Vol. 24, No. 1, Fall 1992
The MLA Job Interview:What Candidates Should Know
Ann BuglianiLET me begin by congratulating all of you who have job interviews scheduled at the MLA convention. You have already experienced a measure of success by surviving the rigorous preliminary screening of your credentials. In certain fields, departments receive more than a hundred applications for each position advertised. From this pool, only a small number of candidates are chosen to be interviewed at the MLA. Recruitment is expensive. Time and money are invested in a long process that is as important to the department hiring as it is to you. You would not be scheduled for an interview if your application were not being seriously considered and if you did not have a real chance of getting the job. My purpose here is to offer suggestions for increasing the odds in your favor.
First, I strongly recommend that you take every interview seriously. Put your best foot forward, even if the job you're being screened for is not among those you most want. Remember, it might wind up being your only choice. Before you begin, it is important to realize that some of your interviewers might be as nervous about all this as you are. They are certainly as eager to hire as you are to get a job. You worry about presenting yourself well, and in a sense they too worry about making a good impression. Yet they might be the ones to do badly, and this of course will affect your performance. You may discover, for instance, that they are not prepared. Perhaps because of circumstances beyond their control, they have not even read the writing samples you submitted. Control your anger, frustration, and disappointment at this discovery. Nothing short of exemplary behavior at all times is in your interest.
Be ready to present yourself and your work effectively, regardless of the circumstances. If your interviewers know little or nothing about your field, explain what you do with as much clarity as possibleand with no disdain. You may, on the other hand, encounter interviewers who know more about your specialty than you do and who have carefully read the writing samples you submitted; they will certainly be disappointed if they can't engage you in an in-depth discussion of your work.
However well- or ill-prepared your interviewers, you should not be the one who has not done your homework. Recruiters are always impressed if you know something about their departments or, at a minimum, about their institution. You should certainly know who will interview you and what their fields are. If you don't have this information, then you'll need to be careful to ask the right questions and perhaps to do some postinterview research. But it will be difficult for you to show any genuine interest in the position if you know nothing about the institution. Your performance here is a crucial factor, often determining whether or not you are invited on campus. No college or university wants to go to the expense of bringing a candidate to its campus who is not serious about the job. If you really want it, show some enthusiasm. If not, you should still try to do a good interview. Memories are long. It is always advisable to leave people with a positive impression. Even given the worst-case scenariosof interviewers who seem to have no interest in you at all, perhaps because they have already made up their minds, or who seem downright hostiletry to maintain your dignity and professional demeanor. You have absolutely nothing to gain by responding in kind.
Be prepared for interviews conducted both in English and in the language you teach. A fluent, accurate command of both is a minimum requirement in nearly all modern language departments.
What should your attitude be? Some candidates feel that any institution will be lucky to get them, and that may be true. Others feel that they will be lucky to get a job in any institution, and that, too, may be true. Neither attitude is really appropriate, however. Recruiters will be impressed with candidates who possess a healthy self-esteem, who are reasonably confident without being cocky or arrogant. Try to maintain eye contact during the interview and to avoid the extremes of excessive diffidence or overeagerness. Do not attempt to monopolize the interview. Although it should be a reciprocal exchange in which you manage to some extent to impose your own agenda, the recruiters should be in control.
Remain positive even if it seems to you that your responses have been inadequate or poor. Your assessment of how things went might differ greatly from the recruiters'. It will be impossible for you to determine how you will stack up against the competition in the final analysis. Even the recruiters will not be able to rank you definitively until they have met with everyone. An early interview that at first seems weak may eventually appear more impressive to them if it is followed by even weaker interviews. To some extent, then, your competitors will determine how you are judged. You should know, too, that jobs are often offered to compromise candidates when recruiters' opinions are widely divergent, as they often are. You might also be surprised to learn that your weakness may turn out to be a strength if you happen to strike a sympathetic chord in your interviewers, who may recognize their own frailties in yours. I must warn you, though, that you could easily threaten your interviewers, especially if they are in your field but no longer on the cutting edge. Or maybe they were never on the cutting edge, and you now seem to be. Some recruiters, quite honestly, won't want you if you're the best candidate on the market, because they doubt their ability to retain you. If they hire you, they reason, they will probably have to recruit again for the same job sometime soonan unsavory prospect considering all the time, effort, and expense put into attempts to find the right candidate. Recruiters offering a tenure-track position want you to be enthusiastic about the job and likely to stay.
It is of course clear that the greater your flexibility, the better your chances of getting a job. Should you find yourself in the enviable position of weighing two or more offers, you should seriously consider several factors before you make even a preliminary choice. The prestige of the institution and the level of remuneration will undoubtedly affect your decision. Yet other factors may be more important.
Location should be one of your first considerations. If you possibly can, you should be prepared to moveothers will bebut not to someplace where you'll be miserable or where there is no adequate affordable housing. The place you choose may determine the cultural milieu you will be entering and the ethnic and racial composition of the people you associate withfaculty members, students, and other residents of the community.
The size of the institution is another crucial factor, as are the size and makeup of the department. A large department with strong enrollments will rarely require much versatility, but you are likely to have a senior colleague or two in your area of specialization, who may or may not be thrilled at your advent. A smaller department may well expect you to show great versatility and, because enrollments are usually low, to attract new students to the program. Since enrollments mean jobs, this responsibility is serious business.
Will you be satisfied teaching undergraduate courses, or will you need the challenge of participating in a graduate program? Do you like teaching both language and literature? What about methodology? You might need to adapt to a completely different approach to language acquisition or to the teaching of literature. Candidly assess your teaching ability and your long-term commitment to research. A small department may need a star in the classroom. It will also make heavier service demands, but if reason prevails, there will be less emphasis on research productivity.
Other important questions revolve around the institution's status as public, private, or religiously affiliated. What is its financial situation? How diverse are its faculty and student body? Is the institution unionized? Do faculty members get raises? Promotions? Tenure? The tenure situation should of course be explored in depth. A lot of issues are involved here. Try to discover when tenure was last granted in the department and what the recipient's credentials were. Ask how much research is expected and how research is supported. What relative weight is given to teaching, research, and service? Inquire about the teaching load, library facilities, and the availability of grants, leaves, and conference money. What kind of contract will you be issued? In a word, try to determine whether junior faculty members are generally nurtured or exploited in the institution you are considering.
I certainly do not recommend that you barrage your interviewers with all these questions, some of which you can answer by consulting a catalog, but you should have replies to all of them before you accept a job. It is of course possible, given the job market, that you may not get any offers at all and will have to profit from your experiences this year by honing your skills and beefing up your dossier for another try next year. Or perhaps the one offer you get will be at a place that's not exactly what you've dreamed of; but some good jobs are out there that you've never dreamed of, and you'll certainly want to ask the right questions to find out what you're getting yourself into. If you are lucky enough to have a choice of positions, you will want to make an informed decision in the light of your options.
There is one question, however, that you should be sure to ask before the interview is over: What will happen next? When will you be informed if you are to be invited on campus? Let your interviewers know where you can be reached.
My final suggestion, if you're really interested in the job, is to send a note of thanks to the chair of the recruitment committee after the interview. It is a nice personal touch that gives you the opportunity to confirm your interest and availability.
Ann Bugliani is Associate Professor of French and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Loyola University, Chicago. This article is based on a presentation made in the preconvention workshop The Job Search in Foreign Languages for Candidates and Interviewers at the 1991 MLA convention in San Francisco.
© 1992 by the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. All Rights Reserved.