I recently read a mostly worthless—and more than occasionally nonsensical—advice column at the Chronicle on that bogeyman of the academic job market: the dreaded campus interview. Halfway through the first paragraph, I was convinced it was a satire piece. But then I kept reading, and discovered the author actually thought she was doling out reasoned, practical advice. I laughed, I cried, and then decided to offer some real counsel, following the format she herself set. I suggest reading Hanway’s piece before continuing below. Go ahead, I’ll wait. . .
Back? Ok. Here are seven real bits of guidance for a campus interview. And I’ll preempt the inevitable emails by acknowledging (though not apologizing for) the rampant cussing from the outset. Words are words, said Derrida or Bakhtin or someone about discourse or the text or whatever. Deal.
- Worry very much whether they will like you. Your primary concern during the course of your campus interview is whether the faculty like you. Let’s be real. They might profess to care whether your research investigating kinship networks on the Aran Islands during the last half of the nineteenth century is edgy, provocative, and has the potential to make you a superstar (if only for the grant money you bring in before trading up to a more prestigious position at a more highly ranked university). But what they really care about is if you’re going to be that supercilious, cantankerous motherfucker who is a pain in the ass to deal with during department and committee meetings and in the hallway every day for the rest of their career. Here are some tells for the hiring committee:
- Do you wear sunglasses and/or huge, weird hats inside buildings?
- Is it clear you’re hiding your lack of social skills behind obtuse, wandering conversation that doesn’t ever engage the other person(s)?
- Do you seem like that asshat they remember from graduate school who thinks s/he is better than everyone else?
- Can you enumerate outside interests besides compulsively checking your ratemyprofessor page every single morning?
- Is your laugh like the bray of a donkey getting slowly castrated with a dull spoon?
- Can you wash yourself?
Remember: These people are very much aware they’re signing a lifetime lease on being in semi-close proximity to you for the next several decades. And (even though they’d not deign to admit it) they’re looking for some fresh blood too. No one is going to want to be friends with someone who nervously tells Holocaust jokes to the dean over lunch, and if you make them uncomfortable they’re going to vote for someone else. So, for God’s sake, don’t be yourself, unless yourself is charming and genial and articulate; and if you can’t muster any of these, be as beige an individual as possible and hope your research is exciting enough.
- No question is off limits. Deal with it. You should answer every single question they ask you, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you or illegal it seems, with aplomb. Stuttering things like “My advisor told me never to admit to you I’m a polygamist with six partners, all of whom are also looking for tenure-track positions studying gender dynamics and social structures of the modern world” makes you sound like you’ve never been asked by a student why you look like a zombie during lecture, or had to sit next to Handsy Pete on the afternoon bus route. Awkward, canned responses which feel memorized will engender feelings of awkwardness until it all spirals out of control and you’re sitting in a silent room filled only by the increasingly loud whimpers of your inner panic. That emeritus professor who just revealed himself as the moron who doesn’t realize he just opened up the department to every litigious job candidate in the world is the same one the rest of the hiring committee has been dealing with for years, and every department has one. They know he’s an idiot. So the answer you give is not for him—no one listens to him anyway—but for the rest of the people in the room. Questions like “I see you’re wearing an engagement ring. What does your fiancé think of your taking a job here?” should be answered in a way that shows you will be able to handle this mouth-breather’s inappropriateness when it inevitably comes around in the department. You can answer honestly (“My fiancé knows the current market as well as I do, which is to say s/he’s aware of the frighteningly few number of excellent jobs like this out there, and that this is the type of decision that means weighing all our options”) or dishonestly (“If graduate school taught us anything it’s that the real world comes first—job prospects included. We’ve lived apart before, and have agreed we can do it again”), or in some other way that makes it clear you can answer a question without answering the question (“We’re not that close, so we haven’t talked about it yet. She thinks I’m in Uganda with Doctors Without Borders”). Come on people. If you’ve never learned how to give a non-response that would require your audience to reveal him or herself as a rude or uninformed asshole in pursuing that line of inquiry, then you’ve probably never presented a paper at a conference or stood at the front of the classroom, and if this is the case you’ve got bigger problems.
- Don’t ignore the college’s religious affiliation, if there is one. This is the single piece of good advice. Wish the article had started and ended here. Know the place to which you are applying.
