"Where are your publications?"
That question came from the chair of the English department at "Superlative University."
I was at my first Modern Language Association conference. After earning a master's degree at "Elite National University," I had changed institutions to do my doctoral work at "Lateral Move University," where I was A.B.D. I managed to secure only one interview at my first MLA meeting, but it wasn't with Superlative University. I figured I should get whatever I could out of the conference, however, so I'd signed up for a session in which a senior professor critiques the CV of a floundering candidate.
"My publications are here," I said, indicating the part of my CV that listed book reviews and other minor items.
"I mean these," the Superlative University chair replied, pointing to the three papers I had presented at scholarly conferences. "Why haven't you turned them into publications by now? Your CV makes you look lazy."
I had felt proud to have presented three papers and published minor things while attempting to complete a dissertation before my financial aid became dust. In the academic job market, however, just as in so many moments throughout my graduate career, personal triumph equaled professional failure.
The Superlative University chair couldn't give me what I needed at that moment. I didn't quite believe a Ph.D in English was useless or that I'd destroyed my life, but I lacked confidence in my career choice, along with a way to display that confidence in my only interview. How should I behave?
Concerning interviews, a friend who taught at another university had said, "Just be yourself." In my previous graduate experiences, however, being myself had rarely proven a wise strategy. I recalled that my adviser in my master's program at Elite National U., "Dr. Jason," had once told me to become, in his words, a "literary professional."
Act like a literary professional, I told myself, but that posed quite a challenge. Take the matter of appearance. I owned only three suits: a funereal dark-gray one I purchased for $15 at a rummage sale, a medium-gray I inherited from my grandfather, and a tan one my father bought me when I was an undergraduate. On the first day of the MLA meeting, I wore the rummage-sale suit, and on the second day I moved up to the medium gray. I saved the tan one for my interview on the third day. The tan was my best, being only seven years old.
On the second day I was wearing my grandfather's suit when I ran and almost, but not quite, caught an elevator. Several other people shared my fate. We stood for a moment, facing the shut doors, and then glanced around to read each other's name tags to locate people who could advance our careers. No one told me about that practice before I hit MLA, but no one had to. The first time I was in a group of conference attendees, I found myself doing it involuntarily, a quick snap of the eyes, like a reflex. Perhaps I had what it took to be a literary professional, after all.
One young woman's tag said "University of Bloviation." She was clearly a graduate student, but even if she weren't, Bloviation would never take my degree from Lateral Move University seriously. The young woman surprised me, however, by saying, "How are things at Lateral Move?"
I smiled and said, "Lateral Move grads are supposed to do well on the job market, but I have only one interview."
"Oh!" she exclaimed, and turned to introduce herself to someone else. She had mistaken me for an actual professor at Lateral Move, but I didn't find her abrupt dismissal of me upsetting. Getting to know a graduate student from Lateral Move would be just as useless to her career as getting to know anyone from Bloviation would be to mine. But to my delight, for a heartbeat I'd passed for a professor.
Of course, that could've been because the medium-gray suit I wore looked 20 years out of date.
Later that same day, I crowded onto another elevator and found myself standing next to Dr. Jason, my old adviser from Elite National, the man who taught me the phrase "literary professional." I made eye contact and saw a glint of recognition. Before I could greet him, however, he turned his back toward me.
My old adviser thus taught me an important lesson: If a graduate student disappoints a literary professional, the literary professional must shun him.
On the third day of MLA, I wore the precious tan suit that I'd saved for my one-and-only interview. I'd sent out more than 100 applications, but only one institution had responded favorably. That institution was "Minimalist College."
When my interviewer, the white-haired "Dr. Serene," opened the door to the hotel room in which we would be meeting, I told myself, Act like a literary professional.
Discussing teaching at Minimalist College went smoothly. Before coming to MLA I'd contacted someone who had taught on the campus on a one-year contract. I had a fairly good idea what its English department needed: someone willing to teach anything to anyone without inspiring any students to withdraw from Minimalist and take their tuition dollars elsewhere. I could do that.
When it came to scholarly activity, Minimalist wasn't fussy. Few of its professors published books, and Dr. Serene wasn't among that rarefied number. In fact, when Dr. Serene said, "Tell me about your dissertation," he seemed actually to be saying, "I could care less, but I have to ask about your dissertation, so let's get it over with."
My research involved an area so obscure that almost no other person on the planet has heard of it, so I spent much time filling in background information before explaining how my research would redefine literary studies for the next century. When I finished, Dr. Serene stifled a yawn. I have that effect on people.
"One last question," Dr. Serene said. "Could you make it to Minimalist College for an on-campus interview?"
"Sure," I said, but when Dr. Serene remained silent, I realized he wasn't inquiring about my willingness to leave my flock of freshmen unattended for a day or two. He meant that the department wouldn't pay to fly me in for an interview, and he needed to find out whether I would mind paying my own airfare.
I balked. Could I pay my own way? I'd just gotten my first credit card, and I already had too many charges on it. In my untrustworthy mental calculator I tried to tally airfare to MLA, the registration fee, my hotel, and living expenses. Airfare to a campus interview would probably send me past my limit, so I shrugged and said, "I have a car. I can drive out there."
Dr. Serene stood, shook my hand, and concluded the interview.
After the door to a tenure-track job closed, I realized I should've agreed at once to pay my own way for an interview that might lead nowhere. Dr. Serene wanted a colleague who thought like a "literary professional," not like a graduate student. Literary professionals don't drive across the country to interviews. They fly, even if it bankrupts them.
I was still wearing the tan suit that evening when I returned to my hotel. As I moped along, I comforted myself by thinking that I probably wouldn't finish my dissertation in time to defend it that spring anyway, since I'd spent so much time sending out job applications. I vowed that next year at MLA I would have my Ph.D. in hand, and publications, and I would interview with colleges that paid for airfare. I held my head high and told myself, Act like a literary professional.
As I approached the elevator to go up to my room, from out of the shadows a voice asked me whether I wanted "companionship" for the evening. I turned to see a gorgeous woman dressed in a revealing outfit that cost more than all three of my suits combined. She smiled at me.
It took me several moments to realize that a big-city prostitute was soliciting me, Henry Adams, A.B.D. Finally I smiled back and said, "No, but thank you." She nodded and turned to seek another client.
Although I don't approve of prostitution, I felt flattered. I knew the woman's greeting was all business, but therein lay the compliment to me. Here she was, working the convention crowd, and somehow she'd seen in me a man who had the cash to afford her services, or at least a credit card worth stealing. My demeanor had fooled someone as astute about human nature as any literary professional.
Or it could've just been my tan suit.