning) energize you to push through self-doubt and exhaustion.


The MLA Interview: Pack Snacks

In the interest of interest, I’ll zoom ahead (as much as I can zoom) to MLA interviews. Yesterday, I detailed distance interviews. I have a number of things to say about the MLA interview, most of them negative.

When I describe the MLA process to my private-sector friends, their responses develop thusly: Stage 1: Shock (“They expect you to pay to interview?”). Stage 2: Disbelief (“Now why do you have to go to Los Angeles at Christmas?”). Stage 3: Skepticism (“You’re going to sit on someone’s bed? In a hotel? What kind of job is this?”). Stage 4: Resignation (“That’s a shame and quite ridiculous.”).

MLA interviewing isn’t sustainable, and I’m excited to see more schools move to distance interviewing. But for now, it’s what some schools prefer. I’ll skip the travel talk, since there’s just no remedy for it. Wait to buy a ticket, when prices skyrocket during the holidays? Buy far in advance, assuming that you’ll get something? Perennial questions with no good answer. I will say, and maybe it’s common knowledge, that flying non-stop, even for a slightly higher cost, is the way to go. There’s less wear and tear on your luggage and on you.  

I’ll start just before and just after the plane touches down. 

1.       Clothes are important: Invest in at least one good suit. I followed Hume’s advice of buying a suit the season before, when they were on sale. By the time I needed it, it didn’t fit right. My quest in the fall of my search year was to find just one decently fitting suit.  (And I finally did, at Victoria’s Secret, but I also found many nice suits at Marshall’s, Nordstrom’s, and Macy’s.) I chose basic black, which when you get to MLA, you’ll see is the overwhelmingly popular choice. I didn’t care overmuch about fitting in. I just wanted something that wouldn’t draw attention to itself.  You’ll use the suit for campus visits, too, so my advice is to drop the cash on a good one that fits well and lets you sit in comfort. I know many women who swear by longer skirt suits for MLA interviews. I chose pants because I didn’t want to worry what might happen if they asked me to perch on an ottoman for the duration of my interview. Avoid wrap skirts. They only lead to heartache. Practice sitting. Practice crouching. Practice balancing uncomfortably on the edge of a bed. If you're able to maintain even a grain of professionalism, that suit's a winner.

I’m hesitant to prescribe too much here in the way of “Women, don’t wear this!” People love to natter about what women wear to interviews, because clothes can call attention to bodies, which can make some people very uncomfortable. Since I am not, by nature, a suit kind of person, I felt like a drag queen the entire time. Embrace the performance. Wear a fun necklace or scarf. Be you, only in a suit. 

2.       Packing those clothes: I packed one black suit and three camisoles. (All black suits look the same. Don’t think you need multiples.) Button-downs take up more space and wrinkle easily, so I opted for “Seamless Suiting” camisoles from JC Penney. (Hi, JCP! Send coupons!) Just before I traveled, I had my suit dry cleaned, and I folded it lightly into my luggage, on top of everything else, still in its dry-cleaning bag. This method reduced wrinkles and kept my suit looking fresh. I hung it up as soon as I arrived. 

3.       Other things to pack: In addition to your luggage and carry-on, you’ll want to pack some sort of business tote to take to the interviews. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it should be able to carry a few folders, a couple of granola bars, your wallet, and your phone. I organized individual school information in color-coded folders. I included a copy of the job ad, a one-page “info sheet” on the school and department, a list of committee members, and copies of sample syllabi. I worked up dream course syllabi and handed those out at the end of the interview, even if they weren’t requested. I wanted to leave the committee with something tangible. The folders are color coded because interviews are sometimes scheduled back-to-back, and you’ll want to maximize efficiency in terms of reviewing your materials. I also wrote the day, time, and place of each interview and contact information on the outside of the folders.  Print and pack everything you may need, because facilities can be scarce and they’re always overcrowded. Pack a laptop if you have access to one, for email and to refresh your research. Finally: make room in your luggage for quick foods like granola bars and instant oatmeal. You’ll be surprised at how much time you don’t have, and waiting in line for 45 minutes at Starbucks may not fit into your schedule. Snacks are also cost effective. All you need is a coffee maker for a decent breakfast. I bunked with Diss Buddy, and we paid a little more for a room with a fridge. We stocked it with yogurt, fruit, and other portable snacks. 