- Sometimes people ask weird questions, because we’re all making it up as we go along. Again, deal with it. When at a campus interview, be aware that, unlike reality TV and at the dinner table across from your partner of ten years, questions and answers are not going to be scripted. This is real life people. Trading on clichés like “Professors only ask questions that let them pontificate upon the topic of their most recent book” to turn random and odd questions back on the asker make you seem like a pandering, condescending dullard with no conversational skills. Don’t know who’s playing in the Super Bowl? Neither do I, because I’ve been working eighty fucking hours a week on an adjunct salary trying to get you to invite me to a campus interview while pretending I’d go back and do it all again. Admit it: “The only things I know about sports are what my Facebook friends who never left our high school town post.” Want more? Here’s a primer for you all—repeat after me: Sports are stupid. Putin is a moron. Anyone who spells his or her name with symbols is a rapper, and can be ignored. Every company in the world wants to know everything about you. Hackers and the government already do. Next question.
- If you must lie your ass off (and you will), commit to it. There’s nothing wrong with lying indiscriminately to people you don’t know, but if you’re going to do it do it consistently. “But this is common sense,” you say to me. I thought so too, but apparently not. Campus-Interview-Ry is different than Professor-Ry is different than Author-Ry is different than Sweet-Tender-Lovin’-Ry. Pick your persona; it’s the good parts of you mixed with half-truths and outright fabrications, and then stick to your goddamn story. Also, pro-tip for life: if there’s an iota of a chance you have a friend in the department who is going to purposefully rat you out to get tenure points behind closed doors, s/he is not your friend. Jesus. Like this has to be said aloud. Loyalty is like love. It’s an absolute, and cannot be reversed. If this sounds naïve to you, then you’ve clearly never loved nor trusted anyone, and I am sad for you.
- Alcohol! Unlike what some advice pieces claim, hiring committees will not make you “aggressively refuse alcohol.” As in no. 2 above, if someone is on your case to get wasted despite a single polite refusal that you don’t drink, that person is an alcoholic and no one else in the room gives a shit how you refuse them. Still, be a regular person and don’t hang around either the precipitating environment (the bar) or the poor soul who has no outside friends and so gets purposefully drunk alone with professional colleagues. Go talk to someone who has had the same drink in her/his hand the whole night. On the flip side: if there’s alcohol and some expectation that you should drink if you do drink, go for it. If it seems like everyone is going for a one-drink maximum, follow suit. Otherwise, be a grown-ass person. That’s all I can say. If you made it through graduate school you know how to drink (as well as decline drinking) in front of your colleagues (as these folks are now) as well as your professors—a much more intimidating crowd. Do we really need to spend time on this?
- Etiquette and dress? Holy shit. You want me to give you etiquette and dress advice for the campus interview? Why? If you need it, a hundred and fifty words here aren’t going to set you straight. Sorry. Just the way it is. It’s like that episode of “The Office” where Pam idiotically suggests giving the salesmen an iPod to keep them happy. In 2009. If they don’t have one already, they don’t want one. If you can’t dress yourself and chew with your mouth closed by now, good luck finding a job ever. Maybe try Amazon. I hear their warehouses are hiring.
- BONUS: Know thyself. Ignore every bit of the above advice if you want, so long as you remember this: Your primary task before the interview is to figure out who you are as a job applicant, and learn how to appreciate (and communicate) those skills that make you desirable. Maybe you’re a genuine teacher, that one in a hundred among college profs who we all remember made us more passionate and more engaged and more critical in the classroom. Maybe you earn your bones as that researcher who exudes such a deep knowledge of your specialty that you can tell us the under-over on the bond market in 1872 and its importance in building out the railroads. Or you have that knack for connecting with breathtaking clarity the relevance of your research to the contemporary world in terms of culture, politics, or policy. Or you’re capable of consuming the mental lives of brilliant people from the past and explaining their respective worlds in digestible ways to the rest of us poor human sops who have to choose between understanding Joseph Hooker and Joseph Priestley. Whatever. Know what makes you stand out, and take pains to remind the hiring committee why they’d be lucky to have you.
Part of me wants to leave well enough alone and let this sit in draft mode after having gotten it off my chest, because your collective loss is my gain. But then I remember I wrote this thing about people in the humanities getting their collective shit together, and I reluctantly hit the publish button.
I will end only with the admonition that you should take all advice about the application process—including that which you read here—with a sasquatch-sized grain of salt, because we’re all just making it up as we go along. But come on Chronicle. You’re better than this.