The Interview -- Enter Stage Right

Teresa Mangum offers suggestions on the mechanics of this most important of conversations.

December 11, 2009

By now, you’ve studied the colleges to which you applied online; you’ve outlined possible answers to all sorts of questions; and you’ve found your footing in mock interviews.

Search committees in academe need to return to campus in possession of fairly specific information about each candidate. Their colleagues will expect them to assess your scholarship (or artistic or research projects), its potential impact on your intellectual community, and the likelihood that you have additional ideas for future projects after you finish, revise, and publish your thesis. How do you convey so much to strangers in such a short time?

Your goal is to communicate the “big picture” by explaining the most capacious and significant overarching research questions that drive your project and by convincing the committee your work will engage as vast an audience of your peers as possible. At the same time, you need to balance broad brushstrokes with riveting, concrete detail. If your larger claim is that vampires have a long historical life because their parasitism mutates so brilliantly in response to the fears of vulnerability in any era, be prepared to leap through several vivid examples. Provide the author, title, date, and juiciest evidentiary example from three different historical moments. The committee may ask about your methodology and intellectual influences. Be ready to summarize the key theoretical explanations for this phenomenon in quick, precise sentences, but also be prepared to distinguish your explanation from theirs. And even if you are an 18th-century scholar, remember the world you share with the committee. If you’re writing about vampires, you know someone is going to ask about the Twilight series or True Blood.

I also encourage job candidates to practice behaviors they want to avoid. That would include answering in monosyllables, seeming exhausted with their research, or even being overly relieved at being "done" with the dissertation. Certainly candidates should avoid falling into complaint or expressing negative feelings or moods. If someone asks a question that seems inappropriate or rudely cast, practice ways to deflect or gracefully sidestep rather than reacting with horror or anger. Women, in particular, can communicate authority by drawing their voices into their lower registers and by avoiding apologies. Despite the pervasiveness of feminist theory, I still hear women students apologize repeatedly — for speaking, for asking a question, for misunderstanding a question. I do it myself. Just say no (apologies). Also, remember that no one wants you to launch into a monologue that is as unstoppable as a high speed train.

At the MLA, you will likely be asked to come to a hotel room for your interview. Head up to the floor and hover until the precise time arrives. (You’ll be in good company in the hall, most likely.) You can expect from two to ten interviewers, but three or four is the usual number. Remember that most will not be scholars in your area of specialization; that’s why they’re hiring. You may meet the search committee in a hotel ballroom where a number of other committees are interviewing candidates. This setup requires immense concentration and is far from ideal. Try to think of the experience as another opportunity for you to demonstrate how resilient you are. (I would imagine myself as a Jane Austen character and strive for grace under pressure.)

Though it may feel foolish, plan for the quotidian. How do you get yourself on stage? A gracious entrance takes practice. A quick thank you for the interview or the briefest moment of small talk can ease you into your seat. Take possession of the space by settling yourself comfortably (and if the chair swallows you whole, etc., be brave and ask for another option). If the light is blinding you, reposition your chair. Attend carefully to the names of the committee members and really listen to the opening question. You don’t want to be fussy, but you do want to feel comfortable.

Your goal is to draw listeners into your work and then to engage them with convincing and original discoveries. Moreover, you want to interact with the interview team as colleagues. Imagine how you would explain your ideas in an "exam" situation. Then don’t. Instead, practice the tweaks in presentational style that transform you from student to fellow faculty member. Remember that although committee members read your materials a month earlier, they may not recall details (and they may be exhausted from travel and repeated interviews). Describe your work as though you give them credit for having read your materials but also provide sufficient detail so that they can follow your claims. I know this seems bizarre, but you don’t want to discuss your work in ways that make your auditors feel stupid. Using highly technical language and tossing off names and concepts as though any fool would know all about them can backfire in just that way. Try not to lecture, pontificate, assume, or telegraph. Instead, strive for a genuine, reciprocal conversation.

As I said in my earlier column, your goal is not to roll out memorized set pieces. Rather, you want to be able to characterize your work using different scales, scopes, and levels of detail, depending on the cues you get from your listeners. Ideally, a concise one-paragraph overview of your dissertation will lead to a round of questions that invite you to move to detailed discussion of a particular concept, text, or chapter.

