Monday, December 29, 2008

Getting Along with People. MLA Update from Overhearing Olive.

I'm on a search committee this year, my very first year on the tenure track. I'm happy to do the duty and love seeing the world from other side of those insane interview tables at the MLA convention.

I begged my colleagues to let me quietly overhear at the interviews, saving one small question for the end. I'm just too green to really engage with the interviewees AND get all the notes down, which it turns out is my favorite part of the job. (I type stuff up so that our search colleagues back home can have as accurate a record of our 15 interviews as possible.)

Anyway, we had a remarkably nice morning with interviews and then started the afternoon session with a real mood-killer.

One of our committee members is the grand dame of our department, an absolutely stunning professor of many years, a kind, grandmotherly, and very vital force in all that we do as a department. (The rest of us were all hired by her over the past 1-10 years.)

Our 12:45 interviewee showed up in the standard MLA garb, heavy framed but TINY black glasses, black suit that would look great in a 1972 Italian movie, etc. No smile. Weak handshake.

After a dismal 30 minutes with condescending answers that sort of made us feel the interviewee had no desire to come to our collegial and chummy school, we had the following exchange.

Grand dame: Would you be at all interested in working with our undergrad society? They meet once a month to study relevant new ideas in the field, but really, it's more of an event to keep everyone in touch with each other.

Sour Sarah: Would it be a part of my tenure review?

Grand dame: Well, not officially, perhaps, but everything we do as a department and as colleagues is part of the life of the department.

Sour Sarah: I can't imagine I'd have the time. It seems that you people are the only school I'm interviewing with who still require scholars to teach a 4/4 load.

Grand dame: Well, yes, that's in the ad, in fact. I've been at [BLANK] College for 38 years and I still teach 4/4. I love the classroom. How else, then might you be a force in the lives of our undergrads?

Sour Sarah: I'd teach them rigorously, but they need to be left alone to fend for themselves. You're not doing any good organizing events for them.

Me: I think what Dr. [Grand Dame] is asking about is how might you play a role in helping develop our majors. I've only been at the school a year, and it's been a duty that I've come to understand is a challenge but also a reward.

Sour Sarah: I believe I've answered that. I'd teach my classes rigorously. The truth is my research agenda is full, and anything that takes me away from it is hurting my career. I am rather ambitious.

There was quiet at the table. My colleagues sort of looked back and forth. We had other questions, but nobody seemed interested in going on anymore.

Finally the grand dame said, "Well, we've enjoyed meeting you. You have a really wonderful background, and we will do our best to get back with you after the new year."

Sour Sarah stood up quickly, no proffer of handshakes and began stuffing her materials in her bag.

Grand dame: Well, we hope you have a nice time here for the rest of the conference. We were saying earlier that the timing of this is such a shame as a lot of us got pulled away from time with our families over Christmas.

Sour Sarah: It's okay for me because I don't believe in fairy tales anyway.

And then she was gone. After about ten seconds, the whole table just sort of started breaking up. We watched her disappear out of the hall and the grand dame said: "How does she get around with that stick up her butt?"