Monday, July 30, 2007



"Interview My Sweaty Pits"


Eleven years ago, I was twenty-nine, and I had recently left my job teaching composition at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (after three years there, my annual salary had skyrocketed to all of $19,000). In the hopes of making more money, which would, in turn, give me more choices in life, I decided to try snaring a job in Minnesota's community college system. After all, I'd done my undergraduate work in Minnesota, and I had a host of friends and relatives living there--not to mention the lure of all those hotdishes featuring potato chips crumbled on top, a claim to the legend of Paul Bunyan, and some of the highest taxes in the country! Who wouldn't want to live in such a state?

After I blanketed the state with my CV, the first college to call me for an interview was the one located in Austin, Minnesota (the much-ballyhooed town where pigs are boiled down and stuffed into tins labeled SPAM).

When I arrived for the interview, the dean came out of the conference room, shook my hand in heartfelt and homey fashion, and asked, "So, are you ready for your teaching presentation today? Do you have any materials for the committee? Will we need to set you up for a Power Point or anything?"

My response to this was to stand, slack-jawed, while considering how quickly a heart rate can elevate. Sure, I was ready to answer some questions and all. But teaching presentation? Huh?

Honesty on occasion being a good policy, I snapped my mouth closed enough to answer something like, "I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about. Teaching presentation? I got nada here, dude."

As it turned out, the college had sent me a large envelope containing details about the interview and instructions for this presentation.

I received this envelope, quite helpfully, the day after the interview.

In that moment, there with the dean, I was tempted to tell him I needed to withdraw from the search process, that I couldn't complete the interview after all. But then I remembered I'd ironed a shirt for the occasion, and I don't iron for nuthin' hardly nohow, so I decided to wring some worth from my efforts to appear crisp. I took a leap and said, "Any chance I could just wing it? What's the presentation supposed to cover?"

Interestingly, my question flustered him. Even though he was heading the search committee, and they'd already interviewed three other candidates, he couldn't quite remember the assigned topic for the presentation. "It's, hem, er, something like dissonance in expository writing and how you'd go about teaching that. Let me go check for sure." With that, he pitched off frantically towards the conference room, the untucked tail of his shirt billowing out behind him.

As I awaited his return, I brainstormed, "Okay, Self, you've been teaching college writing for five years now, and you've never heard of dissonance in expository writing. But, to Self's credit, you do know what dissonance is. Let's say, hypothetically, there were a president who claimed he was the best candidate for the position of Commander in Chief, even though he had high-tailed it away from all military calls in his past, while his opponent had actually served in a situation of war and been awarded honors for his bravery and all. And let's say the voting public bought the spin that a yalla coward who shirked his duty was, in fact, better suited to lead the armed forces than someone who stood up and fought...speculating here, however ludicrous it may sound--that the voting public bought that line and its hook and its sinker. Yea, there's some dissonance going on in such skewed thinking, right? So maybe dissonance in expository writing has to do with writers, hep me Jesus, thinking one thing and yet writing something else entirely? Okay, okay, okay, I can b.s. my way through this thing. GOOOOO, Team Jocelyn!!"

Right about then, the dean skittered out of the conference room, wiping the sweat off his brow and tucking in his shirt, to reveal, "Oh, dear me. heehee. It wasn't dissonance in expository writing! It was coherence in expository writing! Pretty close of me, though, eh?"

Fresh off two minutes of frantic internal fretting, my reaction was less than diplomatic, but annoyance was masked by the sweet wind of relief: "Coherence in writing essays? You mean, like, using transitions and showing connections between ideas? In other words, what I teach all the time? Outta my way, Dithering Dean! I've got a presentation to make!"

With that, I brushed past him, tossing him a well-ironed kerchief he might use to dry his forehead, and marched into the conference room, ready to meet my interviewer.

Or, rather, all NINE of them. Plus the dean. Making--now count it up with me--NINE plus ONE, or TEN people on the search committee. That's just cruel.

Good thing my nerves were already rattled and my bravada up, or I'd have heaved all over their shoes. Instead, I smiled, shook some hands, and settled into the hot seat.

And you know? There is something to it, that feeling of "what the hell; there's nothing much left to lose," when in an interview. My absolute gut feeling was that I was already screwed and that I should just consider the next hour and a half as practice for future interviews, ones where my shirt might be wrinkled but where I'd actually have a teaching presentation in hand.

