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Essay on questions one might be asked in MLA interviews

Questions They Might Ask You

December 17, 2012

The questions you’re asked at a preliminary interview (phone, Skype, at Modern Language Association meeting, etc.) will depend on the job description, sometimes on your rank (e.g., whether you’re entry-level or advanced), and whether the institution is research-intensive or teaching-intensive. Below are a few of the sample questions we’ve received, heard, or asked over the years for tenure-track jobs at four-year teaching and research institutions.

Research Questions:

Most research questions will be rather detailed and direct; looking back on our own experiences, most of those specific questions fell under one of four categories: to explain, to expand, to apply, or to translate. The general questions, below, are good places to start practicing. You should have thoughtful answers for each of them, ranging from 30 seconds to two minutes in length depending upon the scope of the question.

  • Tell us about your research/dissertation/book project. (For this one you can have a two-minute "spiel" prepared!)
  • Are you familiar with theorist X? How would you apply his/her work to your project?
  • How do you define X hotly contested term in your field? (e.g., “digital humanities,” “new media,” etc.)
  • What are you working on next? or, What is your research agenda? or, Walk us through the next five years in your research.
  • Where do you plan to publish your (first/next) book?
  • What’s important about your research?
  • How does your work contribute to the field?
  • How will you bring your research into your teaching?
  • Tell us about your grant experience; or, How will you bring your grant experience to bear at our school?

Most of the research questions we have received were too specific to our individual work to be helpful here, but they are often related to the writing samples we have used. So, be sure to look back at the writing sample you sent that department (and remember if you sent different samples to different departments) because committees will usually ask you specific questions about that paper or dissertation chapter.

Search committees may quote lines from your writing sample and ask you to elaborate, explain, etc., in a particular direction. Sometimes this feels like an interviewer is trying to trip you up (e.g., tell us why you didn’t use X theorist in your work), but that’s not usually the case. Most often the search committee just wants to get to know you and your work better; you should treat these questions as conversations, not as grillings. Relax. You got this.

Teaching Questions:

You won’t always receive teaching questions, especially at universities that consider themselves research-intensive. (We’re not using the Carnegie designations here, as those have changed in the last few years. We just mean that some institutions value research as their first, and sometimes only, priority.) Those universities may not ask you any teaching questions, and so you should also consider how you feel about that absence in relation to your own academic identity and job-search needs.

  • How would you teach an introductory course in your field?
  • How do you get students excited about learning _______? (18th-century literature, for example, or composition, or linguistic semantics, etc.?)
  • How would you teach a survey course that also includes the century before or after the one you work in? (for literature applicants)
  • How would you teach the history of composition course for our graduate students? (for writing studies applicants)
  • How would you teach a senior seminar/capstone in the major?
  • How would you teach the introduction to the major?
  • What courses do we offer that most interest you?
  • How would you teach X kind of student (continuing learners, first-generation college students, speakers of languages other than English, engineering/computer science/etc. students, differently abled students, etc.)?
  • (for literature candidates) No matter what your field, be prepared for: How would you teach Shakespeare, if you were asked to? (or the other big-names courses that draw large enrollments, like Milton, Chaucer, Faulkner, Eliot, etc.) A similar question we have begun hearing more recently for literature applicants during these past two years is: Could you teach our classics course?
  • We have a 4-4 teaching load with one possible course release a year: how will you adjust to this?
  • If you could teach anything you wanted, what would it be?
  • What courses do you not see in our curriculum that you would be interested in adding?
  • What online teaching experience have you had?
  • Do you use electronic resources or tools in your teaching and, if so, how?
  • How do you implement your teaching philosophy in X kind of class?

Other Kinds of Questions:

Other questions often accompany the standard teaching or research questions. If you’re applying specifically to an administrative position (e.g., writing program administrator, lab/project director, writing center director, WAC director, etc.), it’s likely that half the preliminary interview questions will relate directly to that position. Other questions may align with the service aspect of the position.

  • What do you think "service" means or entails?
  • What has been your most fulfilling service role?
  • What leadership role would you take on in our department?
  • How would you recruit students to X new program?
  • Are you interested in administering X new program?
  • What do you know about our university?
  • Why do you think you would be a good fit in our department?
  • Have you heard about our program/certificate/center on ______? Do you see yourself contributing to that?
  • And at the end they always ask, Do you have any questions for us? (Do have some.)

Finally, for some reason, phone and Skype interviews often engender questions that otherwise seem odd, such as ones we have heard in years past including "If you were offered this position, is there any reason why you couldn’t take the job?" and "Tell us something about yourself that wasn’t in your job materials." Don’t let these questions throw you off. They’re often standard questions that the school’s human resources office requires them to ask of all candidates. They’re not fishing for secrets, just covering their bases.
 

Bio

Katherine Ellison and Cheryl Ball are associate professors at Illinois State University and run the Get A Job! website for graduate students in the English department.

 

 

 

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