Annie Mendenhall asked a thought-provoking question on Twitter this week: “What if committees sent questions before the interview?”
I have to admit leaning toward no on this one, even at the risk of the inevitable flaming.
The argument for tipping the questions ahead of time has merit. Nobody does their best, or most representative, work under extreme stress. Most of us have had the crushing experience at some point of drawing a blank on the spot, only to have the ideal answer hit us five minutes later on the walk to the car. (French has an actual phrase for it: “l’esprit de l’escalier,” or the wit of the staircase, referring to the perfect response that comes to you as you walk, forlorn, down the stairs afterward.) For most jobs, the interview bears only a passing resemblance to the actual work the candidate is being hired (or not) to do. And given the prevalence of introverts in academia, as well as the nature of the work, there’s a compelling argument for giving folks time to reflect on their responses before giving them.
Each of those contains truth. Yet I worry about what would happen with pre-revealed questions.
At a minimum, answers would be much more canned (or coached) than they are now. For candidates, that might sound like a feature, but for the interviewers it’s very much a bug. The point of interview questions is twofold: to see what the candidate wants us to believe, and to see what the candidate believes. Uncoached answers are revealing in useful ways.
For instance, many years ago at a previous college, a candidate for a faculty position started nearly every answer with “My adviser would …” Her adviser was a well-known figure, but we weren’t interviewing him. We were interviewing her. Much of what followed “My adviser would …” was smart, but her framing suggested that she still thought of herself as an acolyte. We were looking for someone fully formed. The pronoun test -- was the previous employer “we” or “they”? -- says a lot, too.
Pacing can also reveal. I’ve seen candidates who simply could not stop talking, and candidates for whom every answer was like pulling teeth. Given that effective communication is a key component of the job, and that the ability to read a room is part of that, candidates who veer wildly to one extreme or the other suggest other issues. This isn’t a perfect indicator, given the reality of interview nerves, but I’ve seen cases in which I couldn’t imagine how a student would get a word in.
Reveals can be positive or negative. Positive ones are often stories about students, or stories of breakthroughs that came after something didn’t work. Negative ones take many forms. I once had a candidate dismiss disability accommodations for students as “mostly bullshit,” which told me everything I needed to know. In another case, a candidate shared multiple anecdotes with distinctly racist overtones; afterward, the committee members looked at each other in disbelief, each of us asking some variation on “did he really say that?” (Obviously, neither of those candidates received an offer.) I also put great stock in reports from administrative assistants when someone is rude to them; a “kiss up, kick down” personality is toxic and must be avoided. A too-prepared presentation could hide those flaws, possibly resulting in tragic hires.
In many cases, any of the finalists for a given position could do the job. At that point, the interviews are about comparing the candidates to each other, and to the department’s needs. Is it a contentious group that needs a calming figure, or a stagnant group that needs a spark plug? Does it need someone to pick up the course or task or format that nobody else wants, and if so, which candidate (if any) expressed a fondness for that? Do we need a builder, or someone who’s happy to follow established patterns? In each case, the questions are idiosyncratic, relative and only tangentially about the candidates themselves. The “right” answer depends on context. We’re likelier to get good answers to those when people go off-script.
In practice, we tend to split the difference a bit. Candidates aren’t given questions ahead of time, but first-round interviews are tightly scripted and relatively predictable. They’re about finding the most capable people overall. Candidates who make it to the second round are presumed to be capable; at that point, we’re looking at the other factors, so the questions are loosely scripted and sometimes spontaneous. Ideally, the eventual hires have shown both that they’re highly capable and that they’re good fits for the needs we’ve identified. Without getting too braggy, we’ve hired well over the years.
All of that said, I admit my view is an inclination. Wise and worldly readers, is there a better pro argument than I’ve shown here? Is it possible to get the best of both worlds?