Being Un-American on the Job Market

When search committees promote a one-size-fits-all model of successful job interviewees, they erase or undervalue rich professional experiences, argues Ligia Mihut.

June 30, 2016

“Think American.” It still resonates with me -- that piece of advice that I received when I, like many other graduate students, was on the academic job market. I am not American. And I most definitely could not think American.

“Think American” came to mind early this year when I saw this shared item on Facebook: “Thousands of Scholars to Descend on Austin for MLA Convention.” A brief news article distributed through social media announced the arrival of many candidates at the Modern Language Association conference some months ago. The Facebook message was filled with anticipation -- the fact that a composition and rhetoric graduate student goes to the MLA convention already signals some success on the market -- as well as unexpressed apprehension and a range of emotions in between.

I had experienced such uneasiness at a series of job interviews at the 2014 MLA convention. Its deep and far-reaching grip remained with me for long months. After those interviews, I questioned everything that I thought I knew about myself, my scholarship, and my personal and professional qualifications. As we know, our reactions under pressure can be completely different once we have achieved some distance from a particular event. I have allowed those overpowering emotions and reactions to subside. Now, more than two years later, I can reflect on my experience and see clearly that the problem I have with the job market is, in a nutshell, the market emphasis and the assumption that we can all be reduced to an exchange value: our diplomas, our experiences and our professional goals.

“Think American.” That piece of advice came from one of my mentors. She is quite globally oriented in practice and theory. She probably offered it to me in exasperation with my nonmarket, un-American, deep yet hidden confidence in my abilities and, at times, socially reserved self.

A brief note on the latter: as an international scholar, I grappled with projecting a public persona that risked conveying a false expression of sociability. In fact, I aimed to preserve a sense of dignity -- perhaps falsely understood -- which, to me, meant not marketing myself in exchange for something, even if that meant a job. Rather, I wanted to build common ground and develop a genuine interest in my interlocutors because I valued them. In my interactions, I sought to engage authentically with search committee members, graduate students and faculty members from various institutions across the country.

For that reason, at times during the interviews, I might have seemed reserved and thereby un-American in my public performance. I was too conscious of the fact that social interactions were orchestrated to project a certain self in exchange for something, and that marketization of sociability unsettled me.

On the highly acclaimed blog “The Professor Is In,” Dr. Karen, as she calls herself, offers similar advice to those candidates who have experienced some type of international training. She commented in a blog entry that some of those candidates who obtained their Ph.D.s in Great Britain, Australia or New Zealand are simply “boring.” Dr. Karen continues, “Seriously, you’re killing us over here. Why are you so boring? Is that how you have to be in England, to be an academic?”

To be fair, Dr. Karen continues to address specific writing issues, such as the use of passive voice, abundance of qualifications without rhetorical effect and so on. But the general refrain is that internationally trained candidates are basically boring to an American academic market. This type of writing is “un-American.” Based on the three points of advice she carefully listed to grab the American eye (avoid passive voice, being boring and sounding pretentious), acting and writing American means you must project a confident and dynamic identity demonstrating adequate expertise yet a modest attitude.

However, wouldn’t this type of advice lead to everyone sounding equally qualified, modest and confident? Wouldn’t this all lead to sounding boring?

Such an approach is boring in that it encourages uniformity of performance and expectations. It is boring in its assumptions that the market is driven by values of confident and dynamic personalities. How can everyone be equally confident when our personal and professional experiences are varied and complex? What if our individual voice has been suppressed and can only be an expression of a particular socioeconomic, and perhaps racially or ethnically marginalized, group? How can one evaluate another’s expertise if professional and scholarly experiences outside the context of the United States are either unknown or unrecognized by an American academic audience?

Fitting Within a Silo

As you probably have guessed by now, in asking these questions, boredom is the least of my concerns. My preoccupation is the marketization of one type of individual and professional identity, especially when global citizenship, diversity and language/cultural pluralism are core commitments of most public and private institutions. I am deeply concerned for those people whose disabilities of various forms -- mental, physical or emotional -- can impact not only their level of confidence but also their ways of socializing and projecting the required “dynamic” personality.

