Monday, April 12, 2010
Ask the Administrator: Is This Normal?
A month or two ago, I wrote and asked for advice about a phone interview with a local community college for a faculty position. Yesterday, I had the on campus interview. I have never experienced anything like that before (even with all my interviewing in industry) and I'd like to get your take on this.
First of all, the interview was extremely scripted. First I had an interview with the Academic Vice President (45 minutes). Then I was taken to a room for 30 minutes to prepare a teaching demonstration on a topic that was given to me when I entered the room. I was not allowed to leave the room during this prep. One of the staff of the college babysat me while I did my prep. I was given white paper, a book, and pencils. Then the dean came and walked me to a classroom. I gave two teaching demos in front of the committee (the one I had just prepared and a prepared demo that I had brought with me). Then they "interviewed" me for 45 minutes. Each committee member had a written question that they asked in a very specific order. At the end of 45 minutes, the dean took me downstairs and escorted me out.
Here's what they got: everything they wanted to know about me to determine if they wanted me as a colleague. Here's what I got: nothing. I know absolutely nothing about this department. I don't know how they teach, I don't know what books they use. I don't know what their offices look like and what resources they have. I don't know what course management software they use or if they use any. I don't know how they assign courses. I don't know how they mentor new faculty or if they mentor new faculty. I could go on, but you get the picture. So if they offered me a job, I would have no idea if I wanted to work for that department or college.
Is this normal? One of my full time faculty colleagues told me that this is the way they interview also. Apparently, interviewing at a public institution has to be totally impartial....to the point where the interview is totally one way.
In my previous life in industry, an interview was more an exchange of information. In general, you interviewed one on one with different people and you could ask questions also. You had at least a lunch with the team you would be working with and you could ask more questions. At the end of the day, both sides had a pretty good idea of whether you would fit in.
So I wanted to know if this is the way it is at your community college. What do you do to allow your candidate to get enough information to make a good decision?
Different institutions have different protocols, and it's true that in general, public institutions are much more hamstrung by all manner of things than are private ones. (That's one reason I have much less respect for corporate managers than for academic ones. Can you imagine how easy it would be to manage if you could just make decisions? A reasonably well-trained chimpanzee could do that. And then they have the nerve to call themselves "thought leaders"! But I digress.)
In my experience, scripted questions are normal. They offer several advantages: they ensure consistency from candidate to candidate, to ensure that you're comparing apples to apples. They can be screened in advance for all the HR minefields, so you can prevent the errant committee member going off on variations of "you're not going to have kids, are you?" They keep committee members from tearing into each other, and turning the interview into a mudfight. (I've seen that happen.) Given the size of many hiring committees -- more than once, I've been interviewed by a room of two dozen people -- you need some tight choreography to prevent a descent into chaos.
At my college, there are typically two rounds of interviews for faculty positions. (I'm referring here to full-time positions; adjunct hiring, by necessity, is much more streamlined.) The first round is done by the faculty search committee, which is comprised mostly of faculty from the department in which the position resides. Those are pretty tightly scripted, and the committee will usually interview eight to ten candidates. (This is also where the teaching demonstration happens.) It then puts three or four forward to the next round, which includes the chair of the first committee, the division dean, and the academic vp. At that level, the scripts are somewhat looser, but they still exist. At the end of that one, the candidate is invited to ask her own questions, and the savvier ones come prepared with several.
I've never heard of the spontaneous class prep, and I'm honestly at a loss to explain it. I don't mind having faculty give more than forty-five minutes' thought to a class before teaching it. In fact, all else being equal, I prefer faculty who give their lessons plenty of thought. I don't even mind if they consult their notes while preparing. Improvisational skills are great, but they should be gap-fillers, rather than standard operating procedure. That's especially true if the teaching demo should include technology; preparing a good interactive presentation with visual aids could easily take well over forty-five minutes.
In this market, colleges often assume that they don't really have to sell themselves, and there's some truth to that. Recent searches here have resulted in applicant pools of over 200 each, most of whom were at least minimally qualified for the job. (Note to lawyers: being a lawyer does not, by itself, qualify you to teach anything and everything. I don't know why they think it does, but every liberal-arts position always attracts substantial numbers of applications from lawyers. Not gonna happen.) When it's that much of an employer's market, it's easy for the employer to get, well, cocky. But the danger in that is that you wind up hiring people who've made a number of crucial and incorrect assumptions about the job, and who quickly curdle into malcontents. I'd much rather have people walk in with their eyes open, even if that means a few prospective hires walk away instead. The job simply is what it is, and someone whose heart is really in research and travel will really be miserable here. Better that they know that upfront.
