August 13, 2003

Conference Culture

I recently discovered a new weblog by another academic -- and another mother who knows what it's like to lug a large baby in a stroller up and down the NYC subway steps (permalink may be bloggered; scroll to Friday, August 08). Indeed, it sounds like she lugs two children up and down those steps. Laura, I salute you.

In her most recent entry, Laura offers some hypotheses concerning the upcoming APSA conference that she plans to attend:

1. Even though this is a political science conference, I will hear no one discuss the war in Iraq, the coming election in CA, or gay marriages.
2. The handful of women at the conference will be wearing baggy suits with elastic waists and large ethnic jewelry.
3. None of the women with tenure track jobs will have children.
4. I will meet more people without jobs than with jobs.
5. Most will be too fearful to leave the convention center to hang out in Philadelphia.

She is soliciting additional "educated guesses." So let me add one that relates to the annual American Historical Association conference:

The desperate jobseekers will be readily identifiable: they are the ones who are noticeably, if uncomfortably, better- (or least more formally) dressed.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at August 13, 2003 11:41 AM

I would add that the liklihood of women conference-goers wearing baggy clothing and ethnic jewelry increases with their being tenure-track...there has to be a connection there somewhere. If this were an education conference, you would hardly find anyone under the age of 50 attending, and would see lots of jumpers with apple applique's.

Posted by: Cat at August 13, 2003 01:19 PM

The best description I've heard of gender-related fashion trends at conferences: "lots of women in loose-fitting knits."

As far as men's fashions go, I think the crimes have been addressed in many other places. Perhaps there's a similar tenure correlation sample in the number of men wearing green pants.

As far as "desperate jobseekers" go: if they interview in the customary 2-bed 2-chair suites that some search committees use for their 3-faculty-member panel interviews, ask them who got the bed. The best (worst?) story I heard (and the reason I'm posting this anonymously) about an interview experience involved 2 professors in chairs and 1 senior professor (now emeritus) stretched out on the bed interviewing the hapless candidate.

Posted by: at August 13, 2003 10:44 PM

What's really bad are the postmodern-oriented educational theory conferences. One guy showed up in torn jeans, wearing socks and no shoes (and he was tenured)! I guess he couldn't be confined by modernist footwear, even by Birkenstocks!

Posted by: Cat at August 14, 2003 10:17 AM

Just to point out that there is less than universal uniformity in academic conference fashion - the business and economics national conferences are pretty much formal suit-only affairs. I know that it horrifies my friends in the humanities, but I must say I much prefer it. It certainly makes for a swanky looking group. No elastic waistband or clunky jewelry or misguided attempts at vaguely ethnic designs. What a relief.

Job candidates can usually be identified by age. But just to make sure no senior faculty embarrase themselves by acknowleding a lowly Chicago graduate student (mistaking him, perhaps, for last year's stunning junior hire), the ASSA mandated that all persons paying the student registration fee have "STUDENT" displayed in large letters underneath the name of the person's institution.

Job candidates often report the vaguely discomforting feeling of having everyone's eyes slide down to that scarlet letter on their badge, and then disregard them altogether.

Posted by: Matilde at August 14, 2003 10:55 AM

Shrug. Any you infotech guys ever seen Liam Quin?

He goes to conferences barefoot, and if he insisted that I take off my shoes before listening to a talk of his, I'd do it, because Liam Quin is bloody smart and bloody knowledgeable and a fairly decent speaker in addition.

All this emphasis on clothes -- I guess this is where I part company with IA. I can't make myself care. And knowing that the clothes mavens here would keel over dead on the spot at my own wardrobe is really only a small part of my unconcern; believe that or not, as you choose.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at August 14, 2003 12:10 PM

Matilde, that's awful. At least the MLA hasn't started branding graduate students' convention badges like that. Which means that there's maybe an additional moment of "hmm, reasonably well-reputed university, but s/he looks too young to be important" before the senior faculty finish reading your badge and ignore you in the elevator.

