Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Anticipation is Sweet: the MLA Pre-Season

I won’t be at MLA this year, and I won’t feel sorry to miss it either. Of course being in the Bay Area over the holiday season can be nice, and I’ll be sorry not to see a number of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, but there will be other occasions for that. As for the rest of MLA? I’ll be happy to be far away from it.

For those who are going, particularly those looking for jobs, the MLA Pre-Season is now officially underway. I date the official Pre-Season not from the moment of beginning to send out letters in late September (that’s still just warm-ups) but from the time when phone calls for interviews actually start, at which point people can legitimately begin waiting for phone calls about interviews, although they have likely been waiting for some time already. There is also much sending of last minute dossiers and writing samples, followed by actually getting phone calls and setting up interview times... well, maybe. And there’s also hearing news about other people getting interviews or not getting interviews. The MLA Pre-Season Information Mill is fantastic for encouraging those special feelings of low self-worth, financial desperation and competitive rage.

If little in the world of literature is quite as annoying as actually being at MLA, the MLA Pre-Season comes close. Ah, the anticipation before the event itself is sweet, like the aroma of hemlock before one takes that heady first sip.

In my experience, MLA job interview phone calls can start right after Thanksgiving and can continue right on up to the week before Christmas, which this year will be Friday December 19. Maybe once I had a call in the weekend of Christmas itself, a last minute, harried call from a school whose interview process was quickly heading out of control. Those phone calls are fun. Being phoned by people who don’t sound like they know what they’re doing is a very important MLA Pre-Season experience.

Sooner or later, many people have a MLA Pre-Season Horror Story, or at least a Great Tale of Confusion and Annoyance. Like, for instance, a search committee making calls not just to you and your official references, but to random other people as well, picked for reasons that are unclear and before you’ve even been interviewed.

On one occasion, sitting in my office between classes, I received a phone call from a professor at a university I’ve now forgotten. Thinking this was a set-up call for an interview, I talked to her for awhile. She really liked my job letter, she said, and was interested in discussing my teaching with me. We had a nice chat. But no, she wasn’t calling to set up an interview, nor did the school she worked for ever call me after that. What was she doing, I’ve often wondered since. MLA Pre-Season underground Subvert The Search Committee activities? Or was she just bored and looking for people to talk to?

Sooner or later though—I mean sometimes, for some people—one actually does get a few interviews set up. Some years I had none, some years three, five, one, eight, an average of about 2.7 interviews a year over a ten-year period. And then, the interview arranged, it’s homework scramble time. What school is this? Who works there? What kind of program do they have? Where on the map is it located? How much does it cost to live there? What do people there do for fun on a Saturday night? Then the taking of notes, the printing out of sample syllabi, the listing of names of writers and books to mention and not mention.

One can do the homework and be prepared, at least in some ways, but speculating is pointless. Why were they calling, really? How high up am I on that pre-season list that may or may not exist? Am I the token experimental poet (note: insert your own token status here) candidate, the interview-a writer-like-this-so we-can-say-we-did candidate? Does it actually matter if I make a good impression or do they already know who they want? If I appear like I know what I’m doing, will I look insufficiently malleable, insufficiently prepared to be told what to do by current faculty members? No matter how much speculating you do, you’ll never have answers to any of these questions.

Of course, the fact that speculating is pointless hardly makes it less inevitable. Guessing is a direct function of Job Search Committee Secrecy, that moment in the Job Committee and in the department when everybody agrees that nobody outside the department can be told what’s going on until the official moment for telling. The candidate probably knows that every department is different, that departments are political, that people disagree and sometimes deeply don’t like each other, that some of them certainly have Axes-to-Grind or Agendas-to-Pursue. But what the specific fabric is of those long term festering problems is something the candidate is likely never to know, not before the interview, not during, and not after. Unless the candidate gets hired of course, in which case those problems will come to the door soon enough.

No, the best thing the candidate can do in the MLA Pre-Season is take the necessary official steps, study up, and try not to worry about it too constantly. Or if not worrying too constantly proves impossible, take up some bad habit that can lead to temporary stress relief: bickering with friends and loved ones, criticizing other people pleasurably and needlessly, issuing Pompous Moral Judgments about the nature of the profession, the country, or the world, all of it perhaps over one too many drinks, or many too many, amid peals of overly frenetic laughter that suggest that nothing you’re saying is really funny. Or try to channel it more healthily if you can: run more often, do more Yoga, drink more smoothies, finally get that psychotherapy you’ve been putting off for years.

I haven’t looked much at the job listings in Creative Writing this year, but given the financial state of the country at the moment, I can’t imagine it’s all that great a year to be out on the San Francisco pavement, hat in hand, carrying a placard reading “Will Teach Poem Writing for Food.” The Cal State system, one of the more consistent sources of Creative Writing positions in recent years, including my own, is having a financial crisis and isn’t hiring, and many other state systems are probably in a similar condition. I wonder, when it gets right down to it, how many advertised jobs will ultimately have their funding withdrawn. And it’s hard to know anything about the relation between this year and years to come. The good news is students always want more Creative Writing classes. The bad news may be that class sizes in Creative Writing are small, which takes away in some cases from the cash cow it might otherwise be.

To those of you currently on the market, my best wishes go with you, just like people wished me well, repeatedly, during my ten years of MLA Pre-Season. Of course, if wishes were horses... and so forth and so on. Remember, part of the point of wishing you well is that I can’t be of much actual help.

And remember too that if nothing pans out this MLA season, there is always the MLA Post-Season, the late coming spring jobs and etc. Don’t think about the Post-Season too much though, because then you may realize that the MLA Season, all told, really runs September to May, and you may at that point start telling yourself things like MLA = Life. It could be a Borges story: “The world is nothing more than an infinite MLA.” No, don’t think like that. It’s not true and it can’t help. I know from experience.


rodney k said...

Hi Mark,

Great insight into what it is that makes these conferences (mine were the AHAs) such a Calvinist experience.

Patrick said...


Anonymous said...

What a great essay, Mark. I passed through my final MLA bolgia in 1991, but you've managed to give me a whopping case of the retro-willies.

My favorite pre-MLA anxiety-reduction strategy involved smoking lots of pot. Unfortunately, "huh?" isn't the right answer to any interview question I know of.

Paul Naylor

sandrasimonds said...

Mark---thank you so much for this. It makes me feel less..er....alone!


PS Word identification is kind of funny in light of this post: GRE ME

Anonymous said...

My word was "Patick". An important poet to mention to the one interviewer who must sit on an ass doughnut and grunt every time he sits or stands. True story. Funding is already being withdrawn. I have been a finalist for three jobs thus far, one search has been canceled, one is still afloat, and the other school committed a significant investigative crime and *I* canceled on *them*. Ah, MLA. Ah, irregularity. Ah, the tilt of the beret, the grease of the handshake, the chuckles when there is nothing left to say. These will be your colleagues; these will be your every day; these will be old men dropping lifeless into their oatmeal. Can I get a hell yeah? Beware the Burn. Beware the Wash. Beware the Burnwash. Beware the Washburn. ------------BA

Dave King said...

Don't know the MLA from personal experience, but a lot of it sounds very familiar. Nightmares relived!

sandrasimonds said...

The picture of that lady is freakin me out.

mark wallace said...

Why is that, Sandra?