Giving applicants multiple chances to ask questions can work incredibly well as a screen. A few years ago a finalist for a music position asked if we'd mind if she regularly took October off to tour Europe. Uh, we'll call you. If all the questions are about research support, sabbaticals, and course releases, then I know what I need to know. On the other hand, if the questions are about outcomes assessment, efforts to improve student success rates, and ways that new professors can get involved on campus, that tells me a lot, too. Choose your questions carefully, and come prepared with several.
The protocol you describe sounds like it was designed to be maximally lawsuit-proof, rather than maximally useful. I'm all for avoiding avoidable lawsuits, but there's such a thing as too much caution. At the end of the day, I'd rather have enough of an exchange to prevent a bad hire, even if that exchange involves the terrifying risk of actually trusting my own people.
One admin's thoughts, anyway. I'd love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one, since I'm pretty confident that they've seen a lot. What oddball hiring practices have you seen?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Our last question is "do you have any questions for us?" which is probably the most important question. One hint for answering it -- if you could easily have figured out the answer from our website, don't ask it.
In terms of the teaching demo, we don't make you do something extemporaneous -- but ours is only 10 minutes long. One hint on that one - - pick a topic or activity that can be accomplished in 10 minutes...
Scripted list of multiple choice questions.
They asked the questions, and decided which of the answers (which I couldn't see) my verbal answer came closest to, and marked it as that one. Later a computer marked the interviews and selected the 'best' candidate.
They were out-front with the reason: ensuring a total lack of prejudice in the interview process. Being young and in desperate need of a job I didn't point out to their faces that this didn't remove it as if any of them were prejudiced they'd just have to select a slightly wronger answer, as they were interpreting my paragraph answers into a single sentence anyway.
Possibly I'd have got the job if I'd pointed this out, but I didn't. In hindsight, I'm glad I didn't, but at the time I was simply pissed with the hypocrisy or stupidity (I couldn't decide which)…
Probably because the JD is a still very much a generalist liberal arts degree AND because lawyers (litigators in particular) are used to mastering material in 6 months or less to bring them up to the level of an expert on the narrow issue that's going to trial. (Don't get me started on kidney transplants unless you want to know literally everything there is to know about kidney transplants except how it actually feels to do the cutting part!) Most lawyers practice in particular areas and develop considerable expertise.
The disdain of academia for lawyers is depressing; having pursued both a traditional academic degree and a law degree, I can assure you that that the law degree requires basically the exact same skills, particularly when it comes to research and writing, except that as a lawyer you have to do it much faster, you don't get to pick your side, and instead of presenting a dissertation you worked on for three years to a committee in a relaxed setting, you're presenting a case theory to a judge with an equal-and-opposite attorney whose only mission in life is to prove what an idiot you are and the many ways in which you are terribly wrong. And, of course, someone's money or life is on the line, rather than just a degree.
But yes, I'm aware that my doctoral degree isn't a "real" doctorate and that it entitles me to scorn within the hallowed halls of academia, because as far as I've been able to discover, using knowledge FOR anything other than teaching and research makes you a "sellout." Somehow being well-paid for being a highly-educated professional with deep mastery of a topic and excellent research, writing, and argumentation skills makes you dirty.
I admire my colleagues' expertise, but they make it clear on all possible occasions that they consider mine laughably stupid merely because of the "JD." It's making me less and less charitable about academia as time goes by.
Like ItPF, out last question is always "do you have any for us". The question-answers are as important as any others.
Our teaching demo is supposed to be on a topic that makes up about 1/3 of a 50-minute class period on anyone's lesson plan. They know the topic in advance. However, I really like the idea of giving a short-notice topic for part of the demo. That gets away from seeing a 15 minute class session that took 15 hours to prepare, complete with animations and flashy (but otherwise useless) ppt effects to teach basic algebra. That is not a sustainable class prep ratio for our teaching load, nor does it show what the teacher will do when asked a real question.
BTW, our CC gives candidates a tour of the campus. Our candidates get a tour that emphasizes parts of particular interest to our faculty.
Try 6 years, not 3 (and my program is fast compared to many). And *if* the defense is just a committee in a relaxed setting (which is technically nearly never true, as virtually all defenses are "public") this is only because it occurs after the other real tests (candidacy, prelims, comps, quals...). And yes, in those test you're presenting a variety of case theories (call them "hypotheses") to a panel of judges with an unequal expertise that vastly exceeds your own (and, frequently, anyone else's in the world). Their only real mission is obtaining their research funding, which means that they have no incentive to not ask you insane questions; many do, however, make it a pet hobby to prove what an idiot you are and the many ways in which you are terribly wrong.
