Prepping for the Campus Visit

April 11, 2011

When the chair calls to announce your selection as a finalist, immediately show enthusiasm and thank her/him and the committee. In most cases, universities/colleges take care of all travel reservations (flights, train, hotel). In some cases, they may ask you to book and pay for your travel and save all receipts for reimbursement upon arrival. The chair usually gives finalists a choice of dates for their visit. When selecting the date, think about your own personal commitments, but think as well about the time you need to prepare. The department sends you a detailed itinerary including airport pickup information, hotel information, all meetings you will be attending, the names and titles of people you will be meeting with, and what they expect you to do during your stay. If the chair does not mention such an itinerary, ask for one. If you have any special needs (special diet, disability, etc.), inform the chair during that first conversation over the phone. Make sure the chair gives you a phone number to call if necessary (delayed flights, nobody waiting for you at destination, etc.).

Prior to departure, research as much information as possible on the people you will be meeting with during your visit. Read their website profile, CV; see if you know anyone working (including people outside the department/program, from your graduate school or colloquia trips, for instance) or anyone knowing someone at that school. Find as many facts as you can on the programs. What are the department's, program's, school's, college's strategic plans, visions, missions? Which accreditation agencies evaluate the institution? Does the university/college have a chapter of the American Association of University Professors? Is there a union and common contract for the faculty? If so, get a copy and read it carefully.

Visit the human resources website and read carefully any information posted for faculty (such as benefits and policies). Take notes and prepare a lengthy list of questions and take it along. This is extremely useful, not only to show interviewers you prepared well and are very serious about the job, but also as a list of topics to address during meetings, including during the many "dead times": rides between the airport and hotel/campus (depending on the college's location, they could be long ones); walks between buildings; the unexpected 20 minutes waiting for a table at the restaurant; waiting for AAA in a parking lot in a committee member’s broken-down car (as happened to me once), etc. Do not ask people what their specialization is; show them that you already know it ("I was fascinated by your article on blah-blah-blah").

Dress Code and Travel Gear

Apply the same dress code as for the convention (see my previous essay). If possible, do not check bags; take carry-on only. Bring your laptop, cell phone, and enough cash for the unexpected. If you have to check a bag, keep the text of your talk, lesson plan, notes, and questions with you. Print a copy of everything before you leave. Do not assume you will be able to print at your destination. If you own airplane pillows, large noise-canceling headphones or anything of the like, put them into your carry-on bag before you de-plane.

As soon as the aircraft’s door opens after landing, tell yourself the interview just started. It will not end — and thus you should remain alert — until the flight attendant closes the door for the return flight. Starting at the airport, whenever you meet someone, smile, establish eye contact, shake their hand, and say, "Pleased to meet you."

Length and content of campus visits greatly vary. It may be a one-day visit with arrival the previous evening or it may be a two- or three-day visit. You may be asked to teach a class and you will almost always be asked to give a talk to the faculty and students of the department/program you are interviewing with. In any case, be ready for a "marathon," as finalists are busy every single minute of their campus visit. In addition to the talk and eventual class to teach, many meetings, interviews, breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with a wide variety of people are scheduled. The unavoidable: search committee members, department/program colleagues, and dean or associate dean. In addition, depending on institutions, candidates may also meet some of the following: provost and/or president, undergraduate and/or graduate students, librarian, colleagues from partner programs and/or labs, and administrative assistants. When preparing for your visit, find out the degrees held by the administrators who will interview you. In the majority of cases, expect to start your day at 8 a.m. and to not return to the hotel until after dinner.