4.       Don’t check a bag: Especially not your interview-wear bag. Practice packing to maximize space; the one-black-suit approach facilitates this idea, since everything coordinates. 

5.       Other clothes: My advice is to stay business casual at MLA, even when you’re not interviewing. On my way to dinner one night, I ran into a committee member from an interview that morning. I was glad that I had left my I Can Haz Cheezburger shirt at home. I likely played it too safe, but you can’t anticipate someone’s quirks. 

6.       Once you’re there: Stay out of the bar areas/hotel lobbies if you’re going to kvetch. In fact, kvetch only in the privacy of your room and make sure to check the hallway first. You may be venting to a friend that one of your interview schools is a dump in the middle of Cowtown. That woman frowning at her drink at the table next to you? That’s the search chair. You’ll meet her tomorrow during your interview. She’ll remember you.

7.       En route: Just finding the interview suite may be a challenge, if the hotel’s not used to hosting the conference. I was 10 minutes late for an interview because the desk gave me the wrong room number. The committee understood and brushed off my profuse apologies. Here I’ll pause to note that you can meet some fantastic people while interviewing. Keep in mind that they’ll become your colleagues in one way or another—if not in the same department, then maybe in the same discipline—so be friendly and (as impossible as it seems) relaxed. Make sure any materials you plan to hand out are at the top of your bag. Turn off your phone. (Duh.) Not silenced, but off. Know how you can hear a student’s cell phone vibrate in his bag? Avoid that. 

8.       Awkward!: You may meet your competition as they exit the hotel room before you go in. Be nice. They’re keyed up, too. A smile goes a long way here.

9.       Meeting the committee: Pop a mint before you walk in. You’ll be swilling coffee and stale breath isn’t the kind of impression you want to make. If you’re wearing a coat, drape it over your left arm because they’ll want to shake your right hand. If they offer you coffee or water, say no. The cups are cumbersome. It’s a symbolic formality in most cases, though I do think that many committees want candidates to be comfortable.  Make eye contact and use their names. They’re exhausted, too. 

10.   Be a colleague, not a candidate: Remember that committees are looking for a colleague, someone they wouldn’t mind seeing day after day, someone they could picture themselves chatting with in the mailroom.  They also want a professional in the field, so don’t dodge tough questions. Do keep in mind that there are questions that are unlawful to ask. Gracefully sidestep those and move on. It is my belief that most committees are made up of thoughtful, engaged scholars who are looking to build their department or program. However, the job search process can bring out troublesome personality quirks in even the nicest people. If someone says something rude (and it happens, a lot) or strange, my advice is to file it away and proceed with a different line of inquiry. Having a set of scripts (“That’s an interesting question, but I’m not comfortable answering it.”) is handy. It’s my experience that, if one committee member ventures into Weirdness Territory, someone else on the committee will run interference. 

11.   Post-interview: I’ll sound like your grandma here: Send a thank you email to the committee chair. They’ll likely give you a timeline for campus visits at the end of the interview, but it’s good to touch base in the day or so following the MLA interview. I also sent thank you emails to phone, Skype, and video-conference interview committee chairs, though, so maybe I’m just old fashioned like that. Just like your grandma. 

One other point that I wish I would have known going into things: I shouldn't ever inherit other people's anxiety. MLA is thick with it. Hanging out in the lobby can make it worse. Get out if you can, see the sights, take a jog, join friends for dinner. Just don't let yourself soak up all the negativity and stress that permeates common spaces.

