Being There

Teresa Mangum considers how departments should manage on-campus interviews.

April 13, 2009

In my last column, I suggested ways that search committee members might humanize the early phases of the search process. Since then, I’ve surveyed colleagues and former students about their memories of campus visits, the final stage of most academic searches. I often remind students that during a campus visit a department should be working hard to recruit them as well as to evaluate them. So what convinces your top candidate to say yes (or to spurn your advances)?

As in the early phases of a search, careful planning and communication are crucial.

First, let’s talk money. Most graduate students are in deep debt. (Graduate debt deserves far more than a mention and, like Scrooge’s ghosts, will haunt another column soon.) The problem is compounded by cultural nervousness about discussing money. (Surely the recession should cure us of that disease.) We should add neither to debt nor nervousness by leaving any money matters ambiguous. So let me be clear. No candidate should ever be asked to pay for her or his own transportation. I was once told that I would need to buy my own ticket; the department would repay me if a) they didn’t offer me the job or b) they offered me the job and I accepted. If I said no to an offer, I paid for my ticket. My credit card and I said no thank you. Departments should front travel costs if at all possible. At the least, a department should reimburse a candidate for air, train, bus, cab fare, or mileage immediately after the interview. Anguished conversations about financial arrangements and even about departments that renege on promises of reimbursement are regular themes on the job wikis I mentioned in an earlier column.

Then there are basic necessities. As one of my informants advised, “make sure we're fed and watered, show us the town, and don't abandon us when you're busy.” You would be surprised by the number of candidates who arrive after hours of travel, only to be dumped at a hotel with no offer of food or even an invitation to order room service or similarly abandoned between and after meetings or presentations.

The wiki also reveals that candidates frequently arrive on campus with no information about what to expect during their stay and little assistance in finding their way from one event to the next. I can’t help but brag about my own department. One of our staff — thank you Sharry Lenhart — prepares a detailed itinerary for visitors and an even more detailed one for our faculty members (followed by several reminders, which we need). A candidate knows when and why she will see different groups and administrators, the names of everyone who will join him for meals, the time and place where he will deliver a paper, and who will walk her from one event to the next. Sharry thoughtfully leaves occasional gaps in the schedule that are long enough for the candidate to retreat to a hotel room for a breather.

Surely anyone who has put in the hours of work required of a search committee member wants every candidate to impress and be impressed by everyone on campus? That’s why it makes sense to tell candidates what you expect before they arrive: lunch with students, meetings with requisite administrators, a formal lecture and discussion open to all comers. Search committee chairs would also be wise to offer advice about the kind of talk that might best demonstrate the match between the candidate’s interests and the department’s needs.

Negative examples suggest how many ways campus visits can go awry.

Ironically, although searches are arguably the most important collective activity a department undertakes, faculty members often skip presentations unless the speaker’s research closely intersects with their own. Nothing says lack of congeniality like empty chairs. If we can’t be bothered to attend campus interview events, do we really deserve the hard won positions that were denied to another less fortunate department — especially in this economic climate? From the candidate’s perspective, the point of visiting a campus is to meet faculty members and students. When it appears that no one finds a visitor interesting enough to make time for meals, campus tours, airport runs, etc., a candidate with other options will take them. (I say that guiltily, as one who finds endless excuses to avoid giving campus tours although I’m all too willing to sign on for lively conversations over a good meal.)

I can’t refrain from noting another of my pet peeves. Many colleges ask candidates to demonstrate their approaches to teaching. Teaching an actual class is artificial but acceptable; explaining to faculty members how you would teach a class is fine. The hybrid is appalling. My most mortifying memory returns me to the time a department asked me to teach a class as though to freshman when my entire audience consisted of faculty members. Mostly men. Mostly older. Mostly (or so it seemed to me) furious at being spoken to precisely as they had asked me to speak to them — as freshmen. Whether your institution’s mission leans toward research or teaching or aspires to the finest of both, your best ambassadors are your students. Sending a group of students off with a candidate for a meal or coffee conveys their talents and your departmental self-confidence, and the students often return with valuable insights.

