Slam, Bam, Thank You, Professor

I’m back from a job interview in England, which was an exciting and peculiar event. I’ll suppress the details, but I’m told by my British friends that my experience was entirely typical of UK academia, albeit startlingly different from the typical American process. British schools, it seems, interview all their candidates on the same day. So the four other hopefuls and I spent the day in the faculty lounge chatting, each of us dragged out one by one for our one 20-minute presentation and 30-minute interview. Only one faculty member did I talk to more than to exchange pleasantries with for a minute, and he wasn’t on the search committee – he’d just wandered in to check his mail and I glommed onto him. The interview consisted of seven professors and administrators asking one question each; one wanted a follow-up question and was told there wasn’t time! I spoke to no students except one from Georgia (the American Georgia) who came up and introduced himself because my accent intrigued him. Ironically, the only people I got to know were the other candidates, one of whom I hit it off with and hope to meet again. 

I was told that the committee pretty much had to make a decision that day, and by the time I flew back I already had a “thanks but no thanks” e-mail waiting. It came as a relief: not because I didn’t want the job, nor because anything had made a sour impression on me, but because I would have had to make one of the most momentous decisions of my life with almost no evidence to base it on. It’s like they see teaching jobs as interchangeable posts and expect professors to glide thoughtlessly from school to school as advantage dictates, without homes, families, or roots to put down (and it was explicitly a senior position). One might speculate that the committee spent little time with the candidates because, as happens occasionally at schools everywhere, they already knew who they wanted to hire, and were just going through the motions. If so, however, it would have been wasteful of them to pay to fly me across the Atlantic for a charade; and at one point they were forced to redefine and relist the position, and they asked me to reapply, so I feel certain I was a serious contender.

The only sad thing is that I love England and would love to teach there, but if all their interviews are like this, I can’t imagine that I would ever gain enough confidence from succeeding at one to sell my beautiful, almost-paid-for house and move tens of thousands of compact discs, not to mention books, scores, grand piano, wife, dog, and two cats, across an ocean. And yet I’m not prepared to claim that the English system is inferior to ours, just that it seems counterintuitive. American schools put tremendous, perhaps quixotic, emphasis on assessing collegiality. The longest interview I ever had, at Bard, lasted two and a half days, and I’ve heard of others that ran longer. We want to eat with the candidate, watch him teach, watch him drink, plumb his opinions, see him react to provocation, and in the end, what good does it do? Interviewing at one school, once, I was taken to dinner by two music faculty who proceeded to have a shouting fight with each other, in the restaurant, as I looked on in mute astonishment. At another, early in my career, the chair of the search committee took me to lunch privately, and pressed me at uncomfortable length to reveal my sexual orientation, with the unmistakable implication that he favored bisexuals. (And I’d call that only the third most unpleasant academic interview I’ve ever had.) 

It’s always struck me as reasonable that marriages had just as much chance of being successful back in the old days, when they were arranged by astrologers and matchmakers with the bride and groom not meeting each other until the wedding, as they do today. Similarly, perhaps the idea that we can gauge collegiality over a three-day interview and predict future compatibility from a tense private breakfast is no more than a hopeful myth. All comparative experience I’ve heard of suggests that a music department, any music department, any academic department, anywhere, gets described by its members as the proverbial nest of vipers in which one will find a few allies, but ultimately learn to keep one’s head down and teach with hope of nothing better than a comparative absence of interference. So perhaps it’s best to get the process of entering one over with as quickly as possible, relying on the most superficial and documentable criteria. Or hell, consult the I Ching for each candidate. As academic interviews go, this one was certainly pleasant and dignified, with no opportunity given for momentary humiliation or discomfort. I have no evidence that the more labor-intensive, touchy-feely American system guarantees more enviable results. But I also feel that, given the exorbitant cost of flying me on short notice to their scepter’d isle, the English faculty were allowed precious little information about me in return.

I do, however, try to discover one new single-malt scotch whenever I visit England, and I came back with a superb 14-year-old Bunnahabhain. (I think the name is Scots dialect for “That’s a smart rabbit,” or “I’m the bane of that rabbit’s existence.”) Of it, Jim Murray’s 2009 Whisky Bible states, “I thought I noticed it when I tasted it late last year, and earlier this. ‘Where’s that bracing, mildly tart, eye-watering Bunna that I so adore?’ I wondered. Thankfully no sign of the sulphur that caused so many problems for so long. But something, I thought, was missing… I can report there is no shortage of charm and the earliest barley belt on the palate rocks. But the fire has been doused, most probably by caramel.” I can see what he means, but I like caramel, and Bunnahabhain is a luxuriously soothing contrast to my usual more demanding Caol Ila. In 2007 dollars the bottle would have cost me $79, but at today’s exchange rate I was put out only $49. Such delicious revenge was worth an 18-hour round-trip flight.

UPDATE: I have to compliment one side-effect of the British interview process, though, that seemed extremely civilized. Spending the day with the other candidates humanized them. Usually when some asshole gets a job I applied for I assume he’s a Davidovsky protégé who slept with the right grad school teachers and writes music so convoluted that it threatens no one. But here it felt like the five of us were sort of in this together, and I was sincerely happy for the nice guy who was offered the job. That’s never happened before.


  1. richard says

    Boy, how can you have such pricey taste in booze on an academic’s salary. I’ve always thought scotch tasted a little bit like soap. Give me rotgut sour mash and a brew (the provebial beer and a bump) anyday. (No insult intended)
    KG replies: Ah yes, well, I was once like you myself, until I fell under the influence of… John Luther Adams. [breaks down sobbing]

  2. says

    In the software engineering world, there’s an ornate pseudo-science attached to the interviewing process, finding the perfect questions to find the perfect hires. As you can probably guess, astrologers would provide equally satisfactory results. I feel like job interviews are the equivalent of deciding whether to marry someone or never see them again based on the first date.
    A colleague recently said something interesting about this, which is that interviews are extremely telling about the culture of the institution in question.
    KG replies: Your colleague is certainly right. But what are we to think when an entire country follows the same policy? It reminded me completely of British pubs, where, when you ask for a glass of red wine, they pump a plunger that dumps into a glass no more than the nationally mandated number of milliliters of red wine. Sure takes the romance out of drinking wine. Felt like they got their nationally mandated milliliters of me.

  3. says

    I must say, most of your following is probably quite happy to see you staying put.
    KG replies: Thanks very much for the thought. But as long as I have internet access, I doubt that most of my following can tell where I am at a given moment (in Wilmington, Delaware, at the moment, for instance.

  4. says

    You are correct of course about internet access, and we all enjoy your words, even from Delaware.
    But, think about what your subjects in England might be: bad weather, warm beer, weird food, David Bowie, Brian Eno, the legacy of George Harrison – hey, this last would really be not too bad.
    KG replies: Ah – point taken. Hearing me drone on about the bloody weather would benefit no one.