My first official interview for a tenure-track job was for an African-American literature position at The Citadel, the military college in South Carolina. I was 41, it was my first year on the academic job market, and I considered it a courtesy shot: my dissertation advisor was a friend of the chair of the English Department. I knew The Citadel would prefer to hire an AfricanAmerican to a Jewish-American so I considered the interview a practice run with little at stake. It was 8:30 am, and I was the first job applicant to walk into the hotel

room. The early hour had its advantages: I got a peek into the backstaging of search committee dynamics, a small plum for the still-aspiring novelist living inside me. The chair was a genial, charming professional in his early 50s, who welcomed me warmly. He was flanked on one side by a nervous junior faculty member just out of the shower, a thin young woman (one of the department’s first, I’d heard) swathed in a gray power suit. On the other side sat a dissolute white Southerner of about 55, slightly balding and with a pockmarked face; he ignored me to attend to his hangover. Sitting sprawled on the couch, braced up by one arm, he took occasional peeks at my application letter and refilled his coffee mug every eight minutes or so. The chair took the first round and tossed two lobs: (1) “How would you

teach an African-American survey course?”; (2) “How do you help students understand the relationship of African-American literature and canonical Euro-American literature?” Then he threw a curveball: “What if we asked you to cover another period in an emergency, say the British Literature survey or eighteenth-century literature?” “I’d love to,” I lied without missing a beat. “To teach Swift, Defoe, and

Joseph Andrews? That would be lark for a semester – I’d frame it around satire and the picaresque as the subtext for the Age of Exploration. Since it’s not my expertise, I could have fun with it … well, at least, after catching up on the scholarship.” That satisfied him, and I was thankful for my undergraduate English BA: extrapolating from my American Studies PhD would have been, shall we say, a drag. The chair ceded the floor to his junior colleague. I don’t remember the first

question, only her second: “What drew you to African-American literature?”