The summer when I was preparing my job materials, a tragedy hit my family. In September, things erupted to the point that I considered taking a trip back to my home country, Romania, just to alleviate some of the emotional turmoil that we as family had to face. In fact, it was the only time in 10 years of being in America that my family asked me to visit even for two weeks. But a two-week trip in the month of September, when most job materials are finalized and deadlines are pressing, would have been a serious setback in the application process. Also, two weeks were insignificant for dealing with trauma that required long-term care and recovery. While I managed to prepare job-related documents and send out applications during those months of turmoil, my phone’s ringing did not stir emotions about potential job interviews. My phone, day and night, was on so that we as a family could survive the tragedy.

Such a debilitating experience had lasting effects. The short-term ones included unpredictable sleep patterns, anxiety, double time investment and emotional exhaustion over even simple tasks, inability to focus, memory loss. While I do not claim to understand the impact that other types of trauma or disabilities can have on a person, I am convinced that one’s level of confidence is expressed in various forms rather than always through an all-powerful, thoroughly assured demeanor of “I have this under control.”

By promoting one-size-fits-all models of job candidates and interviewees, search committees erase or undervalue rich professional experiences. While interviewers can legitimately expect candidates to know the academic conventions at an American institution of higher learning, it is rather disappointing to frequently sense from them that all other non-American experiences are deemed as less worthy. Having obtained my bachelor’s degree in Romania, and as a Romanian citizen, I have found that the marginalized status of Eastern Europeans is embedded in my identity. Socioeconomically we do not belong on the American market because we are not part of the wealthy international crop that can benefit the United States economy.

By extension, and at the risk of making a crude generalization, while minority scholars have contributed to the diversity of their institutions, their contribution are often channeled to particular areas. For instance, the Latino/a must help recruit Latinos and strengthen their presence on a campus; the Haitians must ensure that their ethnic group is well represented, and so on. Thus, each minority group is expected to fit within a silo with little consideration for their potential impact on a college or university’s larger structures and practices.

Needed: More International Interviewers

In “Being Foreign on the U.S. Academic Market,” New Zealander Christopher Garland explained his strategy on the job market: turn your foreignness into an asset. While I value that perspective, his proposal is rather limited in my view. It is still a unidirectional model in which the alien must adapt to the American academic model.

From my limited experience on the job market, I learned that international scholars who interview prospective faculty members can contribute tremendously through a more dynamic exchange of opinions and experiences. I found that those who were included on search committees offered their distinct perspectives and added complexity to our interactions. For instance, they asked questions about global issues. They held views that were related to their institutions but situated them in larger socioeconomic and political contexts.

They were also highly personable. Originally from Spain, Laura Alonso-Gallo, the chair of my current department, made a personal effort to pronounce my name correctly and to connect it to various literary works with which she was familiar (E. A. Poe’s Lygeia and Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz). She also explicitly acknowledged the value of my Romanian degree and the academic training I acquired prior to my American education.

At a different college, the international scholar on the search committee went off the script (or so it seemed) and asked a genuine question about a marginalized group in Romania. I loved that interaction. It gave me the chance to breathe as well as to show that I was a genuine person, that I could offer unscripted answers to questions that were not listed in my job market preparation guide. Those were moments of relaxation and laughter, so rare on a scripted market.

Despite all its limitations and pressures, the job search turned out well for me. I secured a position at an amazing institution that values and professes language pluralism, which is one of my focal areas of research and teaching. I managed to develop genuine relationships with former committee members, faculty members and graduate students at colleges and universities from which I did not receive an offer. We connected via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. We like each other. Genuinely.

To me, that in itself is success. I trumped the job market and forged authentic connections. However, this market has damaging effects on everyone involved, especially because it promotes a fabricated sense of “American” self-confidence and rigid forms of expression to the detriment of marginalized members of our academic community.

Rather than a market, I propose the term plaza. Certainly, some form of exchange happens in a public plaza, yet the focus shifts from selling and buying to being, communicating and connecting with people and academic scholarship. The plaza does not necessarily mean more inclusivity unless we work hard at achieving it, but it will at least help redirect the economic marketization of the self to a location where scholarly interactions can thrive.

A final note to higher education institutions, departments and search committees: allow for moments of real interaction between you and an international candidate -- or any candidate for that matter -- whom you are interviewing. Allow for flexibility and change, and seek to create a real plaza rather than a market. We international scholars may be un-American and boring, but when you demonstrate a genuine interest to connect with us, we can bring transformative experiences and values that outweigh the risks.


Ligia Mihut is an assistant professor of English at Barry University in Miami.


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