Feeling so very screwed, I shrugged, relaxed, and had a good time. When I was finally asked to stand up front and treat the committee as though they were students in my classroom, ready to learn about coherence in their writing, I positively skipped up to the whiteboard and grabbed a marker; after making up some silly sentences about huge search committees and how they scare the mettle out of any underprepared candidate, I did a little curtsy, saluted the masses, and hightailed it out to the parking lot. There, in my car, I sniffed my armpits--yup, suitably flop sweated--rolled my eyes at the Gods of Mail Delivery, and turned my attention to the Hardee's across the street. Now that my stomach had calmed down, it was insistently requesting roast beef. On a bun. A bun littered with sesame seeds.

Five minutes later, nibbling The Beef, I chuckled ruefully at the whole affair. Good thing, really, that I'd been so unnerved by circumstances; otherwise, I might have done a good job in that interview and, gulp, gotten the job in Spamtown, where I'd have been doomed to live a lonely existence for who knows how many years. Lucky, indeed, that I'd miffed the thing.

Of course, a few days later, Spam College called and offered me the job. Seems the committee had been impressed by my ability to think on my feet--you know, like teachers have to in the real world. Looking at my credit card debt and then looking at the 100% raise I'd be getting over my previous job, I found the decision made itself.

Thusly, my stint in Spamtown began. And thus, eleven years ago this summer, I was

moving to Minnesota from Colorado with my long-time boyfriend,

renting one of the two houses in town listed in the newspaper, a place I'd soon come to call my Unibomber Shack,

and starting my ongoing research of

dissonance as it intersects with expository writing.


-------------------------
Many thanks to Actonbell, who tagged me with a meme some weeks ago--a meme that has now Mighty Morphin' Power Rangered itself into these musings about a summer past. More to come.

36 comments:

susan said...

Good thing you didn't waste that freshly ironed shirt, eh?

(and I'm so glad to hear more about all that SPAM!)

Hammer said...

So many folks would have left with their tail between their legs.

More people should follow that example.

Diesel said...

Great story. There is a line from the movie The Freshman that I really like: "There is a kind of freedom in being completely screwed."

Diesel said...

Oh, and those weeds are what grow when I DON'T have a lawn. The only think I do to that ground is spray roundup on it. They're evil, I tell you.

Dorky Dad said...

Never, ever waste a nicely ironed shirt.

Wait. AUSTIN offered you double the salary over Colorado? But I guess they have to require people to pay double to live there ...

Anyway, I've given you an award.

Shari said...

And people complain about living on a teacher's salary? That's good money in my book.

I can't imagine how you pulled that off, but isn't that what an interview is about? To ask unexpected questions to see how the interviewee answers it? Presentation? A panel of interviewers? I'm gone. :) Gotta hand it to you-putting teaching experience to help you through it.

BTW, good post.

tracey said...

If I could earn double the salary, I'd move to Spamtown, too. But earning double of nothing really doesn't appeal to me... Guess I'll put the iron away.

Claire said...

My 'baby' brother the Virginia english prof just got a new job at a college in PA. He was so excited when he told me all about it. He said, "...and I'll never have to teach freshman composition again, woohoo!!!"
I love your story. Press on.

Star said...

I came over from aa link on Dorky Dad.s blog. I really enjoyed the post. I felt like i was right there wth you. If i wasn't already late for work I woud be reading some more. I'll be sure to be back.

Karen said...

Oh Jocelyn, once again you have wowed me with one of your stories. Nothing like a good "tee hee...giggle...snort" to start my day.

Spam and sweat. Two of the best blog topics ever!

Jazz said...

Spam... ugh... I can't help but wonder if any pigs (or any other meat bearing animal, vegetable or mineral) actually ever came into contact with the stuff. Or is it just imported straight from the ass end of the universe, made with the overripe remains of Betacantareusian slaves.

chelle said...

When one has nothing to lose, they have so much to gain!

Great story!

jen said...

you are a badass, sister. this was a terrific story - courage!

Glamourpuss said...

Funny that's almost exactly how I got my last teaching job - was utterly convinced they couldn't possibly want scruffy old me in such a dapper establishment, vowed to use the experience as interview practise, was offered the job on the spot.

Weird.

