'Tension City' and the Campus Interview

What academic job searches have in common with presidential debates

Joyce Hesselberth for The Chronicle

March 10, 2014

For the past few months I’ve been listening to an audio version of Jim Lehrer’s Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates (Random House, 2012). It’s essentially the memoir of a veteran news reporter who, somewhat uncomfortably, found himself moderating those historic events 11 times.

The title of the book comes from George H.W. Bush’s remarks about how much he disliked debates, how "ugly" he found them. When Bush was famously checking his watch in 1992—seemingly confirming the narrative of patrician disengagement—he later said he was probably thinking "only 10 more minutes of this crap."

In almost 40 years of watching debates, I have often felt sympathetic anxiety for some candidates, such as Admiral Stockdale in 1992 ("Who am I? Why am I here?"), when they are clearly out of their element, not well trained for the event, or obviously outmatched and maintaining untenable positions. They tend to self-destruct in a string of patriotic non sequiturs.

The process of getting to the place where they can win—or at least credibly hold their own—in a presidential debate is, in many respects, the making of the candidates. If they have done their homework, and can show some grace under pressure—the ability to think on their feet with so much at stake (with so much risk of humiliation)—they have accomplished something comparable to the victory of a world-class athlete.

It reminds me of nothing so much as the performance of a successful candidate on the academic job market. That’s what has captivated me most about Tension City, and made me listen to it several times (it’s better heard than read, since it includes outtakes from the debates and interviews): the way it seems to relate to the hiring process in academe and to provide good advice and examples, perhaps the best of which is Lehrer himself.

Tension City highlights some weaknesses of presidential debates as part of the electoral process:

  • How they can turn on "gotcha" moments and putdowns that are endlessly replayed: "Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy."
  • How a candidate can overcommit to an unintentional misstatement: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration."
  • How the candidates are overly rehearsed, waiting for moments to use lines prepared by their speechwriters (though most of them deny that): "There you go again," "Where’s the beef?," and "It’s the age of his ideas that I question."
  • How sometimes journalists can damage a candidate with a "killer question" of dubious appropriateness: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"

For many participants (especially the ones who lost), the debates since 1960 are often seen as a victory of style over substance. By contrast, Bill Clinton—one of the most comfortable and skilled debaters, along with Ronald Reagan—has observed that, while debates are difficult, they give voters "the best chance they can get to take the measure of a person under some fire, and to hear people probing their ideas, to see the way they think."

"Secondly," Clinton continued, "they force you [the candidate] to come to terms with what you really believe, because if you get in a big fight in a debate, unless you’re the world’s greatest actor, it’s hard to sit there and defend a position in a convincing way that you don’t really believe. So even if these debates don’t change many votes, having to do them—and knowing that if you blow it, they will change a lot of votes—forces people who wish to be president to do things that they should do. And I am convinced that the debates that I went through, especially those three in 1992, actually helped me to be a better president."

Debates force the candidates to prepare by learning the issues, especially the ones that they may know the least about. Debates heighten the differences between candidates and political parties so that the electorate can make more-informed decisions than the fog of political campaigns and disinformation might otherwise allow. Even things that might be called superficial—body language and facial expressions—are revealing of character: Why did Ford and Carter stand mutely behind their podiums for 27 minutes during technical difficulties in 1976? And one can only guess what Al Gore was thinking when he walked up to George W. Bush, confrontationally, in the third debate in 2000. Lehrer momentarily was afraid he’d become the first moderator to break up a physical confrontation.

Presidential debates are not easy for moderators, even though the focus is not on them. And Lehrer provides an account, familiar to anyone who works in the public eye, of coping with anxiety, mishaps, criticism, remorse, and, less frequently, elation when the job was done well.

He also writes about his preparations for moderating debates as intensive study—and grumbling—until he achieves "the click" and finds himself in "the zone": a state of mind when one has command of the issues and can dispense with an overly structured and scripted approach to the event. And, even then, something usually goes wrong: The technology fails, or you fail to follow what is being said and respond inappropriately.

All of which sounds very much like the academic hiring process. It’s not hard to find good reasons to complain about the process, even when it goes well:

  • Screening interviews—generally held at major conferences—are costly for the candidates (who are often graduate students and contingent faculty members), especially if they are coming for just one interview.
  • Like the electoral process, academic hiring often favors the wealthy and the well connected from the majority culture, as well as people who are conventionally attractive, with no major health problems, and who are comfortable in stressful and unfamiliar situations over multiple long days.
  • The social interactions involved are typically strained and artificial, as if the candidates are selling themselves and the interviewers are selling their institutions rather than acting like potential colleagues.
  • The hiring process places too much emphasis on the image one can construct in a very limited context: Too often, judgments about a job candidate turn on a single ill-chosen and unrepresentative remark made under stress. Once in a while, an interviewer even will come armed with a killer question that all but forces the candidate to alienate half of the search committee.
  • Given how many candidates there are for almost every academic position now, the outcome of a search often seems random, like winning the lottery. (Not that that will stop the losing candidates from brooding over perceived mistakes for years to come. Many of us in academe must feel like Ford, Carter, Quayle, or Dukakis, caught in an endless, purgatorial loop of "What I should have said is. … ")

On the plus side, the process of researching an institution and your potential colleagues, writing a tailored application letter, visualizing yourself in the position, preparing for a screening interview, and, finally, training for the on-campus meetings and presentations parallels, in a smaller way, the process of campaigning for a high office.

Much like Clinton observed about presidential debates, the academic hiring process forces you to do the things you should do in order to be able to perform the job. And even if you don’t win the interview process, you are probably better off—better prepared for your next job opportunities or for staying in your current position—than you were before. On the hiring side of the table, the interviewers benefit from seeing what other Ph.D.’s are doing and imagining how candidates with new methods and different visions could reshape otherwise-settled institutional cultures.

The academic job search is stressful and frequently unfair. It screens out nonelites in many cases. And, like presidential debates, it sometimes favors style over substance: the charismatic over the quiet, the familiar over the potentially disruptive.

It’s a flawed system, with considerable room for improvement. But at least the current academic hiring process is somewhat more inclusive and meritocratic than the "old-boy network" that it partially replaced. And there are many things about the process that have value for everyone involved, especially when genuine
dialogue takes place in an interview—when we are all in "the zone" enough to hear one another—and the process serves to knit together the web of collegiality and scholarship across institutions.

None of that is easy, given how much is at stake, especially for the job candidates. But it’s an ideal to which we can aspire, and Lehrer’s take on presidential debates provides some helpful insights into how that can be achieved, as well as what can go terribly wrong.

William Pannapacker is a professor of English at Hope College, 
in Holland, Mich. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.