An Unexpected Path

Joanne Nystrom Janssen wanted a job teaching at a liberal arts college, and describes the search process that landed her such a position -- at a new institution in Bangladesh.

November 17, 2010

When I was in the throes of the English literature job market last spring, a fellow academic asked me if I would ever consider teaching overseas. While I found the option somewhat attractive, an international job did not fit with my envisioned future, which consisted of a yellow farmhouse, a brood of chickens, and a liberal arts teaching job at a Midwestern college. In the current job market, I knew that my career would likely take several detours before I would land my dream job, but an international job seemed more than an indirect route: it struck me as a course to a different future altogether.

As Murphy’s Law would have it, by the end of June I was flying to the other side of the world, almost literally. I had become captivated by the mission of the Asian University for Women, a liberal arts institution in Chittagong, Bangladesh that empowers young women from 12 Asian countries to become leaders in their communities. Surprisingly (at least to me), the university also seemed like a great fit for me due to my training in public engagement and research on 19th-century recitation, since the university was pioneering an active and engaged approach to student learning in a region that primarily educates through rote learning. With the support, blessing, and sometimes envy of my friends, family, and mentors, I decided to take the plunge and accept the job.

Because of my lack of intentionality in pursuing a teaching job overseas, in many ways I strike myself as the person least qualified to offer advice to others seeking an international position. At the same time, however, because I had not been pursuing such a career, I may have had the most to learn and therefore pass along. I share my experiences of applying to and interviewing for my current position, as well as my reflections after the fact, with the hope that they might help others who also find themselves considering a similar path — either deliberately or, like me, a bit more unexpectedly. While I acknowledge that the details of my experience may not reflect the norm for international universities (or even for my university as it moves forward), I think the underlying principles have broad application.

From the moment I saw the job advertisement, I noticed that the university required more and different materials than other jobs to which I had applied. In addition to the usual letter of application and curriculum vitae, I was asked to submit a detailed teaching portfolio, with past syllabuses, assignments, and any other relevant supporting documents. The university also requested contact information for my references rather than my standard letters of recommendation. At the time, I assumed they would request my letters if I made it past the first level of scrutiny, but instead they chose to speak to my references over the phone from Bangladesh.

My interview process also varied from the norm. It occurred over Skype at 9 p.m. in order to accommodate an 11-hour time difference. Since I only owned a several-year-old computer that was barely hobbling along, I was forced to scramble for a friend's computer and technical assistance in order to carry out the interview. I found out later that Skype was not the university’s only way of conducting interviews; other faculty who were hired earlier in the year participated in interviews in Bangkok, Dhaka, or Boston, based largely on the candidates’ locations or countries of origin. From hearing about friends’ similar experiences at other international universities, both of these approaches strike me as fairly common.

While I did not fully understand the variations in my application and interview processes at the time, in retrospect I can see that they served a strategic purpose. Although the ever-evasive concept of "fit" is important in any university, it becomes particularly crucial in any context that would ask someone to move to a new country or culture. In spite of that awareness, universities in far-flung locations face challenges in making that determination. For example, since my university is located in Bangladesh, it would have been time- and cost-prohibitive to have on-campus interviews, which is why it relied upon Skype and intermediate interview locations. Realizing that such interviews do not allow for the kind of intimate knowledge of a candidate that a university might like, however, the selection committee responded by asking for more materials up front and holding candid conversations with references rather than reading recommendation letters, which — let's face it — are always glowing. Although we did not spend time together face-to-face, my university actually knew me, and my teaching, quite well by the time they offered me the position.

Once I received the job offer, I realized the flipside of the university’s challenge in determining fit: I, too, had to make a decision about whether to accept the position and move myself and my family to Bangladesh without the benefit of experiencing the country, the campus, or my colleagues. I think I instinctually recognized that reality in my interview, as I found myself answering questions more frankly than I normally would. Although it was not a conscious decision at the time, now I see the wisdom in that impulse: since I knew I might have to make a decision with limited information, I at least wanted to ensure that the university was gaining a clear sense of who I am as a scholar, teacher, and person, as it considered whether to offer me the position. (Although these are desperate times, I think that might be good advice for any interview — none of us want a job that is not a good fit.) After receiving the job offer, I also asked to speak with some faculty members and administrators by e-mail in order to address many of the questions that I was not able to answer without a campus visit.

In spite of these dissimilarities, it’s worth mentioning that in most ways the application and interview processes were much less unusual than I thought they would be. In fact, after wrapping up my Skype interview, I marveled at how "normal" the experience had been. The interviewees asked me many of the same kinds of questions that I had been preparing to answer and that I would expect to field for any faculty position at a university, like mine, that emphasizes teaching. (The only atypical question was whether I had ever spent time in Asia or a developing country — no and yes.) The interview pointed to an insight that I have now come to understand: ultimately many international universities value the same qualities in candidates as universities in North America, such as strong teaching, engaging research, and open-handed collegiality. My interview was not entirely unusual, because my committee members simply wanted to know how I — as a teacher and as a colleague — might contribute to their university community.

Right now I do not own a farmhouse, tend to chickens, or teach at a Midwestern university, but in many ways my life in Bangladesh captures what I was hoping for my future: I live in comfortable accommodations, enjoy the presence of farm animals (in spite of the fact that I live in a city of 4 million people!), and teach at a small liberal arts university. While none of these aspects of my life fit my previous vision of my future exactly, they do capture the essence of my desire to live and work in an intimate community with engaged and motivated students. I’m glad that my journey included this stop — which may not be a detour, but instead a significant destination of its own.


Joanne Nystrom Janssen is assistant professor at the Asian University for Women.


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