Just when you think process can’t become more convoluted than interviewing in a hotel room, I give you: The Campus Visit. (Tomorrow, since I think I’ve used up the Internet’s word limit today.)  


So Close, So Far: Distance Interviews

Last night, my husband pointed out that if I had channeled all of this writing energy into an article, I'd be well nigh done by now. I like to think of it as priming the pump.

Yesterday, I detailed six points of preparation for academic job interviews.Today, I'd like to go into three of those interview formats in detail, focusing tele-interviews: phone, Skype, and Video-Conferences. Tomorrow, I'll say a few (choice, but still SFW) words about MLA interviews.

Phone Interviews
As schools struggle with budgets--and with the ethics of asking candidates to foot the bill for MLA--it seems as if more jobs are choosing to interviewing at a distance. This change can ameliorate much of the nervousness with in-person interviews (no worries about coffee breath), but the disembodiment can be disorienting. The phone interview is the most disembodied, since candidates have no image on which to focus (as with Skype and video-conferencing) and a committee of five gathered around a phone hub can sometimes produce confusing (overlapping, hard to hear) questions.

1. Locate yourself in a comfortable space where you know you won't be disturbed. I only had access to a cell phone at home, so that's what I used. While I worried about the call being dropped, it only happened once, and that was because my house had spots where I couldn't get a signal. Find a good spot with a clear signal and plant. If you're using your office phone (or any kind of school-sponsored equipment), do a test call the morning of or day before. Universities often save the technology upgrades for semester breaks, so if you're interviewing between the Fall and Spring terms, you may have issues. My advice is to check the lines of communication and work to prevent tele-crises.

2. I was advised to (wait for it...) arrange a committee of stuffed animals which corresponded to the search committee. The rationale is this: By closely approximating the interview situation (ha), your speech will come across more naturally. Didn't work for me. Maniacal laughter during the phone interview might weigh against you.

3. I invested in a hands-free headset with a microphone (something like $25 at Staples) because I worried about my face bumping the keys and because I wanted to be able to access documents. I also knew I'd get tired of holding the phone to my face for 45 minutes. I had to practice for a few days before I found the right distance for the mic. Too close and you're in heavy-breathing territory. Too far away, and you sound like you're in a tunnel.

4. My (not-so-)secret weapon: A $4 whiteboard. On this whiteboard, I noted the specifics of the job call, the committee members and their pet projects, texts and objectives for my dream course, demographics about the department and the school, and my three good questions for the committee. It's okay to ask questions to specific committee members, especially if you've noticed similarities with your work. They're often flattered that you bothered to research what they're doing and how you might contribute. The whiteboard allowed access to all of this information without the hazard of the "ruffling pages" background noise. I took a digital photo of the whiteboard before erasing it, so I could be reminded of what we talked about in case I was invited for a campus visit.

5. Understand that silence is okay and that nervous chatter (over the phone) can sound very different than in-person nervous chatter. No heavy breathing, and since I was sick during a few of my phone interviews, I had to practice moving the mic away when I coughed.

6. Revoice unclear questions. Without the benefit of body language, this kind of communication can be confusing. Looking back, I wish I had possessed the confidence to ask one committee member to repeat her question. After five minutes of my animated monologue, they finally interrupted me to clarify. 

Skype Interviews
The Skype interview offers the worst parts of phone interviewing with the best parts of in-person interviewing. Potter does a fine job of detailing the Skype interview in the link I provided yesterday, but I'll reiterate my experiences here.

1. Be aware of what's behind you. I found it cliche to set up in front of a bookcase, so I just cleared away the clutter and let the beige walls speak for themselves.

2. I used my headset for Skype interviews also, because my laptop was old and I wasn't at all confident in its ability to pick up my voice (or in the speakers to be loud enough for me to hear). I called attention to the clunky equipment by (unsuccessfully) trying to sell the committee members life insurance. They laughed, they relaxed, I relaxed.  And that headset is very silly looking.

