Saturday, March 31, 2007

Working for the Man -- Part II

Okay, so I admit I had never heard of St. Mary's College in South Bend, Indiana, before I traveled there in May 1989 to interview for a teaching job in the political science department. By then, I had interviewed at three other schools -- University of Kentucky, University of Central Florida and American University -- and received offers at all three places. I had ruled out Kentucky within fifteen minutes into my dinner with my prospective colleagues. Having flown in late that afternoon after a close encounter with near-death on the flight into Lexington from Atlanta -- we had to turn around 15 minutes into the flight after the captain announced "some problems" with the cabin's air pressure so that we could land and de-board to another plane -- I was in the mood for a stiff, cold and exceptionally bracing Martini and some lighthearted conversation, perhaps about NCAA basketball, why they called Kentucky the "blue grass" state when all the grass appeared to be green or why, at the restaurant I had been taken for dinner, the hostess deemed it necessary to practice her kick-boxing routine between seating customers. Instead, I was asked by one person after another -- ten, in all -- about the "dependent variable" in my dissertation, and whether, given my research design, I was confident that I could avoid a "confounding" effect among my independent variables should I decide not to "tweak" my model.

Well, this was all news to me. I knew what my dependent variable was because my dissertation committee had made sure to tell me before I defended by dissertation. Before I left for my interview, I had written my dependent variable down on a small piece of paper that I could pull out of my pocket just in case I needed a quick refresher. But "confounding effects" among my independent variables? Tweaking my "model?" All right, then! Who was I to argue, especially since I didn't know what any of them were? But I just couldn't see spending the first five or six years of my career before I was denied tenure -- an inevitability in this department, which took its variables, independent and dependent, very seriously -- with these people. No sooner had my ginger ale with a lime twist arrived -- liquor was not served at this restaurant, another major blow in the interview process -- than I decided that the University of Kentucky was not the place for me.

My visits to Central Florida and American were uneventful . . . in a good way. Each visit required me to teach a class and that was fun. There was little, if any, discussion of my independent or dependent variables, and someone at Central Florida had done enough homework on me to extol the advantages of living so close to so many baseball spring training sites and high-quality public golf courses. I had just been to Orlando six weeks before with my dad to watch baseball, and we had eaten at a phenomenal Chinese restaurant. I mentioned this place to one of my hosts, whose eyes lit up with almost sexually-charged excitement. "Off the menu!" he exclaimed. "Order off the menu! They'll do it for you. First-rate people. Tell them I sent you!" Baseball, golf, warm weather and good Chinese food . . . I had found Jewish heaven. Teach for 25 years or so, find a nice condominium in Phase III of Grassy Pines, an early-bird special, a little shuffleboard, a pool with complimentary afternoon cocktails . . . could this be too good to be true?

As it turned out, it was. Unfortunately, the Florida legislature was unaware that a sub-minimum wage salary was not going to buy greens fees, high-quality Chinese food, baseball tickets or place settings and window treatments, much less all the things that my about-to-be-wife was planning to buy for the new house that, since we didn't know where we were going to live, we hadn't picked out and, until I had an actual job, couldn't afford. On the upside, I escaped being governed by a Bush.

So that left my trip to St. Mary's. I knew all about Notre Dame, for no other reason than I had grown up a college sports fan, and at that point in my life I still followed college basketball. The job for which I was interviewing was a "joint appointment" with Notre Dame, which meant I would teach two courses each year that students from Notre Dame could take with St. Mary's students. In 1989, the only way to learn more about a school you had never heard of was to go to the library and read the Barron's Guide to Colleges and Universities. Paging ahead to the S entries, I was struck first by just how many St. Mary's Colleges there were. Was this like interviewing for a job with I.B.M., where I would start in South Bend and then get transferred to Connecticut, settle in, only to be transferred again to some place like Maryville, Ohio? That wasn't the case, as it turned out. A little more research showed that St. Mary's was an all-girl, Catholic liberal arts college with a "strong" and "historic relationship" to Notre Dame, which didn't admit women until 1972.

Okay, then! I could just see the headline in the Atlanta Jewish Week: "Jewish Ph.D Not Good Enough to Teach at Brandeis Gets Job Teaching Shiksas at Catholic Women's School." But, dammit, Delta flew to South Bend, and I needed the frequent flyer miles to help offset the travel costs I would incur settling into my new job, wherever that might be.

So off to South Bend I went, eager to see just what an all-girls Catholic college looked like. I went to graduate school at Emory, which, rooted in the Methodist Church, was really the southern most tip of Long Island or the last exit south on the New Jersey turnpike. This would be, if nothing else, an interesting lesson in life.

My hosts did not disappoint. I was met at the South Bend airport by a male Notre Dame undergraduate and a female St. Mary's undergraduate. They were unfailingly polite and interested in my material comfort, so much so that the driver told me to reach "into the cooler for a brewski" if I needed some refreshment from my flight, which required two changes of planes. I demurred, unsure if this was some kind of set-up or just genuine Midwestern hospitality. We then arrived in downtown South Bend, which did not appear to have the shopping and amenities that would please my about-to-be wife, who made it clear to me that I was doing this interview for the "experience." Silly me. I thought I was doing it for the frequent flyer miles.

After a brief tour of South Bend -- there really isn't any other kind -- my driver took me over to the St. Mary's campus. "Another tour?" I asked.

"No. You'll be staying here tonight, on campus, in the guest suite in one of the dorms."

