Thursday, March 12, 2009


In Which I Take Leave of My Faculties...

Well, I know I promised to tell you all about my recent trip, and my first official interview for a job in academia (actually, my first official job interview since becoming gainfully unemployed back in January), but then I got home and a couple of things happened.

One of those things I'll tell you about towards the end, but the other was a growing sense of profound apathy about the job. Not just because it became patently clear I wasn't going to get an offer, but because nothing of very great interest happened during my trip--well, at least when compared to the rest of my life.

Still, I've never let a lack of anything interesting get in the way of my writing before, so we might as well jump right in:

As my plane was on final approach into the airport, I reviewed my notes for the umpty-ump time and walked myself through my itinerary for the next 48 hours. For starters, as soon as I got off the plane, I was going to have to look out for my ride. This is the first lesson of interviewing in academia: Colleges and universities seem remarkably disinclined to spend any kind of money to bring you in for an interview. I appreciate that everyone is on a tight budget these days, but you know something's awry when the search committee is willing to cut several hours of your visit short because you found a flight back home that was $100 cheaper than the one they were originally going to put you on.

And to top it off, they won't let you rent a car, even though their location from the airport may be decidedly remote. No, instead, they were going to send someone to pick me up. At first, I found this vaguely alarming, as I imagined that they were going to dispatch some work-study undergrad to fetch me. I don't know what kind of driver you were when you were 19 or 20, but I was a pretty horrible one. Of course, that didn't stop me from using the gas pedal more or less continuously when I was in the car. So I could all too easily picture some gangly youth bundling me into the passenger seat of his dented little Hyundai and then embarking on a 90-minute careen through the countryside until we hit campus—possibly quite literally.

Well, my fears were assuaged--sort of--when I got a call on my cell phone and discovered that in fact I was going to be picked up by a member of the faculty--the head of the magazine department, if you want to know the truth. And so it was, a little after 5 o'clock that Tuesday evening that this pleasant, if somewhat distracted 60-something man met me at the bottom of the escalators, whereupon I assumed he would bundle me into his dented little Hyundai and off we'd careen. Instead, he suggested that we dine there at the airport--there apparently being a dearth of restaurant selections en route. You know your prospective employer has a different idea about wining and dining its job candidates when your welcome-to-campus dinner is eaten out of paper sacks in the airport food court, some 85 miles from campus itself. All I can say is, it was a first for me.

But I made the best of it. The professor and I chatted a bit about campus life, about the generally parlous state of the magazine industry, and about the professor's research work. Which reminded him of something. "Are you doing your research presentation tomorrow, or on Thursday?" he asked.

"Thursday," I replied, my itinerary already committed to memory (having looked at it only about a thousand times since it had been set the week before). "Although, of course, I really won't have that much of a presentation to give," I reminded him. A week or so earlier, when this man called me to conduct the requisite telephone interview, he informed me that all candidates would be evaluated over a two-day period. Each day would be packed with meeting various deans and chairs and members of the faculty, all scheduled around two important events: One day, we'd be expected to present a lecture to a live class at the school. The next day, we'd be expected to deliver a presentation about our research agenda to the entire faculty. This had disturbed me when it was first mentioned, and I said as much.

I could be wrong about these things, but I always envisioned the proper study of journalism to take place in a kind of trade school environment. And I mean that in the best possible way: journalism, whether in newspapers, magazines, broadcast, or online, is a trade, learned best on the job (hence the need for an internship or two), and under the tutelage of people who have actual experience in the field. The two schools where I studied the trade certainly felt this way--much was made of the faculty's broad experience in the industry.

But of course, this is also an academic setting, and to varying degrees, schools expect their faculty to contribute to the body of knowledge about the field. To that end, most professors--certainly most on a tenure track--are required to do some form of research, whether it's an ambitious survey of editors across the country, or a simple analysis of media coverage over a specific event.

As I told this professor--and as I thought should have been obvious from my resume--I had spent 20 years in field, actually doing my job, not analyzing how others did theirs. I had an intellectual interest in certain areas of the field and I had no doubt those interests could be translated into academic research or a journal article or two. But I wasn't going to pretend I had this kind of research experience when I didn't.

I had been assured this wasn't an issue--that of course the school placed an appropriate level of emphasis on field experience. And I believed them. I mean, why would they waste their time and mine bringing me out to campus if they felt otherwise? And yet, it was clear they still expected me to prepare some kind of presentation about my research agenda. It was all most confusing.

But I didn't give it much thought. After nearly two months of unemployment, after 7 weeks of sitting shivering in my basement, hunched over my old computer, I was glad to get out, glad to go on an interview, even glad to have dinner in an airport food court.

I even enjoyed the 90-minute drive back to campus, talking shop with the professor, and learning all sorts of interesting facts about the area. There was only one fact whose discovery brought me up short.

"So where exactly is this University Hotel that I'll be staying in?" I asked as we crossed the city limits and I found myself reviewing my itinerary yet again. When I was an undergrad, the University Hotel at that school had been a fine affair indeed, a 10-story edifice run with commendable efficiency by the Sheraton hotel chain. I assumed it to be the same here, but a quick scan of the horizon revealed no tall hotel—no tall buildings of any kind, except perhaps the university's bell tower, and I was pretty sure I wasn't going to be staying there.

