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Even more awkward academia-related interactions

Posted in First Person by Arnold Pan on July 29, 2010
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As promised, I’m continuing with my series of *even more* awkward academia-related interactions.  While the last post dealt with the uncomfortable run-ins that might happen with people you don’t know well or only a little bit, this piece covers some squirm-inducing experiences I’ve had with people I know pretty well to very well.  The thing is, those crossed signals can sometimes be worse unbeknownst to you, because it’s easy to take your interactions with the folks you’re familiar with for granted…

"Union Station Urinals, Toronto" by Jason Doucette (Creative Commons license)

Don’t get stuck in the bathroom: So I was attending MLA a few years ago, when I opened the door to a convention hall bathroom only to notice one colleague of mine ask another colleague of ours about his job interviews.  I was in a purely voyeuristic position (*not* in that way!), because they were over at the urinals or on the other side of something or other and couldn’t have known that I was there and listening.  Anyhow, the first colleague–someone I know fairly well and known from this point on as “PQ” for “Prying Questioner” –asked with brutal shamelessness the question most of us never ask in such a bald-faced way: “Where did you interview?”  I don’t know if the other fellow was caught off-guard or is a networking-type himself, but he answered that he was interviewing at one of the best, best schools in the country!  Now “PQ” was probably the one who was blindsided, since I can imagine that someone who’s nosy enough not have any scruples is also prone to measure himself against others.

Maybe they didn’t mind getting stuck in the bathroom together since they were comparing notes, but it’s not anywhere I’d want to be trapped, forcing to answer with no escape hatch.  And yet, I got my comeuppance for the spying, even though I fled the men’s room…

Find out how I got my comeuppance below the fold…

Don’t get stuck in the hallway leading to the bathroom: So, of course, I’m out in the hallway when I’m ambushed by “PQ” once he leaves the restroom.  And, of course, I didn’t learn my lesson and I’m caught flat-footed with mouth agape when “PQ” asks me the question everyone else is scared to ask and no one wants to answer–“Where did you interview?”  Just to be contrarian, I gave him an answer that withheld what would’ve  been the best gossip about me, which was my own interview for a dream-school-level job.  Looking back, I wonder whether I shoulda revealed my big news in front of both colleagues, in case–pardon the bathroom pun–a pissing match is what everyone wanted.  In the end, I shortchanged my own status in front of my colleagues just to thwart and cut off the circle of gossip, and keep everyone from getting into my business.

But this led me to thinking about the protocol of comparing notes and the ethics of circulating information.  How much info should you give to expect to get something back that you’d like to know?  And is there any guarantee of a mutual exchange?  On the one hand, you might want to keep things close to the vest, because who knows who else who might be connected to the job, either on the search committee or another applicant, might find get some dirt once you start talking all willy-nilly-like.  On the other hand, you can’t participate in the profession, at large, or within any social circle, in particular, without there being some semi-parasitic give-and-take.  Plus, when everyone else seems to have so many great options, you want to have some too and let ’em know it.

The conversation about the conversation about you: So how exactly do you give your close friend the second degree about second-hand hearsay you heard her/him say about you and your job interviews?   What happened in this situation is a bit complicated and I’m not even sure I ever got the whole story, but here’s what I pieced together: Some of my friends were having dinner at MLA with some of their friends, which included an acquaintance who also happened to have interviewed me just a few hours earlier.  Actually, it’s probably good that I wasn’t there, because that would’ve been another even more awkward scenario.  Anyhow, I heard from one of the dining that the interviewing acquaintance and a common friend of both of ours talked about my interview.  So my imagination went a little wild here: Did my friend reveal my other opportunities, which could’ve affected this application in ways possibly good or possibly bad?  Did my friend put a good word in for me, or was there some kind of weird faint praise?

What made this situation even stickier was that I wanted to resolve these questions by asking my friend about just what s/he said about me.  While I should’ve just been upfront with my friend, I walked through in my head how to go about this more delicately, so I wouldn’t reveal either my displeasure or my suspicions and not hurt any feelings.  In any case, what I came up with was so meek, hemmed-and-hawed, and qualified that all I yielded was a very terse response about how my friend praised me to the interviewing acquaintance.  Which is what I would’ve expected, although I hate to say that I thought it wasn’t the whole story and more must’ve gone on that just that.  I know there’s always a little give-and-take in these scenarios–I just wished it wasn’t my info being proffered and consumed in a chit-chat exchange for the benefit of others.

One Response to 'Even more awkward academia-related interactions'

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  1. doctoreclair said,

    “Escape hatch” — well put. The MLA needs to designate an escape hatch area at its annual conference: a quiet Zen place where talk is prohibited, and only anxious grad students and/or job candidates are admitted. I suppose most people will think of their escape hatch as their hotel room, but that leaves open the elevator incident reported in another post … and not everyone stays at their conference hotel or has a room to themselves.

    This space could also borrow the cute name of the relaxing waiting station for those who have just made it through the security check at the Milwaukee airport: the “Recombobulation Area.”

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