Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sketchy Academic Functions: A story about Karl Rove, my big rack, and a fellowship I didn't get

This is something I've needed to write about for a long time.

I just read an article on Jezebel about this blog post about sketchy job interview parties at the American Philosophical Association meeting, and it is hitting so close to home that I am taking a break from doggedly trying to finish my novel to write this post.

Even though I've never been on the academic job market, I am all too familiar with this scene. I worked behind the scenes for years at the annual meeting of the American Philological Association, which is the academic organization for professors of Latin and Greek. I have to say before I weave this tale of outrage that the people who run the APA are genuinely some of my favorite people on Earth. Integrity for miles. It's just too bad you can't say the same for all of the attendees.

Through the years, I saw it all at the APA. I went to every VIP cocktail party, met all the muckity-mucks. I worked the whole Saturday night circuit. I know the cheap yellow Chardonnay, the cheese cubes, and the endless uncomfortable chatting. As an undergrad with a plum internship, I got to see the fanciest side of being a professor of the classics.

I also got to learn early in my academic career about the seamier side of the profession. I learned at the conference about the absolutely prodigious amount of drinking that goes on. The hotel bar on any night of the conference is positively crawling with academics and overstressed bartenders. We'd hear at the post conference briefs about the shortage of limes, of clean high-ball glasses. I heard from hotel staff again and again that academic conferences often meant good business for the prostitutes who hung out at the hotel bars.

And as I went, I learned about the antiquated gender and class politics of Classics. That the profession is an Old Boy's Club. If you're not familiar with that term, here's roughly what it means: if you're not a rich white male, you are in trouble.

I experienced what you might call the perfect storm of these components when I interviewed for the Lionel Pearson Fellowship at the 2005 annual meeting. I was a freshman in college when learned about the fellowship, which funds one year of graduate study in Classics at an English or Scottish university, and I instantly set my sights on it. My amazing advisor Davina did an incredible job grooming me for grad school and for fellowships, and I in turn worked my ass off in school and at umpteen jobs and extracurriculars and leadership positions. I ended up applying to something like six schools and eight national fellowships for grad school. But I had my sights set on going to Cambridge on the Lionel Pearson. I nearly wet my pants with glee when I was named one of four finalists and was invited to come interview at the annual meeting.

The meeting was in Boston that year. It was my first trip to the city I now call home. I arrived with just a few hours to go before I was supposed to meet up with my fellow potential fellows and the fellowship committee for dinner.

When I arrived at the appointed meeting spot, it was a cluster of men. Young men, old men. The committee, the candidates. All men.

And do you know where we went for dinner?

Do you?

You do not.

Here's where we went for dinner.


If you've never had the misfortune of visiting this particular chain, the schtick at Dick's Last Resort is that all of the waitstaff are incredibly rude to you. The restaurant features dishes like Crab Balls and Pork Bonerz. Each guest is outfitted with a rolled up white paper dunce cap that reads somewhere between Dime-Store Pope and Ku Klux Klan, upon which your rude server will write a rude nickname for you. I think they should rebrand and change their name to Patriarchy's Paradigm. Go big or go home, you know?

If this sounds unbearable as a matter of course, I invite you to imagine being subjected to this in the company of the people who will make or break your greatest dream for your undergraduate career. Imagine, if you can, being the only woman at the table.

Imagine, if you can bear it, your hat says DOLLY PARTON.

If you pull it off immediately, will you ruin everyone's fun? If you storm out of the restaurant, will you be disqualified from the fellowship? If you concentrate really hard, will you melt into the floor and disappear? These were the questions that filled my head.

I pulled the hat off. But I did not storm out of the restaurant. I ate my fried basket of whatever and sipped a beer and tried to make the best of it. But I have never felt so negatively aware of my body and myself as a woman. My breasts felt huge under my smart Oxford shirt. When I got back to my hotel room, I was left with a slimy, uncomfortable feeling. When I called my dad to tell him about it, he told me he thought I was probably toast.

