The Interview -- Readiness Is All

To be authentic and to cover the points you want, rehearsal is a must, writes Teresa Mangum.

December 9, 2009

Why do so many academics fear the very thought of rehearsing? I also often wonder why so many academics fear dancing, which I am convinced is a related question.

I hope we can agree that good teaching requires careful choreography, and many of us would welcome more theatrical flair in conference presentations. However, my task here is to convince job seekers to approach interviews as unique performances. Rehearsing can help you to calm stage fright; to achieve a coherent, convincing, and (ironically) "authentic" delivery; and to improvise with aplomb. This first of two installments on interviews focuses on the rehearsal. The next addresses the performance itself. In both columns I am assuming that candidates already have deep knowledge of their subjects so that we can focus on the seemingly superficial matters that, sadly, can mask even the best head and heart.

The first round of interviews in a search can take place in person, via video conference, or by phone. In my field, the first round of interviews often takes place at the annual Modern Language Association conference; however, a number of colleges have responded to budget cuts by relying on phone interviews. Colleagues in other disciplines tell me that phone interviews are routine. The absence of a large-scale, strategically timed conference rules out an intermediate personal interview between the review of documents and the campus visit. While my focus will be on the MLA conference interview, most searches will involve a similar hour-long intensive discussion with several faculty members, even during a campus visit. Therefore, I hope this information will be generally helpful. I welcome additional advice from faculty members who have served on recent searches in other disciplines.

A department or search committee chair usually, by phone, arranges interviews. Especially if you don’t deal well with surprises, prepare for the calls I hope you will all be getting. Props are crucial. You’ll need your personal, carefully updated calendar (and pen) at hand. The caller will want to set up a time to meet (in person or by phone). Even though these days sensible departments confirm details by e-mail, remember to write down all the details including the name of the college and the caller, the time, place, and a committee member’s cell phone number in case of an emergency. Also, be sure to provide a phone number where you can be reached at the conference.

Those attending the MLA conference will probably be invited for a 45-minute interview in a hotel room with some or all of the search committee members. Try to keep at least an hour free before and after so that you aren’t distracted by fears that you’ll be late to a session or another interview. You might also be traveling between different hotels, and elevator waits are legion. The phone call will be brief but ask — politely, of course — who will be present at the interview. That way you can learn a bit about those faculty members from their Web pages before the interview. In the case of the MLA, the committee chair will contact you again when he or she arrives at the conference and can provide the hotel and room number. (Some find that first unexpected phone call so disconcerting that they prefer to catch the message on voicemail and return the call with calendar in hand. Just do so very promptly.)

Now the true rehearsals should begin. An interview of any kind is a great opportunity that can easily be squandered. It truly helps to anticipate and devise strategies for various scenarios; to create lists of specific titles, authors, critics, and crucial ideas; and to practice your lines. How often have you sat through a lecture when someone tried to ad lib without preparation? Too often, the speaker meanders, repeats, and ends up having to omit significant information due to time constraints. Until you sit in front of a mirror, a friend, a colleague, and a mentor and attempt to answer conventional interview questions, you cannot imagine how challenging it is to be smart, succinct, focused, coherent, and detailed.

Preparation requires research. You can find excellent lists of potential questions in advice guides and on the Web sites of many professional organizations. For those in literary studies, the MLA provides information, including a useful list of "Dos and Don’ts for Job Candidates." Michael Gamer and Anne K. Krook offer an especially helpful list of questions on the University of Pennsylvania English Department Web page.

I fear that I am a relentless "director," but I urge my students to prepare by rehearsing the following. I would encourage you to write your responses in language that any well-educated person could understand. You want your answers to sound like you, not like Agamben or Žižek.

  • A five-minute version of the dissertation (delivered to everyone who will listen).
  • A one-page version that includes key arguments and texts in each chapter.
  • A two-minute explanation of methodology, complete with intellectual influences.
  • A one-sentence explanation of why this project is important.
  • A one-paragraph description of your goals as a teacher.
  • Three lively examples that translate those goals into action (the intellectual backbone that would shape a particular class or two, texts that would put flesh on those bones, and a few imaginative assignments for class discussion and research and writing projects that would bring that body to life for students).
  • Three main points you want to convey in any interview.
  • Two or three points (and specific details such as critics, titles, experiences) that would position you to answer four or five obvious follow-up questions about your research or teaching.

The point of rehearsals is not rote memorization, recitation, or mechanical delivery. Quite the opposite. The goal is to pull together the amazing ideas, insights, arguments, and questions that have prepared you for this moment and to step from the black and white, pristine, manageable backstage world of the page onto a professional stage.

I take my own advice so seriously that graduate job seekers in my department participate in two rehearsals. First, students interview each other in small groups. Most of us enter this process picturing ourselves in a fairly abject position — desperately attempting to answer trick questions and having no control over the tone or trajectory of the interview. In playing the role of search committee members, job seekers realize that a successful interview requires active collaboration from the candidate. A passive candidate is like a guest who assumes a dinner party is about food rather than food and conversation. As interviewers, job candidates learn the value of body language that suggests active listening, of looking into the eyes of each and every committee member, of short, crisp answers and of questions initiated by the candidate, of an air of receptivity and a willingness to move comfortably among a range of topics. They also learn how annoying seemingly inane mannerisms can be — punctuating every sentence with “like” or “um,” mumbling or hiding your mouth with your hand, raising or dropping your voice in singsong sentences or eating the end of sentences — little tics you can moderate once you’re aware of them.

Then, we hold a round of mock interviews with faculty members. Each candidate is interviewed by two faculty teams and also observes other students being interviewed. Faculty members, observers, and the person just interviewed discuss strengths and strategies for improvement after each "performance." Some students balk at having an audience. Here’s the deal. Being an academic means standing before a class daily, speaking up in and chairing innumerable committees, routinely giving speeches and delivering papers, and constantly being reviewed by peers. Now is the time to accept the fact that we are all public figures, and that’s a good reason to rehearse before a live audience.

As you can see, rehearsals are serious business. But if you rehearse, you’ll be well rewarded. I can’t promise anyone a job, alas, but I can almost guarantee that you can take your place onstage with confidence. In my next column, I’ll discuss the cast of characters who will be waiting for you with high hopes for a captivating performance.


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