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Interviews You Don’t Want to Have #6: Dream School Turned Nightmare

Posted in First Person by Arnold Pan on January 4, 2011
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Happy New Year all!  I’ve been meaning to put a little closure on our Interviews You Don’t Want to Have series, but, as with all things academia-oriented, that’s probably never gonna happen.  But seeing as MLA is about to kick off — I think folks will be arriving in downtown L.A. for MLA by tomorrow — I guess it’s time to finish up recounting MLA war stories with my best/worst one.  The stakes with this one were high, or I at least thought so going into it, since it was for pretty much a dream situation: a tenure-track position that fit my interests to a T at a top, pretty-much-Ivy research institution in my favorite non-California city (hint: it’s not NYC or Boston).  So of course, I felt a lot of pressure going into the interview, rather than seeing it as an I’ve-got-nothing-to-lose scenario, since the candidates I’d be up against would be pretty stellar.  (More about that later.)


This is where my nightmare interview took place. "Hyatt Regency Chicago" by Atomic Taco (Creative Commons license)

After doing a pretty good job sequestering myself from the temptations of MLA gossip and catching up with old friends, I worked studiously to anticipate possible questions, prepared my sample syllabi, and learned the best walking route to the interviewing hotel in the snow and slush.  But unfortunately, I could tell you that all the prep and nervous energy would be for naught right from the first obnoxiously nitpicky question — and the interview only got worse and worse after that.  Here’s a recap, after the very brief, obligatorily flattering small talk:

Question 1: “Why do you use the word ‘demographies’ in the title?”

Response: The real, unspoken answer was simply that it sounded good!  Still, I was able to gain a little footing talking about race and space, which was the focus of my dissertation.  At least I could repurpose my diss spiel here.

Question 2: “If you are writing about demographies, which didn’t you use this other book by Author X instead of the one you did?”

Response: The real answer is that I read the one I worked on and I didn’t read the other one!  But I suppose you can’t show any ignorance in this situation, so I stammered out some summary of the chapter in question, which wasn’t so bad because I could recall my specific argument pretty well.  Still, no one could suggest that things were going well, when a “friendly” questioner was asking me why I used a specific word and why I didn’t focus on one text instead of another.  At this point, I felt like my whole 400-page diss had been discredited — or that maybe my questioner should’ve just written it for me.

I say that this questioner was friendly, because things only got more and more hostile, which you’ll see after the jump…

Question 3 (from a new interviewer): “You use this term — transnationalism — that I’m a specialist in (even though my research interests seem pretty narrow), so can you define it the way I want you to define it?”

Response: This is when things began to unravel, because I should’ve done (even) more homework on what my committee’s interests and perspectives were.  I gave some long-winded response covering different approaches to transnationalism that wasn’t specific enough or didn’t satisfy where he was coming from.  There was some follow-up question that I answered, but, at this point, I could almost see myself from outside my body squirming in my chair.

Question 4 (from another, even more cranky questioner): “You argue that race works this way in this book, but I don’t agree.  Can you explain why, even though there’s no way you’ll convince me?”

Response: I actually started with a good answer — or so I thought — by getting super-specific, describing a photograph and passage from the book in question.  I mean, you can’t get better than that, right?, showing total recall of a text, giving a plausible but unique reading, then tying it all back to the general argument of the diss as a whole.  Except, my interrogator refused — or acted like he refused — to give my analysis a chance.  At the end of a little back-and-forth — I was flustered obviously, but I held my ground since I had, you know, an actual text to work with here — he basically said he didn’t agree.

Question 5 (from Search Chair): “Tell us about your teaching, yada, yada, yada…”

Response: This was an easy question and I had my sample syllabi props to work with here.  But the combination of being told that I studied the wrong books, misdefined a key term, and was basically wrong about something I worked on for a long, long time made me think that there was not so much point going through with the charade.  Oh, plus, the fact that the Search Chair must’ve confused me with another candidate, since she asked me what it was like teaching at a different UC from UC Irvine.  So somewhere along the way, my mind went blank about my teaching, even though I had materials right in front of me.

Post-Interview: Right after the interview, I ran into an acquaintance in the lobby, with whom I compared some notes.  Mind you, this guy was pretty big-time at least compared to me, with a top job already and having probably published more than any single person who went to grad school at the same time I did.  Plus, he’s a nice guy.  Anyway, I told him about what happened at my interview, because you pretty much want to say something to someone to decompress.  It turned out that he had interviewed for the same job and that they gave him the same treatment, asking him why he hadn’t done certain things rather than focusing on the many, many, many things he had already accomplished.

Talking to the acquaintance made me feel better about the bad situation in a few ways.  First, I realized that the search committee was jerky to everyone and probably was testing to see how people reacted, though why the initiation ritual was necessary still eludes me.  Two, seeing the level of competition I was up against made me realize that I hadn’t flushed away my dream job, since I really had no chance at the position anyway.  After coming home, I poked around online after campus visit invites must’ve been extended and noticed that the school brought in my highly qualified friend, along with a bunch of Asst. Profs from excellent schools and some with books.  So in the end, I could tell myself that I hadn’t blown it, since I wouldn’t have hired me ahead of the rest of the field if I was on the search committee myself.  See how you can rationalize and what you can convince yourself of to keep on keeping on in academia!

Now that we’ve gotten the past out of the way, we’ll focus on the present and try to be productive about this week’s MLA, including a list of things to do in L.A. to get you out of your hotel room and the convention hall.

2 Responses to 'Interviews You Don’t Want to Have #6: Dream School Turned Nightmare'

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  1. Eliza said,

    It sucks when you prep for an interview and then walk in and find that the whole thing is out of your hands anyway. But it’s wise to just prepare as though the SC members are decent professionals and actually interested in you and your work.
    Of course, I have heard a number of horror stories about SCs who approach their role at the AHA or MLA solely as “bad cops,” geared up to challenge job candidates and stir things up. Why, though, would we even want to work with these people, other than pure desperation? I had a friend treated like crap by a SC then invited to campus. She was so surprised but while on campus the SC continued their bad cop treatment and she ended up being relieved that the job was offered to someone else.

  2. Your fave non-California city isn’t Boston?? [insert sad emoticon here]

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