Saturday, January 04, 2014

Abolish the MLA interview? Sure, why not?

Dr. Virago and Miriam Burstein have posts up about Michael Berube's public Facebook post suggesting the end of the MLA conference interview in favor of Skype or phone first-round interviews and his follow-up post discussing the benefits.  Go see their posts and comments for a more comprehensive look at the idea.

Among the potential benefits:
  • The obvious one of eliminating or cutting way down on the costs for job-seekers who go to the conference for the interview.  It's expensive to go to MLA, in terms of time and money both, and no, faculty members don't get their way fully paid.  
    • What I love about this idea is that candidates wouldn't have to stress out about how they're going to pay for everything in addition to worrying about whether they're going to get an interview or not. 
  • The possibility of interviewing more candidates than the 12 or so customary at the MLA.  
  • If the MLA decided to discourage the conference interview, that should have some effect on quashing what Flavia and others suggest is the "prestige factor" for the MLA interview, as in "if we don't take a suite at an MLA hotel, candidates will think we're not serious about hiring." The MLA pronounces judgments and passes resolutions about a lot of things, and this would be one that would have a substantive effect. 
  • The possibility of holding MLA in smaller cities, since the conference would be smaller.  MLA apparently doesn't make money on the conference anyway.
There'd still be campus interviews, but maybe universities could bring more candidates to campus (4 instead of 3, 3 instead of 2, or whatever) if they didn't have to partially fund a search committee's trip to MLA.

Also, if you're hiring in rhet/comp, creative writing, or other fields that have different major conferences (CCCC, AWP), this would bring those hiring processes into alignment with ones in more MLA-centric ones. 

Are there negatives? Maybe, but they're relatively minor ones:
  • You might not get to hear candidates present papers at the conference, because that might confer an unfair advantage (wouldn't it?) if you met or saw in person a candidate outside the Skype or phone interview.  On the other hand, if you're on a search committee, you can barely leave the interview room as it is, and you probably can't attend a candidate's panel in any case.
  • It's nice to meet a candidate in person and shake his or her hand. Well, yes it is, but is that preference worth putting the candidates through the expense of the process?
  • Skype (or Google Hangout, or any of the others) isn't perfect; you get dropped calls sometimes, or Goofy Face Freeze Frame.  But if everyone is using something like this, the playing field will be level. 
I like the positive turn that this whole conversation is taking. On to Chicago!


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I had four interviews at MLA one year. It was, fortunately, in a city near where I lived, so I didn't have much in the way of costs. If I would have had to go to MLA on my own dime anywhere else, I would have had to put it on a credit card. The job that I eventually got did not spend money on going to MLA. They used Skype. It was okay, but the sound didn't work. I had to use my cell phone, which was awkward, but fine. I think that technology like Skype just keeps getting better, though. And it certainly would save everyone a lot of money. I'd be in favor of phone/Skype interviews for preliminary stuff and just doing campus interviews after that. It makes a lot of sense.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I suspect that some signs/effects of privilege would continue, in the form of assistance with the sorts of problems Fie mentions (wealthier schools would presumably set up videoconferencing facilities with fast connections, high-quality cameras, appropriately professional backgrounds, and tech help standing by, while candidates at less wealthy schools would be using their laptops at home), but still, it strikes me as a good idea.

I do think the MLA conference itself would end up being reconfigured/rethought considerably, since I suspect many fewer people would attend, but I suspect that would be to the good (and the MLA would not, apparently, be harmed financially by that. I suspect the profession as a whole might lose one opportunity for people in various fields, from various institutions, to get together, but that may already be offset by other ways of communicating that have grown with the internet, which in turn may help explain why fewer people are going to the MLA unless they have a specific commitment there).

undine said...

Fie, I think it makes sense, too, though I'm willing to be swayed by other arguments.

Contingent Cassandra--it's true that wealthier schools might go the video production route, although wouldn't most schools with a PhD program have at least some version of this?

I like the idea of collegiality and community at MLA, but after hearing so much about how stressed out the candidates are, I doubt that they're feeling much of it. The larger issue, I think, will be in how this all gets laid out in HR rules. What if you run into some candidates at a reception? Do you have to avoid talking with them if you're doing Skype interviews for all?

Historiann said...

We did Skype interviews on my little laptop with a very small camera. It worked just fine. I think candidates were happy not to have to travel, and to have the opportunity to meet with us at their convenience rather than in a command performance weekend.

I don't understand the fetishization of "shaking the candidate's hand" at all. It's flu season--Skype probably will help keep us healthier if we don't have to travel in early January.

undine said...

Historiann--Amen to that, especially the flu part. You can't NOT shake a hand if someone is sick, but I caught the flu last year in Boston. Skype is healthier at this time of year.