Academic Bait-and-Switch, Part 12

Brian Taylor

February 09, 2011

Maybe some literary professionals believe it's noble to go through years of graduate training, and afterward freeze to death in a garret while reciting Wordsworth, but I am not among their number. When I got on-campus interviews in my second year on the academic job market, I vowed to do whatever necessary to secure a tenure-track position.

From years of observing hiring practices in my doctoral programs (first at Elite National University and then at Lateral Move University), I determined that hiring committees look for candidates of two types. The first is cynical, sarcastic, and brashly outspoken. I label that kind the Abrasive. Academics hire the Abrasive because they fantasize about this person befuddling the administration. Only later do they realize they may have to share office space with someone who holds them in contempt.

From time to time throughout graduate school, I offended people accidentally by saying what was on my mind, but I couldn't be rude consistently enough to qualify for Abrasive status. So I opted for the second type, the Good Fit. In order to be deemed a Good Fit, you need to convince potential colleagues that you embrace their philosophy about literature, teaching, or campus politics. That may sound easy, since people who earn Ph.D.'s in English share many values, but I advise anyone with an on-campus interview not to step on any of the magical creatures in the hosts' garden.

I'm referring to a curious case involving Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. In 1920, Doyle saw photos of girls communing with fairies or pixies who danced in an English garden. Assuming they were genuine, he published a piece about the little creatures in The Strand Magazine. The girls had faked the photos, of course, and the pixies look laughably artificial, but Doyle believed in them because he desperately wanted them to be true. Similarly, some professors desperately hold beliefs that don't quite match the world they inhabit. Those beliefs are their pixies.

I assumed I could avoid injuring pixies and pass for a Good Fit by acting agreeable and suppressing all Abrasive responses during an on-campus interview at Wheat Blight College. That tactic worked well until an interviewer asked, "How might you set up a class in cutting-edge literary theory?"

The Abrasive response popped into my mind at once: "Your job ad didn't mention literary theory. Are you trying to pawn off a course no one at Wheat Blight wants to teach?"

Instead I took the question literally and replied, "Getting undergrads interested in theory poses an exciting challenge. First I'd draw up a calendar with the number of days that the class would meet, and then, taking into account the time of day the class is scheduled, vacations, midterms, and the way those factors influence student performance, I'd choose which theories we could reasonably cover in depth."

My answer made the questioner's jaw drop. When he asked how I would design the course, what he really meant was, "Give me your grand, lofty vision of a course that will enchant your students and be the only thing they care about all semester." In fact, the entire English department at the college discussed teaching only in terms of the fanciful, the impossible, the great—"if only students appreciated our genius." When I started talking about the nitty-gritty of engaging real human beings, I had walked into Wheat Blight's garden and stepped on the professors' favorite pixie.

I encountered an interesting variation on "if only students appreciated our genius" when I had an on-campus interview at Free Spirit College. During an otherwise lively give-and-take with several interviewers, an elderly Shakespearean scholar—I'll call him Professor Lear—said, "Our department doesn't require Shakespeare, and the number of students enrolling drops every year. How would you get more students to take Shakespeare?"

An Abrasive might have replied, "Why does a professor who's about to retire expect the new hire to round up students for him?"

I wanted to answer like a Good Fit, of course, but in the realm of literary studies, a person can get in trouble by claiming that a particular author ranks above anything else, even shoelaces. I tried to draw out Professor Lear by saying, "The question of whether a curriculum should privilege one author above others is fascinating."

He replied, "But how would you get students to take Shakespeare?"

Thinking I understood his agenda, I relaxed and said, "I have nothing against requiring classes. In fact, the most important classes I took as an undergraduate were required, and I never would've signed up for them otherwise."

Professor Lear looked as though I'd declared myself an agent of the military-industrial complex.

Trying to recover, I said, "I could increase the number of students who took the course voluntarily. I'd show students that Shakespeare can be fun."

I hoped that Professor Lear would ask me how, but he only shook his head.

To give the impression we could work together, I switched to the plural pronoun. "We could have a Shakespeare festival. We could get students to do public readings from the Bard. We could have them dress as Shakespearean characters. We could even have a contest for the best costume. We could make Shakespeare a cool cultural event."

I felt pleased to have dreamed up the Shakespeare festival, but Professor Lear felt that only a monster would compel anyone to do anything. I suspect that the pixies in his garden wore tie-dyed T-shirts and love beads.

To be fair, many English instructors (especially fans of Wordsworth) believe that human beings will do the right thing if someone explains it to them properly. I find that notion charming, but I don't see how anyone who teaches first-year composition can hold it for long.

Nonetheless, I have to thank Professor Lear for introducing me to a third type of desirable candidate. Some impoverished liberal-arts colleges admit any and every student without providing the underprepared ones with the extra help they require. That academic bait-and-switch creates a need for professors who can make students show up without effort, take courses without complaining on the evaluation forms, and pass without extensive tutorial assistance. Therefore, a search committee seeks a Rainmaker.

I wish I'd worked up a better Rainmaker routine before I interviewed at Potemkin Village College. The English department there had only four people in it, one of whom was about to retire. During my visit, I met all four at once in a conference room. Things went smoothly until the chair asked, "Would you ever fail a student?"

The Abrasive response: "Can't professors fail students at Potemkin Village? If your students get college credit automatically, your diploma is worthless."

Instead of saying that, I hoped that a Good Fit at Potemkin Village needed the courage to do something unpleasant. I shrugged and said, "I have failed students."

The chair asked, "Would you fail an English major?"

Feeling called to prove my academic machismo, I replied, "If a major didn't do the work or didn't do it very well, yes, of course I'd fail the person." I stopped just short of saying, "Only cowards don't give F's."

Complete silence. Someone's pixie needed CPR.

Finally the chair said, "In the past five years, the number of English majors has dropped dramatically." He paused to allow me to figure out the possible consequences for a new hire. "How might you increase the number?"

I shifted into Rainmaker mode. "If I had promising students in my first-year composition or intro courses, I'd convince them to major in English."

The four interviewers blinked at me.

"I'd also look for bright, bored students in other disciplines and convince them to take on English as a second major."

The chair said softly, "We don't stoop to trolling for majors."

At that point the Abrasive response was obvious: "Why do you suppose you have a shortage? Do you discuss the 900 nuances of a problem and then just expect it to go away?"

Instead, I tried to apply defibrillator paddles to the pixie. I thought I could do that by explaining my reasoning. "I'll use myself as an example," I said. "I didn't start out as an English major—"

"You didn't?"

The conversation went on for a bit, but the pixie had flatlined. A convert to English couldn't be trusted. I couldn't redeem myself, even by telling them that my mother had taught me how to read before I began kindergarten. The Potemkin Village hiring committee assumed that an English professor came into the world trailing clouds of Wordsworth.

And that person had better believe that pixies dance among the daffodils.

(Editor's Note: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 of this series are online.)

Henry Adams is the pseudonym of a faculty member at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest.