Post MLA Thoughts-Part 1 The Jobmarket

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

For those who follow my account on twitter you already no doubt know that between Christmas and New Year’s Eve I was in San Francisco at the Annual Meeting of the Modern Language Association. Those who read this blog also know that I am critical of organizations and institutions (yes almost all of them), especially in higher education as they are oft slow to change and seem to fight for the position of “most irrelevant.” Having said that I should also admit that this was by far the most productive and enjoyable of the three MLA conferences I have attended. (This despite catching the MLA cold which several people seemed to have.) And in the MLA’s defense there were some, at least in my mind, really positive changes, that signal at least a willingness to embrace the literacies of the 21st century (much to the dismay of the Mark Bauerlein’s of the profession.) Rosemary Feal (MLA’s Executive Director), blogged the convention, prior to the meeting the MLA attempted to crowdsource fund graduate students, the MLA offered a feature on the website prior to the convention which allowed you to print out an individual program and calendar from the panels you select (okay you couldn’t export the selections to g-cal or share with others, but this was a good start) and perhaps most important (for me at least) there was an increase in the number of panels related to “digital stuff” which brought with it a rise in the number of faculty attending who were interested in matters of the digital.

(For those who are interested, you can read more about the panel I was on about Microblogging over at the HATAC blog.)

Several others have already blogged their MLA experiences, including Alex Reid (who has at least three posts), and Cathy Davidson (who has posts about the Twitter panel, and two separate posts about the Digital Media and Learning Panel). For more general impressions of the MLA from digital scholars you should check out fellow Microblogging panelist Matt Gold’s excellent post about The Rise of the Digital MLA and Chuck Tyron’s reflections on the MLA as he works on a syllabus.

What I wanted to do was add my voice to this series of reflections and musings, perhaps in a series of posts, explaining why I thought the MLA was so productive this year (for me at least) and suggest a few ways this can be even more the case. So, I am going to start with something that might be counter-intutive, and seemingly unrelated to the “digital” but which upon consideration was huge in my experience. The Jobmarket or more precisely the lack there of for me. (Later I’ll talk about some of the panels, or individual meetings I had, but for now . . .)

This was the first year I have attended MLA when I was not interviewing, or serving on an interview committee. Aside from the huge time suckage that interviewing can be, it was also a huge mental relief. If you are interviewing (either side doing the interview, or being interviewed) the process is incredibly mentally demanding and thus really intrudes on your ability to do other things at the conference. This would be fine if the conference was only for interviewing, but its not. So, here is my suggestion:

Schools should stop interviewing at the MLA

Okay I know what you all (or many of you) are thinking, that I must be crazy, and you want a job so people should interview more at the MLA, but just stick with me a moment on this as I explain.

The tradition of interviewing at the MLA (and here I hypothesize I have no real knowledge of this) grows out of a pre-digital world model, when the easiest and most efficient way for schools to interview a large enough pool was to assemble them all in one place, but this is no longer the case. Digital tools can compensate, and provide a better option. Consider for a moment what is the carbon foot print of the MLA, having 8,000+ people travel from all over the US to meet, how many people could we cut from that list if interviewing was not taking place?

What’s the alternative? Simple, video interview. The technology is now good enough, and cheap enough (easily less then the price of one plane ticket for one faculty member of one of the interview committees at any school). I already know of several schools that have gone this route. Now I know what you are thinking, video interview that can’t be as good as in person. Seriously? If you think that having someone sit on a bed in a hotel room and answer questions for half an hour as they try to sneak a peek at their watch making sure they have enough time to sprint half way across down town (or in SF up a hill) to their next interview, gives you an accurate view of the candidate you are kidding yourself.

Consider the advantages:</p>

  • How much money would your institution save? If you saved your department the cost of 3 people traveling to another city (flight, hotel, meals) for three days what would you save? Maybe you could even convince your chair to allow you to bring an extra candidate to the on-campus interview? (Which is a far better measure of someone’s fit.)
  • How much money would graduate students save? The job market is a ridiculously expensive endeavor, especially if you are a grad student with already paltry income, and have to travel to MLA for two-three interviews, or what is worse make reservations and plans to attend MLA to not get any interviews. Ridiculous.
  • Quality Interviews: How much better could the interviews (on both sides) be if you were not cramming them into a tight schedule. If they are done remotely you could do three a day over several days, rather than four or five a day.
  • Eliminate the hotel room problem. Seriously folks what kind of profession asks people to interview in a hotel room while sitting on a bed? Want to see something surreal? Go to a MLA hotel, take the elevator up to the rooms, stand in the hallway and watch as ten or fifteen people line up in the hallway and knock on doors at precisely 10:00. Weird!
  • Eliminate graduate student stress. I think the whole two to three days to make or break your career/life, is a little much. The jobmarket is already brutal enough (like being audited by the IRS someone once told me) but pulling all these people on the market together and putting them in a couple of hotels just adds to the insanity.
  • This makes for a better timeline. You can do the interviews in early December, and notify candidates about campus invites before the holidays.
  • But most important this would free up the conference to be about the exchange of academic ideas. Yes sans job market the MLA might be smaller, but people would actually have time to go to panels, talk, converse and meet with each other, without the pressure of interviewing, or worrying about whether or not someone from one of the schools you are interviewing at is at a particular session . . . In short eliminate the interviewing (which is just not efficient), and make the MLA about the ideas.