Thursday, May 10, 2012


Friday Fragments

I’ve been calling references for job candidates of late, and starting to wonder if there are better questions to ask.  Since this is a community college, I don’t ask about their research; I focus instead on teaching and temperament.  (This is the kind of place where people tend to stick around a while, so temperament matters.  For scholarly justification, see Robert Sutton’s “The No Asshole Rule.”)  But asking directly about how well someone works with others makes it easy to lie.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have any suggestions for really good questions to ask references?


The Girl’s first communion was glorious.  She wore the same veil that TW wore at her first communion.  Family came from hither and yon, the weather cooperated, everybody was on their best behavior, we got great pictures, and the kids even got to spend most of the afternoon playing soccer in the backyard.  (We got some great shots of TG playing soccer in her communion dress.  How she eluded grass stains is a mystery.)

TG did the first reading of the ceremony.  She decided to memorize it, so she could look at the congregation as she spoke.  I don’t think stage fright occurred to her; she just strode purposefully up to the microphone, looked people in the eye as she spoke clearly, and walked methodically back to the pew.  She’s seven, and I know adults who couldn’t do that.  Go, TG!


Meanwhile, The Boy performed admirably in the spelling bee.  He finished fifth out of about 250 fifth graders, which was cool, but it was more fun seeing him up on stage.  He has an easy confidence up there that you can’t help but notice.


The parents out there will get this one.  The biggest win of the week was that The Girl was completely present and supportive at the spelling bee, and The Boy was completely present and supportive at the communion.  No jealousy, no teasing, no drama, nothing.  Just happiness for each other.  Yes, that’s parental bragging.  Deal with it.  I couldn’t be prouder.


Kudos to President Obama for belatedly doing the right thing on gay marriage.  Coming on the heels of North Carolina’s vote, which was both predictable and dispiriting, it was a breath of fresh air.  


If you haven’t seen this piece yet about Erie, Pennsylvania’s attempts at starting a community college, check it out.  The short version: Erie exports young people, in part for lack of affordable higher education.  Some locals tried to establish a community college, but it fell prey to what amounted to tax phobia.  The brain drain continues, and the town’s largest employer is expanding in other cities rather than there.

You can pay upfront, or you can pay over and over again.  


In a cruel twist of fate, I finally mastered the knuckleball at age 43.  Playing catch with The Boy, I threw a shockingly perfect one without telling him what it was.  He actually exclaimed “that’s AWESOME!” and demanded to know how that funny-looking throw happened.  A series of inexplicably wonderful knucklers followed, each wobblier and weirder than the one before.  I maintain that a pitcher with both a solid fastball and a reliable knuckler would be effectively unhittable.  It’s the learning curve that gets you...

1) How does (X) handle disagreement? (Then follow up for examples.) Alternatives for disagreement: "delays caused by red-tape," "frustration," "student concerns," etc.

2) For relevant fields, I would ask about how the candidate coped with the IRB process. I think that's a reasonable level of "oh my gosh how could I be expected to cope with this nonsense" akin to similar teaching bureaucracies such as academic grievance processes. Basically, probe for incredibly frustrating experiences that are a natural part of grad school that would also reveal any tendencies to whine or take out frustrations on those nearby.

3) The second-to-the-last question: 'This is entirely separate from the candidate, but I'm just curious: have you read Bob Sutton's The No Asshole Rule"?' (In all probabilities, you'll get a chuckle with the possible add-on, "No, but I have to.") Then the last question: "Oh, I forgot one question about the candidate: Is there anything else you haven't had the chance to say about her/him that you think I should know?"
I usually ask a scenario question, which makes it harder to come up with a canned answer. "In your department, Faculty A comes up to you and tells you to stay away from Faculty B because he is manipulative and mendacious. How would you respond to Faculty A?". Or, "During a department meeting, the department decides to vote on a new curriculum proposal that you consider to be a very poor choice. What would you do to try to convince your colleagues to vote against the proposal? What would be the best way for you to respond if the department adopts the proposal via a slender majority vote?". Or something like that.
Assuming you’ve got the aspirant’s permission to question current and former supervisors and co-workers, ask their current supervisor if he or she had ever had to put a letter in the aspirant’s HR file. Follow up a “no” by asking the supervisor about the last time he or she had to speak to them about a work-related misdeed or performance shortfall. These questions are hard for a supervisor to finesse, as their primary focus is the supervisor’s actions, not the aspirant’s.
Ask for a specific anecdote. Something like, "tell me about a inter-departmental project that Candidate A worked on, and how Candidate A handled it." Implicit in the answer should be information about how Candidate A handles working with others.
I also like to do scenarios, and ask the references how, from their experience with the candidate, they imagine the candidate responding. I describe scenarios that commonly have conflict in higher ed. I also ask, in very neutral terms, for the recommender to describe the perfect work environment for the candidate, and listen for things we just don't have.
After reading through that piece about Erie's manufacturing woes, I was struck by the statements that the plant used to hire students right out of high school and train them, but now "higher skill levels" are required. You can't train employees to do the jobs in your factory? Something's fishy there. Sure, math and science skills are different from physical machining and tooling skills, but they're still teachable. If there's so much "demand" for these skills, why aren't companies looking at in-house training/education more closely? You could probably hire one PhD STEM field to teach basic math and computer skills for almost minimum wage and minimum benefits at your company for several new hires. Why don't employers do this?

I'm not sure a local CC would help too much. If students aren't going to take Algebra I and Calc in high school, why would they afterwards? Where are the employment guarantees for working through difficult courses and programs? And how bad are secondary schools if they can't teach computer skills to a tech savvy generation?
Erie - yet another place where taxes are so feared, they won't even do basic things to help themselves. The knee-jerk anti-tax rhetoric is destroying communities and robbing us of our ability to have rational conversations about what we need to do to improve our communities.
Ask about the candidate's judgment. We recently had to deny tenure to someone who kept making unbelievably poor judgments--about student relationships, colleagues, FB postings, you name it.
I would ask, when there is a conflict between the interests of the organization and its management or personnel, vs. the interests of students and educational values, does the candidate have the courage to stand up for the MISSION of the school as opposed to the school as an institution. But I would imply that I was looking for someone who was going to be loyal to the institution at all costs (the word "reliable" is often a code word for that kind of person). If the reference person hedged his/her answer, then I would think this is probably the person I want. There are very few institutions with a shortage of people who are willing to re-program their values to suit the convenience of their colleagues and managers, and I doubt that yours is any exception.
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