3. Beware the lag! Common knowledge says that Skype interviews should be conducted where one has access to exceptionally reliable internet service. I had to weigh reliability against potential distractions, and so I stayed at home. I crossed my fingers that ComCast would get it right just this once. Of course, there was a dramatic (about 15-second) lag. They would ask a question, I would wait, I would answer, and then awkwardly watch them wait. We'd move on, and they would laugh at something I said 15 seconds ago. There's no remedy for lag. Just be flexible and have a sense of humor. They're dealing with the same thing on their end, very likely, so everyone's in it together.

4. Oh, but what to wear? Not your jammies. I kept it simple with a white button-down, jeans, and a kicky necklace. (The necklace was for my benefit.) Your wardrobe shouldn't be the most memorable thing about you; as Potter notes, practice self-restraint with the giant gold hoops that day. With that said, my advice is to err on the side of conservative, but know the genre. A suit may be overkill for a Skype interview, but I know plenty of people who opt for them. Everyone's fuzzy anyway, so it may feel like you're talking to 8-bit video game characters. But do wear pants. You may need to grab something across the room.

5. Finally: that whiteboard. It is possible to prop your whiteboard (from the phone interviews) behind or beside your laptop, in case you'd like to keep stats or other particulars close. Beware, though, that even fuzzy, it's obvious when you're reading cue cards. (I was totally called out on this one during a practice Skype session: "So, hey. How's that crib sheet working for you?" ::Dies::)

It's my opinion that the video-conference format most closely approximates in-person interviews, and so I found it an easier transition. If you are invited to video-conference, you have to first find a location which provides access to this type of technology. If your university offers distance-education classes on campus, chances are that you'll have access to a video-conference site. If not, it's worth a call to your IT department. If your school doesn't have this equipment, your community may, particularly churches, high schools (which sometimes offer distance-ed classes), nearby colleges/universities, and performing arts centers. VC equipment is prohibitively expensive. If you have no access, you'll have to discuss other interview options with the committee members. It's my experience that committees are generally understanding of such barriers, but it's also my experience that interviews with added accommodations can be negatively framed.

1. Much of what I've written about phone and Skype interviews pertains to video-conferences, with the added stress of being able to see the whole committee very clearly, all at once. Review your materials in advance, since you'll have no leeway for reviewing them during the interview. It's high school boyfriends again: Each one is the only one.

2. With VCs, it's easier to address members of the committee because you can see them clearly. I found it helpful to treat the situation as I would an in-person interview and use committee members' names often. I worked to look the members who asked each question because I knew they could see that small gesture.

3. I had to control for personal twitches. I conducted a few video-conference interviews when I worked in Human Resources, and I can attest that chronic face strokers and hair pullers are viewed differently than someone who doesn't display her nerves so readily. I planted my hands in front of me or, when I felt anxious, held a pen. It was a small gesture, but it channeled my energy to something less distracting. I didn't sit with my hands in my lap, since (from my turn on the other side of the screen) I know it makes me look armless or overly concerned with my... lap.

4. Wear pants. From the waist up, I looked respectable in a black suit jacket. Below the waist: jeans and snow boots. I almost didn't make the interview because we were iced in, and I had to be prepared to walk to the bus stop in the cold. Today, it's a funny story. But on that day, I was mortified that they might (Heaven forbid) see my jeans. A waste of energy and anxiety. I shouldn't have worried. But do wear pants. Since you're likely not video-conferencing at home, I hope this point is superfluous, but you never know.

Distance interviews may be one positive change that comes out of university budget cuts. For the cost of one candidate's trip to MLA, a department could purchase a lower-end video-conference unit. Skype, though clunky and lag-prone, is free. Phone interviews--which comprised the bulk of my interviews--seem to be the format most schools reach for when they can't get to MLA. (In my experience, but I would love to hear what others think.) Most of the how-to materials on job market success--mostly anecdotal, like mine--follow a traditional interview pattern: submit the application, maybe submit additional materials, MLA interview, campus visit. As distance interviews become more common (and let's hope they do), candidates who are financially disadvantaged will have a fair shot at jobs they otherwise couldn't afford to interview for.


