In conjunction with this year’s Modern Language Association (MLA) convention in Philadelphia, we are releasing an excerpt of “Pilgrim at Tinder Creek,” an essay on online dating and the academic job market by Andrew Kay that will be published in the forthcoming issue of The Point (due out next month). To read the full essay in print, subscribe now.
The MLA conference that year coincided with a polar vortex that brought the Northeast and Midwest to a standstill. My Facebook friends posted videos of themselves outside, pouring water out of glasses and watching as it turned to ice before reaching the ground. I was visiting my family in New York for Christmas and had planned to fly from there to O’Hare just after New Year’s. But all flights were canceled and I ended up having to rent a car and drive. By the time I reached western Ohio, I-90 was shut down and I checked into a Holiday Inn in Montpelier, where I waited out the storm.
I sat in the bathroom staring into the mirror, rehearsing my dissertation spiel and course descriptions. “Many people,” I said, “have dismissed pleasure as something trivial and passivity-inducing. The more I read of nineteenth-century poetry and aesthetics, though, the more I began to uncover a contrary story…” I only half-recognized the voice I heard resonating in that tiled room. It was a voice of almost corporate slickness, the spiel the unctuous pitch of an ad man, a practiced seduction. I hated this and started again, injecting greater humanity, greater spontaneity, into my delivery. “I mean, ostensibly,” I laughed, “pleasure is why we’re all here in the first place, right!?” I splashed water across my face and started afresh.
This process continued for three days until, at last, the interstate was declared safe and I was able to drive to the conference. MLA 2014 was the convention at which, notoriously, an academic posted a Craigslist ad soliciting sexual partners for role-play scenarios that would take the form of MLA interviews. The ad’s author was 36, “usually thought of as attractive,” and “an assistant professor at a research university with a real degree of success in my field.” He was a job candidate himself, attending MLA as an interviewee and perhaps also a member of a hiring committee from his own university. “I propose to play interviewee to your interviewer,” the ad began:
I will arrive at your MLA hotel room, in my interview suit, ready to discuss my research, my place in my field, my theoretical approaches, my teaching methods, etc.
You ask me the appropriate questions and listen, interrupt, challenge, acting as a typical faculty member of a hiring committee. (You explain that your colleagues are respectively ill in bed and unable to attend because of personal obligations but, yes, you are authorized to advance my candidacy.)
Over the course of the interview we begin to cast flirtatious sidelong glances, adopt inviting body language and inch toward one other. At the right moment one of us makes the bold move of an innocent touch on the shoulder, followed by leaning in for a kiss. We both know it’s wrong, but we’re too titillated to stop.
The final outcome is something we can discuss in advance, or figure out on the fly.
Alternatively, the man was “amenable to flipping the script” so that he was the interviewer.
The ad merely made explicit what many of us had long intuited: there were dynamics of desire at work in many of these interviews, in all that peering and inspecting. (In a lot of interviews, the interviewee is asked to sit on a bed, for heaven’s sake.) The interviews pivoted on a power hierarchy that could give rise to longing in your interlocutors. As you spoke to them, you did so with the awareness that they were half listening and half silently surveying you, taking in your appearance and all those aspects of you that can’t be gleaned from a Skype interview. If you’re a woman candidate, you experience this surveying with especial acuteness. For men, dressing up for MLA interviews is straightforward—I have a navy suit, brown shoes, and a leather bag I carry with me; my female colleagues, however, have been told some combination of the following: they can only wear one “fun” accessory (colorful shoes, bracelet, scarf); they should wear a suit and not a dress, since they may find themselves sitting on a bed; they should speak in a lower register; if they are married, it may be imprudent to wear their wedding ring.
Of the three interviews I partook in that January, the first stands out. I took a taxi to the hotel where this committee was staying, and, as instructed, went to the front desk to find out which room was theirs. Having determined the room, I made my way to the elevator and began my ascent to their floor.