"Oh, it's just up here," the professor said, pointing to a squat, dark building, half of it covered by scaffolding and Tyvek sheeting. And I realized with a sinking heart that it was a university hotel quite literally, was in fact run by the school and its students (some of whom, I could only hope, were actually majoring in hotel management). "It's real nice," the professor assured me as we pulled into the darkened lot. "They're giving it quite an overhaul," he added, as if this statement supported his previous one. But there was no arguing the point: they sure were getting an overhaul. As I watched some Tyvek flapping in the breeze on the third floor, I could only hope I was going to be staying on the other side of the building which, to be honest, looked like every dormitory I've ever seen or lived in. I imagined a cheerless couple of nights sleeping in a narrow metal cot, beneath a single flickering, fluorescent light fixture, surrounded by cinderblock walls painted the color of infant diarrhea.

But I realized I was being overly cynical and remonstrated myself for this attitude, as we got out of the car and I grabbed my small suitcase from the back. Just because I'd had dinner at the airport and had to be driven to campus by a member of the search committee, that was no reason to suppose that my visit here was going to be in any way disastrous, or even uncomfortable.

Which was a thought I enjoyed for about 30 more seconds, right up until we got to the front door of the hotel and found it locked tight.

"Hmm," the professor said absently, as he stepped back and gave the hotel an appraising look.

"As you sure they're, um, open?" I asked.

"Oh, of course they are," he said, with just a hint of sharpness. "I'm sure we're just at the wrong entrance." Personally, I wasn't so sure. After all, there wasn't a single light on in any of the windows on the floors above. Not one. And as the professor strode down a dark sidewalk that ran parallel to the building, I took an extra second to peer in through the window set into the entrance door. In the interior distance I saw what looked like a check-in desk, completely unmanned, illumined only by the faint glow of an "Exit" sign nearby.

I trotted down the steps and followed the professor who, absolutely undaunted, took me on tour of the building from all sides. In the end, we tried every door and found one open, Naturally, it was the door next to the loading dock.

"Now we're getting somewhere," the professor said, glancing at his watch. "And good thing too. I really need to be getting home." He stepped inside. I followed him. And found myself in complete and utter blackness.

"Listen," I said, not wanting to upset the man. "I'm really thinking something's off here. Maybe we should call--"

"No, no," he insisted as he clomped blindly down the corridor, running his hand along the wall, feeling for a light switch. "I was told your reservations were confirmed for two days here."

Yeah, well, I'm not sure how comfortable I feel staying at a hotel that doesn’t have a single light on, that appears to be completely abandoned, and whose only open entrance is off of the loading dock, I thought, but commendably said nothing.

In a few moments, we rounded a corner and found ourselves standing directly under the "Exit" sign I'd seen from the other entrance. Just in front of us was a broad, flat desk, with a sign bearing the legend "check-in" hanging helpfully over it. It was completely unlit. It was obvious to me that we were the only human beings in the building.

Just then, I felt the tiny hairs on my neck begin to rise. I half-expected to stumble over a body there in the darkness, or to find the staff bound and gagged in a broom closet, while somewhere nearby--perhaps even crouched behind the check-in desk--killers or terrorists or perhaps just an unbalanced student with a gun--lay in wait. Quite unbidden, I found myself taking a fractional step behind the professor, putting his bulk between me and the desk.

"Well, this can't be!" the professor said hotly, then rounded on me. "Did you get a call or message that your reservation had been changed?" he asked, a hint of challenge in his voice, as if perhaps it was my fault the university hotel was so desolate. Of course, I'd received no such call and said so as meekly and companionably as I could. The professor kept looking at his watch—it had become almost a nervous tic by now.

"Well, you wait here for a minute," he said finally and, with a hint of impatience, strode back the way we had come.

Oh great, I thought, and began fishing through my bag for a flashlight. I didn't have one, of course, so in the end I had to take out my cell phone and use the screen light to illuminate my surroundings. The few extra lumens it put out did nothing but exaggerate the shadows and general gloom around me, although the feeble light did at least extend my vision just enough to see that there were no bodies in the immediate vicinity. I did, however, notice a light switch on the wall. I went over and flicked it up and down several times, but nothing happened. I looked around the check-in desk to see if there might be a note, a bloody handprint, anything to indicate why the place was deserted, but I was thwarted.

I was about to look for a phone--thinking it would have a campus directory with it and I might be able to call security--when I heard a car engine rev to life close by and felt a cold fist close around my heart.

Are you kidding me? I wondered as I stumbled toward the locked entrance. Did this guy just ditch me?

In my haste to reach the entrance to see if this was so, I tripped over something soft but unyielding in the corridor before me. And as I fell, both arms splayed forward in a way practically guaranteed to break my wrists, it occurred to me to wonder if this wasn't all part of some elaborate set-up. If perhaps the job interview had already started, and this was part of some complex psychological evaluation.

And then I contacted the floor with my face and finally saw some light--the bright spotty kind that flashes up brilliantly just before everything goes completely dark...

