Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ask the Administrator: An Interview Curveball

A new correspondent writes:

I'm currently an adjunct ESL teacher, and I just interviewed for a full-time position in my department.  One of the questions in the interview caught me off-guard.  Even days after the interview, I'm still not sure what my answer should have been.  The question was something to the effect of "what do you see as a full-time instructor's responsibilities in relation to part time workers?"   I've worked at several different colleges & universities, and at all of them (except for the one I'm currently working in), the full-time instructors had quite a bit of authority over part time workers.  They observed our classes, evaluated us, chose our textbooks, etc.  Part-time teachers were invited to some staff meetings, but did not have the option of participating in many committees, etc.  However, in my current department, there are only 8 full-time instructors and about 35 part-time instructors.  Many of these part-time instructors have been around for many years and are every bit as invested and involved in the program as the full-timers.  In this situation, it seems to me that the part-time instructors should be viewed simply as colleagues, not as subordinates.  What do you think?

There's almost certainly some history behind the question. And without knowing the specific local history, it's hard to say what the 'correct' answer is.

When confronted with loaded questions like that, my preferred approach is to ask for clarification.

For example, last year at an interview I was asked about my attitude towards people who work in Student Affairs. I paused, blinked, and asked the questioner to rephrase. As it was asked, I considered the question bizarre. Which people? Why? (I later learned that there had been a history of serious turf battles between academic affairs and student affairs.) When the question was rephrased – I honestly couldn't reconstruct how, other than to say it was a lot less off-putting the second time – I was able to answer truthfully that I thought internecine battles were asinine and destructive, since they distract from the shared mission of the college. Since 'shared mission' was my key message anyway, I considered it a reasonable answer.

In this case, I'd guess that there's some sort of history regarding the proper roles of full-time and adjunct faculty – if they're talking about faculty – and they're trying to find someone to join the ranks on the 'right' side. Instead of trying to suss out what they thought the right answer was, I'd recommend taking this as a chance to figure out what the right answer should be. Should full-time faculty supervise adjuncts, or should that fall to the Chair? Should adjuncts be included in meetings if they can't be paid for it? Should full-timers and adjuncts share the same union, or should each group have its own?

The issues get tricky when you really start mucking around in them. If adjuncts aren't quite at the quality level of full-timers, however defined, then treating them as colleagues dilutes the currency. If they are at the quality level of full-timers, then all that money for health insurance and real salaries and lifetime job security is money wasted. Some adjuncts really want full-time jobs, and are cobbling together a meager living trying to catch that big break; others are largely focused on something else, and treat adjuncting as an enjoyable way to pick up some money on the side. The needs of those groups are very different, and I would imagine each would have different requests of the full-timers.

If it were up to me, and if we didn't have the money to expand vastly the ranks of the full-time, I'd like to see the 'evaluation' part go to department chairs and program coordinators, leaving the rest of the full-time faculty to serve as resource people. That way, evaluation can be more consistent, and the adjuncts won't have to work in a panopticon. But that's me; surely there are other perfectly functional ways to organize a department or program.

A charitable read of the question might be that they're trying really hard to find a workable, humane, and sustainable model, so they wanted someone who has already given the question serious thought. A more cynical, and I think likelier, interpretation is that there's already a hard-won local consensus on it, and they want to make sure that your instincts will align with it, whatever it is.

Interviews aren't always fair, unfortunately.

Good luck with your search!

Wise and worldly readers – any thoughts on this one? Any weird interview questions you've run across?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.