Hard Choices

No interviews at the MLA? It's a tough decision on whether to go, but if you do, you can make the meeting valuable, writes Teresa Mangum.

December 23, 2009

About now, community theaters everywhere are staging stripped down, brightened up versions of A Christmas Carol. Anyone who has read Dickens’ original story knows that Scrooge’s spiritual rejuvenation is but a small part of a grim spectacle of poverty, starvation, greed, and injustice. The most frightening of all is the ghost who points inexorably into the future. I suspect I’m not the only one who felt that spectral presence this week when the Modern Language Association confirmed what most humanities scholars had feared. In literature and language fields, hiring has plummeted.

No one will hear this news with greater dismay than job candidates who are anxiously waiting by the phone. Actually, those of you looking for a position may not be surprised. You’ve probably been nervously reading the online sites where candidates post reports from the search front detailing who is hearing what from which hiring committees. This year most colleges and universities are reeling from budget cuts. More than ever, excellent candidates are not being contacted by departments who would be delighted to hire them.

Hard times demand hard choices. What should you do if you have purchased your plane ticket and reserved your hotel room, but you don’t have an interview?

If you’re holding out hope that you might get a last minute call at the conference, disabuse yourself of that notion before you decide what to do. Denial and delusion haunt our profession. Lay those ghosts to rest so that you can think clearly as you assess your options.

Let’s face it. The most obvious option is to stay at home. Losing $150 for a canceled airline ticket is far less costly than attending the conference. The psychological cost of attending the conference without interviews can also take a heavy toll.

On the other hand, if you do want to attend the conference (and, I can’t help but add, if you can afford to do so), the MLA, like many professional organizations, has a great deal to offer. If you feel that you can shift your focus from what you currently lack to what you might gain, how can you make the most of the conference experience?

For starters, the MLA offers services and sessions specifically for job seekers that can be very useful in the long run. On December 27, before the official opening of the conference, you can attend a "Preconvention Workshop for Job Seekers." The MLA hosts demonstration interviews. You can also sign up for a short session with an individual faculty member (including me) if you would like advice about your application materials and more. The Associated Departments of English (ADE), a part of the MLA, will also host conference sessions on the job market, including a session on nonacademic careers for humanists.

Graduate students have their own MLA organizations. The MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession plans several sessions throughout the conference that focus on issues of particular concern to students. The Graduate Student Caucus will host a social event, among other activities.

The conference offers varied and distinctive types of events. Knowing what to expect can help you structure a genuinely useful experience. You can attend forums (often with linked sessions), division meetings, discussion groups, panels hosted by allied and affiliated organizations, and “special sessions” proposed by individuals. The Presidential Forum is a huge gathering while special sessions are often quite small. You might attend a session in which panelists run over their time limits, leaving no time for general conversation, while in roundtable discussions audience members are expected to play a lively part.

Panels that feature well-known scholars are likely to be packed and can be exciting, but they are rarely the best venues for connecting with other scholars. The more tightly focused sessions offer excellent opportunities to meet both senior colleagues in your field and like-minded graduate students. As you map out your conference plans, look for the established "division" sessions in your field, but also note special sessions that hone in specifically on topics that interest you. The large sessions at major conferences can feel almost conversationally competitive as people angle to catch the moderator’s eye in order to ask a challenging question. But at the more intimate sessions for specialists, you often find that speakers are delighted to have an informed, engaged audience.

In my case, I try to get to the 19th-century British literature sessions and those organized by the Dickens Society and the Dickens Project. In just a few days, I get a detailed picture of work-in-progress in one of my research areas. I learn a great deal not only about the scholarship of individuals but also about emerging issues and approaches, new theoretical perspectives, recently tapped archives, digital projects, and more.

Large conferences can feel absolutely alienating, especially for first-time attendees. However, with a little effort on your part you actually can meet people. Over the course of a single conference, I’m likely to encounter a number of the same faces when I attend several sessions linked by a field or topic. I don’t think anyone is likely to be “discovered” as a star candidate through networking, but meeting people who share your interests can be a genuine pleasure. In addition, many of us have ended up co-organizing a conference session or being invited to submit an article for consideration as a result of an informal conversation at a conference. Especially at smaller sessions, you can connect with others in attendance by asking a smart question or making a helpful recommendation, chatting with the people sitting next to you as you wait for the session to begin, or expressing your interest in the ideas raised by a panel member after a session ends.

A number of the interest groups that plan sessions also hold social events. You can find out about these events in several ways. Cash bars are often noted in the program. When you join the MLA, you can indicate several divisions or groups with which you would like to be affiliated. Those groups post notices on the MLA Web site about special sessions and events. Occasionally, a group will simply announce at their session that members are meeting for drinks later and invite those in the audience to join them. Grab a friend and go. I know: this can be flat-out scary. My own approach is to find another person who looks as nervous as I feel and to introduce myself. Either you’ll meet an interesting person or you can politely move along.

If you’re on the job market, the simple act of introducing yourself to a stranger, asking about her or his work, and saying a bit about your own research -- without launching into Too Much Information about your worries, lack of interviews, etc. -- is an important accomplishment.

Finally, the book exhibit offers a crash course on what’s happening in your field, which presses publish which kinds of books, and what new "inter-disciplines" are emerging. Editors are often busy chatting with scholars with whom they have appointments, but when they have free time, most are happy to chat with you. These conversations offer a vitally important chance to sharpen your ability to describe your project deftly, concisely, and persuasively. You’re likely to get a few useful words of advice; you may interest an editor in reading your book proposal after the convention.

All of which is to suggest that if you decide that you can handle the emotional and financial costs of attending the MLA without an interview, make that investment pay with interest. Take full advantage of every single opportunity the conference has to offer.

The stars everyone remembers from Dickens’ Carol are Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and the chorus of ghosts, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Bob Cratchit. Laboring away at his desk, he produces volumes. He’s poor; he’s cold; he’s long-suffering; he’s kind. He is perpetually hopeful. Even though we’re so preoccupied with Scrooge that many versions of the play bear his name as their title, Bob’s quiet, undramatic hard work and tenacity pay off in the end. We cannot and should not deny the grim statistics to which the ghost of academe’s (immediate) future is pointing, and like Scrooge, you might decide it’s time for a drastic change. If, however, you decide to go ahead and attend the conference -- as a scholar instead of a job seeker -- I hope Bob’s spirit will lighten your way this time around.


Teresa Mangum will provide in-person advice for MLA job hunters on Monday from 11:30-1:30 at the Inside Higher Ed booth (#311) in the exhibit hall. You can find an archive of her advice columns, including recommendations on interview prep, here. And another job advice columnist, Sabine Hikel, a Ph.D. who advises academics on how to find non-academic careers, will be there from 2 to 6. An archive of her work may be found here.


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