Tuesday, January 08, 2013

MLA 2013

I've now returned from MLA and recovered from MLA, and I'm here to tell you that I ain't as young as I used to be. Two years ago, I wrote that whereas MLA had once been a whirl of excitement and novelty, an opportunity to figure out my place in the profession, it's now, increasingly, about my obligations to the profession. Since I was on a hiring committee this year, I was literally obliged to go and to sit in a hotel suite for fourteen interviews over two days--but when I speak of my professional obligations I mean something more expansive than that task, as well as something a bit more rewarding than "fourteen interviews over two days" might suggest.

I'll start with the interviews. The days were indeed long, and they left me more fatigued at the end than I'd expected--but not only is it genuinely fun to meet talented young scholars (and to learn about a field totally outside my own), I also appreciated the opportunity to think about how the conditions of those interviews reflect on us as a department and a profession. I won't claim that our team provided a perfect interview experience--two of us were on a hiring committee for the first time and the third was only doing it for the second--and small things did go awry, especially on the first day. Room service arrived with coffee in the middle of one interview; hotel phones and cell phones went off in the middle of others; there were minor mishaps to do with elevators and room numbers and missed calls.

But I think we were all aware of how stressful the interview experience is for candidates and how disproportionately horrible even a mediocre one can feel; we've all had dispiriting interviews, or interviews where the committee seemed bored or hostile, or where small rudenesses--like not knowing what to do with a candidate's coat or not having a clean cup in which to offer her water--came to feel emblematic of such boredom or hostility. So we tried to be foresighted about a candidate's needs, and we also worked hard to be warm and affirmative throughout by smiling, nodding, asking follow-up questions, and otherwise communicating our engagement. Yeah, it's a long day, and no, not everyone is equally compelling. But though we may not in that moment be able to change the hiring practices of academia, we can make a job candidate feel valued and worth listening to.

(And for any grad students or recent PhDs who may be reading: most of the little stuff really doesn't matter. We don't care if you wear a skirt and nice sweater rather than a suit. We don't care if you flub one question. Having the phone ring or room service arrive while you're talking doesn't actually detract from your awesomeness if we think you're awesome. It's okay to fumble around a bit if you eventually arrive at a strong answer. And I can think of only one candidate for whom we really needed the whole interview to make a judgment call; in every other case, the strongest and weakest candidates were apparent very quickly. On the other hand, interviews really do show things that aren't apparent on paper.)

When I wasn't in an interview suite, I was eating or drinking or otherwise hanging out. I did meet with my editor and I did make it to a couple of panels, but most of what I did amounted to socializing: at coffee shops, bars, restaurants, or receptions; in hotel lobbies, at the book exhibit, on the elevator, or walking the endless mall that connected the conference center to the various hotels. Some of the people I was most thrilled to see I chatted with for just five minutes, and even those with whom I spent a full hour or two I wished I'd had more time with.

I also spent a decent amount of time hanging out with grad students or contingent faculty friends who were interviewing, and I tried to buy every single one of them a drink. Maybe next year I'll expand this policy to any random younger person I see at the bar who seems in need of bourbon. One of the best things about blogging and social media are the friendships I've developed with people outside my immediate age/field cohort, but as I get more remote from my own grad student and contingent faculty days, I worry about losing touch with what the profession looks like from that perspective. And lacking my own doctoral students, I may also have a lot of frustrated older-sister energy to expend. (In other words: grad students! Hit me up for a drink and tell me about your dissertation.)

Many people talk about conferences as an opportunity to rejuvenate and reconnect with their discipline and their subfield: it's what keeps them engaged and up-to-date. Usually this statement is understood to refer to the scholarly work of the conference, but I think it's equally true for the social work of a conference. I need to spend a certain amount of time in bars with friends and acquaintances to know what's really going on with them and with the profession. I guess you could call this gossip, and some of it is--who got tenure or a book contract, who moved jobs, what horrible administrative initiative is happening where--but it's also a vital way of keeping in touch with the field in all its facets.

Conferences take more out of me than they used to, when all I was doing was making new friends and figuring out who I was. But they're equally as important--which is why I'm still at the damn bar at one in the morning, and in an interview suite at ten.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Sounds like you had a good time! I think I might try to go to MLA next year just for kicks. It would be interesting to check it out just as an observer. I have only been to the conference once, when I was interviewing. Naturally, I was so nervous that I didn't really enjoy it at all. I feel now that I could enjoy the networking and chatting without being so distracted by desperation. :)

Sapience said...

Thanks for the encouragement to those of us who were interviewing that the little things don't matter--it's hard to tell whether we really blew the interview, or if things just didn't go perfectly because of the little stuff.

Flavia said...


It isn't for everyone--some people really hate MLA, either because it's so big/not targeted enough to their scholarly interests, or because they never get over the sweaty feeling of anxiety they had when attending as desperate job candidates. But I enjoyed it even when I was on the market, and have never stopped.


Glad to oblige! If I can think of anything that might provide a more useful behind-the-scenes look (beyond the great work Bardiac's posts have already done in this regard), I'll throw them into a subsequent post. My fingers are crossed for you all your fellow interviewees.

Susan said...

So true that the small things don't matter. I mean, I'd notice if you were wearing PJs, or looked as if you had just rolled out of bed, but as long as you look neat and professional, we're cool.

Kudos to you and your colleagues for trying to treat everyone well for the whole interview, even though, as you note, you can usually tell relatively quickly.

Historiann said...

Great post. You're a very generous big sister!

Something I've noticed as I've grown older is that it's not just fun, but really personally and professionally meaningful, to reconnect with peers and professional mentors that I've known now (in some cases) for 20+ years. Yes, gossip is traded, but gossip is also another word for "news," and it frequently is very useful for keeping up with one's profession on behalf of one's colleagues and one's students, even if you don't have Ph.D. students.

Ryan said...

I missed MLA this year: only the 2nd time in a decade. And OH! how I missed it. But yes: this notion of academic community that we find at these things are ones to foster and nurture: across generations and fields and geographic areas most of all.

And I second your approach tot he interviews--a good committee (to my mind) makes a stab at making every conversation a rewarding one. I learn from candidates even when it's apparent that they may not be right for our institution--I hope to honor that exchange every time there's a knock on the door.