Monday, September 18, 2006

Interview Question: big room or bedroom?

The Modern Language Association conference is a HUGE to-do starting about December 27th, and ending a few days later. Lots of papers are given, a few plenary sessions happen.

And then there are the interviews.

First, in September, and again in October, November, and December, the MLA Job Information List (aka, the MLA JIL) gets published listing most of the academic jobs in the Modern Languages, English lit, Modern Foreign Languages and literatures, and so forth. (Linguistics usually gets listed elsewhere, as do many jobs in English Education and such.)

Job candidates search the lists, and depending on field and year, come up with a few to perhaps 50 jobs to which they want to apply by whatever deadline's given (50 is a HUGE number, and not likely in many fields most years). Applicants send in a letter of application and a CV, generally. They may also be asked either right off, or later, to send a writing sample, a dossier of letters of recommendation, a syllabus and assignments, and/or a philosophy of teaching statement. From the applicant's angle, this is pure hell.

From the hiring committee's angle, the work starts with phrasing the ad. The key for the committee is to figure out what they want, and to target the people who can provide that, while being open to people who can provide that and offer something else, a really neat interest, some additional experience, whatever. So it's a balancing act. And that's when the committee gets along well; if the committee has disagreements, then the ad gets way more complicated.

Then there's the waiting game. In most fields, most schools get plenty of applications. I heard about one regional university in an incredible city that put out a broad "Americanist" ad, and got 800 applications in the '90s. OUCH. In every field, in every job search in my departments over the years, we've had an abundance of applicants for the ONE job we have open. We may have two splendid, perfect applicants, but we can only hire one. Choosing is hard. Being number two is even harder for that great candidate, and we all know it.

The ideal is to get a plentiful selection of candidates, from which a committee can put together a clear pool of 10 or so people the committee wants to talk with further. That further, in most language cases, involves meeting for an interview at MLA.

While committees read application materials, put aside those that just don't fit, and winnow down the pool, applicants hang on every phone call, hoping for requests for dossiers or writing samples, and finally, for an invitation to an interview.

So, here's the big question around here: room or room for the interview?

Most interviews at MLA happen in one of two venues.

The first is the huge interview room, an immense hall set with rows and rows of tables and chairs, each table occupied by 1-4 people, each with a sign of some sort identifying the department and school. And all in plain view of everyone else. So interviewees stand at the edges, waiting their turn, scoping out the department members they may be interviewing with, and watching the competition. At the half hour or hour, there's a general bustle in the room as the people being interviewed stand up, shake hands, and move away, and the next interviewee, having watched the table for at least the last 10 minutes, walks up, introduces him/herself, and sits down for the interview. It's one horrific cattle call.

The second venue is the hotel room or suite. In this case, the interview happens a lot more privately. An interviewee waits outside the room until the moment to knock, hoping not to disturb an interview already in progress, wanting not to be late. Better to knock or wait? There's often an awkward passing in the hall, one interviewee coming out of a room, the next waiting just outside.

Some departments can afford suites, and everyone sits like a civilized person in a chair, maybe at a comfortable table, with coffee even. Other departments have more basic rooms, which leaves the ever-so-popular bed as the prime sitting area. If department members get along well, that can show more in a hotel room, I think; and if they don't get along, that will come out pretty much anywhere.

There are disadvantages to the huge room: the cattle call feel, the lack of privacy, uncomfortable chairs, fish bowl effect, and so forth.

And advantages: central location, no need to make up the hotel bed by a certain time, privacy, less awkwardness sometimes.

And there are disadvantages to the hotel room: the bed as interview perch, the weirdness of interviewing in a room with a bed, a general lack of chairs, hotels far from the main conference hotels, and such.

And advantages: good rapport comes through better, perhaps, more privacy, refreshments and bathrooms at hand.

So, the question of the day: which is better or worse for the MLA interview, the big room or the bedroom?

(The MLA interview generally gets used to narrow down the candidate pool to 2-3 people who will be invited for a campus visit. More on that later, perhaps.)


  1. I really, really preferred the hotel room. Weird though it was, I knew they were taking me seriously. And the cattle call feel of the big room seemed to be accurate--of all the jobs I applied for, only the cattle call room did the interviewees overlap with my people I knew. It seemed a) cheap and b) like they had no idea what they wanted.
    Oh that I'll be missing MLA this year....

  2. Having had interviews in both situations, I have to say that I'm not sure how much it matters. The intensity is so high anyway, I wonder if our nerves supercede location, to a point. There are pros and cons, as you note, and I think they balance out.

    Actually, I arrived for my hotel room interview so early that I wandered the halls for fifteen minutes, and that was worse than sitting outside the big room for fifteen minutes the day before. For me.

  3. This is a really nicely expressed comparison of the two venues - the pit and the bedroom, so to speak. And I think it's good to be reminded that interviewers are also aware of the stress of interviews for themselves and the candidates (of course they are, but candidates usually can't get past their own fright). There is a certain awkwardness that comes from interviewing in a room with a big honkin' bed in it - who gets to sit on it if there aren't enough chairs? Sometimes, it's the grad students if there are any on the hiring committee (my program usually had one there to observe and report back to the other grad students about the candidates) - but there are all kinds of nuances that go along with a simple seating arrangement - there's so much choreography! We've all heard the (probably urban legend) horror stories of interviewing in the "bedroom", too. But having said that, my most uncomfortable moment was in an interview in the pit, where one of the interviewers started talking about masturbation and the sin of Onan. Yeesh! The other guy turned stone white and I just sat there staring at a spot on the table and wondering if anyone could overhear him.

    I prefer the hotel room - I get clammy standing in the middle of all those people.

  4. I prefer the hotel room, unless there is only one person going to MLA to interview, and then the hotel room is just plain weird.

    When I did MLA interviewing last year, we had a VERY tiny room to interview in, but we asked the hotel for 2 extra chairs, we squeezed them into the room, and we used the bed as storage for my bag, candidates bags, coats, whatever. My thought is that as long as you don't put the candidate on the bed sitting next to a lecherous faculty member, the room is always much better than the pit. (When I was on the market, I thought the pit meant that people didn't have a well-funded search.)

  5. If I recall correctly, the AHA (the history version of the MLA) expressly discourages hotel-room interviews. It seems as though there could be a happy medium, rather than a choice between two evils... I've seen a few conferences where job interviews are conducted in the big cattle-call room, but with the tables separated by fabric dividers, just like the booths often are at publisher displays. Most conference-hosting hotels would presumably be able to offer this option, and it offers a degree of privacy that makes the whole thing at least a shade less undignified.

  6. Rent a small office nearby, or even ask the hotel if they have somewhere more formal they could rent for the day. Make sure people have directions. Chairs outside. Have some tea, coffee, and biscuits. Stick a note on the door so arrivals know what's going on.

    If your college can afford (and your interviewees are having to pay) the air fare, it seems fair to offer this.