Meetings/Interviews/Meals

Departments/programs want candidates to meet as many people as possible while on campus and therefore arrange for different colleagues (and sometimes graduate students) to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner with them. Concerning meals, play it safe. Do not order complicated, expensive entrees, dishes with lots of sauce (potentially dangerous for your clothes), or anything you would be trying for the first time. Do not eat too much so that you can keep up with the rhythm of three restaurant meals per day, and remain focused on conversations. Unlike your interlocutors who only have to perform during that one meal, you have to remain fresh for the entire day. Never order alcoholic beverages for lunch and never more than one glass of wine at dinner (none is even better). Refusing an invitation to drink alcoholic beverages at dinner will not cost you the job. But drinking increases the chances of your becoming too relaxed or of acting erratically. And this will definitely cost you the job.

These varied meetings are an opportunity for your eventual future colleagues to evaluate you (in a different context) and to impress you (because if they end up selecting you they want you to accept their offer), but they are also an opportunity for you to "interview" them, to see them on their own turf, and to observe how they interact with each other. The main purpose of meeting with the deans or higher administrators is for them to promote their school and programs and to give you the specifics (such as requirements for tenure, research and teaching support, benefits). Sometimes, the chair may attend the meeting as well. They do the talking for the most part and then give you an opportunity for questions. You should always have questions (two or three at the most). They should be questions that show that you familiarized yourself with the school and that you are enthusiastic about the job. Do not ask about salary during the campus visit. Unless you are applying for a senior position, it is unlikely that salary will be discussed or that you will be asked your salary wishes during the campus visit. Salary figures and negotiation usually happen once the offer is made.

When meeting with potential colleagues (sometimes individually), show that you prepared well and that this job is your priority; that you are familiar with their interests. Most of all show interest in them. Do not spend the entire time talking; let them tell you about themselves and the school as well. Be humble and respectful, regardless of their rank, title or specialization. Express your willingness to start your career, to be mentored, and to learn from experienced colleagues. If you are provided with "juicy" details about the department's/program's atmosphere and dynamics, do not get into it, just listen and nod with a neutral face. Just like with the convention interview, never say anything negative about a person, a college, or a book during the campus visit.

When meeting with students, four rules: 1) Do not try to be their buddy or to pass yourself off as "one of them." 2) Be as respectful, prepared, and alert as with anybody else you meet on campus. 3) Do not share funny but risqué anecdotes from your student days. 4) Keep in mind that everything you say/do will be repeated. Bottom line: appearing "boring" and/or "a geek" to the students will not cost you the job. Saying something stupid (even if the students loved it) could. You are no longer a student in this setting; you are a scholar and the candidate for this specific job, and you could well be the future professor of some of these students.

Family Business

Do not refer to or talk about a spouse/significant other, etc., during the campus visit. Do not wear a ring or anything else that could indicate your personal situation. Do not talk about having children or anything of the like. Interviewers are not allowed to ask you if you are married and/or if you have children (or plan to), so they should not ask unless you bring it up. Do not talk about religion either (but it will be hard not to if you interview at a religious institution). To avoid opening these doors, do not ask anyone if they have children and/or if they are married. For instance, if you see pictures of kids or of a wedding in some office, do not ask about it, etc. That said, there are still many instances when at least one person asks these illegal questions. Should it happen, be ready with an answer. Finally, if your significant other is also an academic, the campus interview is not the time to try to negotiate a teaching position for him/her. This is also addressed at the stage of a job offer.

The Class

Some programs ask you to teach a class while on campus. It is usually an undergraduate class, often in the first or second year. The first thing to take note of is that if they ask you to teach a class, this means that they expect you to take teaching very seriously should you be hired. This fact is useful to know in anticipation of the entire campus visit. Before you leave, find as much information as possible on the course you have to teach: obtain a syllabus, the number of students in the class, the name and contact information of the instructor, a copy of the reader (if applicable) or text(s) dealt with on the day of your class but also on previous and subsequent days (in case the instructor does not cover everything or cover enough the day preceding your visit). Prepare several lesson plans: one for your assigned day, and one for the preceding and subsequent days. Have a plan B for each day. If possible (for instance if you teach a similar course that same semester), test the lesson plan with your own students. At the very least, rehearse your lesson plan and show it to the teaching coordinator of your department for feedback.

