Thursday, 21 April 2016

Believing and Performing

Is there anything more stressful and more horrifying (in our pampered, otherwise happy, comfortable Western lives) than a job interview?...

Yes, yes there is: it’s the academic job interview.

‘Candidates will be expected to give a 5-minute presentation outlining their research intentions over the next four years…’

Or, also scary: ‘Candidates will be asked to deliver a 5-minute presentation on the outline of a course they would like to propose to the Department, based on their research…’

That insignificant, small, perfectly doable-looking thing (5 minutes, no problem, I can do that easy) completely takes over your life for the next week or two, or however long it is that you’ve got until that interview. Maybe I’m just sensitive, or slow, or terrible at research; I don’t know, but planning that 5 minute speech opens up can after intellectual can of worms: I realise, to my horror, that I don’t know anything.

It’s that thing where a teaching job is advertised, and you can’t quite resist the lure of it; you hesitate, because the job advert makes clear that research will be expected of you, and you're not convinced that research is your friend (cf. the entire body of writings here on ‘I Hate My PhD’); some well-meaning colleagues urge you to apply, telling you the job has your name on it; finally, a compliment from a student about your nice teaching makes you decide to go for it; you wade bravely into the sea of uncertainty and confusion that is writing a research proposal; before you know it, you are miles from the shore and you feel like you’re drowning, but you carry on, telling yourself, like Macbeth, I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more / Returning were as tedious as go o’er… (cf blog post where ‘I wonder what would have been a good time to quit.’)

And you carry on (no, it's fine, I can do this), and you watch, in horror, as the clock ticks on, and the time available to you for all the other things you have to do – prepare answers to questions about your teaching, research the institution, and so on – shrinks and shrinks, because that bloody 5-minute presentation is just not ready. You’ve needed so much time, so many days, just to get to grips with that 5 minute bit that you’re now wondering, shit, what about the other 40 minutes of the interview??...

Yes, I’ve been lured into it again: another academic job application. For a teaching job that I would really, really like to have, teaching things that I would really like to teach. But they want research too. So I’m sitting here, preparing to give it to them. I sometimes question the sanity of my actions.

I could go on and on about the horrors of the academic interview; the words they use, the myriad of topics you must be ready to talk about, the almost surreal scenario where you have to hold your own in front of, like, five senior academics who are experts in their field and yours… I won’t go on, because I haven’t got time, and also because I want to convince myself that I am amazing. Because there’s no point going in there unless I am going to go in there feeling utterly certain that I am God’s gift to scholarship and learning. So I refuse to say anything negative about this interview. I am amazing. I am God’s gift. I’ll be great tomorrow.

Here is a nice quotation from our friend Nietzsche (from his work Human, All Too Human…) which I think goes rather well with interviews (and vivas!).

'If someone obstinately and for a long time wants to appear something it is in the end hard for him to be anything else.

[...] With all great deceivers there is a noteworthy occurrence... In the actual act of deception, with all its preparations, its enthralling voice, expression, and gesture, in the midst of the scenery designed to give it effect, they are overcome by belief in themselves; it is this which then speaks so miraculously and compellingly to those who surround them. [...] Self-deception has to exist if a grand effect is to be produced. For men believe in the truth of that which is plainly strongly believed.'