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?

DD, You are absolutely correct! Anyone can fake sincerity for an hour, but it’s tough to do over the long haul. Therefore, trying to be what you think they want is fruitless. You won’t be happy for long. Be yourself and sleep well knowing that the higher you go up the ladder of administration, the more “fit” matters.
I think you are quite right about first impressions; many studies confirm that in all sorts of contexts, including the first minute in a new classroom. That makes it a fair consideration for faculty (teaching) and admins (meetings with whomever).

And I've seen it play out. Someone who came off as very eager to please has turned out to be insecure (can I be one of the guys) in the classroom with poor info transfer to the students.

Concerning your own search:
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 always thought you were on the academic side of campus, not athletics or fund raising. The IT people don't know how to champion appropriate (maybe they left that word out on purpose) technology, they just know how to buy it, install it, and (usually) operate it. Other times they just know how to pay someone to run it for them and hope for the best. My experience from the academic side is that we have to make it happen if we want "it" to be an effective classroom tool.

By the way, "looks too young" might be a euphemism for "appears to lack depth of experience in any one place", but do remember that side of agism the next time you are interviewing an older candidate for an entry-level faculty job!
Things I've noticed from one side to the other:

1. At my institution, we do actually care about how the job fits into the candidate's life scheme in *conjunction* with how they perceive that "fit" will help them to do the job. So, for example, one reason I was excited about the possibility of being hired at my institution was because it is very like my own undergrad institution. That alone doesn't mean a hill of beans, but when I talked about how that would inspire me to reach the students and gave practical examples, that really made my not-yet-colleagues pay attention to me. One could make similar arguments about location, I'd imagine.

2. Totally yes on the conversation thing.

3. I agree with CC Physicist re: "championing technology." That doesn't at all seem like an off-the-wall question to me (though perhaps off the wall about it being something you'd mention in the letter). That seems like a question I'd ask, actually, in no small part because I'm supposed to "teach with technology" and without administrators who champion it (rather than just telling me how important that it is), I can't do the job I'm expected to do.

4. From the interviewer side of the desk on the youth thing, I'll say one thing that has historically ticked me off is when an ABD or recent PhD candidate, interviewing for his/her first asst. prof. job, acts as if I - who am an advanced asst. prof - am not worth talking to because I don't look much older than most of my students. Let me just tell you: be nice to everybody and pay attention to everybody - not just the people who seem at a cursory glance important. I may look young, but I'm also a big-mouth and I don't hesitate to persuade my colleagues against making an offer to people who ignore me or who are dismissive of my questions during the interview process.
I've seen candidates have real problems when they cross instittional types... So, the perosn who is currenlty adjuncting at an R1, and comes to interview for a full-time position at our CC looks down at us, acting like they are way too good for us --- talk about the kiss of death.

I tend to disagree with the idea that anybody can fake sincerity for an hour --In my experience they fake it for the first 15 minutes or so, but if the interview situation is appropriately comfortable, their real personalities will come out and the committee can make a decision based on the whole interview.
Foucault, plus lawn care…I really appreciate that comment! This is an interesting topic, some institutions claim to care about the “life fit” of the interviewee, but on the whole you are completely correct, they are looking to solve their own problem. At my institution the southern façade is rather entertaining to watch and rather frustrating to navigate. There is a lot of pride here on congeniality, yet behind each others back, there are a select few who in deed have been here for decade upon decade who are blinder than a bat and more deceiving than a chameleon. The one thing that I have learned after sending out numerous applications, all of which have been fruitless (bare in mind that I am in the arts, a non-lucrative profession) is that many times the job posting and “interview” is just a formality for a position designed for a particular person. This is the most frustrating thing about interviewing in academia. The only good thing that has come out of this is that rejection is a non-issue and I have no need to “fake” in an interview. If they want you, they’ll take you.
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