Doing Your Homework

Melissa Dennihy discusses how to prepare for an interview for a faculty job.

June 24, 2015
 

One of the most common -- and valuable -- pieces of advice offered to academics on the job market is to thoroughly research the department and institution before going to a campus interview. But college websites are often complex and difficult to navigate, containing much more information than an interviewee could or should consume in the minimal time before an interview. What information should job candidates be looking for as they prepare for campus interviews? Where should they look to find it?

An obvious starting point is to learn what you can about the department chair and other search committee members. Knowing a bit about each of the faculty members you interview with will make it easier to forge connections and avoid unintentionally saying the wrong things. Don’t stop at checking faculty pages housed within the department website: you should also do a web search for your interviewers (just as they will likely search the web for you). Browse any personal webpages faculty may have independent of the institution. If their CVs or syllabi are available online, read them. Note their research interests, teaching approaches, texts and assignments used in their courses, and the types of departmental and college service they are involved in. Remember that what you are getting here are not only snapshots of your interviewers, but also of the department and institution they work for.

Another useful thing to pay attention to as you research your prospective employer is the department website, particularly the curricular, pedagogical and ideological language used -- and not used -- on the department homepage and within course and program descriptions. Such language can offer clues on how to talk about research and teaching during your interview. In my own discipline of English, for example, terms such as “remedial writing” or “basic writing” are commonly used by some academics and ardently avoided by others. If possible, you’ll want to have some sense of your interviewers’ views on key issues in your field before you go in for an interview -- as well as how you’ll respond if asked to discuss a topic in your field that can be divisive or controversial.

You should also review available information on courses you can expect to teach if you get the job. Read the course descriptions, note and familiarize yourself with any required course texts, and, if available, download and examine syllabi or assignments. You can also do a web search for specific courses in addition to looking at what’s available on the department website; you may find course syllabi posted elsewhere on the web, and some courses have publicly viewable class blogs or websites. Such pages offer a glimpse of the type of work instructors assign and the skill level of students in the courses you may teach.

In addition to researching the search committee and department, it’s worth trying to get a sense of the bigger picture of the institution as a whole, especially if your campus visit will include an interview with an administrator. Pay attention to what is featured on the institution’s home page: these are usually the high-profile, most current initiatives and activities occurring on campus, ones that the institution’s faculty and administrators are likely to be particularly proud of and invested in. Try to read up on at least one campus initiative or activity outside of your own discipline that you can envision yourself becoming involved in as a new faculty member.

For teaching-oriented positions, especially, it’s also important to take some time to learn about the individuals you will work most closely with on a daily basis if you are hired: the students. Start by reading the institution’s pages on students and student demographics: What languages do students speak? What racial and ethnic backgrounds do students come from? How many international students are on campus? What types of academic and economic backgrounds are students coming from? What degrees and career paths are they pursuing?

These are not mere statistics, but questions that should inform the way you talk about teaching during your interview. You can also get some sense of what student life is like by browsing pages that list student clubs and activities such as sports, student government and Greek life. Learning about what students are interested in, academically and otherwise, can prove surprisingly useful while talking about teaching during an interview.

For any interview, but especially one for a community college position, it is also worth learning a bit about the larger community in which the campus is situated. Especially if you’ve never been there before, do some research to help you gain some demographic and historical knowledge about the county or city where the campus is located. Candidates who are clueless about the community and culture that surround the campus are more likely to say the wrong thing in an interview or even in a casual conversation over lunch or drinks. Faculty members who are devoted to and proud of the larger community in which they live and work may find it quite off-putting if a candidate makes stereotypical or clichéd comments about the area.

Finally, in any situation where you can explore the campus physically as well as virtually, take the opportunity to do so. If you live close enough to visit the school prior to your interview, do it, even if it means a two-hour drive or train ride. Spend some time on campus -- talk to students, chat with faculty, visit the library -- and familiarize yourself with the area surrounding the school. Do as much as you can to get a feel for the academic and local cultures of which you may soon be a part, and you will find that you can more successfully give the impression that you will fit in there.

Bio

Melissa Dennihy is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.

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