Bedside Manners

Jonathan Bellman

As we approach this year’s national meeting of the American Musicological Society, a not-so-young man’s thoughts turn to the cattle-call, ten-minute mini-interviews he (and countless others) endured when on the (always miserable) job market. I don’t know if they’re still done this way, but the late 1980s and early 90s they were often done in hotel rooms; a dozen or so hapless candidates bearing CVs and articles would queue outside a designated room, and the representatives from the University of X would receive callers inside, with varying degrees of respect and politesse.

I have heard that some female candidates felt uncomfortable with the situation: a hotel room, often male interviewers, etc. For whatever reasons–perhaps having to do with my being a balding, bearded male with a wedding ring and barely suppressed rage–this particular problem never affected me. I’d have thought more of my fetching manner and winsome ways, but no.

So, you walk in, smiling expectantly, not knowing if there will be civility or a buzz-saw. The time I remember best, I was greeted with a condescending half-smile and asked about my research. (The second gentleman was dead silent the entire time, but sincere at the hello and good-by.) I handed my interlocutor an article draft, my earliest work on the Hungarian-Gypsy style in the nineteenth century, the style hongrois. After two or three sentences, the guy shrugged, said something like “Well, you’ll need to establish that it really was a unified style,” and quite literally tossed my article back in my lap … and I was out the door.

I offer this unhappy memory for two reasons:

1) Faculty interviewers: Don’t EVER treat anyone like this. Yes, you have jobs, and gosh you may be tired and desirous of some alcoholic refreshment, but you need to remember what it feels like to be unemployed in an increasingly insecure market. Maybe hiring standards were different when you went through; perhaps a phone call from your advisor was good enough, or you didn’t have to have any juried publications at all at this early point. It is very different now.

2) Candidates: Remember your worth, and the worth of your work. (If you don’t have confidence in your work, of course, you shouldn’t be there.) For purposes of illustration: the disdained article that was tossed back in my lap became my second major article, later my first book (didn’t sell much, but it was reviewed), other articles later on . . . and now is almost a sub-discipline; a superb English dissertation was just completed in this area, there are at least two CDs of style hongrois repertoire (using that appellation), etc. I knew something was there, regardless of how I was treated; had I taken this guy’s attitude to heart, I would have crawled away and never attended another AMS.

Moral: Have confidence and knock on other doors. Just because a person has a job and you don’t does not mean she or he is an authority in every area, and is equipped to judge your work—particularly on the fly, after already running through a batch of interviews.

People have even said that candidates should boycott mini-interviews, because they can only have negative results. I was never hired because of one, but I have to imagine that making as many connections as possible is a good thing.

Gird your loins, but do participate. Corraggio! Here’s wishing the very best of fortune to hiring committees and candidates alike. Let the games begin!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to Bedside Manners

  1. Phil Ford says:

    I’ve wanted to hear someone to say something like this for some time — the importance of being nice to grad students at AMS. I think AMS is a uniformly depressing experience for grad students — I know it was for me. I’m now in the position of having to cajole my own grad students into going, saying “oh, it won’t be that bad,” when I know damn well it will be. Grad students end up feeling degraded to the lowest form of human life. It’s not just the bad cattle-call interviews; it’s the pervasive experience of being ignored, of having to go up to some eminence grise and say “uh, I really liked your article on ___” and have them totally blow you off the moment someone more important walks by. Grad students can take some comfort from the fact that something like this still happens to their professors, too.

  2. Jonathan Bellman says:

    Full disclosure here–this was not my general experience at AMS meetings, just the interviewing process. Actually, the first Big Name to whom I was introduced as a grad student at an AMS was very friendly, and has continued to be so to the present day. (OK, since you insist: Joshua Rifkin.) I was warned (by a professor, in fact) that whole experience would be demoralizing, and it *never* was. There was always a mix of great, pathetic, and so-so papers, old friends and profs from undergraduate school, the book tables, etc.
    Perhaps the difference was that my wife (Prof. Deborah Kauffman, now) and I could do the conferences as a couple, and so did not self-ghettoize “over with the grad students.” We also dressed up, which many grad students seem to make a point about not doing. Heaven knows I am not innocent of youthful in-your-faceness, but if you program in your own marginalization from the beginning, well . . . ?
    In my experience, it wasn’t the Big Guys who were condescending and dismissive, it was the also-rans. Several people I met as a grad student and new/unemployed doctorate have been princes to me–supportive and encouraging and interested.
    Last word for the newbies: go in expecting to be treated well and the chances increase markedly that you will be.

  3. Jeannette says:

    In response to Phil’s comment, I do think that in the last few years, some grad students have rallied together to make AMS a bit less depressing for their (our) colleagues. With the student welcome table, the student website, the student reception on Thurs night, hopefully, these things will make the conference a little less intimidating and give the newbie grad students a foothold to grasp onto. There’s no manual about what an academic conference is supposed to be like–how to behave, what to wear, what a session is supposed to be like. Hopefully, more information is provided to the grad students because of these endeavors.

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