The Most Important Question

March 19, 2012

What's the difference between an O.K. interview and a great interview? A recent job hunter made that difference crystal-clear to me. He had Skype interviews with two liberal arts colleges. The first, he reported, did not quite come off, and he left it thinking "Maybe I'm just not right for liberal arts colleges."

This discouraged him, but when another possibility surfaced several weeks later, he prepared for it single-mindedly. He researched the coastal location. He learned about the strengths of the local museum. He investigated the college's short winter term that might well be spent elsewhere. When committee members asked him what he might like to teach, he had a list of courses that made specific use of the geographic region, the museum, and that mini winter term for teaching Pynchon's three California novels while traveling through California.

Evidently, he succeeded, since he was invited to campus. His sense of the difference? For the first and for his other early interviews, he thought in terms of preparing for an R1 or R2 or LAC or SLAC or CC. In other words, he thought about them generically. For that second interview, he wiped every consideration from his mind except that particular college.

Why did he want to teach there? This is the question you must be able to answer for every college, and the answer cannot be, "Because I want a job, any job." That may be where you start, and goodness knows that is honest, but you must not stop there. After his preparatory research, he knew the answer to that question, and he was not just feeding them a line. He really, really did want to teach there. He saw how he could make original contributions, and also felt that he would greatly enjoy being part of such a liberal arts enterprise with small classes of bright students. Preparing generically for an institution usually produces so-so results. Preparing for that one school and really trying figure out why you would want to teach there has a very different effect.

Something very similar happened to a job hunter who was offered a Skype interview last year. This was for an institution in the middle of what many outsiders consider an unattractive area to live, so much so that other interviews with that college have started abruptly with, "What do you know about the region?" At first she felt unenthusiastic about the possibility, but since she had no other nibbles at that time, she tried to find out why she might really wish to teach there. I think she must have done everything but read the local yellow pages.

As a result, she knew about the symphony season, the museum, the medical facilities, the extensive farmers' market, a ski slope and lake, the number of sunny days per year, and the low cost of living. The local schools checked out as at least satisfactory, so she felt she would not need to worry about children's education. The state was not broke and the college seemed to be well-supported. In sum, she started ignorant and therefore reluctant but ended up genuinely enthusiastic, and hoping that the interview would go well.

Preparing in this fashion takes a lot of time and effort. In the days of having a dozen Modern Language Association (or other disciplinary association) interviews, that amount of detail would not have been possible to learn, but very few job hunters are approached by many courting institutions these days. You will probably have the time to learn far more about the college and its surrounds than would have been possible only a few years back. You should take advantage of what the Web can offer you.

Even if you are being considered for a spousal appointment, don’t just assume that you are hoping to be there because of a spouse. Instead, figure out why you want to be part of that department and would even if your partner were not a consideration. Don’t mention your partner in the interview; instead show just how serious you are about joining their enterprise. The most important question you can prepare an answer for is "Why do you want to teach specifically at x?" If you have an honest, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and specific answer to that, then you are likely to make a favorable impression.



Kathryn Hume is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. She is the author of Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt: Advice for Humanities Ph.D.s (Palgrave Macmillan).

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