The Natural -- and Desirable -- Death of the Conference Interview

It preys upon the most vulnerable members of the scholarly community and is unhealthy for the departments that demand it, argues Matteo Pangallo.

April 2, 2019
 
 
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As I walked out of the hotel room after one of my job interviews at the Modern Language Association conference, I tried to steal the chair in which I had been sitting.

It was a gag, of course. When I had first walked in, the search committee members introduced themselves and then pointed at the empty chair awaiting me and said, “And that’s yours.” One of the members quickly explained, “Not yours to keep, of course! We do have other candidates after you, and they’ll need it.” Fortunately, the committee had a sense of humor and laughed when I started to wheel the chair out the door.

I took a risk, trying to inject a little levity into the rigid ritual that is the conference interview. But after investing several years of my life and thousands of dollars (mostly on credit cards that I would be paying off for years yet to come) in the job search, I felt I had at least earned a laugh. Certainly, after going through the conference interview process so many times, I felt like I was in a farce anyway. Several years earlier, during my early days in graduate school, I watched a friend fly from Boston to Los Angeles to interview for a job at a college located literally across the street from where he lived.

Originally devised as a way to end the inherently unfair and often misogynistic and racist systems of personal favors once used to place graduates into academic positions, the conference interview itself is now inherently unfair. It preys upon the most vulnerable members of the scholarly community and, in doing so, perpetuates a system that rewards those who have financial means or are willing to undermine their financial health for years to come. The pay-to-play requirement that candidates spend thousands of dollars -- money that most graduate students and adjunct faculty don’t have -- to be considered for a position is unethical and an embarrassment to our profession.

And, I would argue, the conference interview is unhealthy for the disciplines that rely upon it and the departments that demand it. Ask any human resources professional, and they will tell you that one of the worst decisions an employer can make when hiring is to impose restrictions that are irrelevant to the position and that thus arbitrarily filter out candidates who might in fact be excellent fits. When a committee interviews at a conference, they are not interviewing the best candidates for the job -- they are interviewing the best candidates who could afford to interview for the job. Those are not the same populations. And by virtue of the fact that interviewees are being sorted by financial means, they are not a population that is representative of the scholars whom academe must support if it is to thrive or the students whom it seeks to serve.

The conference interview costs candidates money they cannot afford. It costs departments money they cannot afford. And in exchange for those doubly debilitating costs, all the conference interview ends up doing is inserting candidates and committee members into awkward performative dances, in which they often wear utterly uninformative masks -- all staged in the stunningly inappropriate venue of a hotel room, with candidates often sitting on a bed while strangers gaze at them.

For all of those reasons, calls for disciplinary and accrediting associations to end the conference interview have justifiably grown in the past 10 years. But the moment has come, at last, when the need for such organizations to take action may no longer even be necessary. Now that the quality and low costs of technology have made alternatives reasonable -- and departmental economics, particularly in the humanities, have made those alternatives desirable -- a new, more equitable and far more productive reality is finally overtaking the vestiges of the anachronistic and burdensome system of the conference interview.

In my field of early modern literature, something tremendous happened in the fall of 2015: for the first time, more initial job interviews were conducted virtually than at the MLA conference. In 2014, six searches interviewed virtually and 22 at MLA. But in 2015, 17 searches used virtual interviews and 15 interviewed at MLA, according to my calculations, based on the candidate-reported statistics appearing on the academic jobs wiki for literature. Since that turning point, the gap has grown even larger. Last year, it was 12 to four. In the fall of 2018, 18 searches conducted their initial interviews virtually. Only two held interviews at MLA.

When the numbers reach this point, the inherent unfairness of the conference interview becomes particularly profound, not to mention absurd: How many candidates will choose to spend thousands of dollars to travel across the country to interview for a single job? What is the likelihood that those candidates will be representative of the demographics of all candidates or, indeed, of the pool of best candidates? What industries that claim to have any kind of moral core, let alone a progressive vision for inclusiveness or a desire to advance the field of their profession, would expect them to? The answers to those questions, of course, are: very few, virtually none and none at all.

I like to joke that my decision to abscond with that hotel chair paid off: not only did I get a laugh from the committee, but I also got a campus interview and, ultimately, a job. Of course, it was not my stunt that earned me the job; similarly, it was not my decision to interview in person that earned me the job. That same university had offered candidates the opportunity to interview by Skype, and I believe I would have still ended up with the job offer had I taken that option. The only reason I did not take that option was because I had other interviews at MLA already.

But if I were a candidate this year, with only one other interview at the conference and the rest all virtual, it would be financially reckless and irresponsible to take the gamble of interviewing at MLA (even if it came with the chance to get a quick laugh from the search committee through a little physical comedy). And, for the same reasons, it would be fundamentally unethical of a potential employer to require such financial recklessness from a candidate.

The time has come for the conference interview to go the way of the other archaic and inequitable modes by which existing elites perpetuate and protect their privilege in academe. As it turns out, the ubiquity and affordability of suitable technological alternatives means its welcome demise is already inevitable. And both academe and the individuals who compose it, now and in the future, are better off for that.

Bio

Matteo Pangallo is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and a former junior fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He is the author of Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare’s Theater and co-editor of a forthcoming essay collection from Routledge on Shakespeare’s audiences.

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