Me: “How long, O Lord, how long?”
One can never tell what will emerge from the first round of deliberations. Some committee members will fixate on winnowing down the list of possible interviews to ten and others to twelve. These are the candidates that the committee will interview either in person at a professional meeting or by telephone. For the past several years, my department has preferred to interview by telephone to save money and permit all the members of the committee to participate. The deliberations always bring ideological conflicts among the faculty. On this committee we had had several ivory-tower humanists, people that look to their graduate programs as the Model of what a university should be. Two of them agreed that we should avoid “picking anyone that was too good,” which to me sounded stupid. However, what they really meant was that we shouldn’t bring someone to campus was likely to be interviewing at a Research One institution. Since we don’t have access to this information, this implies that we discard the candidates that we like the most.
There is, however, another way of determining if the candidate is a good fit. Research One candidates don’t want to teach undergraduates; they don’t want to teach basic skills; and, they don’t want to teach general education. They are enamored with their own research projects and they only teach because no one will pay them to become a full-time researcher in the Humanities. If we are honest with the candidates and tell them what is in store for them, their body language usually reveals their interest. What I found disturbing was that my colleagues couldn’t adjust their definition of quality to fit the needs of our institution. Nonetheless, my suggestion to redefine the notion of a good candidate as “a good fit for our institution,” always provokes anxiety among my colleagues. In any case, this mentality complicates the search because invariably the questions they ask lead back to the R1 model: Did the candidate come from a top school (read: East Coast)? Did the candidate write a dissertation on a topic that is in vogue (read: transgendered vampires that resist hegemonic representation)? Who is directing the doctoral dissertation (read: is it one of the big wigs)?
Me: Oh, God, I hope this person can answer questions directly and doesn’t talk in circles.
When I was looking for my current job, I purchased a copy of the cassette tapes entitled “101 Best Answers to the Toughest Interview Questions” and studied it. I prepared my answers and thought through a number of different situations. However, when I went onto the market, I discovered that a lot of academics don’t have a clue how to interview a candidate. The only person that really sized me up was the Dean of my College, the rest of them talked about themselves. Instead of allowing myself to become frustrated, I took advantage of the situation and interviewed them. Eventually, I got an offer. I wish that others were preparing themselves like I did.
As a matter of routine, we ask about the dissertation to ensure that the person will finish, but I also insist on asking about how candidates feel about teaching undergraduates. Also, a question like “Why are you interested in our institution?” will tell us a lot about an applicant. I recall when we asked this question to a candidate in Classical Studies, he was totally taken by surprise. Instead of answering, “There are very few positions in my field and this job would be a dream come true,” the phone went dead. We thought we lost connection until we heard him gasping for air. His response told us he might have given a lot of thought to his dissertation, but he never considered working with others. Suffice to say that he probably didn’t have a good grip on how to work with students or with colleagues.
The Unmentionables of the Interview
Me: Is this person going to request spousal accommodation?
There are a number of questions that search committees can’t ask, and we shouldn’t be able to. These questions are: What does your spouse do? Do you have children? What church do you attend? The issue that does come up frequently is that of spousal accommodation. Once an offer goes out, the committee never knows if the candidate is going to pull a rabbit out of his or her hat that could alter the course of the entire search. Because of this, search committee is on the lookout for signs of a trailing partner. By this, I mean a partner that works in the same department or in academia. Either way, this doesn’t mean that being married or having a partner it is an automatic strike. The question is to know how to make it work in favor of the candidate.
Several years ago, I chaired a search in my field in which we brought a very promising candidate to campus. She already had numerous publications in top-notch journals and a lot of experience teaching at one of the best private colleges in Minnesota. I was a bit puzzled about why she was still on the market. Nonetheless, if we could bring her, she would make a great fit in our program. During her on-campus interview, my wife and I were at dinner with her when she told us that she had a trailing partner in the same field and that she would need spousal accommodation. In telling me flat out, she was following the advice of a number of department chairs to be upfront about her needs and conditions. My initial reaction was that this was terrible advice because the department had yet to make a commitment to her as a candidate. It would be too easy to find acceptable reasons to dismiss her candidacy. So, I advised her not to mention it to anyone else until the chair made her an offer.
Once she had the offer, she requested an accommodation and I worked with the chair to help out as best as we could. Several years later, her spouse became a member of our department, and we’re fortunate to have them with us. In that case, we were able to comply. However, we aren’t always able to do so. In this round of interviews, we didn’t have much wiggle room. The economy is tight and it would have been very hard to come up with a second position at the drop of a hat. We found that several of the candidates came right out and told us that they were married. Invariably, these candidates had partners that were not working in the same field. In short, the candidates were telling us several things: they were stable; they were committed to a community; and, we needn’t be concerned with finding another position. We eventually hired a woman who told us outright that her spouse was a male nurse who could work at any of the five major hospitals in the area.
After this experience, I have to say that I am glad not to be on the market these days. When I was on the other side of the table, I wondered if the committee called candidates just to laugh at our desperation. I’ve since lost count of how many jobs I applied for, but I do recall the recurring question that often comes to me in dreams: “Why would you like to work at our university?” The obvious answer was “because I need a job!” But the art of the interview is to answer with pleasantries and say things that one actually may come to believe. To do it well, one has to be able respond with a modicum of poise: “Of course I wouldn’t mind teaching 100-level introductory classes.” “Teach at night? Hey, I am a night person.” “Can I teach outside my field, sure I am a generalist.” “Do I like to participate in the departmental affairs? Oh, I love to do service, lunch with faculty every day. It’s a pleasure.” Otherwise, they’ll be singing the job search blues.