Monday, April 21, 2008

Both Sides of the Desk

I've been doing a fair bit of interviewing at other campuses lately, but I've also been interviewing candidates for an administrative position (not my own) on my campus. (My VP knows I'm interviewing elsewhere, so there's no issue of failure to disclose.) Having been through the wringer myself several times in the last few weeks, watching others interview has been fascinating.

Mostly it confirms stuff I already sort of knew, but that's easy to lose sight of when you're the one in the hot seat. For example, explaining why the job at hand fits your life scheme is of little to no interest. We aren't advertising the job to fit you; we're hiring to solve a problem of our own. If hiring you solves that, great. If it looks like it won't, the fact that it might solve your problem doesn't mean much.

And if your interview performance seems like an interview performance, that's a strike against you. The more effective interviews somehow come across as conversations. Admittedly, that's hard to do when the committee is large, and/or when it does the asinine “everybody asks a question in turn” thing. (Keep in mind, this is for an administrative position. Faculty searches are a different matter.) If you've been invited for an interview, it's a safe bet that you're at least qualified on paper. By this point, you're being evaluated as a potential colleague. If you come off as too glib, or too self-conscious, it's hard to undo that damage.

And yes, some questions come freighted with local baggage that won't be explained to you. It's not fair, but it's the way it is. (For example, at one campus I was asked “I didn't see anything in your letter about championing technology. Why is that?” Uh, because that's not the job? I can only assume that there was some history behind that one.) Since cc professional development budgets are usually small, and some folks stay at the same campus for decades on end, it's easy to become provincial. In the worst cases, they become so out of touch that they don't even know they're out of touch. They don't know what they don't know. Unaware that their own definitions are context-specific, they conflate 'not from here' with 'not good.' Sadly, my own campus is not immune to this.

Somewhere in here, there's a paper waiting to be written on professional development funding as paying off in better hiring committees over time. Work to be done...

You can tell, too, that some folks just aren't terribly experienced with interviewing, based on the questions they ask. “Are you a micromanager?” In the history of interviewing, has anybody ever answered 'yes'? The heart of the question is a valid concern, but anyone who knows how to interview wouldn't ask it that directly.

On the 'questioning' side, I've seen too that first impressions, superficial though they are, are powerful. Without intending to, I usually form an impression of the candidate within the first minute. I can only assume the same is true when I'm the candidate. In a way, as a candidate, it's liberating; rather than focusing obsessively on the nuances of each answer, I can just go in as myself and let it click or not. If it doesn't, I can only assume that it wasn't the right fit. Yes, it can also involve factors that aren't supposed to matter – I've heard every euphemism in the English language for “you look too young” – but those are hard to prove, and you can drive yourself nuts trying to suss them out.

After going through several fruitless interviews in a short span, it's easy to fall into the 'always a bridesmaid' kind of self-pity and self-questioning. But letting that show is the kiss of death. And it's also just inaccurate; each search has its own dynamics, and they really aren't connected. Different schools, at different moments in their histories, have different concerns. Sometimes they're looking for a Dynamic Leader to Make Change and Make Things Happen; sometimes they're looking for someone to calm everybody down in the wake of a Dynamic Leader's crash and burn. Sometimes they focus on one narrow area of expertise, and sometimes they just want the opposite of the last guy. There's no universal rule, and the reasons for rejection at one college could be irrelevant at another.

These are the thoughts that keep me sane. Job interviews are really more about the interviewer than the candidate. I just tell myself that if I get a job through a fake interview, I'll ultimately do badly at the job anyway. By the interview stage, it's not about 'merit,' whatever that would mean in this context. It's about mutual fit.

Wise and worldly readers who've been on both sides of the desk – what have you noticed when you crossed over?