“the dreaded theory question”

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.

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10 thoughts on ““the dreaded theory question”

  1. I’m not sure whose argument this supports, but wouldn’t this committee likely (though not necessarily) have read the writing sample that the interviewee mailed out?
    The writing sample seems to be the more likely site where one’s politics will be recognized. I’ve been interviewed 4-5 times now, and no one has asked me a “theory” question that directly.

  2. Hmmm…after reading “Winston’s” blog, I have even more reservations about his position. I think it’s important to keep in mind that hundreds of capable applicants with fantastic credentials (and from all political positions) will be unable to get the tenure-track jobs they want this year….Or maybe when I go into interviews, I should just use the secret leftist handshake…

  3. “hundreds of capable applicants with fantastic credentials (and from all political positions) will be unable to get the tenure-track jobs they want this year”
    Yes, but isn’t it a shame that the conservative ones will all be turned down because of their political beliefs?

  4. Of course there are exceptions and excesses, but in general departments are looking for three things at an MLA interview (and even more so during a campus visit): who’s the smartest person in the candidate pool, is the person we think the smartest also a strong bet to negotiate the tenure process (in other words, you may be brilliant but if you can’t commit words to paper in a productive manner you’re not going to get hired), and is this a person we can stand to be around for at least the next six years. I think the notion of overtly political, let alone theoretical litmus tests are much overstated; that said, academics are people too (though some over at Invisible Adjunct would disagree) and it should come as no surprise, particularly in small departments or small towns, that academics want to work with folks they find agreeable and with whom they might have something besides a PhD in common.

  5. Marxist Literary Critics Are Stealing Our Jobs!

    Via George, I came across Winston’s Diary, a blog by “a job seeking graduate student [of literature] who will remain anonymous until tenured, rejected, or so sick of academia that I leave it.” Winston, as George points out, discusses his…

  6. It’s also, frankly, peculiar–or, perhaps more precisely, an index of over-the-top convervative paranoia–to think that one’s theoretical interests reliably index either one’s attitudes toward the literary tradition *or* real-world politics.
    For example, one of the reasons I was offered my current position is that my version of Lacan apparently serves as a (to mix psychological metaphors here) sort of Rorschach test. To the people who are interested in _au courant_ versions of theory, well, I fill that bill nicely. But because I’m interested in Lacan’s critique of historicism, and hence in the–to oversimplify a little for the purposes of the point–the transcendence that literature offers, the “conservatives” in the department are all convinced that I’m secretly speaking their language. (And the vast number of colleagues who fall outside either category are just pleased that I can teach Victorian fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and aren’t really even aware of my outside interests.)
    As I have said before ( http://jbj.wordherders.net/archives/000904.html ), my introduction contrasts the (relatively monolithic) American reception of Foucault with his own more varied pronouncements, and then stages a sort of argument between Foucault and, say, Edmund Burke and Arthur Henry Hallam. And my chapters-proper never once quote a single literary theorist. By Winston Smith’s logic, I should be unemployable, and yet I’ve done just fine.
    (Yes, this means I’ve been asked theory questions. But since one of my credentials is a certificate from a Psychoanalytic Studies Program ( http://www.psp.emory.edu ), I more or less invite it.)

  7. Agreed. The hiring situation is complex. The relationship between “theory” and “real world” politics is complex.
    As I tell my students, the study of language and literature thrives on disagreement. To think otherwise is to ignore what happens in the majority of journal articles and scholarly monographs. *How* you disagree with others is as important as what the basis of your disagreement is. No one wants a colleague who does nothing but make snide remarks under her or his breath about other people’s work. This is true, I would argue (well, at least for me), on both sides of the political spectrum.
    A conversation in which everyone stands around agreeing and saying, “Yup”, “Yes”, “I agree”, and “Isn’t it obvious?” is kind of flat. (Er, no offense intended with regard to this particular thread.) But a conversation in which the exchange is composed of nothing but fevered and caricatured versions of each other’s arguments is similarly unrewarding: “You think there’s no such thing as truth! But would you argue that Abraham Lincoln isn’t dead? Huh? Would you? Yeah, that’s what I thought” … “Well, you want to make sure that we only study dead white males! Admit it!”
    There has to be a middle ground. I’ve written before (in an adhoc sort of way: http://ghw.wordherders.net/archives/000371.html and http://ghw.wordherders.net/archives/000378.html ) about conversations, and I think what I had to say in those posts — that there are a variety of “moves” that can be made in the “game” of conversation — applies to this situation. If you only have one move to make with those who disagree with you (a “challenge,” say), then you’re unlikely to do a good job of playing the game.
    This is part of the collegiality that hiring committees are looking for. In my opinion, if you come across as a stridently bitter crank (on *either* extreme of the political spectrum) and you reduce your chances of getting hired.

  8. I think there are a lot of theorists who fit this multiple coding. Bakhtin has been picked up variously by fairly conservative and more liberal readers of literature, just to name one other example.

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