Unsuitable candidates

Brilliant thinker, shame about the suit: dossiers retrieved by Belagir M. Synkina reveal academic search committees' encounters with genius

August 20, 2009

Name of applicant: Chekhov, Anton

Not quite sure what to make of this candidate. He sat looking at the committee with a gentle, ironic smile, as if he were auditioning us. One committee member (not the chair) thought his politeness masked a secret superiority. Light humour, but frankly an insurance risk, coughing constantly throughout the interview. The Russians don't offer decent health plans yet. Of course, this shouldn't be a consideration, but we found him too modest and genial (has Xanax reached Moscow?) without the go-getting attitude needed to add to our growing department's valuable contributions to the demise of humanism.

Name of applicant: Buchner, Georg

Credentials in both science and the liberal arts suggest a young scholar who lacks focus. The committee moreover agrees that this one is trouble: obsessed with the French Revolution and evidently already well known for subversive activities in his Hessian hometown. Possible star hire in future should he calm down. He may be a hit with undergraduates who "get" him, but isn't worth the predictable administrative headaches.

Name of applicant: Alighieri, Dante

The committee has already come across self-proclaimed poets who fancy themselves too elevated to take on grunt-load coursework. This laurel-seeker was particularly unwilling to compromise - even over our seating at the Modern Language Association conference. He insisted on taking a chair among us in recognition of some official position he holds in Florence, and began raging in terza rima at the suggestion he might set up an exchange programme with his home town. When will the Italians get over party politics? At most, bring him in for a visiting lecture (pay return airfare) after he has written his supposed great work, in which he has now threatened to consign members of the committee "to the lower pits of Lucifer's realm". We are more than happy to let him wander, untenured, until then.

Name of applicant: Austen, Jane

At times a charming candidate, but too coy to fit into our department of women's studies. A bit too pleased with herself, say the senior members of the committee, and clever but already outdated, think the younger ones, who tried to engage her, but received pithy witticisms rather than engaged debate. She displayed a queer aversion to critical terminology, and sketched the layout of the hotel conference room and lobby as she fielded our questions. Occasionally amusing, with a tact that may not help her to be valued as a serious scholar, she seemed uninformed by contemporary models. Her research on the paradigms of marriage and status among the landed gentry proved disappointing in person. When asked how she would integrate an understanding of alterity into her work, she remarked that it concerned other than her immediate interests.

Name of applicant: Tolstoy, Leo (interviewed in England)

We recommend something sensible from Marks & Spencer and a different hairdresser for the candidate to cut a more reputable figure at any future interview. While he scorned the beef sandwiches (although there were cheese and pickle too, and a vegan plate could have been ordered if he had made his dietary preferences clear), his chances truly began to go off when he asked the other candidates and staff how they intended to live moral lives. Even before the questions at his personal interview, he inquired if lepers could be hired as teaching assistants. While Slavically born, educated and souled, he must surely have undertaken his doctoral work in the American Midwest, perhaps with a year abroad in the Middle East, in the company of his fellow zealots. Despite his off-putting air of nobler-by-birth and holier-than-thou, he showed an uncanny understanding of our staff's fatigue, faculty frustrations in the hiring process and the nerves of fellow candidates. Some may consider the insight into people and sweeps of history - which he covered in his 15-minute presentation on the functions of great men, impiety of marriage and destiny of Russia - possibly beneficial. But we opted to forgo a colleague who is both mind reader and messiah. When the committee called to inform him of his rejection, the front desk reported that he had left on a mission to succour British serfs, after disparaging the hotel furniture.

Name of applicant: Socrates (surname?)

At first the candidate's own list of questions felt refreshing, but soon became counter-productive to the interview process. His spirit of inquiry masked an indifference to time constraints and a passive-aggressive need to dominate the conversation. As another candidate cooled his heels, the request for him to conclude his thoughts on the ideal society scarcely registered as we wondered if, then began to wish that, someone would spike his drink.

Name of applicant: Rimbaud, Arthur

The candidate is not suited to a university environment except as an expellable member of a fraternity - if one would take him. The committee unanimously withholds details.

Name of applicant: Orwell, George

The candidate, while learned for an Englishman (obviously we prefer French cachet in literary and cultural studies), made evident his disdain for our common professional language. On the contrary, he expressed his adherence to the concept of "lucid" prose throughout the interview, and dismissed the idea of scholarly discourse in a haughty public-school way. But the real deal-breaker was his insistence on having every other semester off for reporting on the conditions of the working class, and to be funded for faraway travels that he couldn't justify by conference attendance. What gathering is worth revisiting in Catalonia? This leeway is unthinkable at the assistant, associate or even full professor level at our institution. The committee sighs as one.

Name of applicant: Kafka, Franz

Diligent, quiet, yet why so anxious at the thought of moving from corporate insurance to our welcoming department? His attitude may be symptomatic of an ambivalence to more than modern languages. When reminded the position is full time, he asked about holding the overflowing "Introduction to German" classes at half for a term, to "test his nerves in monstrous daily life". The phrase strikes us as odd, as does his chafing at the admission that he's still living at home. Besides these moments, the committee cannot put its collective finger on any blot that makes us demur, but we refrain from recommending his candidacy. If there were an investigation, we could pin nothing concrete on him, but would still find him guilty.

Name of applicant: Dostoevsky, Fyodor

A contrast to the last Russian: overwrought as he opened the door; trembling as he took his seat; frantic before the first question; and cursing his assistant (who he called "slave" - not a good omen for graduate mentoring). We too believe in problematising questions of good and evil, yet the committee's priority is faculty harmony. An entry-level position will not relieve his pressing debts, we imagine from multiple student loans. While admiring the fervour that would engage less sophisticated first-years, we prefer to leave burning bushes on the mountainside, rather than pot them in adjacent offices.

Name of applicant: Flaubert, Gustave

A clear publications risk: his answers were rewritten into illegibility on the race and ethnicity questionnaire. When queried, said he took pains on the style of his first book - a novel! A good analytical intelligence shows a capacity to teach graduate seminars on middle-class life in 19th-century France. But how delayed his emails - how belaboured his lecture notes - and catastrophic to assessments of departmental productivity.

Name of applicant: Whitman, Walt

An exhibit for gender studies, but not a likely teacher of it. The candidate just tried too hard with the committee, telling us we were all part of one great democratic body. We are long over the metaphysics of flagwaving in critically minded academia.

Name of applicant: Proust, Marcel

I felt happy to reach the conference site: its beaches of salt-washed pebbles stuck to my foot, as the stares of luxuriating tourists fixed in my mind, under the white towers of towns Unesco had been bribed to protect. Why should I think of the conference city, whose outside I never reached? Perhaps to avoid reliving my encounter with airport security, who confiscated my nostril-hair scissors. This was before the conference and interviews whose candidates' names, and panels whose topics, for misbegotten papers, I hardly recall. Perhaps it is this suite, discounted at the conference rate, the well of innumerable lattes, or the aura of one aesthetic interviewee, that induce reminiscence. Without receiving an offer, he asked to teach only after midnight, and to be given a cork-lined office: unthinkable, but his charm evokes my growing nostril hair, and clippers left behind in the airport like any other... (The committee interrupts the chair's reverie to conclude that this was the most cosmopolitan candidate we met - but one we found too beguiling to hire, and too much into doing whatever it is we know he's up to in his own time.)

The gainfully doctored Belagir M. Synkina enjoys dipping into unsuitable candidates' pith and erudition, in the transatlantic teaching of moving images, across the straits of academe.

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