MLA Conference, December 2000: The Interviews & the Outcome

My first trip through the academic job market was a story with a happy ending, as long as I don’t think past the actual signing of my first tenure-track contract.  Even a slightly wider view destroys the whole fairy tale…

As I noted in my previous post, I applied for too many jobs and took too many face-to-face interviews.  This was the result of all that poor planning, planning driven by paranoia and terror of unemployment:


The schedule I set for myself at MLA was manageable, but just barely, and I set a new programmatic level at The University of Arizona:  twenty-one interviews.  The previous record for MLA interviews was eighteen.  My wife and I flew into Washington DC on Christmas morning, spent the 26th locating the conference hotels and likely eateries, and resenting the fact that we were away from home during the holiday season.  (This resentment towards MLA has never completely gone away, actually.)  On the morning of December 27, 2000, my interviews began.

I took a cab to my first interview and learned that the committee from Eastern New Mexico University had never arrived.  I sat in the lobby and, with my cellular phone, checked my email—where a message from the previous evening informed me that the weather had caused the flight from New Mexico to be canceled.  Ultimately, Beaver College would also cancel our interview because of the weather.  This was the less-than-auspicious beginning to my MLA marathon.  All of this was unavoidable, the fault of the weather and not the committee members, but it did nothing but add to my stress.

            Before the conference, I made a one-page cheat sheet for each interview on which I listed the size of each school, key faculty, the highest degree offered in the English department, courses I could immediately teach, etc.  These notes kept me focused, and I only made one mistake that my notes should have helped me avoid—I talked about how I would teach graduate-level classes during an interview with a small school offering only a BA.  A small mistake, undoubtedly, but I never received a campus interview with that particular school, either.

            I felt prepared for my interviews, partly because of the mock interviews I had taken part in prior to the conference.  I had copies of my then-recent article on portfolio assessment and my teaching portfolio ready for each interview.  I could, depending on the situation, give either a thirty-second, three-minute, or five-minute summary of my dissertation.  I could list future projects—both those already begun and those that I was simply imagining.  I had descriptions ready for a dozen different courses I could teach.  I even had an ace up my sleeve:  a CD I had burned which contained all of the completed chapters of my dissertation, sample articles I had written, the text of several conference presentations, and student work from business and technical writing courses (all shared with permission and without any names or identifiable markers).  I saved this disc as my parting gift for those programs which emphasized technology and computer literacy.

            This disc was, in retrospect, part of a mistake that extended to my summary of my research and dissertation topic.  The disc was a new idea, something never before experienced by any of the search committees (they all made a point of saying this when I presented the CD to them).  The interdisciplinary nature of my research—involving, primarily, work in media studies—was also a problem.  Most of the theorists I mentioned were unknown to folks in rhetoric and composition, and some of the more traditional faculty clearly had difficulty understanding what exactly I was researching and, as one committee member asked, what my work had to do with either rhetoric or composition.  I needed, I think, to talk about my work with computers and my work on visual media in very traditional, discipline-based terms.  I did not do this, and I think it cost me.

            The other problem I had concerned articulating my philosophy of writing program administration.  This was a problem not because I did not have such a philosophy but because the question only seemed to come up in interviews where it was unexpected.  A number of schools—perhaps eight—emphasized teaching and scholarship in their job ads.  In the interviews they emphasized writing program administration.  The ads had sought a new colleague, but the interviews were for a new composition director, and this disparity was difficult to reconcile.

            The physical toll these interviews took on me was immense.  Midway through the second day, my voice noticeably deteriorated.  This was due, in part, to a strange pattern I experienced:  Of the nineteen interviews I did (since two were cancelled by the weather), I was offered something to drink at only five or six.  I certainly couldn’t chew gum, and I rarely had enough time to acquire a beverage beforehand.  So my voice went faster than expected, and my mind followed soon after.

            The mental aspect of MLA fatigue was of great concern to me.  I didn’t want to sound like I was reading from cue cards, so I resisted developing pat answers to standard questions.  Still, I often found myself wondering, as I spoke, if I was repeating myself—or, later, if I was even answering the question that had been asked.  I forgot the names of committee members as soon as they were given.  During my interview with Gonzaga University, I finally had to ask the interviewer what the name of the novel is wherein the family of Okies travels west to California during the Great Depression.  I had been describing my idea about organizing a literature class around this novel rather than an anthology for five minutes as my mind frantically worked to find the name of either the book itself or at least the author.  I knew there was a “Gr” at the beginning, but my mind kept tossing out Great Expectations, and I knew that wasn’t right. 

It was Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

            My wife kept me sane during all of this.  She kept me fed and reminded me to take my vitamins.  She stood in line at various booths in order to locate my upcoming interviews.  She kept my cell phone charged so I could call for specific room numbers—and even programmed the phone numbers for each conference hotel into the cell’s memory.

            In the end, we were in DC from X-mas morning until January 1, 2001.  We spent roughly $700 on our plane tickets and more than that for our room (which we shared for several nights with a fellow job-seeker).  With the pre-MLA costs, we spent roughly $2000 on the job search between September and December of 2000.  Probably a good deal more…but I didn’t keep records and receipts nearly as well as I should have.