Pre-Interview Preparation: Six Points

In my last two posts, I detailed my strategies for controlling the stress of the Academic Job Search and for (sanely) managing multiple job applications. I would like to add one point that I left out, because it's a practice  I found incredibly useful: I *scheduled* blocks of time for the following five activities: sleeping, exercising, job searching, teaching, and dissertating. God bless Google Calendar. Much like grading, job searching can expand to fill the time it's given. Setting realistic goals allowed me to aim for consistency over time. A marathon pace is always a little under a 10k or 5k time because 26 miles is a long haul. Sprinters end up bent double on the berm.

In these next three or four posts, I'd like to share what I learned about academic job interviews. I had read the book everyone reads prior to entering the market,  Hume's How to Survive Your Academic Job Hunt, and while I found her checklists of "things to do" to be helpful, I still had some uncertainty about how to best present myself to prospective employers. Hume doesn't cover distance-interviews in any depth, a gap that Claire Potter addresses on her fantastic blog, Tenured Radical. Here's the thing about the job hunt: September and October, even November, can be disquieting. I had sent out probably 40 applications by Thanksgiving and responded to 10 calls for additional materials. As autumn shifted to winter, I became ever more convinced that I was unemployable. (Understand that I am not a negative person, but the market has a way of making you question--way deep down--your goals and your worth. These blogs come from a place of empathy and also from a little bit of vigilantism.)

The protracted nature of academic hiring makes each step critical; at the same time, candidates and committees grow Ever. More. Exhausted. By the time the high-stakes moves are made (interviews and then campus visits), everyone's busy with the end of the Fall semester, holidays, and the beginning of the Spring semester. (The timing of the job search still, to this day, baffles me.) It helped me to think about interviews and campus visits--which are essentially extended interviews--like high school dating. (Apologies here to my high school boyfriends). Every situation must feel fresh. Each one is your only one.(Don't extend that metaphor any further than it needs to go, okay?)

Candidates will likely encounter four types of pre-campus-visit interviews: phone, Skype, video-conference, and in-person MLA. Each situation presents distinct challenges while providing important benefits, if you know how to hack the format. I'll talk about the first three--phone, Skype, and video-conference--in the next installment and follow with a separate (invective-filled) post about in-person MLA interviews.MLA doesn't play nice and needs its own space.

Do This First
1. Before sitting for any interview, it's a good idea to practice due diligence. Review the materials you sent so you remember what you highlighted and how it meets the needs of the advertised job. The interview invitation will list the members of the search committee. Know those people. Know the school. Know the department. Become familiar with the local contexts, geographically, demographically, and institutionally. Know the classes you may teach and work up answers to common questions. Many institutions make their student demographics available. (Search for "Office of Research" or "University Analytics" on their homepage.)  Candidates who understand--or who work to understand--local contexts move from outsiders to potential colleagues. If you've gotten as far as the phone interview, chances are that you can see yourself actually working at that university, with those people. Let your collegiality come through.

2. If you're finishing your dissertation, have the two-minute description at your command, and be able to articulate a timeline for finishing. (Many departments, I hear, hesitate to hire graduate students who seem in danger of not finishing.) Have ready a 1-year, 2-year, and 5-year plan. (For TT jobs, particularly, 3rd-year review and tenure-review deadlines are important to consider.) Also consider a "dream course" you'd like to teach and make sure it fits into the school's curriculum and mission. Potter (who, I think, should update Hume's book) details some of these short yet vital scripts here.