While many committees will put you through your paces by asking specific questions about your dissertation, you want to avoid any association with a one-trick pony. With preparation, you’ll have strategies for neatly weaving details about your additional accomplishments into the discussion: a recent conference paper, a grant, or a publication that goes beyond your dissertation research. Offer a convincing argument for the significance and value of your project. In addition, be ready to deliver a crisp summary of a future project that includes a few tantalizing details. Summon the original passion you felt about ideas that may now seem all too familiar. In Middlemarch, George Eliot writes poignantly about our failure to appreciate the “romance of vocation,” which she clearly finds as compelling as any conventional love story. Recall your own romance with research and bring that story to life for your interviewers.

The second round of questions you can count on will deal with teaching. In fact, if you are meeting with faculty members from an institution focused on teaching, you may find that most of your questions address the classroom. Interviewers may ask about your experience, the kinds of classes you would like to teach, your "dream" course, the way you put texts together (both how and why), and about especially successful assignments. They not only want to know how you teach but how you encourage students to learn.

If you haven’t yet taught, your answers will be necessarily hypothetical. In any case, prepare syllabuses in advance for an entry level class, a couple of courses you could contribute to the major, an honors seminar, and a graduate course (if applicable). Prepare to discuss your teaching philosophy as thoroughly as your research. What are your learning objectives? What do you consider success in the classroom? Note specific texts, topics, provocative juxtapositions, and inventive assignments. Bring along sample syllabuses with informative details (not just a list of topics or texts) to leave with the committee.

Another reason to rehearse is that in an interview you have to be comfortable enough to listen even as you consider your responses. If you have a firm grasp on your work, your accomplishments, and your teaching, you can attend to your auditors. Their body language can signal that you are going on a bit long so that you can make space for a break in the conversation. A look of skepticism or confusion offers you the opportunity to convey your communication skills. By welcoming someone into the discussion — "You look as though you have a question?" — you signal interest in others and a willingness to engage. Whatever you can do to foster genuine conversation versus stilted question and answer will serve you well.

Prepare for the unexpected. If you don’t understand a question, let them know. Simply say "I want to be sure I understand your question; are you asking…." If you truly don’t know the answer to a question, admit that unless you can turn the question in a fruitful direction without seeming evasive. Listen carefully. Repeating the key word in a question as you head into an answer can help you to focus. You would be surprised how often candidates wander away from questions, perplexing the interviewers. Provide plenty of opportunities for auditors to chime in, to refine their questions, and to ask you for more detail or clarification. Whatever you do, concentrate on breathing and remaining calm and collected. You want to project energy but not of the manic sort. When someone asks a question, take a breath and gather your thoughts rather than interrupting or nervously chattering. Regardless of what happens in an interview, if you have remained calm, focused, and good humored, you can walk out of the room with your head held high.

As the interview draws to a close, remember that a smooth exit is as impressive as a confident entrance. When I was searching for a job, two concluding questions took me by surprise. Several interviewers asked what I was reading for pleasure. (I controlled the eyebrow that wanted to lift in shock, given that I’d been proofreading footnotes for days.) I was also oddly unprepared when the chair asked if I had questions for the committee. This is a frequent query that you should prepare for thoughtfully. Because it comes at the end of the interview, there isn’t much time for answers, and you don’t want to ask a question that leaves them feeling lousy. Survey the college or university Web site for ideas. If this school doesn’t have a center for advanced studies, an innocent question about that prospect could be salt in a wound. But what if they have a Women’s Studies program and you focus on gender issues? Ask what they enjoy most about their students. Mention that you have read about the program online and that you wondered whether there would be opportunities for reading groups or cross-listed courses (especially if you have seen some evidence that might be the case). If the school is in the mountains and you kayak, ask about local prospects (especially if you’ve heard that local rivers are promising). You can also ask what they find most appealing about the department, the school, or the area. In other words, an ideal ending allows you to communicate genuine interest in the people and the place while also reminding the search committee of the best things about their institution or location.

Finally, remember how sincerely the committee wants you to succeed. If you look good, they look good. They decided you were one of the ten or fifteen candidates who fit most precisely with the needs and desires of their department. Nothing will make the committee happier than your demonstrating their brilliant, spot-on collective judgment.

With careful planning, research, and rehearsal, you really can prepare yourself for even the most demanding performance. By the end of a stellar interview you’ll feel more like a member of a diversely talented troupe than a prima ballerina. Even those of you who will one day become the stars of your profession will spend much of your career in various ensembles — departments, committees, panelists. When an interview slips into the easy back and forth of sprightly conversation, both you and the interviewers will find that longed-for fit. That’s why in your interview, I hope you dance.


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