Off the Rails

Karla P. Zepeda recalls a set of odd and inappropriate interview questions -- and how she dealt with them.

March 16, 2015

My first on-campus interview felt much like a chapter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It was a bit improper here, a bit of a tangle there and with much indecorous happenings everywhere. One could presumably blame it on the havoc caused by the winter storm that interrupted my flight. It was not fun at all being stranded halfway there. But I was safely grounded -- rather, the plane was -- and staying at the Westin Detroit wasn’t much of a chore at all.

In addition to the weather, there was something wacky about the bunch who interviewed me at that Midwest college. They were certainly an unconventional lot.

The rules of decorum are plainly dictated, of course, by the well-intended professional organizations. Whether it is the Modern Language Association or the American Historical Association, they have their dos and don'ts or their guidelines. What do they say there? The documents more or less repeat a word or two about establishing a pleasant atmosphere, maintaining courtesy, being aware of prejudices and asking appropriate questions. The guides also offer a word or two about what to say or ask -- questions should remain professional in nature. It is apparently best not to pose questions on marital status, politics, religion, personal lifestyle or disability, just to name a few. It is also best not to intentionally cause stress to candidates or ask them leading questions.

You can imagine my surprise when I arrived at the Mad Tea Party a day late, and a two-day visit was squeezed, not shrunk, to one day. The Midwest was flat, yet well adorned by about two feet of snow. When my plane arrived, the appointed faculty member picked me up, and off we went to find the car. We walked here, we walked there and yet the car just seemed elsewhere. Misplaced it was in the microscopic airport lot. I hauled my luggage through the snow until we finally came upon the car. The ride was pleasant. The parking at the college was not. The faculty member asked if I thought the car would fit in a spot along a curve. I figured it was best not to judge and say, so I responded, “I don’t know. You know your car best.” We moved forward. We moved back. And suddenly, there was a bump of the car behind, an expletive ensued, a word with an F. Most random exclamation, I thought (there goes establishing a pleasant atmosphere and maintaining courteousness, by the way). The faculty asked if I could get out, but trapped I was by the snowbank. A new arrangement had to be made. But luckily soon we made it to the appointed place.

The rest of the day was well spent between interviewing with the chair, meeting the department faculty, teaching a class, meeting students, taking a campus tour, having lunch, presenting my research, interviewing with the dean, breaking for tea and meeting more faculty. Quite normal, I would say.

But the interview would soon unravel through the rest of the day.

We all know that the more social part of the interview takes place beyond the institutional walls. I remembered the advice of my experienced advisor -- “Remember, the interview lasts until you are out of their sight and back on the plane.” The same faculty member who picked me up from the airport was appointed to chauffeur me to my hotel, where I would check in and get ready for the dinner with the faculty. The chair would pick me up from the hotel. The itinerary was set.

But the professor who had drawn the shortest straw and was fated to drive me around had a most awesome idea: I could choose to go to the hotel, or accompany her back home, to play with her baby and drink wine, she said. I needed a moment to recover. I didn’t know what to say. This wasn’t a question I had practiced for at all (indeed it must fall under causing undue stress). I turned to politeness and said, “I would love to meet your baby, but I would prefer to go to the hotel and change.” Luckily, she acquiesced, and dropped me off at the hotel.

Sometimes departments have a character or two in their midst. They can be managed, if it’s a large department; they stand out well, if it’s a small place.

The chair arrived right on time to drive me to dinner in another town. We talked, and the interview questions began: “What kind of political topics interest you?” The chair said, “I only ask because one of your recommenders mentioned that you have a political mind” (well, this one is definitely under questions not to ask).

I didn’t know what was best to say, so I responded, “Topics concerning human rights are close to my heart” (and I was very proud of my response, except for the part about the heart. Too dramatic, perhaps?). The chair mentioned the department's interest in human rights issues and being involved in raising money for women who cannot afford abortions. (This issue in an interview?)

As we drove, a black cat crossed our path (an omen of worse questions to come?). I said, “Good thing he made it, there’s a lot of ice on the road.” The chair mentioned loving ice on the road because of being fond of fishtailing cars, and proceeded to demonstrate. I smiled graciously (this certainly falls under causing a candidate undue stress).

The chair continued with the questions, asking if I owned any pets. I mentioned owning a rabbit. The chair said, “Rabbits like to hump things.” (Can you say “hump” in an interview?). Brief silence, followed by, “And who is your rabbit with while you travel?” (Oh, this is the marital status, personal lifestyle question.)

“One of my friends.” We made it to the restaurant. The Mad Tea Party was well on its way, but with actual wine being served. I met the rest of the department -- luckily ordinary people.

How does one survive such a mad experience? If you find yourself in a Mad Tea Party, remember not to go mad yourself. Act well. Exercise tact. Let their tea party go on, and find joy in never going there again.


Karla P. Zepeda is an associate professor of Spanish at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne. She recently coedited with Ellen Mayock, Ernest Williams II Professor of Spanish at Washington and Lee University, a volume on careers in the humanities, Forging a Rewarding Career in the Humanities: Advice for Academics (Sense Publishers 2014).


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