Brow Beat

Why That Casual Sex Ad from the MLA Conference Was Terrifying

Job interviews at the MLA conference can be desperate and uncomfortable and often happen in hotel bedrooms.

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Literature professors should be proud. Their annual meat market, the convention of the Modern Language Association, made the national news—by which I mean Gawker. What, mayhaps, could be gawk-worthy about a gathering of 7,500 socially-awkward pasty-faces? It seems several MLA attendees wanted to turn aesthetic theory into praxis, if you know what I’m saying. To migrate some intersectionality and push marginal utility to its liminal state, nudge-nudge, wink-wink (all subsequent links, like any worthwhile Craigslist ad, are NSFW).

Me: academic visiting for the weekend. 5’7.” Trimmed beard. Disease free. Into mild D/s and spanking.” Just in case attendees didn’t feel spanked enough by the airfare and standard conference-hotel elevator decorum of snide name-tag scoping. Or consider this one, which involves wire-rimmed glasses, and requests: “Put ‘office hours’ in your subject line so that I know you’re real.” I hope my students enjoy attending “non-creepy talky-time with the door wide open,” because that’s what I’m calling it from now on; “office hours” has been ruined forever.

But it was one treatise in particular that garnered the attention of our national media. Now a textual artifact, willed for destruction by its creator like so many of Kafka’s manuscripts, its title was “MLA mock-interview make-out session.” Its content: a veritable triumph of postmodern prosody, involving sidelong glances and pedagogical methodology:

I will arrive at your MLA hotel room, in my interview suit, ready to discuss my research, my place in my field, my theoretical approaches, my teaching methods, etc.You ask me the appropriate questions and listen, interrupt, challenge, acting as a typical faculty member of a hiring committee.

Before this ad went regular-person-viral, it lit up the academic Internet. Though few begrudge pent-up colleagues their fun, this particular ad was terrifying, because what it sexualizes is nothing less than the single worst moment of your average academic’s entire professional life.

Conference interviews often do take place in hotel rooms, and frequently involve the candidate perched on the end of a bed like an ugly-suited sex worker who has a bad feeling about this one. That “interrupting” and “challenging” is, in real life, the wretched act of fielding increasingly hostile questions from a bored tribunal, the idea being that only when you vanquish them may you then join their ranks.

The idea of doing this for fun—even with full consummation between consenting adults—is truly macabre. For a normal person, this would be like sex-playing the act of getting sentenced to prison. “I’m the judge, and I’ve just put you away for the nonviolent crime of your choice. I see you sitting pathetically on the bench, surrounded by your wailing offspring, and I say: Justice is served. Then we see what happens.”

Because the academic conference interview isn’t merely “fraught with tension.” Search committees wield complete power over hapless Ph.D.s who are desperate for these jobs, because they often mean the difference between a middle-class existence and food stamps. Sexy, I know.

Luckily, in true self-reflective scholarly fashion, the mock interview maker-outer was, upon garnering his fame, contrite. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s career website, Vitae (where I am a regular contributor), got him to talk on the record, explaining that he was “ashamed” to reify “power structures and abuses toward which I harbor great opposition.” He then went so far as to amend the ad: “I understand now I have done a disservice to all scholars who are victim of these structures, and all those who will be victims of it in the future. I am sorry.” Although, really—should he be? Maybe the joke’s on the rest of us, because he had at least 10 sincere takers. And I’m sure it was by far the best interview any of them had.