Professors for hire
I’m writing this in the “151 Bar” of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Chicago, to the accompaniment of a Diet Coke (an unusual tipple for Beard) and a chicken quesedilla (an equally unusual food). Apart from two brief cab-rides to restaurants, I haven’t left this hotel for three days. The only real glimpse of the Windy City for me has been from my bedroom window (thirtieth floor but still not particularly inspiring – being face to face with a yet taller office block).
The reason for being here is the annual APA conference, the biggest classical conference in the USA (and therefore the world). These vast American jamborees are strange affairs. There are literally thousands of punters, which means that “plenary sessions” are more or less impossible (you need a vast ballroom to fit in even half those who attend). Instead there are dozens of “parallel panel sessions”, four to six mini papers of 15 or 20 minutes, grouped (rather optimistically sometimes) around a single theme.
But like with most conferences, it’s not the lectures that you go for.
Nor is it just the socialising -- though there’s plenty of that. In fact, I have to say that hundreds of middle-aged classicists, self included, traipsing round a vast hotel in search of the best party is not always a pretty sight. (“The Harvard party’s serving Bourbon. . .” someone says; so off we all rush. . .)
More than that,, one of the main purposes of the thing is the “job market”. It’s at the APA that most US universities looking to “hire” new academic staff do their preliminary interviews. You can easily spot the candidates. They are the ones you see in lift (aka elevator), looking a bit anxious and slightly too smartly dressed for young men and women. The senior Faculty doing the interviews are the ones you don’t see at all until the late night parties – because they are closeted in some elegant suite somewhere (the rules being that you cant interview in a room with a bed in it, so it cant be in a standard hotel room), grilling the unfortunate young all day, every day.
This is actually only the start of the process of hiring. Those of us used to the British system (if you want to appoint someone, you advertise, short list, get all the short-listed candidates called for interview on the same day . . . then you make your mind up, there and then, end of story) find the whole business strangely protracted. The candidates who make it through the first round at the conference then get to go on campus visits (to give a lecture, meet the students, the Faculty etc … but never never overlap with the other candidates). All that takes weeks and weeks, which is then followed by more weeks and weeks during which (or this is how it seems from the outside) the Faculty battles with the Dean, to get the candidate they want; for some reason Deans always seem to want to appoint someone the Faculty doesn’t like (and vice versa).
I used to find this whole palaver rather puzzling. But I’ve now decided that it’s more than just a process of job selection, it’s a ritual of bonding; which is why US academics talk about "hiring" all the time. It's a unifying cultural discourse. It fulfils, in other words, the same function as exams and grades in Cambridge -- about which most people in the outside world think that we are as ridiculously obsessed as the Americans are about who is going to get the advertised position in the University of wherever.
Whether some mark is b+++/a?- or ba/a--?- doesn’t honestly amount to a hill of beans, but discussion of such niceties is how we bond. Which is why we take it all so terribly seriously. Indeed my own Faculty in Cambridge used to have a "Plainman's Guide" to such systenms of evaluation (later, politically correctly, changed to a "Plainperson's Guide") explaining the intricacies of the b?+/??- - system to new staff.
Different cultures, different rules.