The MLA Convention and the Changing Job Search

Academic job searches are changing, and long-standing practices connected with interviewing candidates at the MLA convention are clearly changing with them. Results from searching for the text strings “Skype” and “MLA convention” in ads that departments have placed in the MLA Job Information List over the past eight years suggest the broad direction of developments (fig. 1).

Fig. 1

As the number of ads containing the string “Skype” rose from 0 to 102, the number containing the string “MLA convention” fell from 153 to 54. As recently as six years ago, in 2009–10, only a single ad contained the string “Skype” while 101 ads contained the string “MLA convention.” As of this writing in 2015–16, 101 ads contain the string “Skype,” and 56 contain “MLA convention.” Five ads contain both terms—4 of the 5 state that interviews will be conducted either at the convention or by Skype, while the fifth states that interviews will be by Skype and not at the convention.

Departments continue to use the convention to schedule interviews. Now that cell phones are becoming ubiquitous personal accessories, however, candidates and departments find it convenient and efficient to use text messaging and voice service to communicate on-site directly rather than through the services the MLA provides in the convention Job Information Center. (The MLA has operated a Job Information Center at the annual convention for decades. Hiring departments use the center by signing in to leave information with members of the MLA staff about the location of convention interviews the departments have scheduled with job candidates. Search-committee chairs can provide advance notice of the names of the hotels where they will be staying to candidates invited for interviews, but chairs and candidates must check in on-site to obtain hotel room numbers.) The result can be seen in the following figures. Over the nine conventions since 2007, the number of departments signing in with the Job Information Center has dropped by 75%, to just over 100 from the 400 to 500 departments that signed in for the seven conventions between 2001 and 2007 (fig. 2). And the number of tables departments use to conduct interviews in the Job Information Center has dropped more than 80%, from about 140 to just 23 at the 2016 convention in Austin, Texas (fig. 3).

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

The much reduced number of departments using the convention Job Information Center obviously reflects the sharp contraction in academic job opportunities and departmental hiring that has occurred since 2008. But it also reflects changes departments are making in the way they conduct searches. The MLA has no stake in maintaining the convention job interview in the face of new technologies that both job seekers and search committees find serve them better, and there is every reason to expect that the use of videoconferencing and teleconferencing for screening interviews will continue to expand. There is also every reason to think that a system where most interviewing takes place by videoconference can restore scholarly exchange and professional development, rather than job interviews, as the convention’s central, defining activities.

The MLA seeks to provide services that will improve the job search for hiring departments and above all job seekers. To that end, through its membership committees the association promulgates standards that reflect MLA members’ evolving consensus about good professional practice. In a changing job-search landscape, where new practices are emerging, continuing communications with and among members on all sides of the job search are indispensable to understanding what is happening and how the association can respond in ways that will benefit job seekers and the job search—and also bring about welcome improvements in the experience of attending the convention.

David Laurence