This is one of the most trying times in the academic year.
Job candidates are feverishly monitoring the Academic Jobs Wiki and reading one another’s Facebook status updates for clues. “Did she just check into the Madison Marriott? OMG!”
Successful job candidates, having received an invitation to campus, are trying not to panic as they memorize the names of deans, the titles of books written by department members, and courses offered.
Hiring committee members are attempting to schedule 3 finalists into 5 days of meetings, job talks, campus tours, and dinners at mediocre local restaurants.
The stakes are high. The blood pressures are high. Every now and again, a member of the department is high.
Everyone has a story about campus visits gone awry. The candidate passes out in the middle of the job talk. The senior faculty member says something grossly inappropriate at the reception. A candidate requests some time to take a swim at the campus pool; he gets that time, but he sees on his itinerary that he’ll be swimming with the department chair.
And then there are the epic tales. The ones that make the rounds at conferences, that make listeners cover their mouths and laugh in dismay.
These are the Campus Visit Horror Stories.
We love hearing and telling these stories. Perhaps it’s wrong of us, but we can’t help it.
Partly it’s Schadenfreude. These are tales about the cream of the crop, the 1% who make it to campus and somehow blow their chances. This makes us feel better about our own failures. Or it allows us to smugly conclude that we would never have done such things.
And partly it’s because campus visits are the reality television of the academic profession. Over 1 ½ or 2 days in one claustrophobic classroom building, a group of strangers interact in situations designed to make everyone involved feel awkward, uncomfortable, and anxious. It’s a train wreck waiting to happen! We can’t look away! It’s too delicious.
But these stories also have a compelling narrative arc, as stories: an outsider arrives in a strange place, there is a spectacular event or revelation that changes the plot, and then the outsider returns home. They hit on all cylinders for good storytelling: short, packed with action and emotion, and easy to retell to others.
Campus Visit Horror Stories do not usually contain a moral lesson (except in cases of excessive drinking) but they do expose the ridiculousness of the academic job market, and its rituals. They allow us to talk and laugh about it. Because if you can’t laugh about it, you’ll just sink into despair and binge-watch “Arrow” on Netflix.
And so in celebration of the Campus Visit Horror Story and all that it brings to academics’ lives at this time of year, I offer three of them from my personal archive:
The job candidate is having a terrible visit. The job talk is flat and uninspired, the Q&A merciless. The students yawn through his teaching demonstration. The meetings with faculty are stilted and punctuated by long silences. After a painful dinner, the search chair drives him back to the hotel.
“I’m not getting this job, am I?” he asks the chair.
“I think it’s pretty safe to say you are not,” the chair replies.
After moping in his room for an hour or so, the candidate pulls on his coat and goes to the bar across the street. He has a few drinks, gets a little belligerent, and ends up in a fight with another patron.
In jail, the police take his mug shot and his fingerprints, and ask him if there is someone he can call.
The only phone number he has on him?
The search chair’s.
The Lesser of Two Evils
The first candidate comes to campus. The entire visit goes splendidly. The job talk is great, the teaching demonstration is dynamic, the dinner is convivial. Until the end, when the candidate picks up his plate. And licks it.
The second (and final) candidate comes to campus. The entire visit goes splendidly. The committee waits anxiously throughout dinner but the second candidate merely eats what’s on his plate, then gives it back to the server. The committee breathes many sighs of relief. The search chair drives the candidate back to the hotel. On the way, the candidate asks, “So what’s the department’s policy on dating undergraduates?”
So. Who did the department hire?
The job candidate visits a campus during one of the worst winters on record. He drives from his own house, as the college is only an hour away by car. As he and the department chair walk across the quad to the meeting with the dean, the candidate slips and falls, twisting his ankle. He limps to the meeting and sits through it, trying to ignore the pain.
“Are you going to be alright?” asks the chair.
“I don’t know,” says the candidate. “It really hurts.”
They make their way back slowly to the chair’s office, where the candidate sits down. The chair pulls out a drawer in his desk.
“Here,” says the chair, “take this.”
The candidate takes the aspirin the chair is offering to him. He doesn’t feel any better for a while and then in the middle of his job talk, he starts to feel terrible. He feels like he is talking very, very slowly.
Somehow he makes it through the dinner, and then gets in his car to drive back. The next morning, he wakes up in his apartment, but he doesn’t remember how he got there. His ankle is killing him, so he goes to university health services.
“Did you take any medications?” asks the nurse.
“I took an aspirin,” he says. “But it made me feel really woozy.”
The nurse asks him to describe the pill. When he does, she says, “That was no aspirin.”