Puss

Em said...

Okay, it is official. I can no longer sneak a peek at your blog at work. I laugh out loud TOO loudly and people gather at my door. I'm glad you got the job...what a great story.

Logophile said...

That is a great story! It would have still been a good story if you hadn't gotten the job, but NOW, yes, now it is a GREAT story.
It was also coherent, so that was a bonus
:p

velvet said...

Jocelyn, you're fabulous! How could they not love you after that fabulous improv?

Of course, aside from being hugely entertaining, the most resounding effect of your story is that now I'm craving a roast beef sandwich. ;)

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Captivating story. Minnesota....good. Twice the salary......good. SPAM....ummmm, good!

Diana said...

Funny how sometimes the situations we have the least time to prepare for end up shining moments.

Funny how more often, though, we end up with egg on our faces and as the cautionary tale told to those who come after us.

Glad your situation was of the former.

lime said...

potato chips, high taxes, paul bunyan....didn't you forget herds of mosquitoes to go with all the lakes and such?

and ok, i am holding my sides guffawing at the name 'spamtown.' i think if broadway can field a musical called 'urinetown' then a sequel about austin, MN cannot be far behind....and i am just the woman to put it together. see and the great thing is this....i sing VERY dissonantly. it's really quite perfect. Oh, and I think for costuming we will try to evoke an 'o calcutta' feel to it and just cover the cast in that frightening gelatinous goo that covers spam. (mutters to self excitedly while jotting down more ideas on a white board) do i smell a hit or what??? it will be great...

choochoo said...

Ever considered working in hellhole? I got a deep fried something with your name on it.

BeachMama said...

I love that you sucked it up and put on a show as best you could. Not many people would do that, even today. And Spamtown can't be all that bad, you are still there :).

Thanks for sharing the story.

Jill said...

Ooh, I admire you even more now. People who can think on their feet are magical. I think I would have just cried and gone home, ironed shirt be-damned.

AmyTree said...

That is an AWESOME interview story!!! I actually do really well in interviews, I kind of like them, in a twisted way. My favorite one EVER was as PA to the the Directors of a HUUUUUUGE financial company (just letters for a name, place smells of cash, everyone is manicured, ick). I walked into the place and KNEW I didn't want the job EVER, and so instantly relaxed and winged it - I made it through 5 interviews (for my own amusement - I was unemployed at the time anyway) and was offered the job. I pretended to consider it, even - for a heartbeat. Then I skipped out to freedom (and a considerable smaller wage, I might add...) But at least I don't have to put on a suit anymore!!

MyUtopia said...

Speaking of Austin Minasota, I accidentally called their gas company when I was looking for Austin TX's gas company number.

Dan said...

You're the best storyteller in the blogosphere Jocelyn!

Oh ... and unibomber shacks rule!

my4kids said...

Good job on getting the job like that! With the job I have now (only 2 days to go!) I had to interview in front of 5 clinic managers to prove they were hiring me for myself not because my mother is higher up. That was very scary! I was not informed they would do that prior!

Stepping Over the Junk said...

WOW! 11 years ago I was working in Estes Park and my childhood friend, Ben, came over for the weekend from C Springs to climb Long's Peak with me. He was finishing school at University of Colorado there. I wonder if you knew him! (he ended up working for a magazine after college)

Stepping Over the Junk said...

P.S. You are one sharp cookie!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Wow. What an engrossing story!

It's experiences like this that teach us what we're really made of.

You are my candidate for Cult of Personality, and I have no doubt that the folks of Northern Minnesota write better because of that amazing interview.

CS said...

That is so great - I'd have hired you, too. Once i had a phone interview that hapneded while I was making an elaborate seafood dish that involved three pans on the stove at once and parchement paper. I think the distraction actually helped!

Voyager said...

Spam city college. Too cool. It should be in the Ivy League.
V.

Keshi said...

I like the freedom I get from being totally screwed. There's nothing to worry abt then.

Keshi.

urban-urchin said...

I despise ironing so I think I'd be with you on the interview as not to waste an ironed shirt.

of COURSE you got the job. You aced what most would consider an impossible situation. You're a rock star.

Princess Pointful said...

I wonder what you would have said if somehow you'd known, eating that sandwich, that this town was to be your future.

frannie said...

whew! my palms were just a sweatin' reading that!!!