Occasionally, interview questions can take you by surprise. I remember being startled by an unexpected query at the end of a congenial but rigorous hour-long conversation with three faculty members. Ironically, given that I was about to earn a Ph.D. in English, I hadn’t anticipated being asked: “What are you reading for pleasure?”
In the final throes of writing my dissertation, I had a mad moment of outrage. Pleasure! Pleasure? I felt I’d been reading footnotes, meticulous graduate college requirements for margin widths, and dusty, crumbling Victorian magazines since the beginning of time. Of course that wasn’t the case. In fact, I had just finished Margaret Atwood’s riveting dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale. A few years after it won a slew of awards, the novel had finally risen to the top of the ever-changing heap of magazines and books always teetering by my bedside.
Hesitantly, I mentioned the title to the search committee, noting that I had been wondering how I might someday teach the novel in a women’s literature course. The novel was not “in my field” nor was it at that cutting edge of competitive conversation, literature department style, that is just before it everyone learns about a new book when it is reviewed in the Times Book Review (New York or London). In fact, I had been reading it in snatches as an occasional escape from working on my dissertation.
Suddenly, the faces of two faculty members who had looked rather weary (it was their last interview on the last day of MLA) lit up. We plunged into a discussion of the novel, sexuality and feminist theory, science fiction, classroom politics, and international theocracies. Serendipitously, both of the professors had recently taught the novel in their courses. The interview closed with one of those leaping, dancing, exhilarating conversations that academe inspires in its finest hours.
That unforeseen question taught me a valuable lesson. I had focused obsessively on the already impossible task of mastering the field of Victorian studies, on meticulously preparing my application materials, on some vague sense of “doing things right” that other “good girls” (male or female) probably also know too well. I hadn’t realized that a search committee might also be listening for intangibles, for the unexpected, for those supplementary somethings that exceed narrow conceptions of expertise.
Departments need specialists, of course. Deep, burrowing knowledge in a particular field yields a harvest of fine courses and academic accomplishments. But only the most rarefied departments can afford one-of-a-kind exotics. In my department, we count ourselves lucky when we realize that a candidate has interests that might fill a yawning hole or furrow an entirely new field. We’ve been surprised and grateful to find we have a continental theorist with a secret life as a science fiction geek, a film scholar whose bedside tower is built of graphic novels, a postmodernist washed up on the shores of environmental studies by a 500-year flood, even a Victorianist who took the bait offered by animal studies.
All of us remain deeply committed to finding success in our fields of expertise, but these unanticipated and evolving secondary and tertiary passions keep propagating new courses, hybridized research areas, and intellectual life — that searching, eager, renewal that keeps a department vital.
Of course, not every interest outside your expertise is wise to bring up until you know your audience. (I’ve watched too many fellow passengers in planes edge away from my husband as he reads about media representations of terrorism to overlook such distinctions.) Also, the flip side of this particular coin is that you should never be misled by a seemingly informal invitation to talk about your personal life or pursuits to imagine that anything you say in a letter, interview, or on campus will be treated as off the record. Both for good and for ill, the oddest details find their way into evaluative conversations.
Also, many initial interviews are so fleeting that a candidate will have to use every moment strategically just to hit the highlights of her or his research and teaching experience. Those fortunate enough to be invited for a campus interview will have more insight and more time to ponder possible connections between their non-specialist passions — from kayaking to comics to solar energy — and local interests and needs. However, what I am convinced of in general is that students and faculty members thrive in an environment that welcomes unexpected interests and lively curiosity. That kind of atmosphere rarely arises by accident; it is cultivated by receptive and generous minds.
And so, what’s my own unexpected advice? This may sound absurd (or absurdly obvious), but anticipating the fall job market argues for rather than against your “summer reading.” The simple pleasure of scanning a daily newspaper, following a blog or two outside your academic area, indulging in an at home international Friday night film series, keeping a few books on topics outside your mental comfort zone on your nightstand — all could reasonably be part of your placement preparation. You never know where your own surprising questions might lead or which passions might catch fire in an interview once you’ve proven your expertise.
In the next few columns, I’ll suggest more pragmatic ways to prepare for what will no doubt be an unusually challenging job market. For now, though, I’ll staunchly advocate for the wisdom of straying from the professional path occasionally. The expertise one gains as a specialist has its own pleasures as well as practicality. But I wouldn’t underestimate the irresistibility of boundless curiosity and delight in the unexpected. Most of us feel a thrill in an interview when a question, however routine or unusual, reveals that a future colleague’s mind is alive and kicking whether that candidate is discussing a dissertation, a digression, or dreams for the future.