Are you wondering what happened the next day? I bet you are. Luckily, it's also a good story.

I don't remember much of the interview, to be honest. I don't think we really got through many questions before one of the professors--whom I long to call out by name but whom I will describe only as a professor from a small liberal arts school in the South--hit me with the most balls-out crazy interview question I've ever gotten.

Ms. Jones, imagine you get a phone call from Karl Rove. Here's what he says. We'd like your expert opinion on how to protect our country from Islamic extremists, based on your study of the suppression of the Bacchanalia in Rome. What would you tell him?

I was gobsmacked. That man smacked my gobs. But as soon as I regained my ability to speak, I knew the answer. "Well," I said. "I'd tell him that the suppression of a rogue religious element, like the Bacchanalia, in a nation with state-sponsored religion, like Rome, doesn't really have anything to do with the suppression of a faith in a nation with a specifically outlined separation of church and state, like we have here in the US." For a moment, I felt smug. It had to be the answer he was looking for.

However, this was not an acceptable answer. The professor who had asked the question pushed me further and further, trying to force me to offer some advice to Mr. Rove. But I stood by my response. He lost his temper. Here are the last words I remember of that horrible interview: "Ms. Jones, you are being very evasive!" That's when I knew my dad was right.

And I totally was. I didn't get the fellowship.

So, that's how Dick's Last Resort, Karl Rove, and unbelievable academic bullshit lost me the fellowship I'd spent four years working toward. I still stand by that answer, though. What a dumb question.

Luckily, my interview for the Mellon Fellowship a few weeks later went a lot better, so I wound up with a bigger, better fellowship in the end. I wound up going to the University of Texas. And, well, you know how that went.

...the Aristocrats!

What's the worst interview you've ever had?


  1. Worst interview question: I studied my algorithms book before an interview for a few days prior thinking we were going to talk about efficiency and optimization on certain hardware. I was instead asked what the difference between "const char *", "char const *" and "const char const *" is. I was stunned and didn't get it right. It's a minor syntax question - something you look up in reference. So instead of asking me to reason about a problem, I was asked a knowledge question. Whatever, didn't get the job but probably for the best. The resulting job I did take was the best job I had ever taken.

  2. OMG!!! How is it that I didn't know this!!?? You realize this should have been reported as sexual harassment?! I'm so sorry that those assholes treated you this way. And yes, they were assholes. No too ways about it and I really, really don't give a damn if any of them read me calling them assholes. I love you so much and I feel so bad for not protecting you from this bullshit. Thank you for forgiving me.

  3. My Davina!! If I never told you the part about Dick's Last Resort, it's probably because we were too busy freaking out about the Karl Rove part of the incident, haha. At the time, I was so much more upset about not getting the fellowship than the awful weirdness of the trip to Dick's. Regardless, it's all in the past and it certainly isn't YOUR fault that things went down that way! It was a valuable lesson about the way of the world, unfortunately.

    1. I don't remember Dick's Last Resort either. Is it possible I blocked the incident? Is it possible that you never mentioned it to anyone? I remember being angry at the Pearson folks, though. Didn't one of the professors skip the interview?

      At least you didn't have to rap about the Elgin Marbles!

  4. This is terrible, on the one hand, but made me snort wine out my nose, on the other. The only thing I find surprising about the incident is that they chose such an un-snooty restaurant - or am I missing some classiness here? Normally those boys like their port, don't you know.

    @Davina, I regretfully have to side with Penelope Trunk on this one. Reporting sexual harassment rarely achieves the desired effect. I think it's better revenge to live well. And of course point and laugh at the assholes involved, just in case they hadn't realized they were assholes before this.

