Rebecca Schuman

Columnist at vitae

Market Crash Course IV: Kill The Conference Interview!

Full 01062014 meatmarket

This week the literature scholars of America, each clad in his favorite shade of black, will descend upon balmy Chicago to attend the annual convention of the Modern Language Association. For some, it will be the highlight of the year: a chance to catch up with friends, discover groundbreaking books, and participate in fascinating panels, all on the dime of the institution that nurtures them.

But for others (including many reading this right now from a hotel room charged to a credit card they have no way of paying off), the annual disciplinary conference, whether it be the MLA, AHA, AAA or one of several APAs, is $1,200 “invested” in a single 20-minute interview during which they’ll be judged primarily on their shoes.

For those on the job market (for the first, fifth, or eleventh time), the disciplinary conference is little more than a name-tagged sideshow, where the Haves preen around humblebragging about how “hard” it is to run a search while a sea of desperate Have-Nots wade about in each other’s flop sweat. The guest of honor at every MLA is a set of mile-high invisible walls, keeping the marginalized out so the few remaining insiders can attend panels called “How We Talk About Contingent Faculty Members” before going home and ignoring the six adjuncts sharing the office down the hall.

The problem with a disciplinary conference at which interviewing takes place is that it is two conventions at the same time. The first is an event full of camaraderie and scholarly advancement; the second is a brutal meat market. For the first event, a large conference in a single city is both welcome and necessary. But the second is a relic of a time that everyone but a few stubborn search committees has realized is long past. In the age of videoconferencing and “budgetary approval,” it’s well past time to bifurcate these events—and to lop off the one that doesn’t belong. Die, conference interview. Die, die, die.

Here are but a few of the most egregious reasons it is unconscionable to continue forcing many candidates to schlep halfway across the country, at great personal expense, for a single meeting in a decimated market.

1. The price is extortionate, and cost-cutting measures and subsidies are little help. I can’t speak for other fields, but the MLA subsidy for graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty is $300, and must be applied for two months in advance (before any interview requests are made). Even if a candidate took the subsidy, managed an insane airline bargain ($300), shared a hotel room with three other people (like Mardi Gras!), and ate vending-machine Bugles for every meal, she’d still be out at least $300 for a “cheap” nondesigner suit (upon which she would be judged, irrevocably and harshly) and $75 to 100 for membership and conference registration. Bargain-basement conference attendance—while the Haves cavort in their expensed rooms at the W—is still $600 at its absolute minimum. That’s still about half of what most adjuncts take home in a month, and those earnings are usually allotted to such luxuries as heat. There are few (if any) other fields that expect job semifinalists to travel halfway across the country on their own dimes for the faintest chance of success.

2. Because of its expense, the conference interview format favors the wealthy and well-connected. During my recent skirmish over a particular search committee’s choice to notify interviewees five days before the MLA convention, members of said committee insisted that any serious beginning scholar would be at the convention anyway, either to give a paper or to learn about the profession. I think more can be learned about the profession from the assumption that anyone “serious” can afford a four-figure networking trip.

Those who can jet to the conference without the desperate hope that it will result in gainful employ? People who do not need that gainful employ to begin with. Just as in everything else, the academic market favors the rich—of course, only in academia are the oligarchs also self-proclaimed Marxists.

3. The conference interview perpetuates a culture of fear and abuse. If you want to see primal, reptile-brain terror, look deep into the eyes of any job marketer walking around MLA. And if you want to hear stories of abuse, buy any of those poor schmucks a drink. Committee chairs falling asleep after asking a question. Interviewers getting up mid-grilling to urinate—audibly. Eminent scholars insisting upon watching television for the duration of the interview.

But make no mistake: Were any of these committees to place the poor interviewee on the campus visit list, she’d sob in gratitude and hop on a plane. If she’s “lucky” enough to be hired, she won’t be this tribunal’s colleague—she’ll be their whipping girl, and will remain so until she gets tenure (if she does), by which point she, too, will have been reformed in their image, and will treat the next generation accordingly. Of course, not all search committees or departments are like this. But the conference interview format gives those that are carte blanche to act out.

4. Skype interviews are fine. Really, they are. “But Rebecca,” you snipe, “I prefer meeting someone face to face!” Well, I prefer a robust job market and a world of social justice, but I don’t get those. These are ”vulnerable times,” people—so why aren’t your travel budgets vulnerable? And here’s the thing. The person you meet “in person” at MLA bears little resemblance to the real human being behind the sweaty suit: Maybe he’s an ace interviewer who is a total dud in real life—or maybe, like me, she’s a sparkling bucket of merry sunshine who simply chokes under that kind of insane scrutiny.

And finally, there is nothing—and I mean nothing—important about a job candidate that can’t be learned via videoconference, technology that will only improve as the years pass. There is simply no excuse not to hold initial interviews this way: It is less expensive for all parties, it is fairer, and more often than not it shows a “realer” candidate, since she’s not stuck freezing her ovaries off and playing name-tag scorn-fest in some hotel lobby where she can’t even afford a cup of coffee.

Like I said, in no way do I want to do away with MLA or any other disciplinary conference altogether. But make it about what it’s supposed to be about: learning, growing, friendship, and, sure, networking. Just leave the meat-market aspect out of it. Yes, that will lessen attendance, but how can organizers sleep at night knowing that their swelling numbers are the result of prostrate, miserable people who cannot afford to be there? Even the current and past leadership of the MLA agrees with me:

This cry for change—echoed throughout all but a final few holdouts who like things the way they are—is not about “entitlement.” Nobody I know feels entitled to a tenure-track job or even a perfect interview. So responding to this systemic critique with such a personal attack or a shift to a discussion of “tone,” though a common reaction, deflects from the very real problems with the conference interview process. No, nobody is entitled to a perfect job search experience. But you know what everybody is entitled to, no matter what job they do or don’t have? Basic human decency and dignity, and not having to spend $1,200 they don’t possess.

The conference interview process as it stands is low on dignity and high on expense, with precious little return on investment for anyone who isn’t already rich. So kill it.

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