While preparing, keep in mind the following things that could well happen: the power is out, the meeting with the deans ended late and you now have to cover everything in 40 minutes instead of 50, the fire alarm stops the class in the middle, students are ill-prepared (less proficient than those you are used to), students are extremely good (much better than what you prepared for), students were not told ahead of time that you would be teaching the class, students were told to read and prepare pages 10-15 but you were told to cover pages 15-20, there is no chalk/marker (or the marker stops working 10 minutes into the class), there is no eraser, there is no podium, the classroom is near an extremely noisy street/area, students leave the first two rows unoccupied, only one colleague shows up to observe your class, several colleagues and/or students keep pouring in way after you have started the class, colleagues talk to each other while you are teaching the class, students leave the class to use the bathroom and come back, after 15 minutes you realize you have already covered everything on your lesson plan or you quickly realize that there is no way you will have time to cover everything you had planned.

Recommendations: be flexible and ready to change/adapt/improvise immediately (technique, lesson plan, activities) to anything if necessary; bring with you everything you need (chalk, markers, erasers, reader, handouts); do not assume, for example, that you can print and photocopy handouts on campus before your class. Using technology, especially if it is a 50-minute class, is very risky: the classroom may not be equipped, or the system may down, or your computer, which was working perfectly fine when you tested your PowerPoint presentation five minutes before the class, may not work. With regard to faculty observing the class, pretend that it is only you and the students in the classroom.

Establish good eye contact with all students throughout the class. Be dynamic and enthusiastic, but do not go overboard. Have a lesson plan that will work even if the students did not prepare/read. Keep an eye on the time. Make the students speak/participate as much as possible; engage them as much as possible. Do not always question the same students. Have the students do at least one group activity. Be strategic once you distinguish the students’ levels: avoid asking the least proficient to answer what you hope to be your major linking point of the lesson. Do not spend most of your time lecturing and writing on the board. Do not spend more than 10 percent of the class period showing slides, an excerpt from a film, or any other audio visual feature. Start and end the class on time and do not lose your cool no matter what happens.

The Talk

This is one of the most important moments, if not the most important, of the campus visit. You are asked to present an ongoing scholarly research project (your dissertation if you are applying for your first job) to your peers (students and colleagues from other programs may also attend). Often, it is scheduled on the last day of the visit. First, it is extremely important to follow the chair's specific guidelines on the format and length of the talk (ask if necessary). If you think that your best chapter takes 45 minutes to present but the chair asked for a 30-minute talk, do not assume you will win your audience over. Reduce your talk to exactly 30 minutes. If what you really want to do is give a detailed, groundbreaking analysis of the first stanza of that poem you are working on but the chair asked for a talk linking your research on poetry with your teaching, then this is exactly what you should do. Your talk should be jargon-free so that audience members not in your field may still understand you.

Furthermore, do not only think in terms of the talk itself. Anticipate and prepare possible questions that will certainly follow the talk. This is probably even more important than your lecture because your peers are most interested in seeing how you talk about, even defend, your work. Be ready for a mix of tough, aggressive, sympathetic, interesting, dumb, awkward, and raving questions. Be ready as well for questions that end up being mini-speeches. Regardless of the question, keep your cool; treat every question with the highest interest and respect. If you disagree with something, say it, but say it professionally (even if interlocutor did not) and, most importantly, explain why you disagree.

Checkout Time

Before returning to the airport or train station, the campus visit sometimes ends with a final individual interview with the chair. This is the time to reiterate how impressed you are by the campus, area (at some point during the visit there is usually a city/town tour), colleagues and students. This is also the time to wrap up by summarizing all the skills and experience (that the chair has witnessed firsthand by then) that make you a perfect match for this position. Make sure you thank the chair and ask her/him to thank again all the people who generously gave of their time to meet with you. This is what you will write again in the note you will send the chair from home.

Bio

Alain-Philippe Durand is professor of French and director of the School of International Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Arizona.

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