Trusting the Amateurs

Job interviewers often avoid asking questions about candidates' areas of expertise out of fear of “discriminating.” What’s wrong with discrimination? asks Mikita Brottman.


June 22, 2009

When the Romantic poet William Blake wrote: “One Law for the Lion and the Ox is Oppression,” he was condemning standardization on the grounds that it ignores that most essential human quality: individuality. Blake’s maxim came to mind more than once when I was on the job market some years ago, facing yet another set of bland, generalized questions: Describe a class that went particularly well for you. Describe a class that caused you frustration, and explain how you overcame it. What experience do you have teaching graduate students? What makes you particularly suitable for this job?

According to a handout from my current employer’s human resources department, “using the same questions for all candidates, helps build a foundation upon which to compare the candidates’ answers, experience and communication styles; it also helps to avoid any claim of discrimination.” Standardized questions like these might be perfectly appropriate for many kinds of jobs, perhaps even many kinds of academic jobs, though the notion of avoiding discrimination in the hiring process has always confused me (isn’t the purpose of a hiring committee to discriminate between candidates?).

When it comes to the arts and humanities, however, it seems particularly obtuse not to permit questions about a candidate’s individual area of expertise simply because they may involve matters of national origin or socioeconomic status. Would it be inappropriate to ask such questions of the author of an intimate memoir, whose personal life is already in the public realm? When interviewing a working-class poet well known for his or her attacks on the bourgeoisie, should matters of “socioeconomic status” still be avoided? Does my authorship of this article count as a “personal” or “professional” activity? What about your reading of it?

The best interview I ever had at the Modern Language Association meeting was one in which the first question I was asked, by the chair of the department (while eating his dinner), was “Are cars gendered?” I was thrilled by the question, because it showed that not only had my interlocutor looked carefully over my resume, but he’d also engaged with the work I’d been doing (on cars, and car crashes) on a personal level. The other members of the committee had equally thoughtful questions, and inevitably, the discussion of my work led to a discussion of my life (I’d been in a car accident some years earlier). A number of questions were raised that, I now realize, contravened MLA guidelines (one of which is “do not conduct a major portion of the interview during a meal”). But it would have been absolutely impossible to separate such questions from the lively discussion that was soon underway.

Like many of my closest friends, I became an academic without really thinking about it. As a student, I immediately felt college was where I belonged, and I simply didn’t want to leave. I never considered whether I might be better suited to some other profession, nor did I ever think about things like job markets, pay scales, health insurance, or retirement benefits. Like many equally blinkered Ph.D. students, perhaps, I rarely thought of a future beyond the due-date stamp on my library books. This may seem naive in retrospect, but at the time, I didn’t believe myself to be preparing for a career so much as doing exactly what I wanted to do there and then. In other words, I am an amateur, in the original sense: one who does something out of love.

To the amateur, there are absolutely no boundaries between the life and the work. My closest personal relationships have always been with my colleagues, usually those in the same department. My students, both present and past, have also been my teachers, tenants, clients, dog sitters, and -- sometimes -- my closest friends. I teach because I want to learn more; my research always feeds into my course material, and vice versa. Imposing boundaries on this kind of life -- classifying some relationships as personal, and others professional, for example -- seems as impossible and futile a task as restricting what a poet can write about, or an artist paint.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that many -- perhaps even most -- who work in academia are not amateurs (at least, not in the sense I’m using the term), but professionals. Entering the academic world, for many people, is a well-planned career decision. To those who’ve taken a university appointment after many years practicing law, business or medicine, for example, teaching is, no doubt, a profession like other professions, and as such, subject to professional regulations and standards.

But higher education professionals must navigate a very careful path between the Scylla of academic privilege and the Charybdis of corporate standards. In order to thrive, the university must allow space for its amateurs. It must be flexible and creative enough to honor the amateur mind with all its eccentricity, its contradictions, its odd, fervid passions. While professional academics may be better dressed, more worldly and more charismatic, it’s the amateurs who “work” weekends and holidays, who pay their own way to attend expensive conferences, who spend their “personal” time with students, who stay up all night chasing down elusive footnotes, who would rather grade papers than go to the beach. (Well, almost rather).

The notion of “academic freedom” obviously does not preclude important constraints and regulations (indeed, universities are subject to a number of federal and state laws, as well as AAUP and CUPA guidelines). Nevertheless, it seems increasingly common for universities to cede influence to professional administrators who fear that the slightest deviation from the rules will lead to chaos and injustice. Terrified of possible litigation, university legislators often seem to feel that it is their job to see that every member of the faculty -- whether Ox or Lion -- comply with every single rule and regulation. This, as Blake explains, is oppression.

To keep the university active and vital, administrators must avoid standardization at all costs. Diversity should be welcomed -- not only racial and ethnic diversity, but diversity of course designs and syllabi, teaching models, personal relationships, politics, dress styles and office décor. Those who champion diversity, when confronted with a new idea, an innovative way of doing things, or a possible exception to the rule, do not say things like: “if you do it, everybody will want to,” “that will open up a big can of worms,” or “that’s not the way we do things round here.”

Universities should not be run by rule-mongers, but by professionals who understand the importance of the amateur. Since the academic hiring process is already lengthy and protracted, it should not be difficult for hiring committees to be very careful in their selections, and hire amateurs whenever possible. Why? Because amateurs can be trusted to do what they do best because they do it all the time anyway. With a faculty of amateurs, there should be no concerns about academic integrity.

In his poem “The Choice,” W.B. Yeats lamented that “the intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work.” To the amateur, the choice is redundant. They’re both the same thing.



Mikita Brottman is chair of the humanities program at Pacifica Graduate Institute.


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