My informants also offered suggestions for wooing a candidate successfully. Most are seemingly trivial matters that cost a department little but purchase significant good will. Candidates are impressed when someone thinks to consult them in advance about details such as food preferences and special needs. For someone with cat allergies, coming to my house for coffee would be hellish, and for a vegetarian like myself, that world famous local barbecue joint is no picnic. Are there individuals on campus they would like to meet? For instance, a feminist historian might welcome a quiet coffee with the chair of gender studies. The height of sensitivity is actually allowing a candidate to eat, rather than starving the poor soul with unrelenting questions at every meal. (How I wish Powerbars had existed in my interview days.) If you have any flexibility on the choice of hotel, check out your options. Interviewing after an all night percussion concert courtesy of a radiator? Not good. I know money is tighter than ever, but if your budget allows, spring a few extra dollars for a hotel or bed and breakfast with a little charm or a few unexpected amenities. (For animal lovers, few could top the B and B owners in Wyoming who asked my husband whether he would prefer a room with or without a cat.)

Anyone who takes a job also takes on a community. Sharing a taste of your town will feed a candidate’s ability to imagine the life that will come with the job. While you may know little about your visitor’s personal circumstances, a well-planned city tour can send diverse signals. A quick sweep through several neighborhoods invites parents to ask about school systems yet offers hope to unattached individuals that coffee shops, art cinemas, and other sites for single sanity exist. In Iowa City, most visits include our outstanding independent bookstore, Prairie Lights; the restored Englert Theatre; samples of a growing number of good restaurants; even a stop at our unusually good food co-op. Try to leave imaginative space in conversations for the possibility that a candidate is single or partnered or married, straight or gay, with or without plans to have a family. If a candidate volunteers personal information, respond in kind. It’s fine to ask if the person would like a personalized tour or a conversation with one or more faculty members who share her or his expressed interests or needs. The wonderful Ms. Lenhart has arranged for a candidate who shared concerns about a family member’s health to meet with a local specialist, added a single parent to the lunch schedule, and included materials on any number of topics in the welcome packet. That’s right. A welcome packet. If you fear an intended kindness can be read as stereotyping, just consult with your candidate.

No one is less likely to feel obliged to toe a party line or “sell” anything than your average faculty member, but I sometimes think departments could at least reflect on what they have to offer. Aside from the country’s top schools in the most desirable locations, most of us — collectively as departments or institutions — find a way to feel inferior in the heat of a job search. In some rasp of the old Groucho Marx saw about not caring to belong to a club that would accept us as members, we find reasons our favorite candidate will go elsewhere — we pay too little; we work too hard; we live too far from the coasts, and so on. Grinding the ax of departmental insecurities on candidates is the worst kind of hatchet job. An astute department chair would never try to coerce faculty into being car salesmen, but could remind colleagues of the strong library collection or junior sabbatical program or exciting opportunities in cross-disciplinary teaching that can be forgotten in moments of collective interview angst. During a visit, evidence that faculty members take pleasure in their colleagues and pride in the department registers powerfully.

Back to the importance of communication — anyone you have recently hired is your best inside informer. Ask new colleagues for their candid assessment of what worked and what didn’t.

Finally, we all need to remember that no search is complete until every finalist is personally informed that it’s over. A candidate who has made it to the end of the search process has invested enormous time and thought in your department. The wiki reveals that many finalists end a visit and never hear from the department again. That is just wrong. When you have invited a candidate to campus and put that person through the rigors of an on site interview, you’ve got to follow through. A personal phone call or a personal letter is the bare minimum a department chair and search committee chair can do to thank candidates for their hard work and to soften the blow of disappointment. Who knows? One of these days, that “candidate” might be the one to whom you’re writing a letter of application, hoping that you will be invited for an interview and treated like a valuable human being. From start to finish, the job search is one more opportunity to do as you would be done by.


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