Want to get an idea of those insane questions? Try answering, from memory: what percentage of kidney transplants are rejected compared to liver transplants? What peer-reviewed meta-analysis supports your statistics, and who published it, and what was the impact factor of the journal? What aspects of the immune system likely contribute to transplant rejection in each organ, and precisely what are the differences in cell populations, and corresponding differences in signal transduction pathways, in the two organs? Please include a drawing of the pathways, indicating intercellular, intracellular, and nuclear molecules that contribute. How would you design experiments to test why one organ is different from the other, what controls would you use, and please describe the physical set up of all experimental equipment involved? Where would you obtain any genetic knockout mice for the studies? If you had a million dollars for research funding, what work would you use it for to improve kidney transplants?
PhDs don't hold lawyers in disdain for being practical. However, I hold you in disdain for pontificating at length about things you clearly know nothing about and screwing it up. Have you ever even TALKED to PhD students about their degrees?
Anyway, back on topic. I think I'd love any place that asked me to do a teaching demo like that, but I *love* extemp speaking. True impromptu (like that that occurs during most interview questions) is hit or miss, but if I've got half an hour I can always think up a decent answer.
That said, I'm sure prepared teaching is much more to-the-point and a better reflection on how somebody would be in the classroom. So even though I think I'd like that aspect of the interview, I still don't know why they'd use it.
As you probably know, and as most of your academic peers know, the JD is the professional degree (and terminal degree) and the SJD is the academic doctorate of the law world. Your academic peers are rightly amused at your claim.
Anonymous lawyer: It isn't just those with JD that Academia seem to hold in disdain. I think that you have hit the nail on the head when you said that they consider those of us who aren't in academia to somehow or other be "selling out." A real shame, because those of us who have worked in the for-profit world have a lot to offer to students and fellow teachers.
As this is a blog written by one in academia and read by many in the same fold - expect a lot of those who disagree with you to engage in personal attacks.
Personal attacks are something that I ran into all the time when I went to graduate school for a M.Ed. after being in the for-profit world for twenty years. Anytime I said something in class that was a different viewpoint from the academic liberal standard I was personaly attacked - seems to be a standard operating procedure for too many in the not-for-profit world. I am all for debating an idea, not at all into debating the person.
They only proved to me that, sadly, too many in the academic world had some very narrow-minded viewpoints about others. A good case in point: "A reasonably well-trained chimpanzee could do that."
A good employee is not just one who can demonstrate the requisite job skills but also one who will be a good fit in the organizational culture. Cultural mismatches are one of the primary factors in employees leaving an organization - educational or otherwise. While no interview process is perfect at determining if there's a good cultural match between prospective employee and organization, one-sided interviews are surely not effective.
To Anon lawyer: My English department would reject an application from a lawyer for a t-t job not because we have any disdain for lawyers but because hiring a lawyer for a tenure-track position would put our entire university's accreditation in jeopardy. In order to hire a person for a t-t position, that person must have a Ph.D. in English, and even just to teach an adjunct course in our department, that person must have 18 graduate hours in English. In other words, what you perceive as personal prejudice is not that at all: it's just the rules of the game. Think about it: at a law firm, are they going to hire somebody with a Ph.D. in English to work as a litigator? They've got good writing skills, good skills in argumentation, the ability to do research. But no. Not because the firm doesn't think that person is smart or capable, but because they haven't got the required degree or passed the bar exam. It's really not some liberal conspiracy. It's just about basic job requirements.
Spouse had actually applied for the more scripted one in a previous year (didn't get it) and was mentally prepared for the process the second time around. Also, in the meantime, he had befriended a faculty member in the department through grad school ties which helped clear up some things about the process in general and the ups and downs of the department in question (and actually, hir knew some info about the other school too). Note that this faculty member was NOT on the search committee and made it perfectly clear that all communications about the process and school had to be done in person/by phone. Obviously your mileage may vary.
One school gave me their list of questions before they got started. I found that weird, but helpful! One, I could glance at it quickly, but two, I got to take it home and consider answers for future interviews.
I've also been in an interview where I was asked very basic questions about my field--question that I would put on a freshman exam, which concerned me. I wasn't asked any teaching questions. I've also been asking "What do you feel an employer owes an employee?" While I can see why they would ask it, it was a red flag for me.
Bu my recent favorite was being asked to give a teaching demo, but when I requested things like a computer, chalk or dry erase board--you know BASICS, I was told "no." Um. yeah, that's realistic.
My mentors trained me to study for these interviews as follows:
1) Do a google search for "community college job interview questions" and cross out the ones that aren't specific to your field
2) Do a google search for "professor interview questions" and cross out the ones that aren't relevant to community colleges.