I reviewed what I’d learned of the committee from internet research. The chair was a woman in her sixties, a Victorianist with a particular interest in Gaskell and Trollope, whose critical orientation was powerfully Marxist. She was most drawn, she said in a feature interview on the department’s website, to literature invested with “revolutionary potentiality.” (On a different website, she and her husband had been recognized by an architectural foundation for their home, a commanding Georgian Colonial with at least five dormers.) Additionally, there was an ashen man in his seventies with an endowed chair who had been in the department since 1961, a New Critic who came of age in the days when T. S. Eliot was still revered as Christ’s vicar on earth, and whose defining work was a monograph on ambiguity and paradox in Hart Crane. The third faculty member, a Restoration scholar, was a foppish young man—he’d gotten a chili pepper on RateMyProfessors.com—whose recent journal articles urged greater incorporation of “digitality” and “systematicity” in literary studies. The fourth was a male graduate student, a modernist who looked malnourished and was, I gathered, a lackey to the elderly New Critic.
I reached the floor. The interview was to take place at 3:30 and it was now 3:26. I took a few deep abdominal breaths and made my way to the room. 3:30 arrived and the door remained closed. 3:35 came, and standing a few yards away I heard uproarious laughter emanating from within. The laughter continued, and finally, at around 3:38, the door opened and a young man, my competitor, exited and walked briskly past me.
The four committee members, their eyes still sparkling with merriment, invited me inside. The room was cramped. In it was a single queen-sized bed and, beside it, four large chairs encircling one smaller one. One of the faculty members gestured for me to sit in the smaller chair. I relaxed slightly—so I wouldn’t be on the bed for this one. I sat down and watched, smiling, as the four of them made their way to the chairs before me.
To my left sat the old New Critic, his head cartoonishly large in relation to his body, looking as if it had been pickled and kept in a jar, only to be lifted out at rare moments—the odd panel presentation, the guest lecture—and placed on his emaciated body: in him Cartesian dualism had found its poster child. To his left sat the chair, a woman clad in a teal blouse, black pants and radiant jewelry beneath which she seemed to sag, as if weighted down by so many ingots. She shook my hand with the noblesse oblige of some emotionally remote dowager making a rare appearance among the great unwashed. To her left was the young professor, his stylized hair gravid with goo, in a flame-flamingo button-down and slacks. Finally, there was the graduate student, a wiry man of about thirty with facial tics that caused him to scrunch his eyes shut and contort his mouth sporadically.
The mood in the room grew more serious. “So tell us why you want this job,” said the chair.
The question struck me then, as it has every time I’ve gotten it since, as a form of playing dumb. Because there are only twenty of them, I thought. Because every month I almost go into cardiac arrest trying to make rent and pay my gas and electric bill, and I’m 31 and want to start getting compensated for what I’m trained to do.
Instead I said, “Because X University seems to embody the ideal blend of research and pedagogy, and I aspire toward a balance of scholarship and teaching myself—I’m energized by both in about equal measure. I went to a liberal arts college and had such inspiring professors, I’d love nothing more than to be as magnetic in the classroom as they were. But I’d also love to continue the research I’ve been doing in my two articles and dissertation.”
The Victorianist dowager-chair smiled broadly. “That’s precisely how we see ourselves.” She cited a recent study in which they’d been the only university classified as both a research and a teaching institution.
The conversation migrated to my dissertation. The pickled New Critic peered at me over his glasses. “You’re at work on a study of pleasure,” he murmured. I nodded. “And you claim the pleasure of reading poetry has … political import?”
“I think it can,” I said. I pointed out how all kinds of nineteenth-century writers—Wilde, Swinburne, Keats, Blake—had suggested as much, and noted I was trying to establish a lineage that connected them.
The Restorationist dandy interjected. “See, that’s where I’m getting stuck. Of course there’s the whole Horatian epistemology that couples pleasure with knowledge acquisition, riiiight?” (Riiight? is a filler academics use in lieu of um or so.) “And that gets taken up by Sidney and folks like him in the Renaissance, riiight, and then later you get Wordsworth saying knowledge is pleasure. But now you’re saying pleasure can bring about political action?” He paused, training his chili pepper-inspiring eyes on me. “I mean, how do you get from the one to the other?”
