Winston’s Diary, a blog written by “a job seeking graduate student [of literature] who will remain anonymous until tenured, rejected, or so sick of academia that I leave it,” describes “the dreaded Theory question” at MLA interviews. “Winston” fears that answers to that question will reveal political leanings, causing conservative job candidates to be turned down:
According to ìthe rules,î potential employers arenít supposed to be able to ask you about your politics. But, given the highly politicized nature of theory, how can the theory question not constitute a question about politics? If I start talking about I. A. Richardsís influence on my work, I reveal myself as a literary conservative. And if I talk about A. C. Bradleyís influence on my reading of Shakespeare, I think that makes me a literary paleo-conservative. Whereas if I mention Foucault, or Said, or Derrida, Iím a fellow traveler. In many ways, the answer to the theory question reveals the candidateís politics, or at least the candidateís politics in terms of literary scholarship (though the two generally go hand-in-hand, in my experience).
Methinks “Winston” doth protest too much. I seriously doubt anything like this will happen. I had seven job interviews the year I was hired for this job. No one asked me a theory question, “dreaded” or otherwise. Instead, I was asked about my research, my teaching, and a little about the administrative work I did as a graduate student. The committees that expressed the most interest in me were from departments that had faculty who did work similar to mine. In my case that meant, mostly, book history and humanities computing. On one of my campus visits I did mention Judith Butler once, in the context of something completely unrelated to my dissertation on eighteenth-century Methodism, but aside from that, I can’t think of a single situation in which I felt I was being tested regarding my politics.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most hiring committees don’t care if you name-drop theorists or not. But they’d like to know that you’re keeping up with the latest developments in your field, and if the only scholars you mention as influential were born in the 19th century, you’re not likely to make that impression.