Speechless. (so far)
what the—? I can't wait to keep reading this...

BTW, my husband got the axe yesterday. I feel like we've joined a not-so-exclusive club...

better days ahead!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! meantime, I'll keep checking back for the continuing saga.
oh dear God, what was it?!

You're much braver than I, I would have run at the first locked door...
Oh I can't tell you how much I've missed your cliffhangers! I can't wait to see where this one goes.
Wow! So what happened next?!

Regarding the University hiring process: in the University I worked at we had to make sure that each candidate was treated exactly the same. Same letters, same interviewing process, same everything. If lecture was required for a position, than everyone would have to lecture. I am sure that whatever you prepared should have been sufficient - if not, than all I can say is: bullet dodged.

Of course, we don't know if you made it to your lecture, yet!
If you can write a story about a seemingly bland life event and make it an enthralling read, there's no way you'll stay unemployed for long. Good luck and I'm looking forward to reading the next part of your story!
I work in a university journalism department... sort of. And fluctuated between hope and despair that it would be my university you were visiting. Not so. 1) Its further than 90 minutes from airport to campus. b) Our "university hotel" is functioning rather nicely. Alas, its not us. But then I don't know that we could produce such a suspenseful experience......
Wish we could indeed be adding you to the faculty here. For both of us!
Can't wait for next chapter. Too bad we no longer have movie serials on Saturdays. You'd be great at writing them.
Good grief! So glad to hear something from you; so anxious to hear more. Everything happens for a reason... I just can't wait to hear what that reason is!
*bites nails*


Sometimes I really hate you, MM.

Darn those ellipses!
Hey I'm getting my first dental crown(gold) this month! Wanna sell me one of yours?
Did the old guy pass out on his way to the door?

Wow, this is one of the worst job interview experiences I've ever heard least for a professional position.
Now tell the truth here, did you major in how best to write mysteries or serial stories?
Finish the story, man! Do it now! Inquiring minds are very anxious to find out ALL the news ya know!
Holy SHit! That is not fair....
I just know the Zombies have attacked mid-American. That's it, isn't it...
ARRGH! Cliffhanger! But that's good because it means there's another post coming soon...
Two words: bad fit! Yeah, it kind of seems like they HAVE to hire somebody but don't really WANT to hire ANYBODY just from reading your story. I sure hope there was some good news at home even though you didn't get this particular job. You deserve better treatment than that MM and it makes me sad that someone as talented as you has to put up with this kind of stuff just to find work. Although I'm glad you'll be posting again sooner than the usual 3 weeks, I'm not looking forward to reading about more misery :( Our hero needs some success, gawdammit!
my goodness! I didn't expect this cliffhanger as the next section of the story.


Ya, those are back, and I love 'em!
Yay! An update! I've printed it out for maximum reading pleasure, and will be back to comment again!
Oh no, I had almost forgotten what a tease you are. Please continue, quickly. I am hooked.
Only You!
Oh my goodness. This sounds like the most awful start to an interview process ever. Can't wait to hear how it turns out...

And welcome back!
And now, I've read it. A cliffhanger, in the best MM tradition. I await, breath 'bated.
Oh, by the way, my boss asked me about writing a blog for the company website. As I remember, your downward spiral started about then.

*tapping fingers*


Cindy in CO
((Shivers)) MM abandons us for months on end and now he's BACK! I love when I get chills when I read your stories. Now the waiting begins.... :)
Oh, no, you did NOT just leave me hanging. Oh, yes, you did.

MM, glad you are back and please, for the love of all that's good and holy, pick up the story where you left off. Soon.
Dude! Just what sort of odd karmic vortex does the Mag Mansion reside in? You have some of the oddest things happen to you. Eagerly (did I say it, eagerly!) awaiting the next update! Worst case, send in Blaze! Have him give the zombies ass-strep!
I'm sorry it wasn't what you were hoping for. The research thing sounds kind of bizarre to me. I guess I would've thought journalism ran more like MFA programs do.

I hope nothing traumatizing happened next, including breaking your wrists...
Have a love/hate going on with your cliffhangers. Hope you add more soon.
Somehow, as you type those final "....." at end of these installments, I'm just SURE you've got a devlish little smile on your lips and you're chuckling "heh, heh, heh" to yourself. Bastard!

(LOVE the story, though. Finish it, dammit!)
Dude! No flashlight on your keychain?! Your boy detective skills are slipping...

I hate that these odd things seem to be always keep happening to you, but I do enjoy the stories. :)
A few years ago the gators were given keychain flashlights by a friend who is now dead. They are tigers, and the their tongues are red LEDs which light up when you push the thing that opens their mouths. Very useful when entertaining other peoples' children.
ok.... this is hysterical. i can't wait to hear the rest of the story.
....and to think I saw it on Mulberry Street....
This sounds like a writing assignment: "Describe your worst imagined nightmare interview.....Ever."

This is the first time I've wished there was a "Somewhere on the Masthead" spoiler site.

Hurry up and give us the rest. I've got too many gray hairs from the kid & his roller coaster ride already, I don't need more from you.
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