The correlation between ethnic jewelry, baggy clothing and tenure holds true in my field as well. Not everyone wearing a suit is a jobseeker, but jobseekers almost always wear suits. (And nervous expressions.)

Posted by: Amanda at August 14, 2003 12:34 PM

I'm not overly concerned with clothing, but I do think it is funny that many people in academe who come from middle to upper-middle class backgrounds insist on the "bohemian" look. I spent 4 years as an art major and art departments are chock full of this phenomenon. This isn't true across the board, but coming from a lower-income background my friends and I always thought it was strange that people with money always tried to look like they didn't have money. When you come from a lower-income background and want to traverse across class lines, you are taught to dress the best you can. It's hard to shake that upbringing.

Posted by: Cat at August 14, 2003 12:46 PM

APSA is mercifully free of the come-up-to-my-hotel-room interviews that I understand are common at the December-January conferences. Conference interviews aren't a major part of the political science hiring process, because APSA falls too early in the academic year. Very few departments, other than those at tiny schools that can't afford flyouts, conduct them at all; we proceed directly from application to flyout.

Posted by: Jacob T. Levy at August 14, 2003 03:39 PM

Actually Jacob, the job search dungeon -- er, interview room -- always seems reasonably busy at the APSA conferences.

True, there aren't a lot (any?) of the big name schools interviewing there. But some not-so-tiny schools try to save money on flyouts by interviewing at APSA: last year the University of Victoria in Wellington, New Zealand had a table, and this year I suspect Auckland will be sending some people, as they have a search underway. Good schools, both of them.

In spite of being useful for some schools, I'd nonetheless like to see the whole ritual go away. If you cannot put together a good shortlist based on cv's and writing samples, then I doubt five minutes at a crowded sweaty conference is really going to clear matters up. You certainly aren't going to be able to judge that ever-amorphous but critical "goodness of fit" factor in such a setting. I suppose it might be a way to gauge the seriousness of desirable applicants ("you've bothered to come to the conference and talk with us, but will you really leave San Francisco and come to New Zealand?"). But even this seems rather hopeful: it's easier to be deceitful or charmingly noncommital during a breezy five-minute chat than a two-day on-campus grilling.

If they do keep the ritual, they should bring in comfy sofas, soft-light lamps, and a caterer for good coffees and teas.

Oh, and in addition to dropping (or radically altering) the interview ritual, I want subsidies for well-tailored suits. And free lunches (why listen to the economists?)

Posted by: Random polisci guy at August 14, 2003 05:42 PM

I did many conference interviews when I was on the job market, and I found them enormously useful.

Have you seen those ads in urban papers for the singles event where everyone talks for a few minutes and then rotates around a table: "8 minutes is as long as a blind date should be!"? While a 30 min -1 hour interview probably isn't long enough to decide a final candidate/job, it is long enough to elimiate several of them from the running. This is true for the candidate as well as the committee. Lots of things show up in person that aren't apparent on paper: interest (in their work and in you), communication, general collegiality, etc. Don't get me wrong: they weren't fun - it was exhausting - but it was very useful.

There's no free lunch offered at the ASSA meetings ;). There is, however, a cash bar.

Posted by: Matilde at August 14, 2003 06:19 PM

" While a 30 min -1 hour interview probably isn't long enough to decide a final candidate/job, it is long enough to eliminate several of them from the running."

This seems plausible, but the APSA meetings really are more like the eight-minute dating sessions: 15 minutes, maybe 20, surrounded by table upon table of nervous, self-conscious candidates in a vast hall, talking over the din, cv's clutched in hand, with a pen of other anxious candidates stacked in chairs behind them ...

not sure anyone comes off especially well in that light, so I'd worry about false positives on the preliminary rejection decisions.

The alternative you mention -- 30 minute to 1 hour, probably in-room interviews -- have their own delightful pathologies (or so I've heard from friends who suffered through the interview rituals at the MLA and APA meetings), but I suppose they do yield more information than the APSA "chamber of horors" approach.

