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Essay on how to shape academic job interviews when you are being interviewed

The Active Interview
January 9, 2013

Rules developed by human resources departments are increasingly dictating the shape of university interviewing for faculty positions, particularly at Modern Language Association and other conference venues where interviewing of potential faculty takes place in volume. It can be helpful to know, before you attend your first interviews, that some hiring committees you encounter will be required to ask a certain number of questions written by HR and not the faculty.

After receiving such questions, some of my advisees have texted or Facebooked me in disappointment, remarking that "I don’t think they liked me. Their questions seemed too scripted and impersonal." I tell them not to jump to conclusions, outlining for them some of the protocol expected of hiring committees in today’s higher education climate. Visits to the job wikis in which applicants post updates and comments, often about the friendliness of committees, also reveal that job-seekers do not always understand how that climate has changed over the years since their mentors were on the market.

In many cases, you will not be able to know for certain whether a committee’s apparent disinterest, lack of focus on the specifics of your research or teaching, or preoccupation with seemingly tangential issues is real or precipitated by awkward rules that prevent genuine conversation, which is the true goal of an academic interview (like one's oral or dissertation defense, a good interview should feel more like a discussion). In other cases, committees will obviously apologize about asking university-mandated questions that stand out from the rest because they sound like industry clichés: "HR requires that we ask this ... and I know we've already basically covered this but ... what are your strengths and weaknesses?"

Other questions may be guided by HR requirements in more subtle ways, such as the obligation to ask identical questions of each applicant no matter their diverse research or teaching experiences and goals. And, of course, there are questions that committees cannot ask (such as about your ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual preferences, marital status, etc.), some for good reason and others for reasons that may conflict with the goals of the interview.

Though the corporatization of the university and administrative intervention in what had once been faculty-created protocol is changing interviewing and the hiring calendar over all ("Our budget is not yet approved, so ..." or "We will need an answer in 48 hours" versus the polite two weeks), there are still ways for interviewees to be active and not passive participants in the conversation. Passive interviewees merely answer the questions asked of them, one after the other. That’s what I see most often. Active interviewees help guide the conversation. How can you guide the conversation when it is scripted? How do you direct an interview without seeming aggressive, uncooperative, or political (i.e., not answering the questions asked and instead providing answers to the questions you wish were asked – not a smart move with academic crowds)? There are ways. Oh, there are many ways, and thanks to our knowledge of the history of rhetoric, some of us in the humanities are well-poised to employ them.

First, learn how to plant questions. This begins with your first answer, when you (typically) are invited to explain the argument of your dissertation. Develop a spiel that not only clearly articulates your argument and provides one concrete example but that also (still within about 2-3 minutes) leaves conscious loose ends. Perhaps your concrete example is connected to an article you have published or are working on – mention that. Perhaps your dissertation leaves off where your next major project takes up – mention that, but without explaining the next project until they ask (they should). Note that bringing your dissertation research into the classroom one day actually led to the best a-ha moment your students have ever had (if it did in some version thereof, as of course you must be honest). You don’t need to explain that a-ha moment in that answer; rather, the committee may use it to bridge into their teaching-related questions, or you can return to it when talking about your teaching.

Practice with planting questions during preliminary interviews will help you on your campus visit, when successful applicants guide not only 20 minutes but a full day (or two) of multiple encounters. And, your committee members will notice. They will appreciate that the interview had a shape. Remember, these interviewers like frameworks, narratives, and purposeful structures.

Second, remember that pathos, ethos, and logos are real concepts and can help you during your interview. Don’t be afraid to express emotion and to appeal to the emotion of the committee. Applicants tend to do this more naturally when talking about teaching, suddenly showing excitement and investment in student learning, while they approach their research with less emotional confidence. Before your interviews, think honestly with yourself about what is personal about your research, about why you do it, about what drives you toward particular research questions. I was once advised to let that become the beginning of my "dissertation spiel," to create a narrative.

Think, too, about the reason behind your research. What logic drives it? What illogic does it answer? And, certainly, think as well about why you are the person best-suited for this research (and for this job). When I advise job-seekers, I find that asking them to answer these questions for themselves yields answers to the same questions that they always hear but have more difficulty addressing: what is significant about your project, how is it in conversation with your field or others, and what is unique about your approach?

Third, demonstrate your research on their university. Hopefully, you have conducted thorough research of the university and department (and committee) with which you are interviewing. While you do not want to go so far as to say, "Dr. X, I read all of your books on Y and on page 38 of Z you make an observation that is relevant to my dissertation," thus crossing over into "creeper" territory, you do want to make it clear that you researched them with more than a passing glance. Trust me when I say: most applicants do not do this. I have even heard some advisers tell their job-seekers that revealing their research is off-putting, that it’s like brown-nosing or kissing up or schmoozing. Perhaps there is a way to voice one’s research findings that way, but I’ve never heard it. In my experience on hiring committees, there is nothing more attractive in an applicant than the fact that they know who we are as a department and what we value.

If you are from a department that only studies literature, for example, it will serve you very well to state clearly that you are aware that their department houses many disciplines and that you want to be part of this more diverse curriculum. You can even ask honestly about how that collaboration works. If you are a rhetorician interviewing with a department that is traditionally only literature-focused, it is O.K. to express that you are aware of this and to genuinely ask what they see your role to be. It’s also very important that you know how they structure their writing program and what they call their writing courses. The savvy composition scholar will know that even catalog titles for writing courses reveal much about the history, attitude, and future of their department. So, too, do other catalog course titles. Be as specific as you can when you answer questions about what you want to teach and how you’ll teach it. Look at their online syllabuses. Make connections. Tell them how your research and your pedagogy will work within their department.

