Number 111, Fall 1985
When Do I Knock on the Hotel Room Door?: The MLA Convention Job Interview
RICHARD K. EMMERSONEACH MLA convention since the late 1970s the ADE Executive Committee has organized a preconvention session for job seekers in English, in part to help candidates prepare for interviews. Each year the ADE office receives complaints from job seekers about the interviewing process at the MLA convention. Some of these complaints are serious, pointing to a lack of professionalism that, unfortunately, still occasionally mars our discipline. But many seem to arise from some job candidates' lack of understanding of the time constraints and other pressures affecting interviewing committees. My goal in these remarks is to help all concerned in these somewhat awkward situations to understand one another better and therefore to complete this important stage in the hiring process as successfully as possible.
Since over the past five years my department has hired twenty of its twenty-six faculty members, we have conducted scores of interviews at the MLA convention in that short span: about 120, in fact. My department schedules convention interviews on the hour for just about every hours between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on all convention days. Needless to say, I have spent many hours in convention hotels! So I am familiar with the interviewers' situation.
But I must be honest. I would much rather be in a hotel room interviewing job candidates that be a job candidate myselfmy memories of the MLA convention interviews I had in 197677 are still strong. So I don't want the attention I give, here, to the sometimes difficult situation of interviewers to be misunderstood as minimizing the great difficulties faced by candidates. I do think it is to the advantage of job candidates to understand the situation of interviewers, many of whom, by the time a given candidate meets them, may be in their third day of interviews, after having spoken with fifteen, twenty, or even more candidates and spent hour upon hour breathing the same recycled hotel air in a room with three or four colleagues they may not particularly like.
So what do you as a job candidate need to know? Here is where I should answer the question in my title, a question many candidates ask themselves: When do I knock on the hotel room door? The answer is to knock on time, for the crucial reason that most interviews are timed very carefully. If you are five, six, or seven minutes late, not only do you lose precious time with the committee (and some interviews are as short as thirty minutes), you may also inadvertently give the impression that you not serious about the position, that you don't really care about the intervieweven that you will be late to class as a teacherand so forth. Also, if you are like me, the few minutes before you knock the door, when you are in the cab stuck in traffic or waiting for the crowded, slow-moving elevators that characterize convention hotels, you will be growing steadily more upset rehearsing excuses, when you should be relaxing, taking deep breaths, and especially thinking of all the great reasons you should be hired.
So my advice is to plan to arrive at the hotel at least ten minutes early and to allow plenty of time for hotel elevators. But that doesn't mean you should knock on the door early. If anything is worse than being five minutes late, it is being five minutes early. If you arrive early, walk down the hall and check out the coffee trays on the floor. If you knock early, you are likely to be asked to wait in the hallwhich, by the way, is one explanation for candidates' having felt unwelcome or rudely treated.
There is a reason you may be asked to wait or be invited into the room early and made to feel unwelcome. Crucial activities are going on in the hotel room five minutes before you are expectedfor example, the interviewers may be using the bathroom. Seriously, most interview committees are on a very tight schedule, one that gives their members tenat most fifteenminutes between candidates. During this time they may need to discuss their initial impressions of the last candidate, make phone calls, iron out any difficulties that arose among themselves, prepare for the next candidate by looking at their notes and the application, grab some coffee, and so fort. Do not impose on this precious time by arriving early.
Similarly, when the committee gives signals that your interview is over, keep in mind that during interviews, at least, there is a relation between signifier and signifiedit is time for you to get up and leave. So if the committee chair thanks you for coming, says, Well, if there are no more questions, offers you a packet of materials while standing, or even fetches your coat, it is time to go. This advice is based on the foundational rule for a successful interview: always take your cues from the committee. Much specific advice for a successful interview follows from this rule. For example, if you have been asked to telephone in advance, do so; but if the person who set up the interview has explained that Job Information Center staff can tell you where the interview will take place, don't call the room; instead, get the hotel room number from the job center (at the 1994 convention the job center began dispensing information by telephone). A phone call to a department's hotel room may well interrupt an interview and disconcert a candidate, especially a nervous one.
Take your cue from the committee when you answer questions, as well. First, make sure you answer the question you are asked and not another. I am always amazed how often candidates seem not to hear the question or are so prepared to talk, let's say, about how they teach composition that they discuss teaching freshman English rather than the literature course that is the subject of the question. My advice is to count silently to five before answering, focusing on the question. If you aren't sure what is asks, ask that the question be repeated. It is better to ask than to struggle through question you're unsure of and then to conclude, Did I answer your question? This suggestion doesn't mean that you should not elaborate on questions as your interview progresses or reframe them when useful. But it is important to understand what is being asked and, at first, at least, to answer the questions as they are posed.
