Friday, May 10, 2013

“Open hailing frequencies, Mr. Worf.”

A year or so ago, I applied for a job, an administrative position, at a nearby private school.  This was a position I really wanted;  it wasn’t just a job for the purpose of receiving a salary and benefits (though the benefits – including tuition waivers for my children – were a major inducement).  My two decades of professional preparation in education seemed to have prepared me for this exact position, almost as if its appearance in the online want ads was preordained.

Does anybody still call them “want ads” anymore?  But I digress…

I submitted my vita, cover letter and a number of references.  And I was quite gratified when, from what I can only imagine must have been a national pool of candidates, I was contacted about setting up an interview.  This was good news, though it was not without its special set of stressors.  As a “corpulent American” (are we a protected class of citizen?) I am incredibly aware of the fact that clothing, even proper, businesslike formalwear, does not sit on me the way it does on, say, George Clooney.  My body makes the fabric do things it normally wouldn’t, and probably, if you asked it, would not wish to.  That, plus, men are generally expected to wear ties.

Oh, dear.

I love ties.  Every time I’m in Macy’s (which happens often, as I have to walk through it to get to the stores in the mall that I actually shop at), I hover droolingly over the Jerry Garcia ties, wishing: a.) that I could afford them; and, b.) that my neck were more human-sized.  For even if I spent $200 on eight gorgeous Garcias, I would not have the shirts to wear them with.  Oh, I have plenty of shirts; all of my shirts have 18-½ or 19 inch necks.  And the shirts fit me fine, relatively speaking.  Except up there.  For me to wear a tie requires a shirt with a 20-inch neck, and that means specialty stores, and that means $50-60 for a shirt, and those are the sale prices.

To put this in perspective, an adjunct college instructor in upstate New York who teaches a full load – three classes in the fall, three in the spring – grosses, if he or she is lucky enough to land at a better-paying institution, around $23,000.  Extra-duty assignments (tutoring, paid exam grading, etc…) can bump that up to around $30,000.  There are no benefits.  Adjuncts do not get asked to teach summer sessions.  Sixty-dollar shirts ain’t gonna happen.  Ixnay on the Arciasgay.
But then, on top of that, I found out that the interview was going to be a Skype interview.  My first.

The concept is simple enough.  Every Star Trek episode ever, where captain Kirk, or Picard, or whoever the spin-off shows’ captains were (I gave up after a while) barks “On screen!” to have a video chat with some alien life form aboard another ship – that’s Skype.  It’s a pretty simple principle.  And aside from the fact that the starship U.S.S. Enterprise was never cursed with Windows Vista, it should work pretty much the same – smooth, seamless and natural, like talking to a person sitting across the table from you.

Not so much.  Webcams are small, with a very limited field of vision. I was interviewed by a committee, which meant that they had to, whenever a different person wanted to question me, physically lift and re-orient the webcam so that I could see that person.  It’s also unusual to have such artificially limited feedback; not only is the field of vision limited, but the resolution, both audio and video, is less than optimal.  There is a lot of subtle information, signals and other cues –subvocalizations, body language, proxemics, not to mention whatever may be going on off-webcam – that gets missed on Skype.
But the worst part is that humans, when speaking with other humans, like to look each other in the eye, and it seems that no matter what you do with Skype, you can never actually achieve this.  If you look straight into the webcam, you cannot track the facial expressions of the person to whom you are speaking.  If you look straight into the monitor, you are looking the person in the (virtual) face, yes, but your own face will show up as looking somewhat askew or aslant.  (When I catch my own image in the inset picture myself and see that, I tend to subconsciously make a slight corrections to “straighten myself out,” and this of course has the effect of making it even worse.)

For me, it all heightened the anxiety of the experience.  And I hate most interviews, even on a good day.  I find them trite and formulaic. Even interviewers I’ve spoken with hate the generic boilerplate questions that they are directed to ask.  The format itself is in no way an organic conversation, and is of limited value in assessing the worth of a candidate.  Skype makes this even worse, for me anyway, and I think in my case, it shows.  This does not bode well for my prospects with any would-be employer that wishes to interview me via Skype.  (If you are a would-be employer, please disregard this paragraph.  These aren't the sentences you're looking for.)

I get it. I know why employers do this.  It’s not to be trendy for the sake of trendiness; let’s leave that to grade-school educators and their stupid keep-up-with-the-Joneses mentality towards tech adoption.  In a national search, you simply have to extend the same privileges to all of your applicants equally.  I lived only 20 miles away from the school, but other applicants may well have been in other states, or even other countries.  It would not have been fair to offer me a face-to-face interview, and not offer it the other candidates.  And these days, in this economy, I suspect only schools with 9+-figure endowments are willing to pay to fly in interview candidates.  No hard feelings.  "Bygones," as Ally McBeal's  Richard Fish would have said.

I did not get the job.  Was it because there was a more qualified candidate?  Sure, that’s a possibility.  I’m good, but I’m not so hubristic as to think that I de facto trump anyone that a national search would turn up.  (Yeah, I kind of am.)  All I’m saying is that the interview didn’t help.

Maybe Q (of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame) had a point:
"If you can't take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It's not safe out here. It's wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it's not for the timid."
Fast forward to this year.  One of my colleges announced openings for two tenure-track positions in my department.  I love this particular school (anybody on the Committee reading this?) and am desperately hoping I get one of the two positions.  I left teaching in secondary schools two years ago, and if I can afford it, I do not expect to go back.  (Click and read here for more on that choice.)  English, however, is a nasty discipline in which to try to find full-time work.  In the nine or so years that I have been teaching and applying for college English positions, I have learned that it is perhaps the most competitive of the disciplines, often with well over 100 CVs submitted for each tenure-track position at the community college level.  Time for that hubris to kick in.

When I was informed that I had been selected for a first-stage interview, I was ecstatic. (I had applied last year, and the year before, and not even been granted a preliminary interview!)  I have no numbers, but I’m guessing they would have whittled down 200 applicants to perhaps 20-30 for that first round.  Then I got the email:  “Please send the Committee your Skype contact information and select one of the available time slots.”

To quote “Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie, “Oh no, not again.”

The interview was, in my opinion anyway, a train wreck.  For all of the reasons I mentioned above, and more.  However, I made it through to the next round, a fact I credit to the various Jedi mind tricks I surreptitiously employed to bolster my chances.  (Yes, I know, I pulled an Obama, crossing over between Star Trek and Star Wars.  What of it?  While I'm on the subject, however, do any Star Wars geeks out there know if Jedi are able to use their mind-control techniques over electronic communications media?)

The second round was a teaching demo.  I would imagine that perhaps half, or slightly fewer, of the Skype interviewees landed teaching demos, I’ll guess 8-12.  This is more my element.  I think I performed pretty well in the sample lesson, though I had to wait a week to find out I had made it through to the next round, which was a references check.  I was pretty sure that no one on my references list had any grudges or vendettas to fulfill against me, so I thought that would go well.  It took nine or ten days for me to for me to come home from work and find this message on my machine:  “Hi, Andrew, this is so-and-so from the Provost’s office.  We’d like you to contact us to set up an interview for the English position.”

Woo-hoo! Hot damn!

I just got off the phone with the Provost’s executive assistant a couple of hours ago. She tells me that it’s going to be a Skype interview.

*facepalm*  Damn you, Q.

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