Monday, December 22, 2008

Ask the Administrator: What Makes a Good Job Talk?

A new correspondent writes:

I wonder if you’d consider posting a query to your readers about job talk expectations at their institutions, and whether those expectations are communicated to candidates ahead of time.  My institution just finished a round of hiring, and about the only thing we all could agree on was that the job talks were uniformly terrible.  Of course, we give little or no guidance to the candidates, primarily because we’d never agree among ourselves what an ideal job talk would look like.  I assume expectations for job talks will vary widely among institutions and disciplines, but my guess is that there probably is at least some commonality.

What I like about this question is the admission that committees often don't know, or can't agree on, what they want. That's why it's hard to answer questions like “what are they really looking for?” More often than not, they don't know either.

I suspect that this is also one of the reasons that criteria are rarely communicated to applicants in advance. If you don't know what you want, you probably won't ask for it.

I'll offer a few criteria that seem to be pretty reliable for cc-level jobs, and ask my wise and worldly readers to add what they've seen at their institutions. I'll stipulate up front that what might work for a research university might not work for a community college, and vice versa.

The first and most obvious is attitude. I understand that a cc may not be what you had in mind when you went to grad school. I also don't care. We take our work seriously, and we want colleagues who take it seriously, too. Our students deserve no less. I've seen candidates who did everything short of holding their noses during interviews; every single one of them was immediately DOA. If you believe that a cc is somehow beneath you, don't apply.

The second, related to the first, is curiosity. This may seem counterintuitive, but the candidates who talked less about themselves and more about the college generally did quite well. If you're just giving Prepared Talk #14, you'll be less impressive than if you're actually engaging the group, and engaging is a two-way process.

Obviously, that involves doing some homework prior to the talk. What's the teaching load, both in terms of credits/courses/hours/preps, and in terms of level? I once heard a math candidate generously offer that she was willing to go as 'low' in the curriculum as Calc I once in a while, in a spirit of shared sacrifice. Most of the job involves teaching either remedial or college algebra. She didn't get the offer.
The same can apply to the English applicant who only wants to teach literature, as opposed to composition, or nearly anybody who refuses to teach gen eds. In the cc universe, those courses are most of what we do; if you aren't excited to do them, you probably shouldn't work here.

In my world, too much dissertation talk is a clue that you really have something else in mind. Talk about teaching is much better received, particularly if it references both the scholarship of teaching and learning and your own actual teaching experience with students similar to ours.

Individual campuses have their own quirks, of course, as do individual departments. These really have nothing to do with the candidates, but they come into play anyway. Annoyingly, the departments often don't know that their quirks are quirks; they think they're normal. It's your fault for not knowing that there was a blowup several years ago over afternoon classes and now no full-timers ever teach after 1 pm, or that standardized outcomes assessment tools are of the devil, or that the unnamed college down the street is the source of all evil. My guess is that the extraordinarily low turnover of full-time faculty, relative to almost any other industry, explains the weird provincialism that can take hold in departments that haven't hired in a while. When nobody in the group has seen anything in the last thirty years to compare their place to, some very weird ideas can go unchallenged for a remarkably long time.

There's also the usual standard advice about being clear, dressing professionally, staying upbeat, and never, ever, under any circumstances, bashing a former employer. (My rule of thumb for clothes, and it works regardless of gender: at an interview, don't wear anything for the first time. If something squeaks, or pinches, or shines too much, you'll be off your game. Break it in, first.) If your primary aftertaste is 'bitter,' we don't want you.

And finally, if you don't get the offer, know that it probably had nothing to do with anything you did or didn't do. In this market – even more so since this year's free-fall started – the balance of power is so thoroughly in the employer's favor that heaven only knows who you'll be up against, and what will finally tip the balance. When it gets down to the final two or three, there's an inescapable element of randomness that creeps in – candidate A withdraws at the last possible moment for spousal reasons, or candidate A gets a better offer and candidate B has spousal issues, or the department falls in love with candidate A just before the funding for the position is sucked into the black hole. Don't internalize the bad news. Rejection is part of the process, and generally out of your control. Take the high road, do what you can, and try not to let it mess with your mental health. Taking it too personally can lead to the aforementioned bitter aftertaste.

Wise and worldly readers – what would you add/amend/refute/suggest?

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