3. Prepare 2-3 thoughtful questions to ask the committee. These questions should demonstrate that you've pictured yourself in the position, as a colleague, and are thinking about the contributions you can make to the department or program. Committee members are tired. Candidates can begin to blur. These strategies may be the points that bring your dossier to the top.Be memorable, but not bad memorable.

4. Understand that there are some questions that the committee cannot, by law, ask you. Questions about age, children, marriage status, race, religion, and sexual orientation are all off limits. The Chronicle detailed strategies for dealing with some of these "left field" moments in regards to campus visits, but candidates may have to gracefully navigate these choppy waters at the interview stage.

5. Never, ever, under any circumstances, speak negatively of your home department. It reflects poorly on your sense of discretion and may alert committee members that you'd be a likely conference gossip. Grace and the high road: Always safe options.

6. Finally, and I mention it because I've watched it in action: Be nice to the administrative staff. First, it's just good practice to be kind. Second, no one wants to be around someone who is high maintenance or dramatic.

The format of each interview necessarily constrains how each of these points will be taken up. I'll address each genre in turn in the next two posts, beginning with the distance interviews and relegating MLA interviews to where they belong: by themselves, alone and lonely.


AcJoSer 2: Buy Post-Its

Yesterday, I listed some strategies for dealing with the emotional and psychological toll of the academic job search. (In my head, I've started to refer to it as the AcJoSer, like AcBoWriMo. I think they both sound like rare tropical diseases.)

A week into my job search, I had my first I-want-out-of-this-right-now moment. I read through call after call, but I couldn't seem to make sense of any of it. I had, only a few hours earlier, felt ahead of the game because I had written my application letter template and reworked my CV. My letters of recommendation were requested (via Interfolio) months before. I scheduled my diss writing so I was handing a copy of the complete draft to my committee the day before the list became available. I am powerful, I thought. Job market, I own you! 

Oh folly. Oh pride.

This school wants letters of recommendation, but that one needs an official transcript. Schools Three and Four want student evaluations, but one of them needs a teaching philosophy and the other wants a research agenda. Some school needs a writing sample that isn't my dissertation, but which school? And who else needs a sample? And who the hell needs nine individual documents for the first round?

Clearly, I needed a system.

In this post, I want to offer some points of practicality, drawing from my own struggles. The material demands of the job search are directly relational to the emotional and psychological drains. I found that a few simple maneuvers helped me control the out-of-control clutter and, in turn, kept me sane(r).

In this post, I'll detail the search itself, because it is a search. It's a search in the way that some very painful life experiences can lead us deeper into ourselves, to self-revelation.

It's the end of the semester, so my mind goes here:

The Academic Job Search : You :: Samwise and Frodo : the journey to Mordor.

Both journeys take far too long to complete, there may or may not be orcs, and, when you find that you can't take one.more.step, you can count on your Sam to get you there. (In this analogy, a system for organizing your search is Sam, as in, "I can't carry the ring for you, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you!" May your system carry you when you can't carry yourself.)

End Geek Rant. Onward.

1. First things first: The Job List. When the list drops in September, the servers overload, your mind short circuits, and you become thoroughly convinced that the slow webpage load time will cost you a career. Step 1: Breathe. Step 2: Stop hitting refresh. Step 3: Go to bed. Those jobs will be there tomorrow, and none of them (should) have deadlines in the next week. In the meantime, check the Chronicle, the WPA job board, and (if you're thus inclined) the Academic Job Wiki. Finding job calls is the first step. Most departments maintain a subscription to the MLA in order to give job seekers direct access. I decided to join the MLA so I could get job list access and also receive the publications.

2. The job search is, at its black heart, a game of paperwork wrangling. I'm visually oriented, and so I wanted obvious reminders of the jobs I had applied for, what they required, what I had sent, and if they had requested additional materials. I maintained hard copy file folders (organized by application due date) containing copies of the job ad, my letter, and a list of the materials they had requested. If they wanted letters of recommendation, I printed my Interfolio confirmation and included that too. A handful of schools had claimed that they never received my letters, but I could quickly confirm the date and time without sorting through my email.