  5. The choice of restaurant remains the single most baffling part of this ridiculous story. If I am feeling charitable, I imagine the chair of the committee misguidedly asking the concierge to recommend a place that young people would like. If I am feeling less charitable, as I often am, I think that these dudes were such bros that it would have never occurred to them that the place was inappropriate. Maybe they'd had enough port and were ready for some Pork Bonerz naw mean

  6. No, no. Any reasonable person would have walked out and found a more suitable place the instant they walked in there. It still just doesn't make sense.

  7. Alas, Dr. Jones, I can't possibly compete with that mole merdi bouis exflagranti. I did recently have a reviewer take an entire paragraph to explain to me how a Homerist would have handled my topic. That was fun. But I've never had to wear a giant paper condom on my head at a pre-interview paene-circle-jerk like you described. Geezuz! I really hope you reported the crap out of them, right back to the stone-age. It's sickening and embarassing.

    My best interview question, though—since you asked, came from a, lets call him a "professor," at a major southern "university," one you might know pretty well in fact. I won't use this "professor's" name, but think first man in space, the name may come to you. well, anyway, this arrogant, puffed up, self-important, bile-filled, badger-nasty "professor" opens the interview with the traditional "so, tell us about your dissertation" question. One minute (or perhaps less, time was moving at a glacial speed at this point) into my response, he leans back in his chair, crosses his legs, pulls back his sleeve, and looks down conspicuously at his watch. It was a grand gesture. This is followed by an equally conspicuous crossing of the arms and what felt like an hour of glaring. When I had finished, he responded with an old favorite, the "well, wouldn't it be easier to just ... ?" bayonet to the belly. But that was it, it took me about a minute and a half to get from hand shake to toast; my ψύχη flitted off to Hades bemoaning it's lost youth and I was done. The next 20 minutes seemed to last for about nine years, and only in the tenth I was finally able to leave. I probably should have listened to Kalkhas.

    I don't know what it is about the APA that seems to bring out such infantile biliousness, but every year I leave that hornets' nest feeling like I need a week long shower and an emetic. The sad thing is, I love my job. It's the best and most fulfilling job I've ever had. I mean, I get paid to do what I'd do as a hobby if I weren't paid to do it. But, God, I hate my profession. And your experience, just adds to that feeling (that is, the feeling of my dinner about to come back up). But I do really really wish you had reported them. The fact is, you and I have both had something we really loved ruined by unprofessional and wholly unnecessary behavior, by of a clique of stupid assholes, who, unfortunately, only wind up learning that they can continue to get away with the same old crap; that they were right. And so the system perpetuates itself, because it selects against those who would actually make it better, in favor of those who just make it bitter for the rest of us. (sorry, got a little ranty there. But your story touched a rather raw nerve). Anyway, another good piece, Dr. Jones. Keep it up. Fight the good fight.

  8. Your Fellow Franklin ClassicistDecember 13, 2011 at 11:30 PM

    Oh good god, Katie, I had NO IDEA that this happened--how simultaneously horrible and ridiculous. And I can't help but wonder how well I know that classics professor from a small Southern liberal arts college. Specifically, I wonder if it was the same one who told my classicist boyfriend and I that he should be the one getting the Ph.D. and I should be the one getting the terminal masters and teaching high school, because didn't we know that that was how it worked?

    Funny to say, I have a very vivid memory of the first time I was the only female at a classics outing. It was only a few years ago, when my advisor, a member of my dissertation committee, a fellow grad student, and I all took a speaker out to dinner after a talk. I felt exactly as you described: so strangely *embodied*, as if for the first time in my life. I had never been more conscious of my female-ness, of the fact that I had parts that they didn't have and they had parts I didn't have. And this was at an extremely classy restaurant, with extremely classy (and, I would gather, mostly feminist) men.

    Sadly, now that I'm done with the Ph.D. and into full-time teaching I am discovering that this was only the tip of the gender-differences iceberg. But I'll tell you more about that next time I see you.