Fourth, though questions required by HR, especially when prefaced with "HR requires that we ask ______," can be tricky to answer, you can use them to showcase your professionalism and ability to react logically under bureaucratic pressure. These questions are not tricky because they are particularly difficult – usually they are redundant and the committee has already asked you this in some version (which they apologize for) but because the awkwardness with which they are asked may signal to you that they are "throwaway" questions. Remember that even if the committee is giving you the message that this is not an important question to them, that it is a bureaucratic inconvenience, you must still provide an energetic, interesting answer that shows that you take all questions seriously.

Further, the ability to understand the silliness of some administrative rules but address them seriously is a real skill that applicants must now have in the "real world" of humanities academics. Will you be the colleague who laughs off protocol and leaves it to others to clean up? Will you be the colleague who struggles against every bureaucratic threat to your academic freedom, but without impact? Or will you work to understand every aspect of each threat and prioritize those which necessitate resistance (and more importantly, response on the offense and not defense) and which do not? Your convention interview is your first opportunity to think about, and situate yourself, in the larger dynamic that exists between you, a new employee, and the institution you will try to make better.

Fifth, emphasize what you can do for them, not what they can do for you. I have read many, many job letters and attended many, many interviews in which the applicant only notes how this job will do X and Y for them and their research. These are the applicants who often ask, as their very first question, "How much travel funding do we receive?" To some committee members (certainly not all), this can translate as: "How often can I get away from you and how far can I go?" Questions like these are certainly not off-limits (though more fitting for the campus interview than an initial convention interview), but they do signal to committees early on that an applicant may not be so much interested in being part of the academic community but in being funded.

The desire of some faculty to avoid service work and teaching commitments in order to focus predominantly on research is certainly understandable, but not as many hiring committee members will be as enthusiastic about these priorities as you might think. Some will muse, "Here is a colleague who will never be around, who will be too 'busy' to attend committee meetings or go up for faculty senate elections, who will take multiple leaves and require others to cover their courses."

Remember this: those serving on that hiring committee are doing just that -- serving. They are performing their service to the department by traveling far from their families after the holidays, during their winter break. You are looking at the ones who help out. Departments can only function when their members perform their share of the service workload. Do many get away with not serving, placing a larger burden on those who say "yes"? Of course. There are comic strips about this. Do some of those occasionally serve on committees in which the hire is important to them? Certainly. Do they want to hire someone who will to ease their burden or someone who will create more work for them? There you go.

Finally, I also remind my advisees of this: you are interviewing the committee as much as the committee is interviewing you. This advice isn’t a contradiction of #5, above. Too often, I have helped conduct interviews in which the applicant was passive and did not appear to be paying close attention to our group dynamic, the possible motives for our questions, and the signals we were giving them (unconsciously but sometimes consciously) about the personality of our department and university. You should remember that you are an analyst, first and foremost, and the same critical thinking skills you employ in your research should be in play during your interview. How do these committee members get along? You can quickly tell if there is tension, if the interaction between them is forced.

I can recall several past interviews, when I was in the applicant chair, when I saw one committee member roll his/her eyes as another spoke. Or, one looked away with obvious disinterest, displayed body language that indicated tension between group members. These are not necessarily signs that there is something awry in the department that would affect you – every department has members who dislike one another -- but you do not want to enter an atmosphere without being aware of possible problems.

True story: I once excused myself (politely) from an interview that was very, very obviously not a good fit and where the committee made it painfully obvious that they were bitter about their 4-4 loads, skeletal curriculum, lack of funding, low pay, and disrespect by administration. I understood these to be the realities of that position (I did my research!) but went into the interview open-minded, hoping that despite a difficult set of circumstances I would hear enthusiasm, hope, passion about teaching and maybe even some sign that they still fit in some research. But I didn’t. My active response: they needed my interview time to relax and regroup.

As the humanities job market becomes more and more competitive, and jobs in particular fields (like mine) more scarce, it would be easy for applicants to assume postures of desperation, eager to land a job in any department who might have them. I have heard applicants note that if they don’t like the next job, they will simply go on the market and do it all again, undercover while appearing to serve happily at their new (loathed) institution.

However, have an honest conversation with yourself about whether it would truly be better for you to move across the country (and possibly move your loved ones) for a position that you intuitively know is not the right fit than it is to find temporary employment, even nonacademic, to save money (and continue publishing) for next year’s search. Consider that you may be stuck in a place that makes you unhappy for many, many years. Jumping from job to job, up that imaginary academic ladder, is no longer an option for most of us. I have colleagues who chose to decline opportunities in departments they knew had problems, where they would not be intellectually and pedagogically fulfilled, and all of them have either found other academic positions or have – gasp – found nonacademic employment that they find even more fulfilling. It will all work out. Take an active role in your interviews. Trust your gut.

Bio

Katherine Ellison is associate professor of 18th-century literature and culture at Illinois State University and co-editor of Digital Defoe: Studies in Defoe & His Contemporaries.

 

 

 

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