3. I also taped four differently colored post-its to the front of each folder, one each for due date, a summary of the job, requested materials (and the dates they were sent), and "notes," which were idiosyncrasies about the job or the file. Since I was applying for multiple jobs simultaneously, I found it helpful to be able to pull a file and glance at the front to make sure I wasn't pushing a deadline or to confirm that I had sent all required materials. Once a job application was completed, I cycled the folder to the back of the stack. Sounds tedious (and it was) but I'm certain that hard copy filing saved me time and stress. Diss Buddy maintained digital files, which were probably far more streamlined than my stack of dead trees. Work whatever system works for you. Incomplete applications are almost never considered for the next round, so it pays to stay on top of the paperwork.

4. Think the neurotics end there? I'll see the file folders and raise you a chart. I used the backs of blotters to make charts which listed each school, the due date, the date I applied, and a summary of the job. In this way, I kept the jobs straight in my mind. This strategy paid off when a school called my cell phone one afternoon for a pre-phone-interview phone interview. (I know, I know.) I was in the office and could glance at my chart for a quick breakdown of the job, the materials, and the timeline. (Beware, though: People may be frightened by your chart.)

5. I'll recap: We have file folders, and we have a chart. I also maintained digital files of every application I sent. I can't emphasize this point enough: Keep a copy--digital or paper--of every single letter you send. Your legacy with each school begins and ends with your dossier. You'll want to review these materials before you interview. Each job letter is an opportunity to foreground some skills and background others, depending on the demands of the job. You'll want to remember what you've highlighted for each school. Most candidates, in addition to maintaining a search, are teaching multiple sections and working on their own scholarship (a dissertation, a book, or articles). I'll pause to note that these three levels of organization--files, the chart, and digital copies of every application--were put in place because I knew I would be exhausted and probably forgetful.

Managing the "search" part of the job search involves much planning and tending to the files (again, either hard copy or digital). But the payoff for this management is control. So much of the process is beyond an individual candidate's influence: flight costs, committee squabbles, unspoken job expectations, the insistence on a prohibitively expensive interview process. What we can control is how we approach the time suck of applications. Though I'll be the first to admit that my three-step process may be a little neurotic, I also took comfort in the fact that I had a system that I could enact every time I came across a relevant job ad. Instead of feeling buried by the market, I organized it, sorted through the opportunities, developed a protocol, and followed that protocol to promote consistency and attention to detail.

Next, interviews!


The Academic Job Search: Worst Marathon EVER

One year ago, I was a mess. The academic job search process brought out uncharacteristic feelings of inadequacy. From September through early January, I focused--to the detriment of my health and relationships--on writing letters and sending materials. Every letter felt like a plea: "I know I don't have a stellar publication record, but I am invested. I am a good teacher. I believe in first-year composition. I will advocate. Please." I'm not insecure about my contributions to my field of study or my department. I know I'm an asset. But the atmosphere of the job market forces this kind of fatalism. The fears were made real when, during two separate interviews, committee members told me that it was a buyer's market. They had interviewed many talented candidates, who they could attract with bargain-basement salaries. (Followed by a har-har-har, I struggled to keep my "You didn't just say that?!?" face intact.)

The job search is an endurance race, not a sprint. I was still sending out letters well into January, long after I had lost both interest and energy. I wrote letters on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's. Like an endurance race, I pushed beyond physical, psychological, and emotional walls. At least in a real endurance race, you have some indication of how much more distance you have to cover before you can collapse. The academic job search spools on indefinitely.

Those anxieties have started to surface again as I read through friends' status updates on FaceBook. MLA looms large, and I am reminded of my own fears this time last year. In the world of hiring, the academic job market has to be the most neurotic, most illogical, and most prohibitive process. I saved for two years to afford the clothes, the materials-delivery fees, the accouterments, and the trip.

