I am sitting in the lobby of the Marriott in New Orleans at the conclusion of the American Historical Association conference, awaiting my 7:55pm shuttle to the airport where I will spend the night on somewhat suspicious-looking upholstery in the Louis Armstrong International Airport until my plane departs at 6:10am.
I have to say that despite the many inconveniences of this conference (which necessitated two overnight stays in airports), this has certainly been a relatively innocuous one as conferences go. Indeed, I’ve actually had quite a bit of fun meeting up with old friends I haven’t seen a while. And while New Orleans may not be the most convenient city to access, something has to be said for throwing such a conference in a city with warm Januarys and without open container laws.
Academic conferences of this size are indeed an interesting event from an anthropological point of view. As one of my friends, who was there only to enjoy the city with his historian friends, observed to me over lunch “it’s a lot of awkward white people interviewing other awkward white people.” Flying out on Thursday or Friday, most of us came in planes heavy with visibly awkward and anxious individuals easily identifiable as academics by their articles on Latina culture in the 1960s or economic histories of post-war America. The man who sat next to me on my three-hour connecting flight was so absorbed in typing something about his project’s purported “reversal of the periphery-center” dynamic in Romanov-Qing relations and biting his fingernails down to the flesh that he didn’t see as I read his entire undergraduate and graduate biography over his shoulder.
New Orleans, the Big Easy, as one can imagine, is a particularly incongruous location to find several thousand of such notoriously uptight individuals. And yet the city, unwontedly cold, sweated and swarmed with them. Riding an elevator at the Marriott without stepping on the toes of some celebrated academic or research friends (or frenemy) seemed practically impossible. Among those interviewing, the difference in overheard conversations between the veterans (like myself) who had been caught in the same merciless purgatory of bespectacled and besuited shades for several years and the fresh-faced dewey-eyed newbies was gratingly apparent.
Although the conference technically features several hundred panelists presenting papers, they often do so to virtually empty rooms. Even the small audience who does attend is often too absorbed in their upcoming interview to fully focus on the Tridentine reforms. Instead, candidates are flitting around elevators and nervously pacing through halls awaiting their turn for a magical preliminary interview.
The AHA interview itself is a strange choreography. Despite having only a half hour or forty-five minutes to get to know someone, the committee spends a lot of time asking questions that should be easily answerable from the materials (often quite extensive) that have already been sent: “Tell us about your research,” “What do you see as your next project?,” “How have you taught your research in classes,” “What courses would you like to teach?” A candidate who has neglected to address such questions in his/her cover letter, CV or other supporting materials is highly unlikely to have made it this far in the process. On the other hand, a candidate who too explicitly refers to the fact that he has spent a good deal of his/her time fashioning a polished application that addresses just such questions is unlikely to get very much further.
At other times, the search committee seems to be using the search as a means of solving their own existential and pedagogical problems that both the candidate and the committee member are likely to know cannot be decisively resolved but for which many wrong answers exists. “How could you deal with marginal writers in your class?” ‘What do you think is the use of a history class for non-majors?” “How do you teach students how to think chronologically?” “How do you get students to participate in class?” The tone in which such questions are occasionally posited leads me to believe that some faculty members are really desperate for help from somewhere, but in general I think the goal here is to see that the candidate knows how to articulate one of a few responses that — while often failures in practice– seem convincing rhetorically and to avoid responses that they should not articulate even if they are more commonly used in practice (“Send poor writers to the writing center,” “Give up” etc)
The candidate, in turn, spends much of his/her time responding to said questions in innocuous and generally pre-scripted banalities that both the search committee and the candidate know to be, if not exactly outright distortions of the truth, than at least comfortably in that hazy area. “You are a German historian. You would be replacing someone who taught Russian history. Could you teach Russian history?,” “How comfortable would you feel living in a small town?” etc. We all know there is really only one answer to such questions, but they must be cozily ensconced in some cushion of plausibility and the candidate must avoid facial expressions that may betray the contrary. This is, of course, an important skill to master in teaching.
At the end of the interview, the candidate then has time to ask questions. Everyone knows to avoid the questions with which many of us are probably very concretely concerned (“How much is the salary?” “What is the teaching load?” “How well does the department get along?” “Given your endowment, what are the chances that you will close any time in the near future?”) and instead ask specific but important questions, generally about their students, that display some understanding of how the university sees itself (warm and fuzzy undergrad-centered place? rising research star? etc etc).
Given this choreography, I find the process by which final candidates (2-4) are selected from 9-12 very well-qualified people to be extremely mysterious. I doubt that many candidates royally screw themselves over in the course of a half hour to forty-five minutes (mainly because I have not done so). So how does one decide between small nuances in performance– often nuances that are difficult to rank hierarchically– particularly when one has been hearing so many people back to back?
Perhaps such questions, if they can be answered, remain to be resolved in my own tenure-track future. In the mean time, I will merely hope that my own interviews went well.