Go to the Modern Language Association’s annual convention for the right reasons.
Attend sessions where you can hear the latest research in your field and in some other fields, too. Meet up with friends from back in graduate school and hang out at your alma mater’s cash bar. If you’re still in graduate school, meet people from other programs and talk to folks about their jobs. Listen to a great writer read her work. Check out a plenary session on a topic you love or one you know nothing about. Learn something new about teaching, mentoring, hiring a department chair or writing grant proposals.
But for the love of all that’s good and holy, please stop going to the MLA convention to conduct first-round job interviews.
Stop making job candidates pay their own way to conventions so you can spend three days locked up with two of your favorite colleagues and a procession of nervous graduate students.
Believe it or not, there was a time, in the memory of faculty members teaching today, before the MLA convention included job interviews. The MLA interview arose as a way to combat inequitable hiring practices. In the days before convention interviews, it was often the case that one’s director called someone on another campus to say, “I’ve got a student working on Cervantes who’d be a great fit in your department.” Fewer people were getting Ph.D.s then, and the doctoral student population was a lot more homogeneous. Even so, some had calls made for them, and others didn’t. The convention interview was an attempt, as the MLA’s former executive director Rosemary Feal pointed out, “to level the playing field and professionalize the job search.”
With so many more protections in place in employment law these days, the MLA can move -- and is moving -- its focus from hosting interviews to improving hiring in other ways, such as promoting equitable standards for remote interviews.
Arguments for the MLA interview abound, of course. Here are some I’ve heard and why I disagree with them:
- It’s more personal. It hardly needs mentioning in the age of #MeToo that “more personal” can lead to big problems. Exactly what kind of personal interaction do you need that you cannot get simply through hearing a candidate answer questions about the job?
- It allows you to get a better sense of the candidate. The better sense of the candidate you can get at a convention interview is pretty much confined to a better sense of the shade of the candidate’s socks or the sweatiness of the handshake; the convention interview is as artificial or as genuine as the video interview.
- It allows the department to make a better impression. This one aggravates me the most. All it adds up to is that departments that can afford to interview in suites and send teams of interviewers might like to preserve their advantage over departments that cannot afford to.
If doctoral institutions supported their advanced students to attend the MLA convention, of course, some of this would not be a problem. But other issues would still remain. The impression promulgated in many graduate departments that placement in community colleges or other teaching-intensive colleges and universities is a failure for the doctoral department (and the candidate) is reinforced by the fact that departments that interview at the MLA convention are the more moneyed departments -- and the ones that have a lower teaching load. Of course those jobs are great, and I don’t begrudge anyone in language and literature the chance to interview for one. But is the profession emphasizing, and perhaps even promoting, the status hierarchy among departments by creating the impression that the jobs for which one interviews at the convention are the only good jobs?
When I ran the annual Teaching at Teaching-Intensive Institutions event in New England, which connected doctoral students to faculty members and administrators from institutions with four- and five-course-per-semester teaching loads, I heard over and over that doctoral students who preferred the idea of a teaching-focused position to that of a research-focused one felt that they had to hide their preferences from their departments.
We at the MLA hear similar stories from graduate students who love their doctoral work but prefer the idea of a nonfaculty career. Their doctoral departments often see their jobs in academic advising, faculty development, publishing, philanthropy and other fields as failures. I’m not talking here about folks who sought a tenure line and then gave up the quest -- the writers of the many “quit-lit” pieces we’ve seen in the last few years. I’m talking about doctoral students who want jobs that their Ph.D. programs see as inferior or don’t see at all.
Job interviews at the MLA annual convention contribute to a system that leads to the impoverishment of graduate students and to hierarchies that mean those students continue to be trained for jobs that only a tiny percentage of them will ever get. It’s time to rethink more than MLA interviews, though. Why do hiring departments seek candidates with the best publication records, even at teaching-focused colleges? Why don’t departments keep statistics about how many of their Ph.D.s get jobs, and where? How many departments prepare their doctoral students for a range of different teaching jobs, as well as a variety of positions that make use of their humanities education?
In communications with search chairs, we are actively discouraging interviews in hotel rooms and encouraging remote interviewing. That does not mean that the MLA is abandoning the convention’s raison d’être. The convention existed before the MLA interview and will continue after it. For the last few years, we’ve been including more professional development sessions for job seekers as well as midcareer professionals, we’ve added opportunities for advocacy and we’ve especially worked to try to make the convention more valuable for contingent faculty members, graduate students, faculty members from community colleges and others who may not have recognized a place for themselves at the convention in the past.
We don’t want to disassociate ourselves from the responsibility for the way hiring is done in the fields our members represent. We are a scholarly and professional association, and we should be establishing standards and guidelines -- as we have for employment practices for contingent faculty as well as for interviewers and interviewees.
The convention is always a site of intellectual and, of course, political vitality, and we are happy to be expanding the ways it can work for members. We are happy for the convention to be a venue for sharing scholarship, exercising governance and growing professionally. But boy, would we be happy if it were no longer associated with all of your horrible memories of first-round job interviews.