For the uninitiated, people who work in higher ed English departments don't usually get to just call up the place they want to live and apply for a job there, like all other good young job-seekers get to do. They have to go to the MLA convention, which is always either in San Francisco or Philadelphia, and it's always a couple of days after Christmas. Yep. Christmas Day. You can think of it as the nation's biggest English job fair, only it's (relatively?) mandatory for anyone seeking a tenure-track job. (These generalizations don't apply to academic superstars -- there is TOO such a thing, although outside their own circles they generally feel pretty lost -- and people who are fine with instructorships/adjunct work, which is always temporary.)
Once the MLA posts the jobs you can apply for, you have to select the jobs that appeal to you and then send each school a phenomenal amount of yourself on paper. Not only do they want a resume (or vita, in our case) but they want a teaching philosophy (aka a stilted version of everything you believe about the classroom in one page), a dissertation abstract (aka everything you've devoted your life to studying and writing about for 200 pages crammed into 1,000 or so words), and a writing sample. IF they like you enough on paper, you get "the phone call."
Legend has it that "the phone call" can come all the way up to Christmas Eve, or not at all; if Santa comes early, this phone call results in an MLA job interview, which is like speed dating with nausea. Exhausted professors not very good at talking to people anyway push multiple interviewees a day into a cramped hotel room, trying to find someone to invite for an on-campus interview. I hear that the smell of coffee and alcohol is enough to turn anybody's stomach; there are tales of people vomiting in the stairways and elevators, and everyone I've talked to seems to remember the stink of failed deodorant, evidence of the anxiety on both interviewer and interviewee's account.
The combination of nerves, alcohol, caffeine, long days, and exhaustion makes for some pretty terrifying stories. One I've recently read, but shouldn't have, began with a guy sitting down for his interview and being told this: "I find your scholarship totally irrelevant. Would you like to comment?" Others have recounted how people on the hiring committees would slide out of their chairs to hide under the table, never to come out again. Another said she watched one man, a pretty high-up muckety-muck, fall asleep in front of her, drooling on her CV.
But the truth is, I want to be there. I want to have my chance. If you pass this particularly grueling test, you might get invited to a campus interview, where you teach a class, discuss your dissertation, talk to the provost, and generally try to convince people they want to work with you.
So as this Friday rolls around, stop a minute and think of our family and all of our friends who are going through this process too. If you're a praying person, we really wouldn't mind if you'd remember us in your weekly laundry list of people who have concerns. If you're not, whatever you normally do for well-wishing would also be appreciated. If you happen to see me puffy eyed, a little on edge, distracted, unable to eat, and generally more insane than usual, just keep in mind -- the MLA posted its job list this Friday. And that could change everything.