Be sure to let the committee set the pace. At the beginning of the interview it is better to give relatively brief answers and let an interviewer follow up than it is to ramble on. Most of us, especially when we are nervous, tend to talk too much. In my experience the single biggest blunder a candidate can makeand it happens all the timeis to be long-winded. Excessively long responses make the committee wonder what kind of teacher you will be. They may wonder whether your students will get a chance to talk in class. Long answers also impede the pace of the interview.
Most interview committees plan a routine in advance in which they assign several basic questions for particular interviewers to ask. This routine, which varies from committee to committee, is established not simply for efficiency's sake but because, at least some institutions, like mine, affirmative action rules require that all candidates be treated alike and that candidates thus be asked comparable questions. The routine is also designed to allow time for follow-up questions and to allow candidates time to elaborate and to pose their own questions as they interact with committee members. Most committees also plan a somewhat more formal conclusion in which candidates can ask more questions about the department and in which the committee can give candidates more information about the department (perhaps including a packet of materials) and the search process (perhaps including a projected timetable regarding campus visits and so forth).
If your answers are too long, the routine will be derailed, the number and kinds of questions will be limited, the interview will be rushed, and your candidacy will probably suffer. So give the committee a chance to respond to your answers and don't force an interviewer to interrupt you. Such an interruption may be the only way to get the interview back on track, but again it may make you feel that you have been treated rudely or that the committee doesn't want to listen to your answers. If after you have answered a question there is an awkward silence, don't immediately jump in to fill the void. Most of us as teachers must learn to resist the oral version of the horror vacui ; the awkwardness that arises when no one speaks in class. You similarly must resist the temptation to jump in to fill the vacuum, to ramble on after you have finished your answer, or even to start to answer a new question that hasn't been asked. I have seen candidates give in to this temptation repeatedly. But just as in class it is good pedagogy to pose a question and then to allow students to think quietly rather than to answer it yourself, so it is good interviewing practice to allow the committee time between questions to think about your answer and to plan the next question. A moment of silence does not imply that the interviewers are disorganized or surprised by or unhappy about your answer. It may simply mean that one questioner, satisfied that you have answered well and a follow-up question is unnecessary, is now waiting for the next interviewer to take over.
In conclusion, then, you are right to expect the committee to be considerate: to run an interview on time; not to rush you but to give you time to think, to respond, and to ask questions; to welcome you and make you as comfortable as possible; and to treat you politely and professionally. But you should also be considerate of the interviewing committee and try to understand its situation. You are, of course, the one who is nervous, feeling the pressure, and rightly worried about the job market, but committee members are also under pressure, constrained by time, and probably uncomfortable. My best advice is to use the skills you have learned as a good teacher. For example, make eye contact with all committee members the way you make eye contact with students around a classroom. Don't, in other words, look down at your hands or out the window or at just the department chair or the person who asked the question. Try to think of the interview as a discussion in which you engage all present.
Most of all, keep in mind that the vast majority of interviewers want you to be successful. We have all heard horror stories of bad interviewers: how sometimes the dynamic of an interview reflects a dispute within the committee or how an individual interviewer may have a favorite candidate and may therefore be particularly unpleasant to other candidates. Such interviews, no doubt, do take place. But they are extremely rare. A successful interview is pleasurable for all concerned. It is a good use of valuable time for candidates and committee members when all feel that something is being accomplished and that time isn't being wasted. Everyone is happy. Remember, the committee and the department it represents have already bet on you. By the time you have been selected to be interviewed, you have made several cuts over several weeks of meetings, readings, discussions, more meetings, and votes. Given the overwhelming numbers of applicants for each position, an interview is already a tremendous accomplishment in which you should take pride.
Once you have reached the point of an interview at the MLA convention, your next goal is to make it as successful as possible. One way to achieve success is to remember that most search committees have determined that you are potential colleague by the time you meet them. They have invested much time and thought into your candidacy and will naturally want your interview to be a success. Instead of seeing the interview as a trial to be overcome, therefore, try to see it as a discussion with potential colleagues to help both you and them determine if the position is right for you.
The author is Professor of English and former Chair of the English Department at Western Washington University and a member of the ADE Executive Committee. This paper was presented at the 1994 MLA convention in San Diego.
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