“Well,” I said, shrugging, “I think pleasure’s always been political, hasn’t it? It never just occurs in a vacuum.”
The committee members sat in perturbed silence. I knew this was a make-or-break moment. I had to act quickly, had to be convincing though not cocky. “It’s a fundamentally Marxist idea,” I said. “Think of Marcuse in Eros and Civilization. Alienated labor in a monopoly-capitalist society causes subjects to forget their capacity for pleasure. But poetry, poetic chant, can undo that numbness through its rhythms, its luxuriance, its breath-work. It can emancipate the libidinal energies—the instincts, the impulses—that sleep in the body, energies the capitalist apparatus has repressed. On a grand scale, in a collective setting? That energy can be harnessed, converted into a weapon with … anarchic potentiality.”
A current of arousal traveled through the room, issuing in moans of “Mmmmm” on the part of at least three of my listeners. I imagined the paintings above the bed—the imagistic equivalents, maybe, of adult contemporary music—vibrated. Even the New Critic looked momentarily appeased.
After more banter about my teaching style, during which I presented a detailed syllabus I had concocted for just the purpose, the chair asked me, “Will you be free to visit our campus during the first week of February?”
I tried to hide my excitement. “Absolutely,” I said.
I asked a couple obligatory questions of them and we all rose. I shook their hands and the chair accompanied me to the door, placing her hand on my arm. “If you don’t hear from us right away, don’t panic—even though we’ll submit our finalist choices early next week, it may take our HR department a few days to process them. We’ll be in touch soon.”
I nodded, smiling, thanked her, turned and left.
The process had begun in September, when job ads were posted; now, in the middle of January, I waited for verdicts on my interviews—not, of course, to learn whether I’d gotten any of the positions, but to learn whether I’d advanced to the next stage, that of the campus visits, which take place in February and March.
A week after I returned home from Chicago, I received emails from two of the three schools notifying me they had decided not to pursue my candidacy. Both had enjoyed meeting me; both had deemed I wasn’t the right fit. That left the school I’d hit it off with. The chair had warned me not to panic. I waited, though, with a lovelorn anxiety that deepened by the day. Would they call? Write? I went to yoga. Late at night, to divert my mind, I sat up till 2 or 3 revising my second article. And I checked the Academic Jobs Wiki—incessantly.
The Wiki is a website where job seekers can post anonymous updates about academic job openings. There is a separate page for each subdivision of a scholarly field—hence, within the discipline of English Literature, there are pages dedicated to job vacancies in, say, Medieval, Eighteenth Century, and my specialty area, Romantic and Victorian. Below each job title one sees the following list, essentially a hierarchy of hotness:
Request for additional materials:
Rejection (no interview):
Preliminary interview scheduled (please specify: MLA, phone, Skype, etc.):
Rejection (after preliminary interview):
Campus interview scheduled:
Rejection (after campus interview):
The purpose of the Wiki is to keep applicants apprised of the progress of the job searches for the posts to which they’ve applied. If an applicant gets contacted for a preliminary interview, she can log onto the Wiki and write the date on which the school called or emailed her to arrange it. Thus, to the right of “Preliminary Interview Scheduled,” she will write, say, “11/2.”
By January 20th there had been reported activity on the Wiki for every job except the one of my desiring. Two weeks had gone by since the interview, then a third. Had what happened between us meant nothing to them? I thought of us connecting over radical politics, their captivated moans echoing through my head. I refreshed the Wiki; I languished. “Should I email them?” I asked my advisor. “Give them one more week,” she suggested.
One bone-chilling late afternoon toward the end of January I tromped through snow to my car after a visit to the gym. The sky darkened to dusk and my digits reddened. I quickened my steps and reached my ’97 Honda Accord, which I’d bought for $1500 as an undergrad a decade before and was far too poor to replace. It was a fragile machine and, in cold weather, temperamental. Hustling into it, I decided on a whim to pull out my phone and check the Wiki. I opened the page, scrolled down to my job and saw what I’d dreaded: “Campus interview scheduled: 1/23.”
Image credit: Lunita Lu/Flickr