In the spirit of empathy and reflection, here are my tips to academic job seekers. They're based solely on my experiences, and I've spent some time considering what I would have changed. I'll focus this post on the psychological and emotional aspects. The next post will be more practically focused.

1. I'll start with the big one: Schools are lucky to have you, not the other way around. Candidates risk sounding desperate when they lavish praise on committees and departments and downgrade their own contributions. Yes, the market is down. But you have something unique to offer them, and by remembering your worth, you control your relationship to the committee. (This advice seems to be most useful for graduate students entering the market for the first time.)

2. Don't make academics your world. My panic (at the potential of not getting a job) was greatly reduced by sketching out a solid Plan B. If you're considering leaving academics (and I seriously did), visit http://versatilephd.com/ for ideas on what to do with your degree. You'll feel pressure to provide for your family or make your education "worth something." While it's important to quest after life goals, it's also a relief to know that there's a whole other sphere in which to contribute. If nothing else, having an alternate plan may allow you to sleep at night.

3. Don't visit the Academic Job Wiki. Or, if you do, use it only as a timeline. Negativity breeds negativity, and that site is a black hole of anxiety. Commiseration can only get you so far before you begin to feel that the situation's hopeless.

4. Maintain your routines. Get outside. Eat healthy food. Take every Saturday off. Whatever your routines are, don't sacrifice all of them to write letters and create materials. Try to approximate a "normal life." I can't recommend exercise and clean eating enough. Besides offering productive procrastination, exercise boosted my mood, made up for my exhaustion, and kept off the stress-eating weight.Whole foods kept me awake and responsive.

5. In the same line: When you are able to fit in a day, or even a few hours, of downtime, do so unapologetically. I wasted so much time worrying about not working when I had scheduled in downtime. I would have been more rested and relaxed had I given myself permission to not think about work.

6. You might panic over the money you're spending. I did. The academic job search cost me around $2,000, and on a grad student salary, I had to save for awhile. Nothing's more sickening than thinking that your money will be wasted. (The story of flying to some expensive locale for one interview is too common.) I have no real comfort to offer here, other than I'm happy to see some schools getting away from in-person MLA interviews and using video and phone interviews instead.This is the aspect of the academic job search that angers me the most, the pay-to-play prohibitive nature.

7. Find a "search buddy." Though we interviewed for a few of the same positions, my "search buddy" (who was also my "diss buddy") and I would chat about the process, give heads-up about interview questions, and we roomed together at MLA. It was nice to have someone who understood exactly what I was going through, even though we were--in at least three instances--direct competition. Since our backgrounds and foci are so different, Diss-and-Search Buddy and I knew that we'd offer our respective departments unique skills. (Also, if your adviser is as amazing as mine, seek that person out for guidance and care. I relied on his expertise and calm nature in the worst times.)

8. Finally, avoid the comparison trap. Committees don't share rubrics. The job call and the needs of the department are often very different. It's my experience--having served on a committee and also being a candidate--that candidates are ranked more holistically than not. My first few interviews felt very much like performances. I parroted their code words (via the job call and department sites) and praised the members' published work. I gave up on this approach when I interviewed (via phone) for a job that was very much not me. It was obvious to everyone, and in retrospect, it was embarrassing. Just do you.

This list is, of course, both idealistic and reductive. I didn't have children to consider. I'm married, and so it was easier for me to save the funds for MLA. My generous department helped me pay for some of the expenses. My dissertation adviser went above and beyond to support me. There were more job opportunities for me because of my focus. And even with these advantages, I experienced emotional and psychological struggle. The longer I stayed "on the market," the more I allowed myself to be convinced that I was unemployable.

The market is an antiquated construction that persists because there are enough people who believe in its validity (and maybe because of tradition?). We're seeing tiny changes (video interviews!) which may signal a move to a more humane process, but until those changes happen, we're stuck working within a system that routinely disadvantages the very population it claims to serve.