MLA Interview: The Big Picture
Here’s a typical Modern Language Association (hotel-room) convention interview story:
Because you have timed your interviews at least half an hour apart (but an hour is better), you arrive at the next interview hotel with a good 10-15 minutes to spare (i.e., not sweaty). You enter the hotel lobby and there are 200 other suited individuals looking just as nervous as you feel. You, however, appear calm and cool because you’ve done your homework on the college you are about to interview with, know that your outfit is clean, have your dissertation explanation down to two minutes, and have at least two questions ready to ask the committee. You also have on hand extra copies of syllabuses, research agendas, and teaching philosophies in case the committee will welcome additional materials at the end of the interview. Plus, you remembered to double-check the hotel and time of the interview, so you’re set. Feel free to make small talk with other lobby-sitters. Or go to the restroom.
At five minutes before your interview time (no more, no less!), if the interviewers have told you to call them to find out the room number, go to the nearest house phone and ask for the person designated as contact for the room. Ideally, they will have given you the room number in a confirmation email. If the lobby phones are swamped, most hotels have house phones on the second floors, and some have phones on all floors. Go ahead up the stairs to the second floor and call. Write the room number down, then proceed to the elevator to go to the floor. Make sure you have left yourself plenty of time to wait for a busy elevator, as MLA elevators are infamously slow. At some hotels, you will also literally fight for space in the elevator along with 20 other nervous interviewees. You, however, are not showing your nerves because you know what to expect!
When you reach the door of the interview room, check the time. If you’re early by a few minutes, it’s best to wait until one to two minutes before the hour, then knock. The reason? They may be running late interviewing another candidate, and you wouldn’t want some other interviewee interrupting YOUR precious interview time twice – remember that there was already the in-room phone call -- by knocking too early. But don’t linger. Review your interview notes about the college, which you’ve looked up online and printed out or downloaded to your e-device before you left town. Have your post-interview questions ready. And remember it’s likely that when that door opens, it may be to let out another interviewee for the same (or, also likely, a different) job. Don’t stress it. You look mah-velous!
When they’re ready, they’ll invite you inside, maybe take your coat to hang (yes, please), maybe offer you coffee/water (sure, if you don’t have some of your own with you, but it’s also O.K. to decline), shake your hand with brief introductions, and invite you to sit.
At this point, there are rumors of MLA hotel-room interviews that need to be addressed. It is the setting that distinguishes MLA hotel-room interviews from MLA job barn, phone, or Skype interviews. Each have their benefits and drawbacks, and one major drawback in hotel-room interviews is that you’re in a hotel room. This can be awkward, not the least of which because the size of the department’s budget often determines the size of the room you’re interviewing in. And it has been said that sometimes candidates end up sitting on hotel beds during their interviews. Awk. Ward. Thankfully, we’ve heard of this happening less and less over the last decade, as departments strive to show their professionalism.
But there are still pitfalls of the hotel-room interview seating arrangement, including being seated in a prime, cushy chair that overlooks the beautiful view from the 14th-floor suite, only to realize that the committee is sitting in front of the window and you’re staring into the noonday sun and can only see their silhouettes. Or there’s a lamp in the line of sight to someone’s head. Or the graduate student on the committee was asked to sit slightly behind you. We’ve experienced/heard all of these scenarios, unfortunately. Do not hesitate to put yourself into a position of strength in the interview by adjusting your seating position, slightly (!) moving the chair, or asking for the curtains to be partially closed (and explain that the sun is in your eyes). Then the interview will commence, and you’ll be feeling more confident from the start.
Although it’s O.K. in some fields to have notes, sometimes they prove more cumbersome than they’re worth and you probably won’t have time to refer to them. Know what you’re going to say before you go in. There are some set questions (which we'll discuss in a subsequent essay) you’ll receive at every interview. Know your answers by heart and have them practiced, but deliver them with ease. You know your stuff! At the end of the 20-40 minute interview, they’ll ask if you have questions.
It’s likely you won’t be able to take notes then, unless you’re really good at listening intently while writing. Make eye contact instead and you’ll better remember what they said. If one of them has stopped to answer the phone, pause and keep going. After they have answered your questions, you can make the decision about whether you would like to offer to leave copies of syllabuses or other materials you have brought with you to wow them during their final deliberations (that were not in your mailed application packet). Often, a committee will have asked you a question – such as how you would teach a grad course on Y – and you happen to have a syllabus for just that. Perhaps you were even quick enough to reveal your brilliant syllabus at the moment of that question. If not, you can wait until the end. Do ensure that the syllabuses, assignment prompts, or other materials are directly relevant for that institution. They will be impressed if you created a syllabus for one of their catalog courses that they would potentially like you to teach.
When the interview finishes (and don’t just ask questions to ask questions — two or three is plenty, unless you feel the situation warrants more), they will thank you and you will thank them. Shake everyone’s hand, if it’s appropriate, and leave. Do not elbow the next person waiting for an interview. You are better than that.
Go down the hall to the elevator (out of eye- and ear-shot), or go to the hotel lobby/bar and jot down your reactions to the interview (both personal and professional) as well as any particular questions they asked you about classes or research so that you can follow up when you get asked back for an on-campus interview. If they asked how you can teach X class and you did not have a syllabus with you, remember to create one and take it with you to the on-campus interview. Also jot down your gut reactions to the interview. Was it invigorating? Bristly? Fun? Did you sense tension of some kind? Remember that these are the people you may end up working with, and these informal notes will go a long way toward helping you decide the institutions from which you want to accept or politely decline on-campus interviews (if you’re in the position to turn down interviews — and as rock stars, I expect you might be!).
Make sure to use the restroom, drink water, and eat something, and then head out to your next interview. Remember that it’s two miles away and you have scheduled 30-45 minutes to get there. Walk quickly or taxi it. Then repeat.
Cheryl E. Ball is associate professor of new media studies at Illinois State University and editor of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy.
Katherine Ellison is associate professor of 18th-century literature and culture at Illinois State University and co-editor of Digital Defoe: Studies in Defoe & His Contemporaries.
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- The Interview -- Readiness Is All
- Essay on all kinds of interviews for academic job candidates
- Interview Season
- Historians bar hiring committees from recording candidates during AHA meeting
- The Interview -- Enter Stage Right
- Tweetup at the MLA
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Assistant Professor, English (Pre-1900 American Literature, with specialization in African American literature)