This was no joke. We pulled up to a dorm that looks exactly like you would imagine a dorm at an all-girls Catholic school looking -- sort of a cross between a medieval nunnery and early 20th century maximum security British prison. My male host carried my bags, and my female host handed me a schedule of my agenda the following day. As soon as we walked into the dorm, all eyes immediately turned to me for no other reason than I was a man -- sort of -- with a suitcase entering a woman's residence at 11.30 at night. We checked in with the front desk and, yes, there was no mistake: I was staying in a college dorm to interview for a job as a professor. No matter what happened next, no one I knew could top this in their job interviewing experience.

And it got even better. After my hosts took my suitcase to my "room" and wished me a good night, I headed to the bathroom to take a shower and decompress after a long day -- except there was no shower . . . bath only! A quick mental calculation on my part concluded that I had last taken a bath, to the best of my recollection, about 22 years before, when I was five. I was a shower guy; my sister, a bath girl. That's how you could always tell us apart. That, and we were anatomically distinct . . .

So I managed to get about four or five hours of sleep before waking up at 6 a.m. to dunk my head under the bath faucet and put myself together for what would become my last job interview.

The day started innocently enough. I met with five bright-eyed, perky St. Mary's students for breakfast in the university cafeteria. The "chair" of the student search committee volunteered lots of useful information about the school and the ambition of St. Mary's women, all of which I would have found no doubt as interesting as she did if not for the fact that one of her search committee peers insisted on playing "footsies" with me under the table while another one discreetly elbowed me so I would take the note she had written me. "Did you get my note last night?" read a small piece of paper slipped under my door. I shook my head, even though, yes, I had gotten A note the previous evening that simply read, "Come to room 424."

This was weird and getting weirder, for no other reason than I had never had this kind of interest from women when I was in college, much less getting ready to start teaching college. Breakfast adjourned right at 8 a.m., just as my schedule said it would, and I was then handed over to another student guide, who walked me over to the main administration building, where, for the first time since I arrived, I would speak with someone who was not enrolled at either St. Mary's or Notre Dame. According to the schedule, the woman with whom I would be meeting was the Dean of Students. None of the other three schools where I interviewed had a Dean of Students. They all had Deans, and plenty of them, but not a Dean of Students in the Dean Wurmer mold from "Animal House."

After being greeted by a receptionist, who assured me that I was "in the right place," I took a seat and waited for this Dean of Students to appear. And waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, thirty-five minutes after my scheduled appointment time, a large, unsmiling woman walked over to the bench where I was sitting, icily stuck out her hand and introduced herself to me as the Dean of Students. She did not say, "I'm Mary Ellen McKenzie, the Dean of Students," just "I am the Dean of Students."

I followed her into her large, oak-paneled office, which, for an academic, was mysteriously lacking in books. I noticed lots of glass angels and other figurines, but nothing that suggested an informed and reflective life. After 2o seconds of her opening line of questioning, I came to doubt whether any printed material in her office included an update on civil rights law or post-Miranda interrogation techniques.

"So, Mr. Ivers, when do you plan on becoming Dr. Ivers?" she oooomphed. This was her way of asking me when I was going to defend my dissertation.

"I defended a month ago," I responded, uncertain as to whether this was the answer she was looking for, since it was the answer that any other academic with hiring authority wanted to hear. "I'm glad that's over."

She studied me for about ten seconds, and I began to wonder if I had said something wrong by admitting I was happy that I had finished my dissertation.

"All right, young man, let me be direct with you," she said. "I know why men your age interview at my school, and if you think you're going to come here and treat these girls like your personal sex toys you've got another thing coming. Are you listening? It wasn't my idea to bring you in here, but since you are here and you'll have to deal with me on academic matters, if not other things," she said, raising her one eyebrow with a look that implied the word "things" involved sex acts then, if not still, illegal in Indiana and perhaps all the former Confederate states, "let's get the do's and don'ts real clear right from the start. These girls are students and you are here to teach them -- nothing more. Is that clear?"

I was tempted to say, "Well, what am I supposed to tell the student representative on the search committee who invited me to her room last night and the other one who was playing footsie with me for breakfast? That I'm just some big tease? Is that really fair to them?" But I didn't. "I understand the professional line between student and teacher. I'm getting married in six weeks, so I think we'll be okay."

"Let's just hope you stay married, because if you come here to screw around you'll lose your job and your wife. Capiche?"

I capiched all right. I don't remember what the rest of the conversation was about, and even after I left my interview with the Dean of Students I don't remember much about the rest of the day, other than the constant presence of crucifixes in campus buildings and in classrooms. Just like the "dependent variable" discussion sank my future at Kentucky, the thought of this nameless Dean of Students, who resembled a disgraced ex-javelin thrower from the East German Olympic Team, following me around campus sealed my decision to pursue a career as an oil lube technician at my local Goodyear should I not get an academic job offer. What could possibly happen next in my visit to South Bend?

Plenty, as it turns out. The same student representative who invited me to Room 424 the night before was driving me to the airport. Our conversation turned to more mundane matters -- the cold winters, the lack of anything to do in South Bend except drink beer, which was encouraged by the low beer prices and near around-the-clock happy hours at most local drinking holes. I thought our little episode had run its course until I leaned in the window to thank her for the ride and the hospitality.

"424. I'll be there," she said, putting her hand around the lapel of my suit jacket. "Don't forget me."

I had no plans to return to St. Mary's, so the Temptress of Room 424 didn't concern me too much. But as the clouds lowered and the sky began to darken, giving way to fog and rain, returning to South Bend was less a concern than being able to leave. After a half-hour delay in boarding, our flight attendant announced that we would begin to fill the plane -- all 15 seats -- for the "short" flight to Cincinnati, where I would transfer to a nice big jet and fly home to Atlanta. Our little delay resulted in some seating changes on the flight, and those changes resulted in the most memorable 45 minute flight of my life. But that is a story that will have to wait for the next installment in the chronicle of my adventures in the job market.

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