*          *          *


            I left the MLA Conference with the promise of one campus visit—to a research one university in the South.  During the two weeks after MLA I received no other calls, aside from a phone-interview with Beaver College (replacing that face-to-face interview that the weather cancelled for us).  On January 9, with no other visits on the horizon, I went to my first on-site interview.

            My experiences at this first visit were mixed.  Professionally, the job concerned me.  It was a 2/2 teaching position with a heavy—yet nebulously defined—administrative component.  The salary was low, $34,000, and the moving expenses were inadequate for someone coming all the way from Tucson, Arizona.  There was a PhD program in literature, but there were no students in rhetoric and composition—and seemingly no interest in developing an emphasis in this area.

            On a personal level my concerns were more vague.  I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of moving so far for so little compensation.  I saw few opportunities professionally for my wife.  I saw myself limited in terms of teaching and burdened with an administrative position that was already under-valued in this department.  Some of this may have shone through, for I was never offered the position.  Four or five weeks after my visit to this university, I received an email informing me that the position had been filled.  This sort of communication via email was new at the time, and it felt insulting.  It was insulting.

            My second campus visit was more troubling than the first.  This second visit, at the end of January, was to a “specialized” branch campus in the Midwest, a university focused primarily on technology and industry and offering only a BA in English.  On a professional level this position scared me to death:  a 4/4 teaching load with, again, a nebulous administrative component in a literature-dominated English Department wherein the teaching of composition was viewed with disdain and revulsion by nearly all faculty members.  The pay was low, and the $1500 moving budget was not nearly enough to cover costs, even if I did all of the work and driving myself.  Professionally, I had problems with this position.  But, ultimately, the specifics of the job didn’t really matter much:  The personal treatment I received was so shoddy that I could not envision myself ever working in this setting.

            My personal misgivings about this university began as I planned my campus visit.  Even though the committee wanted me to fly in on a Sunday afternoon and out on Monday evening, they didn’t want to pay more than $300 or so for the ticket.  This was financially impossible to manage, and they dragged their feet for nearly two weeks before agreeing to pay just over $900 for a ticket that still required me to return home at 2:00 am.  The hiring committee made a reservation for me on a shuttle from the airport, but, when I checked in, I was required to pay the $22 fee.  I had to pay for my own hotel room and my own meals.  (The chair of the department wanted me to pay for everyone’s meal, in fact, since I would be reimbursed later on.  Fortunately I balked at this, for, I later learned, I was only eligible for reimbursement for my own meals up to $15.  The chair of the department probably should have known this.) 

My meeting with the dean at this university was equally troubling.  After describing the school and its students, he went through his list of expectations for faculty.  Two stuck in my mind:  (1) Be a “star” teacher and (2) be on campus every day all day long no matter what your teaching schedule may be (“this is what you’re paid for, after all”).  His attitude towards faculty was troubling, and his hortatorical delivery was insulting.  He would, because of institutional structures, be my immediate superior; he made a point of explaining this to me twice.  I left this university filled with resentment—irrational or not—and actually smiled when someone else was hired to fill the position.  It took more than a month for my reimbursement to arrive.

I bounced several checks in the meantime. 

            Thankfully my other campus visits were better, although the personal stresses continued.  While I was visiting Gonzaga University, both my wife and my father visited the emergency room—my wife because of bronchitis and migraine headaches, my father because of a blood clot.  At Washington State University, the campus visit lasted for five days.  No one knew what to do with me for that amount of time, and I finally took the stress off their hands by volunteering to go hang out with my parents for a night and a day—an easy enough move, since they lived nearby.  Mike lived in the same town, too, and we spent a long, sleepless night drinking and playing video games once my formal interviews were over.

            This seemed to relieve everyone, but I never did get the WSU job.

I applied for fifty-four jobs, did twenty four interviews, took five campus visits and turned down three.  Twice I paid for my airline tickets ahead of time and was reimbursed, and three times the schools arranged the travel plans themselves.  I received one job offer.  Maybe there would have been more…but I couldn’t wait any longer.  The stress was destroying me, and I was destroying my wife.

            On February 22, 2001, I received a job offer from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, as their new Director of Composition.  The teaching load was higher than that at any other institution to which I applied:  four courses one semester, three the other, plus administrative duties throughout the entire calendar year.  The salary was in the upper-30s, the moving expenses were set at $2,000, and I immediately accepted. 

            All of my mentors counseled me to wait for other—better—offers.  They knew what the Gonzaga offer looked like in comparison, and they knew that I’d get better offers…but that the stress of the job search put a serious shine on this particular turd.

            All of my mentors warned me against doing administrative work while working as an untenured but tenure-track assistant professor.

            All of my mentors gave good advice that I ignored completely.  Gonzaga University is in Spokane, Washington, and Spokane is the city where I’ve lived longest in my adult life.  It’s a home to me, one within three hours of my parents and five hours of my in-laws.

            I took the job in Spokane rather than at Gonzaga.  This decision was a poor one, something I realized almost immediately after signing my contract.

From start to finish, the job search lasted six full months.  I accomplished nothing in those six months aside from getting a job—no work on the dissertation, only adequate teaching of my classes.  It was a horror.

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