Cats and Other Unmentionables

June 12, 2008

It was the tail end of a two-day campus interview. To me it felt like at least the fifth day. I was suffering from a sinus infection as well as the exhaustion borne of being polite and chatty for too many consecutive hours. As I tried to chew fairly large pieces of raw spinach in an engaged, intelligent, and polite manner, the young, single faculty member on my left asked casually, "So, what do you do in your spare time?"

In my mind's eye, there I was, driving the carpool home from school, helping my children with homework, attending school performances, watching endless soccer games. Had I been in better shape physically and emotionally in that moment, I might have easily recalled some of the activities I enjoyed before I had children. I could have waxed eloquent about cross-country skiing, or mountain biking. Instead I stammered, "Ah, I don't really have that much spare time."

And that is when I looked around the table and realized, with terror, that everyone knew why. Something about what I had said, or the way I had said it, had managed to inform everyone present about my family situation. I might as well have said, "Actually I have three small children and spend most of my off hours meeting their needs."

In a fairly lame attempt to rescue me from my own stupidity, the middle-aged professor who was sitting on my right chimed in, a little too loudly, "Cats! She has cats."

Long after the interview ended, and my letter of rejection arrived, I continued to replay that scene in my mind. I knew I could have done better, and next time I will be prepared. But what was most disturbing was the sense of shame I felt in that moment.

What is so wrong with being a mother and an academic? Why should admitting it in a job interview be so consequential?

The cats incident was embarrassing, but not the first interview in which I felt the need to skirt the kid question in one way or another. In fact, I've had to do so in every interview I've had.

Sometimes members of the search committee seem to be encouraging me to discuss my family. "My daughter goes to school over here," someone will say as we're touring the local town, "but there is a very good elementary school on the north side of campus as well. Shall I show you that one, too?"

What is the right answer to that question?

On the one hand, I have an opportunity to share something personal with a potential colleague, to show that we are similar and that I might be a good match for the department. On the other hand, by answering, I may be disclosing information that could be used against me. Once the information becomes known within the department, even if it helps that particular faculty member feel some camaraderie with me, it may raise red flags for others. Will she able to produce enough research, work long-enough hours, evince enough commitment to the job?

On the third hand, being a mother is part of who I am. I am proud of my involvement in my children's lives. It makes me a better person, and a better teacher. Why shouldn't I present myself as a full-fledged human being, instead of just a suit? Why shouldn't I be honest about my commitments?

On the fourth hand, search committees are shopping. That is their role. My role is to put my best face forward and convince them that I am the right candidate. It is akin to advertising. I just need to keep smiling and sounding smart. My job is to dazzle rather than to inform.

I am running out of hands, but the dilemma endures. To some degree the solution must be a personal one. I am, by nature, a reticent person. I know professors who bring examples of their children's escapades into the classroom, but I am not one of them. Family, politics, and religion are areas I discuss with friends and relatives -- not with relative strangers.

Other academics are on the opposite extreme. Some of my peers do not seem to differentiate between private and public realms. They answer every question unguardedly and start talking about trailing partners, custody arrangements, and local schools for autistic children -- even before a job offer is on the table. By doing so, they may encourage open communication with the committee members and come across as human and accessible. Or they may jeopardize their standing by being too honest.

Perhaps there is an argument for moderation on both sides. Those perennially chatty people could benefit from more discretion. Those of us taciturn types could stand to relax a little.

Several years ago at an elegant dinner that was part of a campus interview, I found myself chatting with a local resident. She was presumably a donor to the program and had been invited, along with several others, to meet a visiting job candidate. With complete ignorance about interview protocol, not to mention legalities, she asked me point-blank, "Do you have any children?"

It was a polite and well-meaning question. I believe now that the correct answer would have been, "Yes, do you? How do you like raising children here?" That way, I would have answered her question but avoided further inquiries by engaging her in a description of local points of interest.

Instead, I said, "Actually, I can't answer that question." Quite an excellent conversation stopper, wouldn't you say?

While I do not believe that a slight offense to a person peripheral to the search committee torpedoed my chances of getting a job there, it certainly didn't help. My personal proclivities interfered with my manners.

In my next search, I am going to strive for a more balanced response. Although I do not plan to wear one of those necklaces with silhouettes of each of my children, I will try to answer any questions about my family situation with more aplomb.

It should be possible, within the dual limits of interview etiquette and my natural tendencies, to come across as a full-fledged human being. Neither cats nor kids should distract from the far more relevant issue of qualifications.

Na'ema Suleiman is the pseudonym of a visiting assistant professor in the humanities at a public university.