  9. Good Lord. That sounds absolutely surreal. Your blog reminds me that I need to maintain my own blog... Randomly, I have to tell you that I love your posts. I'm remembering the post about The Baby-Sitter's Club book series now... ;)

  10. Jordan: Thanks for reading, darlin! :)

  11. MC: When I got to first man in space, I shrieked with delight. I remember that story. God, what a bunch of assholes. You are so right about the whole thing being so self-selecting. That's why I have so much love and admiration for people like you and Fellow Franklin Classicist who are out there doing their thing despite all of the negativity.

    And yes, FFC, we're talking about the same professor of questionable ~moral~s. I forgot that you'd also had your share of run-ins with him!

  12. When applying to be a residence hall assistant at a teeny tiny, Catholic school in New Hampshire...nudge, nudge, Davina...I was asked if I would take a resident in the dark of night to have an abortion if she asked me to

  13. I, for one, oppose dark-of-night abortions. It's by daylight or nothin' with me.

  14. I know, srsly. they can't see anything. what if they took something essential by accident? like an appendix? i need my appendix all the time. p.s. this post was so appropriate because I have a job interview IN 3 HOURS!!!! I'm sweating my proverbial balls off I'm so nervous. it's the first real interview I've been offered since moving!

  15. You must have learned the proverb about balls at that Catholic school.

    Good luck at the interview, porkchop!!!

  16. Wow. This makes a great story, but seriously, what a nightmare! Disgustingly unprofessional, sexist, humiliating FAIL by the Lionel Pearson committee. So unfair to have your serious hard work, scholarship, and original thought shat on by those old school bozos. Dang. PS- I like what WorstProfEver said about living well being good revenge, but it would have also been nice to turn the humiliation the other way with a stinging harassment claim. Oh, well. Hopefully lots of people read and learn from this post.

  17. That's my hope too. I think the reason I didn't report it at the time is that it didn't feel like a black-and-white case of harassment. After all, they hadn't been the ones to put the hat on me. They just forced me to go to the restaurant. I think it took a few years of retrospect to realize what had really happened

  18. Holy Balzac! Really?! Dick's Last Resort for a classics fellowship meet n' greet?! Who does that shit? The world needs to know. What was the clincher for the Lionel Pearson Committee's restaurant selection: 'dick' or 'last resort'? Name names, girl. What kinda frat boy douche bag move is that? What I want to learn from your horrible experience is the names and addresses of the committee members. Living well is great and all, and keep that up, but you have unemployed and indignant friends who are fascinated with google search result rankings and how to modify them. Dicks like that deserve to be publicly humiliated. Consider it Dick's Just Deserts. Oh, and i miss you so hard. Challah at your gurl!

  19. Oh, my RoxyRox. The secret is that Classics is a reallllly small profession and everyone basically knows who I'm talking about, right? If not, it only takes a sec to Google them...


  20. I CANNOT BELIEVE you left Dick's Last Resort out of the version I heard. Dolly? The words, they fail me.
    I can't follow that with my pitiful account of being asked for my five-year plan at an interview for a part-time gig proofing contact lens packaging.

  21. It seems clear to me that they wanted to have a reason to flunk you on the interview, so they set up this situation to get you to do something to get you to fail. I am a man, and I would have considered it an insult beyond endurance to be taken to such a place. No job is worth compromising your integrity to get it, not to have to kowtow to a bunch of arrogant idiots. It is only a foretaste of what they will expect you to put up with in the future.

  22. All true! Thanks for reading, Jay :)

  23. Nothing so extreme, but the interview at which I was the only woman and the youngest candidate by a decade--I can't possibly have been the best qualified woman to apply--and the all male interview committee joined us for lunch and talked obsessively about football (UK soccer).

  24. I never thought you one to bury the sapphic-erotica lead, but there you did: "the prostitutes who hung out at the hotel bars."

    Will not leave my whole story, too offensive: I said, "not that there's anything wrong with that" in a job interview to an interviewer who probably didn't appreciate the Seinfeldian allusion--I didn't care--I put a big paper dunce cap on her head and wrote "What Knockers!" on it. Totally awesome.