Posted by: Random polisci guy at August 14, 2003 09:34 PM

Conference interviews are an abuse. You get to pay to go to some convention hotel for them to weed you out. Those bastards can bloody well afford to fly you out for an interview.

I believe that the conference interviews were useful to the schools weeding me out. Because of my unusual Ukranian-Jewish name, i got conference interviews with schools looking to diversify. You know, people with weird names must be... Half of them couldn't get my gender right either. Once i showed up at the interview and they saw that what they assumed was not true... well... i was wasting their time. It's hard to tell sometimes, but i think i had about 3 real interviews in 5 years of searching.

What a joke. Hindsight is 20/20, but I should have finished the diss and not bothered looking for a job. Would have saved myself a lot of money and grief. So... to all of you in the final stages of your academic career, I'd recommend that you withdraw the money you have saved for airfare to the conference, go to the race track and bet it all on the longshots. It's a far better return on your money -- especially if you lose.

Posted by: che at August 15, 2003 10:03 AM


Regarding your observation that middle class folks dress down so as to appear not overly-affluent, there is a great book by David Brooks called BOBOS IN PARADISE (Bourgeois Bohemians). It addresses this very issue, among a host of others. He examines the need of the educated elite to practice "one-downmanship". Overall, he looks at how the well-off classes try to creatively combine the bourgeois imperatives of respectability, acquisition, and love of work with the bohemian demands for simplicity, authenticity, and community. A good read...

Posted by: Chad at August 15, 2003 10:41 AM

Perfectly fair point about overseas institutions looking to recruit on the N. American market conducting APSA interviews. Still, conference interviews are a much less significant part of poli sci hiring overall than they are of most of the peer disciplines I know of-- philosophy, history, econ, literature/ language. (ASA is in August, too-- do sociologists have conf. interviews?)

As far as dress goes: one curiosity about poli sci is that it functions like a cluster of disciplines, each of which seems to have different norms. The formal/ rational choice/ methodologists often dress in very sharp suits, like economists do. Field-researcher Latin Americanist comparativists might dress something more like anthropologists do. This sort of thing makes reading status off fashion fairly difficult.

Posted by: Jacob T. Levy at August 15, 2003 11:14 AM

"The best (worst?) story I heard (and the reason I'm posting this anonymously) about an interview experience involved 2 professors in chairs and 1 senior professor (now emeritus) stretched out on the bed interviewing the hapless candidate."

The AHA says this type of situation is a big no-no, and I believe most schools follow their guidelines on this point (though not on many other points concerning job searches: e.g., informing candidates as soon as they have been eliminated from an applicant pool). The tradeoff: since many schools cannot afford to rent a proper suite, they end up conducting 15-minute interviews in a large and very noisy hall.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at August 15, 2003 11:59 AM

I've read the hotel-suite horror stories, but I must say that every one of my hotel-suite interviews was conducted with the greatest of consideration (more grace, certainly, than I think I would be able to summon after being trapped in a stuffy hotel suite with my collegues for three days straight), given the circumstances. I was always offered the best chair, appologies were made if the school couldn't afford or obtain a suite, meaning that the bed was in the room, even if no one was sitting on it. Nor did any of my fellow job seekers report anything but the most polite and considerate behavior.

Would that I had such high praise for the behavior of hiring committees at other times, particularly in the final stages. One school refused to return any of my phone calls after a three-day campus interview. One school made me an offer at dinner, and when I asked for a week to think about it and talk it over with my partner, the chair hung her head in her hands and practically sobbed, "I know that means you're going to turn us down". One friend of mine told me one school called *her advisor* to find out where they stood. Perhaps because at this stage you've actually spent a good deal of time together that the behavior just gets so much more personal.

Posted by: Matilde at August 15, 2003 01:16 PM

On a related note: I've just received information about one of the two conferences I'll be attending this year in search of a job ( . . . let the third time be the charm!).

Anyhow, the first conference hotel's discount rate is a staggering 190 bucks a night.

Anyone here have a more depressing scenario?

Posted by: Sam at August 26, 2003 10:34 AM