3) Carefully prepare a short, informative answer to each question, backed by a 45 second example of how you have actually done this in the classroom. Ask for help from people who have been through the hiring process, and get feedback on improvement as often as you can.
4) Practice these answers for about 1 month, until you can deliver them conversationally from memory. Work on your delivery skills during this time as well. Make sure your answers are efficient... nobody wants to hire someone who is ALREADY wasting their time.
5) Ask some teachers who have been through the hiring process to put you through a dry run, and take their advice and feedback.
6) Read the college's website, including mission statement, current news, accreditation, etc. Prepare questions based on this material, and immediately try to answer them using a web search. If you can, don't use those questions during the interview. You can also use your questions to show a familiarity with institutional procedures such as SLOs, etc. When you ask the questions in the interview, actually listen to the answers and take a few notes if you have the opportunity.
No guarantees on anything, but at least you've tried to cover most of the angles. In the end, remember that academic job interviews have a lot of randomness involved, and are about the institution solving a hiring problem, not a personal evaluation of the candidate.
BTW, all this 'mine is harder than yours' static between lawyers and PhDs is depressing. Once you hit that level, it's about what you can do and who you know, not which set of letters follow your name.
I've seen that one too. But my favorite part in the same interview is that they actually asked everyone to sit down in front of a computer in HR to type a 2-page essay within 45 minutes. Well, after all the hassle they offered the job to an insider anyways.
Mike@7:58AM raises, indirectly, an important point. This discussion concerns CC faculty positions, not faculty at an R1. The processes are completely different, particularly when you contrast a teaching demo with a research seminar or colloquium! (Been there, done both.) Count that as one of the many ways that candidates put themselves at the bottom of the list. Imagine interviewing for a job teaching basic business communication by talking about "examining organizational discourses and narratives via a Foucauldian lens" (borrowed from 'Alton' on RYS a few days ago). That will do it!
However, even a university might have a scripted component if it is in a state that still operates under the watchful eye of the federal civil rights commission.
(And, yes, Becca, those kinds of "insane" questions would be EXACTLY the kinds of things you would be expected to know off the top of your head in court, but you will only have 6 months to two years to master than, while working on several other cases on entirely different topics, and then you will move on to something else. Having done both a PhD and JD, I feel well-qualified to comment on the similarities and differences between them, what you apparently have very little idea what a lawyer's work entails.)
The JD just apparently negates my Ph.D. and CCDean's passing disdain for lawyers wanting to teach is all part and parcel of the same.
Whatever. Eventually the department will succeed in driving me out and I'll give up teaching, which I love, to go back to a "high-paying" lawyer job, and my students will suffer for it. Mine is the only intro class in the department that they're coming out of able to handle the upper-level work, but my colleagues complain I'm not "academic" enough and spend too much time discussing "real world" problems. (Though department studies show it's MY intro students who succeed in THEIR upper-level classes; THEIR intro students don't come out with enough rigor to manage it.)
I'm sure not all departments are this dysfunctional, but mine sure is. Mocking students to their faces is also considered kosher. At least they're not any crueler to me than they are to the students, I guess.
Or maybe it is, but it isn't recognized as one, and he's getting a pile of resumes with JDs for positions in every one of those fields. That's his point, his despair at the arrogance necessary to believe that a JD is better at every one of those fields than a degree associated with that field.
I'm a little puzzled at the eagerness to take offense, and at the alleged political bias underlying the alleged slight. A J.D. is no more an English degree than an English degree is a J.D. That's true no matter your politics.
My exasperation isn't with lawyers who also have graduate degrees in the relevant disciplines; it's with those who don't, but who presume transferable expertise in everything.
What JDs don't seem to grasp is that the union CONTRACT (you know contracts from your 1L courses, right??) requires anybody with a teaching appointment to have 18 graduate hours in the discipline.
This is specified in the job posting under minimum qualifications. There is a good reason for that -- as doing the law school coursework itself doesn't gie you the knowledge of the discipline necessary to develop new coursework, answer complicated student questions or give input into curriculum revisions.
A application from a JD who can't prove their 18 hours in the discipline goes into the "can't follow directions" pile, along with all the other folks whose graduate education doesn't qualify them for the job.
A JD/Ph.D. on the other hand, probably has the required 18 hours in the discipline and would move on...
Of course, I may be a bit biased toward the J.D./Ph.D. because hubby's headed to being one of them... :).
I haven't seen the bias you seem to think exists. In fact, I've seen just the opposite, someone recently hired because he was a political science Ph.D. and a JD.
Perhaps the problem isn't your JD, but your attitude? OR -- you have a department that's deeply difunctional and/or jealous that you could choose to make more money. Either way-- perhaps you're generalizing from self just a bit?