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?