Preparing for the MLA Interview
From the November 1999 issue of AWP Job List. © 2000 Associated Writing Programs. May only be reprinted with permission.
You've applied for the academic jobs that seem attractive to you—a good fit between your aspirations and the needs of the college or university that has advertised the position. After two or three months of anxious waiting, if you're lucky, several have called you at the last minute and asked if you'll be available for an interview at the Modern Language Association (MLA) convention, which happens at the most inconvenient time of the year, between Christmas and New Year's, usually at some far-flung city in an expensive hotel.
This is good news: it means you've made the first cut. On paper, you look attractive to them. And you—confident in your experience and abilities—have already made arrangements to attend. Sure, it's a gamble, but what's the alternative? You want to join the big leagues, so you have to be prepared to make a calculated investment in your career that may or may not pay off.
The bad news is that each institution will be interviewing other people for the same job—probably between half a dozen and twenty. Each of you will get about half an hour in a prescribed format. Some institutions seeking adjuncts or temporary replacements may interview in the MLA's job center, but most tenure-track job interviews take place in hotel rooms or suites.
A typical format is for the chair of the committee to introduce the committee, make some general remarks about the requirements and advantages of the job, then allow members of the committee to ask a prearranged set of questions.
Some will designate a single member—usually a department chair or program director—to meet you first in the lobby, brief you on the job requirements and the institution, then escort you to the interview room where you can concentrate on other matters. This is a humane approach, but unfortunately all too rare. More often, you'll trip over other candidates for the same job in the elevator, the hallway, even coming out of the hotel room as you're going in. Don't let it bother you.
Your goal is to impress the committee members so much that they either a) invite you to campus for a more comprehensive interview among a short list of candidates, or b) offer you a job before you leave MLA. An immediate job offer is unusual, but it happens—especially among less affluent institutions that want a commitment from you before you receive other offers, which they might be unable to match.
In that case, you'll have about half an hour inside that interview room to form an opinion about where you want to live and work for the next several years. So pay attention.
A few basic precepts will take away some of the dread and allow you to present yourself in the best, most professional light possible.
1) Do your homework. Before you get on that plane to MLA, scour the Web pages or catalogs of the prospective employers. Know what programs they offer, how many writers are on their faculty, and who those people are by name. Look up the committee members and find out who they are—what are their fields, where did they do their graduate work, what have they published? You can't be comprehensive about this, but you can impress upon the interviewers that you are serious enough to have cased their program. You might find common interests, backgrounds, and some insight into what the position will really entail. All of this will make your interview—and subsequent decision—more informed.
2) Prepare for the interview. Visualize the experience in advance. Jot down the kinds of questions you'll likely be asked. Team up with other job hunters and interview each other—just so you can hear yourself speak out loud, putting your qualifications into words. You'll be nervous—everybody is.
3) Find the interview site. Make your interview arrangements in advance of MLA, then upon arrival call the committee chair at his or her hotel and confirm those arrangements. (This means, of course, that you have to find out in which hotel the chair is staying and under what name the room is listed before he or she leaves for MLA.) Arrive for the interview five minutes early but don't knock on the door until the assigned time—make allowance for weather, traffic, and most of all the clogged MLA elevators, which can add half an hour onto your trip if your interview is on a high floor.
4) Dress appropriately. We're not talking about power ties and Gucci ensembles, but a professional look. People admire eccentricity, but almost nobody wants to hire a flake, so leave the Grateful Dead outfit and the red leather miniskirt at home. Remember, the interview committee will likely include not only writers but also other academics. You don't have to wear a suit, but wear clean pressed clothes. Jacket and tie is the norm for men, except for a few daredevils. Women have more options, but "business attire" is still the rule. Gaudy or provocative outfits, including too much jewelry, will call too much attention to themselves at your expense. Bottom line: wear what you would feel comfortable wearing in a meeting with deans and trustees. It's better to be slightly overdressed than the other way around.
5) Use common sense and common courtesy. Put yourself in the places of the four or five people interviewing you—they are probably tired, pressed for time, overworked, and itching to get out of that hotel room to a cocktail party with their friends. Remember your manners. Do all the things your mother told you: shake hands firmly, be attentive and alert, sit up straight, look people in the eye, say please and thank you and smile occasionally. Graciously decline the cup of coffee they offer so that you are not juggling a hot cup of liquid while trying to sound intelligent and focused. Break the ice—some interviewers may be as nervous as you, and a welcoming look or remark may put them at their ease, which will enhance your attractiveness in their eyes. But don't start off with a ribald joke or a disparaging remark about the hotel, the job search, another institution, and especially the MLA.
6) Expect the obvious questions. Search committees usually ask about your own work, your teaching philosophy in general and in creative writing in particular, your ability to teach composition and/or literature, and any special courses or initiatives (reading series or grants, for instance) you are qualified to undertake. Probably they will want to know why you want this particular job—and don't say, "To eat and pay my rent"—they want to be flattered that you find their program attractive for some particular reason. They may ask other questions as well, but if you are stymied by the obvious ones they will mentally cross you off their shortlist. Answer honestly: don't try to be all things to all people. You aren't qualified to do everything, and they know it.
7) Give concise answers. Leave room for the committee to chime in—don't ramble on and on. And on and on and on.
8) Be alert—pick up on what is said. If a committee member broadly hints that writers tend to avoid committee service, tactfully interject that you have served on thus and such committee and consider such service a necessary part of good academic citizenship. If an interviewer expresses an interest in an author or course that is in your ballpark, make it clear with a brief remark that you have an interest, too.
9) Don't take it personally. It is personal, of course, but the committee is talking to a long line of strangers, hoping to find a future colleague. Don't expect to become fast friends with them. You may, of course, in the future. But for now it's a professional transaction, so treat it like one. Be charming and honest, but not over-familiar or chummy.
10) The hardest part: distinguish yourself from all the other candidates. Sometimes this can be as simple as remarking on some special accomplishment of the program (don't suck up to individual committee members by praising their books—even if sincere, such praise comes off as unctuous), or leaving behind a one-page sample syllabus of an innovative course you'd like to teach. Your goal is that after you leave the room you want the committee to remember you: "She was the one who had the great idea about the creative process course," or "He was the one who was so articulate on why literature students can benefit from creative writing courses." Not: "Who was that guy in the clown suit and sandals?"
After the interview, debrief yourself: take notes about what went on and how impressed you were or weren't with them. If they call tonight and offer you a job, will you take it? What did you do right or wrong? Jot down your unanswered questions.
If the interview went well, take yourself out to dinner. If you blew it, figure out what went wrong and try to do better next time. And remember: your impression may not be theirs. You may be passed over by the committee you were sure you impressed, or invited to campus by the one you were sure you didn't.
That's why committees don't write poems.
In any event, you'll now have your own MLA interview war stories to tell. And sooner or later, when you're on the other side of the interview, you'll remember to be as humane and considerate as your best interviewers.