Job Interviews

Now that I have a new job, I can finally follow through with my promise to discuss the anthropology job interview process.

Having gone through about eight job interviews, I was struck by how neatly the interviews fell into either one of two categories: those where the questions where almost entirely about teaching, and those where the questions were almost entirely about research. As someone who values both teaching and research I worry that I came across as too much of a research-oriented person at the teaching schools, and too much of a teaching-oriented person at the research schools.

Most of the jobs I interviewed for were teaching focused. For such interviews the best advice I can give is to be ready with a list of at least five courses you would teach at that school. It is vital that the list be specifically tailored for that program and the listed job search. The courses should sound exciting, as if you are pitching a product to the students, but you also need to make sure you are complementing the existing curriculum. And also be prepared to say something about your teaching methodology. How do you encourage dialog in the classroom? How do encourage students to do hands-on research? How do you use the web?

With a research-oriented school, you need to have a very clear plan for churning out publications, and that plan should include getting a book published within the next few years. I don’t really envision getting a book published that quickly, and I know it it hurt me when I talked too much about articles.

There was also a lot of variety in the style of the interviews. Some were held in hotel rooms, others in booths downstairs, others in semi-public spaces. Some interviewers had set questions and printed forms, while others were much more casual. One interview lasted nearly an hour and a half and the interviewer spoke so much I hardly had time to get a word in edgewise, while another one was over in just fifteen minutes.

The most nerve-wracking interview was the one for the job I wanted most, and which I eventually got. It was one of two interviews done by telephone (never do a telephone interview if you can avoid it, I’ve done three and they are awful). It was made worse by the fact that the university was in Taiwan and I was in India, and they called my New York number, and my calls to them kept getting a machine … I was saved by the fact that I had internet access and my internet phone number in NY forwards voicemail to me via email. Otherwise it would have been a wash. I could have used Skype, but it was blocked by the proxy at the university where we were staying… Still, somehow it all worked out in the end! It was probably helped significantly by the fact that I had met with the department head in person last summer.

In the end I don’t think interviews are really that important. If you’ve presented yourself honestly on paper, the interview will simply confirm what they interviewers already know. In many ways, they are more concerned about your self-presentation than the substance of what you say.

8 thoughts on “Job Interviews

  1. I wish I had a good answer. It is a little traditional, but I told them I believe good conversation follows naturally from a well thought out lecture and also that I encourage students to improve their own oral presentations skills by making it a class requirement.

    There are, however, some web sites that offere more concrete advice and tips. I bookmarked them here, and plan to eventually give some of them a try now that I’ll be teaching full time.

  2. “good conversation follows naturally from a well thought out lecture”

    That is true, especially if it is something the instructor feels passionately about and can make the students react in the same way. BUT that can’t always fuel class discussion. So an incentive is always good, as students seem to participate more when they know there is a participation grade involved.

    Depending on how large the class is, there may be those students who have something to add to the discussion but are too afraid to do so. Make sure it is a relaxed environment where students feel their input is important. Another incentive you could use, is giving students positive feedback when they contribute (ie. ‘that’s a really good point you made’) or offer them a counter-point to their arguement. There’s nothing worse than participating with the feeling that what you said may make you feel ‘dumb’.

    On another note, it all starts with the syllabus. Think of the syllabus as being similar to the ‘first impression’ you want to make at an interview. If students take the time to do the readings, they’ll be even more interested in the lecture material.

    Hope this helps.

  3. On classroom discussion, I’ve found that it’s much harder than one would think, especially at the introductory level that I teach. I’d like to think that good lectures or good presentations would sort of “naturally” lead to good discussions, but… I haven’t noticed any particularly strong correlation between lectures and discussions. Granted, I’m not the best judge of the quality of my own work, but the lectures I’ve thought were me at the top of my form have led to the Great Silence as often as they’ve led to discussions, and lectures I’ve “phoned in”, for whatever reason, have led to great discussions.

    One thing I’ve noticed, and am working hard to act on (and it is a struggle) is that discussion tends to flow when I take myself out of the way. Even a bad student presentation is likely to inspire more response than my best lectures. A question asked by a student, or a statement made by a student, are likely to inspire more response than either coming from me. My theory is that this stems from the perceived equality among the students — their statements are more amenable to challenge from other students than mine, because mine come with my professorial authority “baked in”. So the problem becomes how can I set up situations in which I can stand to one side? This is especially hard when things go off-track; my interjections, however tentative, are often perceived as the voice of authority offering the final word.

    As I said, I think this is largely a function of the relative inexperience of my students in academia; I don’t seem to recall many graduate or upper-division courses where discussion didn’t flow fairly freely. While it’s tempting to blame the high schools — and I do — the question isn’t so much one of blame as it is how we “re-train” lower-division students to grasp their own freedom to make mistakes, to stand out, and to question our authority.

  4. I agree that a bad student presentation can encourage “more” response. But my experience is that other students generally don’t like such discussions and say so on their evaluations. Students know when other students are faking it and saying things just because the teacher wants students to speak.

    The more you take yourself “out of the way” the more room you give to the biggest bullshitters in the class. Sometimes you are lucky in that there are students who can themselves exert the kind of authority necessary to keep other students honest, but I find that is a rare thing. As a student I remember hating nothing more than classes where the teacher tried too hard not to exert authority, because I was so bored with what other students had to say. Sure they spoke more, but I didn’t learn anything from it.

    I also find that teacher authority can actually help bring those silent students into the discussion in a more productive way. The real secret, in my experience, is simply riding out those uncomfortable silences which can follow a lecture. Sooner or later someone will speak up, and if you’ve said something interesting they will often have something interesting to say back. And the student evaulations tend to reflect the better discussions that follow.

  5. Let me just add to that one exception – which is that student-led discussion has worked well for me when students are discussing each other’s work. If it is a project they have all prepared for, then they have already put significant thought into the issues and often have a lot of useful things to say. There the main problem is often preventing the students from being too critical of each other.

    I’d also add that I actually found there to be little difference in quality between the discussions in my own graduate level classes and the ones I had as an undergrad. Sure, there was certainly more discussion in graduate school, as students all were trying to establish their own authority – but only when students were able to effectively draw upon their own area of expertise did I feel that such discussions were productive.

    There is, of course, a question as to what it means for a discussion to be productive. For the speaker it might be useful to use class time to thrash about and get a grip on the ideas under discussion – but how useful is one student’s thrashing about for the rest who have to listen?

    As I said above, I find it useful to have students provide structured oral presentations. I think this improves their skills, and often leads to interesting discussions. The danger here is that students can feel very vulnerable after doing such a presentation. I tend to not do any criticism of them then and there, or individually, but to wait until after a few people have gone and then try to discuss the presentations in general.

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