The Great Compression: Crushing a Decade's Work into 2 Minutes or Less

By Mike Land

Back in grad school I sat in a bar one night, listening as a friend, Roger, expressed suspicion that "Möbius strip" is one of those pretentious terms academics use without knowing either what it means or why it matters (if indeed it does).

In fact, Roger suggested, perhaps it meant nothing.

"Oh, I could explain it to you in five minutes," another friend, Greg, said, with an earnestness that suggested he was clearly about to do so.

"Could you make it two?" Roger said.

"OK," Greg agreed, although sounding taxed.

"How about 30 seconds?"

A wise man, Greg didn't bother trying. But right now hundreds of graduate students don't enjoy the luxury of retreat. 'Tis the season of job hunting, and graduate students are writing their cover letters and rehearsing their interview lines, compressing a decade's worth of study into one-page letters and two-minute sound bites.

The poet David Thoreen summed it up best in his poem, "At The MLA," published this year in Henry Street. For anyone fortunate enough not to know, the Modern Language Association's conference, held the last week of December, is the gathering where colleges in my profession usually interview their top-10 job candidates. Applicants either drift from hotel room to hotel room -- one female friend found herself sitting on her interviewer's folded pajamas -- or crowd into a central interview room, a commodities trading floor of intellectuality. "After ten years of grinding your ego / into a tiny ball, you roll it / toward the market," Mr. Thoreen writes, and indeed there is a surreal disjunction between the long, laborious hours of earnest academic endeavor and the high-speed job chat the poet describes:

You've so rehearsed your dissertation riff it jingles like a fast food ad:

"Tis an exploration of the New Geography of Gender applied to the Poetics of Space, mapped on the Coordinates of Theory against the Economies of Taste. I believe

in the illusion of the integrated self, albeit a bourgeois construction,

a tyrannic invention propagated by a social class whose intentions ..."

Your interlocutors ask only, "Is it finished?"

I would probably be such an interlocutor, for such jargon runs counter to my upbringing. As the son of a journalist, I grew up equating intelligent, elegant self-expression not with $5 words, but with the simplest possible vocabulary. The most ingenious writer was the one who could convey complex matters in a bare-bones manner.

But part of the rite of passage into academia, as student or professor, is learning the lingo. This leads to sweepingly masterful sentences such as Mr. Thoreen's, which might lead a stranger to admire your jargon-laden language and, at the same, suspect you really have no idea what you're talking about. And given that most of those who decide your fate won't be in your subfield -- if they were, they wouldn't need you -- they may not have an idea what you're talking about, even on the off chance that you do.

But wait, it gets worse.

For how to play the jargon issue depends on the kind of job you seek. Obviously, if someone is sizing you up to teach theory to graduate students at a Research I university, then babble your Bhaba and fling your Foucault.

But what if you're being hired to teach strictly to undergraduates at a small liberal-arts college? Suddenly, the emphasis on your ability to translate complexity into simplicity goes up. That's especially true if it's a place where the emphasis is less on your personal research and more on -- here's a novel idea -- actually teaching the students. While some Research I types might more quickly forgive a bit of rambling incoherence as the sign of a brilliant mind, I suspect people at smaller colleges are quicker to be troubled at a candidate who appears blissfully unaware of the need to communicate effectively.

Plenty of Research I folks are committed to teaching, and plenty of teaching-intensive places demand brilliance in scholarship. Still, based on the kind of questions I was asked at liberal-arts colleges, versus the ones I heard asked at job talks at my Research I grad school, it was the teaching-intensive institutions that put the most weight on the care the candidate took to communicate concisely. It's a sign of not only pedagogical ability, but of collegial and social competence. If job candidates have not bothered to boil down their dissertation to a two-minute message, how effective will they be in the classroom? How organized will they be when it's their turn to administrate? How careful will they be when they have to explain the myriad requirements of various majors to their future advisees?

In my situation, the pressure to communicate concisely had yet another dimension. I was a product of large Research I universities, marketing myself to suspicious small colleges as an actual teacher of writing. Talk about cover-letter pressure. So as I waded through the necessary rhetoric, seeking to imply the brilliance my readers sought, I also was hearing the voice of that same reader say, "Astute point, but can we really hire a writing teacher who would pen such a sentence?"

This particular piece of writing has reached the point in which some readers might, albeit foolishly, expect advice. Sorry. The best I can say is to keep working the balance -- finding ways to drop names and concepts into lean, clean paragraphs (and/or sound bites) that make clear points. As for the quickie conference interview, like any good fiction writer, I looked for statements that did double duty. I imagined in one column the questions I would be asked and in the other column the points I wanted to score regardless of what they asked, since I couldn't count on my interviewers to ask the things that put me in the best light. Any time I could both directly answer their question and score one of my points in the same answer, I jumped at the opportunity and tried to keep from rambling too long.

Finally, after you research all those sample cover letters in your grad-school office, go find an eagle-eyed editor, perhaps a faculty member who's recently been through the drill yet is cognizant of differences between his situation and yours. One of my editors was Bill Kerwin, fresh off the market himself. Bill not only pointed out things to cut, but also had me sharpen semicolon-laden prose into clear sentences that highlighted whatever insight I had to offer my potential employers.

Which, in my first interview, really paid off. Sitting in a windowless office, with a life-size cutout of Captain Kirk looming in a shadowy corner behind the interviewer, I watched uneasily as the woman, bursting with energy and opinion, pored over my letter. "You had a sentence in here that was fantastic," she said. "I would've been proud to have written that sentence."

I tried to fight a smug smile of self-confidence off my face as she searched for the passage. Then she read it aloud: "The more students think about the connections among what the journalist calls news, the fiction writer calls conflict, and the essayist calls a provocative argument, the closer they get to appreciating the underlying triangular dynamics of writer, audience, and subject."

She lifted her gaze to mine in that moment-of-truth way, expecting me to pick up on the thought. But what I thought I could never tell her. What I thought was, "Oh, that's the sentence that Bill wrote."

Mike Land, an assistant professor of English at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., teaches nature writing, journalism, and American literature. He earned his Ph.D. in English, with an emphasis in creative writing, from the University of Missouri at Columbia.