I left a comment over at Dave’s excellent discussion of the MLA Job Information List, and part of it was picked up at Alex’s equally worthwhile followup, so I thought I’d expand on it here. Here’s the comment I left:

I was going to make the same point that Alex makes vis a vis the costs of the JIL vs. the costs of the conference itself for both interviewers and interviewees, especially all those years that we were forced to compete with holiday travelers for both plane seats and hotel rooms. The list is the tip of a very lucrative iceberg that has supported the MLA for a long time.

I wanted to second your comments about opening up the job list database, which for all intents & purposes is the same (inc. the crappy interface) that they used in the mid-90s. A much richer set of metadata about the jobs could be gathered by MLA (and made available to searchers) if the arbitrary scarcity of the print list is set aside and MLA were to take their curative obligation seriously.

There’s been no small amount of buzz lately surrounding the MLA JIL, our fields’ annual posting of open academic positions. For a long time, that list has been proprietary to MLA. At one time, institutions paid to have their positions appear in the list, and prospective applicants paid for a print copy of it. I don’t remember the exact year that the online database version of the JIL went live, but I’m tempted to place it at around 1996 or 1997. At that time, database access was granted to those who’d purchased the print version. It’s never been an especially elegant solution, as some of us would gladly have paid less money and forgone the print version. And as many people have observed in this discussion, the JIL is a monetary imposition on those who are least able to bear it, (often debt-ridden) graduate students and/or contingent faculty, at a time where the costs of application (mailing, copying, dressing, traveling, boarding, eating) are already substantial.

MLA appears to be taking steps to mitigate some of these costs (open JIL, Interfolio), which is good. But for me, there’s an additional layer that needs to be addressed. One of the arguments that MLA made in opening up access to their publications is that they provide curation, such that allowing authors to make copies of individual articles available doesn’t damage the brand. I don’t disagree with this. But I would love to see them extend the same logic to the JIL, and see them take a more active role in curating that information.

For several years now, there have been other, free alternatives to the JIL (departmental & institutional sites, disciplinary listserves, word-of-mouth, et al.). The MLA JIL is not strictly speaking, necessary any longer, and as more programs move to Skype or phone interviews, the monopoly the organization once held on the interviewing process may also be in danger of fading. Frankly, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, although it’s going to be a long time before those changes affect the overall process. There’s little difference in cost if you’re attending MLA for one interview or for twenty, but once applicants can get away with not attending at all, that will change things. (I’m interested to see if offering a Skype interview as an alternative to MLA will someday soon become an institutional mandate along the lines of equal opportunity/access.)

Anyways. If I were in charge (a phrase I think so often that I’ve made it a new category on my blog) of the JIL, the first thing I would do would be to update its horrific interface, which hasn’t changed substantially since the days of its first appearance.

I can’t imagine the cringes that this interface elicits from my colleagues in “Technical and business writing,” particularly insofar as they have experience with usability testing and/or identify with terminology a little more recent than “business writing.” There are some basic tips for searching at the end of the help link, but really, there’s so little to work with that those tips are obvious. (want more results? check more boxes.)

Okay, I lied. The problem with this interface is actually just symptomatic of the curation problem. If the JIL is just a text file, then really, all you can do is text matching. And if you charge departments by the word (which they used to do, iirc), then you’re actually incentivizing a lack of information, and crippling your service. And that’s the point that I want to make here: the MLA should be thinking of this as a service rather than a list, a service they provide (and can and should improve) rather than a list that they sell in both directions (pay to get on it, pay to get it).

Part of what MLA should be doing is standardizing the categories of information that institutions provide to prospective applicants, and encouraging members to supply that information. I don’t have a full list to hand, but I think it’d be helpful for any number of people to know things like institutional type, salary range, replacement vs new hire, teaching load (both numbers and distribution), administrative expectations, course caps, service duties, startup costs, travel/research funding, sabbaticals, mentoring/advising expectations, and to have specializations separated out into primary, secondary, tertiary, and so forth. I don’t know that we would all agree on this list, and institutions would certainly be able to opt out, but imagine being able to sort the JIL data by all the variables that inevitably go into our hiring decisions (from either side).

On the search side of things, the ebb and flow of our various fields are a lot more complicated than the small list on the JIL database lets on. When we hire someone here (a freestanding writing program with a doctoral program), it goes without saying that our primary area for the position is rhetoric and composition. Often, we also have particular subcategories in mind, without which an application wouldn’t be considered. But then, we also have a wish list of areas not currently covered by our faculty–those might not be as high a priority as others, but they are still potentially valuable for applicants to have. Here’s an example. Several years ago, we were concerned about whether or not our program was preparing students enough in terms of methodology. No one hires a “methods person” per se, but when we hired in a different area, one of the questions we asked all of our candidates was how they would approach our graduate course in methods. I think it very likely that digital humanities will be an area like that over the next several years. Departments may prioritize that in pools of applicants that list the content areas they “need.” There should be a way to communicate that kind of nuance, through some form of tagging, multi-faceted categories, etc. As Alex points out, “Of the 56 results that return when searching for rhet/comp and asst prof, 10 are not rhet/comp specialist jobs of any kind, but maybe want someone who has some rhet/comp training.” For me, that’s a pretty obvious (and ongoing) failure of the interface. (I should also mention that the only way currently to find this out is to read through 6 separate pages of 10 entries each, since there is no way to filter results or choose how many entries per page to display. Ugh.)

Some schools already provide information like this (and like the litany above) in their ads, cost and space be damned. And others go to great lengths elsewhere to provide context for their positions on listservs or their own pages. The existence of these workarounds (which have been common for years now) should be a sign to MLA that the “service” they currently provide is little more than a text file and the Find command from the Edit menu of a word processor. It could be so much more: Dave’s ideas of an open API and a Google Maps mashup are brilliant, and they’re the kind of things that I’d love to see MLA take some lead on. At the very least, though, it’d be great to see them take some responsibility for the service that so many of us have paid for, over and over and over.

UPDATE: fwiw, the first job ad I saw after I wrote this post contained the sentence, “Interviews will take place at the MLA convention in Boston, though video conferencing is an option for those not attending the conference.” I’d be willing to bet that, within 3-4 years, this will become standard practice, as hiring schools continue to look for ways to cut costs. Not sure when it’ll tip to the point where it’s safe to pass on MLA as an applicant, but that day is sooner than most of us think.

UPDATE2: following a suggestion from Bill Hart-Davidson, Jim Ridolfo did a quick map/mash of the JIL data at http://rhetmap.org/.