In a cavernous hall in the basement of the Toronto Sheraton Centre, a scene unfolds that has shades of some nightmarish future world in its terrifying anonymity. It is the interview room for the job market at the MLA conference, with row upon row of four-person desks in which candidates sit in turn for interviews lasting less than an hour.
The big universities have hotel rooms, sometimes roomy suites, upstairs in the Sheraton or in the Hilton down the street. But with about 1,400 positions in English and foreign languages to fill, by the latest count in the MLA's October job listing, the basement hall serves as a factory farm for many smaller colleges.
Waiting at Desk No 46, Saadet Bozkurt and Donna Wyckoff of Baskent University, in Turkey, have been working through some 20 applicants for eight posts. "It is not a very pleasant process," Ms Bozkurt says. "It's very tiring. We get them for about 30 minutes. We then go back to people when we think we need more information." Baskent opened for business in 1994 as Turkey's first private university of health sciences. Its pink-and-green brochure boasts mainly of the dialysis units and geriatric and psychosocial rehabilitation centre. Instruction is in Turkish, except in the Department of American Culture and Literature, which Bozkurt chairs.
It is probably safe to say that the ambitious graduate student, whether from New York or Mississippi, might think twice about a year's contract to work 20 miles west of Ankara teaching "immersion in the cultural mosaic that is the United States of America". But good jobs are scarce. Fewer than half of PhDs in English and foreign languages find full-time positions that promise tenure down the road, a recent MLA report says.
"I'm looking for a job," says Kenneth Speirs, a graduate student of New York University. He scans the vacancies board with a friend who has flown in from South Korea for interviews that failed to materialise. Speirs is delivering a paper that evening in a programme on post-colonial Melville: "Having the Colonist for Dinner: Amalgamation and Cannibalism in Typee". His 60 applications have produced three interviews. Successful meetings here will hopefully produce a "fly-back" to the college for short- listed candidates. "The word around the campfire is close to 400 applicants per job," Speirs says. "If I were an ant, it's sort of like being in an ant colony."
The four days of the MLA conference can turn into gruelling marathons for interviewers and job candidates, with most meetings crammed into the two middle days. Both sides are apt to turn giddy after one cup of coffee too many. Many graduate students have half a dozen interviews lined up. Blair Hoxby, a highly regarded Milton scholar at Yale, was working through 17. Universities typically send teams who work ten-hour days in shifts.
Graduate students pace the halls in suits and ties, trying not to forget the university room number, or whether they billed themselves as an early Victorianist or a late Romanticist. It is talked of as a bumper hiring year for 17th- and 18th-century literature; modernists are less in demand.
"It's like a meat market," says Montserrat Linares, a Barcelona native specialising in 20th-century Spanish literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She is waiting outside the interview room, working her way through ten interviews as she struggles with a bad cough. "You see who is interviewed before you, you can hear other people talking. Sometimes the interviewers are talking to you, but looking at other tables. But it's not that bad. I would do anything, go anywhere, if they are going to give me a job."