Monday, December 24, 2007

Who Wants to Be a Tenure-Track Professor? Part II: The MLA Interview

'Tis the academic career advice season, it seems, as the most-read post in the brief history of CitizenSE has been the first installment in this series. So, going against The Little Professor's advice, I'm going to offer some more today, this time on the MLA interview. (Hey, she did it first!) Having been on the interviewed side more than a dozen times and on the interviewing side around a half dozen, I certainly have some experience, if not yet wisdom, to share. But since Tenured Radical has handled the "to do" part so well (along with Eric Rauchway and Eric Hayot), what I'm mostly going to do here is offer my own little "to don't" list. Not as funny as Robert Farley's, but hopefully mildly useful and/or entertaining to someone on the eve of MLA! If anyone wants to follow up on anything I've written or hinted at here (in the process of revising this, I've systematically removed all the juicy bits), drop me an email and I'll give you a call.

Don't forget that you're going to be interviewed in that tiny uncomfortable little hotel room or weird picnic table among dozens like it because that institution's personnel committee (some of whom you may even in that room with you at MLA) thinks very highly of you and your work and wants to find out more about both. The overall job search engenders such self-doubt, anxiety, and paranoia that this point can be difficult to remember. If you're in the top 8-12 of a particular search, you should keep in mind that a good number of people in the department are already interested in your work, already think you will be a good fit at their institution, and already believe you could become a wonderful colleague. So pat yourself on the back for putting together fantastic application materials and go into the interview with some well-deserved confidence.

Don't be intimidated by the realization that the other 7-11 people being interviewed for that position are likely to be about as well-qualified and -prepared for the job as you are, but only 2-4 of you will be invited for a campus visit.. You could be the personnel committee's consensus #1 heading into the interviews. But the actual interviewers might have their own ideas before you even set foot in the interview room. But even if you're the consensus #12, you can only move up, right? The point is, you can't know where you stand heading in and, anyway, no matter how anyone looks on paper, what matters now is what happens during the interview itself. You don't have to be perfect, you just have to be good enough to get into the top 3 or 4 in your pool.

Don't forget that interviewing teams will express their interest in you/your work and approach the task of making the MLA cuts in varying and fairly unpredictable ways. The key is to suss out the situation as early as possible in the interview itself and react accordingly. Maybe you're interviewing with an R1 place that believes in "trial by fire." They see their job as zeroing in on the shortcomings of your research and limitations of your theoretical approaches in order to see how well you handle the kind of intellectual streetfighting at which they excel. They want to convey to the candidates that the job is stressful and the department ethos is competitive. Best 2-4 candidates at parrying the attacks and keeping their heads make it to the next round.... Or maybe you're interviewing for a position at a teaching institution and the chief goal of their interviewing team is to figure out how ready you are to do the job (in terms of teaching and service, particularly) and how their students are likely to react to you. They want to know how seriously you've imagined what living and working there would be like and how intensely you're interested in the position. Or maybe.... Well, the situations vary. If an R1 place has a pool of candidates who similarly distinguished themselves (or failed to) during the research portion of the interview, then the teaching part rises in importance. By the same token, a teaching institution may want to convey that they would be good colleagues to you and so go out of their way to engage you on your research. And really good interviewing teams will have an original opening question that sets the tone and terms of the interview to come--something inherently difficult to prepare for. The only rules of thumb I can propose given this variability are:

1) prepare for a variety of kinds of interviews, from worst-case (where the interviewing team is clearly looking for reasons not to invite you to campus) to best case (where they're clearly recruiting you during the interview);
2) do your homework on the institution, department, and interviewing team and try to anticipate what kind of interview it's most likely to be;
3) remember that you're interviewing them, too--you're picking up all kinds of information about the position, place, and people from something as simple as the kinds and order of questions you're asked, not to mention the body language, facial expressions, and interactions among the interviewers--so use it to help you decide what questions you want to ask them (unless they're the kind of interviewing team who's decided that opening rather than closing with, "What questions do you have for us?" is the best way to go).

Don't assume that everyone on the interviewing team was equally involved in the evaluation of initial applications or is equally familiar with the materials you sent them. One of the reasons the "tell us why your dissertation matters"-type question is so popular as an opening gambit in MLA interviews is that some people on an interviewing team may have seen only your letter and c.v., and then maybe only the night before--or the ten minutes before--your interview. So you should think of the interview as an opportunity to introduce yourself to potential future colleagues--another chance to frame your work and shape their image of you--particularly those whose engagement in the process is beginning at MLA. What do you think are the most distinctive features of your teaching and writing? What do you think you can contribute to their department that few others can? What doubts or qualms might an interviewing team have about your fit for their position/institution and how can you productively respond to them? You may be going over familiar ground for some of the people on the interviewing team, but they'll be looking for new twists on what you've already written or perspectives on what they already thought they knew about you--and everyone else will appreciate your starting from scratch for them.

Don't try to fit yourself into your image of their ideal candidate. "Be yourself" is the stupidest piece of advice anyone can give, except that it's probably the best. It's no coincidence that my grand total of 3 on-campus visits came out of the MLA interviews where I was most myself, or perhaps myself at my best. So think for a bit about what kind of professor you want to be, how you want your students and colleagues to see you, what you want them to say about you, and so on. If you're doing every day what it takes to reach that ideal, then doing your best approximation in your interviews is all you can ask of yourself. That way, you can take from even the most traumatic interviews lessons you can apply to the next.

Don't talk the interviewing team out of their interest in you, unless it's a job you decide during the interview you don't want. The first part sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, I've done it! It's amazing what comes out of your mouth when you're under pressure. (Not an exact quote: "It's hard for me to imagine how I can contribute something new to your department, given how my work overlaps with Professors X, Y, and Z's. But, uh... wait a second, I had a 'But' ready.... Uh, bear with me....") And the second part sounds impossible, right? But it's happened to me, too. And not because I had a plethora of prospects, either.

Don't bring your last interview--or your history of interviews--with you into the next one. Yup, stay in the present, don't fight the last battle, take it one shot at a time, etc. Easier to say than do--I still get flashbacks from my worst MLA interviews. (Really. They were that bad.) But even if you've just had the best interview of your life, that's irrelevant for the next one. If you have only a short time between interviews, focus on calming yourself down and getting your mind focused on the next one. If you have a lot of time, venting with close friends, analysis, reflection, and note-taking (to prepare for the [knock wood] on-campus visit) is in order, but let it go well before the next interview. Draw on any kind of academic and non-academic experience that helps you do this, even if it's something as apparently irrelevant as online poker or golf.

Good luck to everyone at MLA this year! And be on the lookout for further installments in this CitizenSE series, including a companion to Bardiac's advice on the campus visit and a response to Marc Bousquet on attrition, contingent academic work, and the academic job system.

1 comment:

The Constructivist said...

Some good AHA interview horror stories accumulating at The Edge of the West....