I had my first, and quite possibly my last, MLA interview this past weekend. Fortunately, I have an old Army friend who lives in Worcester who let me crash there, so I only had to deal with MLA for the duration of the interview proper, and said friend drove me into Boston from Worcester, talked me off the ledge a few times, waited in the hotel lobby during my interview (!), and bought me a Guinness when it was over. We hadn’t seen each other in 15 years, but that’s the military sibling-hood, if you will, for you – picked up right where we left off, despite 15 years and a few more pounds and wrinkles between us. So really, I know nothing about the MLA experience that I didn’t know anecdotally, but having been to Kalamazoo, I doubt I am going to feel like I missed anything critical even if I found out I missed a great panel or something. That might be a blasphemous thing to say, I don’t know, but I have always preferred the smaller, regional conferences to the huge, insane ones. And I think it was good for my mental health that I didn’t spend the whole weekend with other academics, frankly. We were a lot younger when we saw each other every day, but there’s a sort of shorthand, besides a whole realm of experiences and shared vocabulary and references that couldn’t really be put into words if you tried. For people like wartime vets, only fiction tells the truth, I sometimes think.
I have no idea how the interview went. I didn’t understand some of the questions, and others were answered in black and white in my application, so I assume they wanted something beyond what I’d written but wasn’t always sure just what. I ended up misunderstanding at least one question quite seriously, and rambled on a bit about something totally unrelated to what they really wanted to know before they rephrased it. Academics don’t interview like non-academic people in charge of hiring do. I was trying to explain some of this to my friend, and only in explaining it did I realize myself that in a small department, it was totally possible that interviewing a new candidate was something a given professor did only once a decade or so. So it’s no wonder, I suppose. Of course all the questions I prepared for and practiced really didn’t come up, though at least very few came totally out of left field and left me stumbling (at least not any more than I usually stumble in an unfamiliar situation).
So, I hope I get the job, or I guess I hope I get to the next step of a campus interview, but I know better than to get my hopes up to the point where I’ll be crushed if I don’t. As it is, unless something really drastic changes with my job/financial situation, I can’t see how I can conceivably afford to attend another MLA interview, especially not if I’m not lucky enough to have an old Army buddy living in the vicinity of the conference next time who can drastically reduce the cost of my attending through helping out with lodging and transportation. The bottom line is that I can’t afford to stay on the market for the amount of time it generally takes new PhDs to get a full time job, at least not unless I get a job that essentially means I don’t have time to do the other things that one needs to do to stay viable as a candidate in academia. It’s always a long shot, in the humanities, and I still believe it’s better to try than to sit around wondering “what if,” but socioeconomic status plays a huge role in this sort of thing far past the point of things like what university one attends. I’m a 40-year-old single mother. Optimism and energy only get one so far, and I think they’ve gotten me as far as they will. I have bills to pay and a kid in high school, and on bad days (of which there are increasingly more), OE deverbal adjectives and early medieval anthropology seem like luxuries. Hell, so do the liberal arts. And this extremely heavy debt I’ve incurred seems like a really bad idea.
But, as the conversations I had with my seatmates both to and from Boston remind me, giving up on academia would involve some pretty serious grieving on my part. I sat next to someone in romance languages on the way out, prepping a presentation on a work I didn’t know, and I sat next to someone reviewing an Old English textbook on my way back in, who works in historical linguistics (what are the odds, even on a flight out of the city hosting the MLA?). One other thing my conversations with my old Army buddy reminded me is that, while we have a certain shorthand, I also have a certain shorthand with friends and colleagues in academia, most especially in these dead languages and obscure homilies and poems I study. There are certainly conversations I would probably never have again if something doesn’t somehow miraculously work out with this job-in-academia thing. I would like very much to find a way to fill my belly without feeding on my soul. But everything is up in the air right now, and very little of it feels like it’s really in my control, so there’s nothing to do but keep trying to pay the bills and keep my head above water. (Actually finishing the dissertation ends up pretty low on the list of things to do, most weeks – it’s all Maslow’s hierarchy of needs around here, and a job I really don’t love that pays dirt is not helping the outlook much.)
But on that end, I suppose I should be aware that I have joined the leagues of plenty of folks in this day and age, and at least my power is still on.