If you took the advice in my last column about applying for teaching jobs at two-year colleges, and if you're a strong candidate for those jobs (not to mention a bit lucky), you should soon start hearing from search committees. Understand when I say "soon," I mean that in relative terms. This is higher education we're talking about, after all. Maybe you'll hear something by February.
Volumes have been written about how to conduct yourself in a job interview, including much good advice on how to dress, how to modulate your voice, and so on. (See Dana M. Zimbleman's excellent piece on this site about interviewing at a community college. She covers some ground -- about teaching demonstrations, for example -- that I'm going to retread only briefly here.)
What I want to talk about is that period between the telephone call inviting you for an interview and the interview itself. That, in my estimation, is the most crucial part of the entire job-search process. What you do with that time will determine how well you come across in the interview and, ultimately, whether you have a legitimate shot at the job.
The caller -- usually the head of the search committee but perhaps a secretary -- will first ask if you're still interested in the position, and then offer you an interview slot. Take the earliest time available, when committee members will still be fresh, both mentally and physically. (Understand that they may be interviewing as many as 8 or 10 candidates for a single job.) If your performance is particularly strong, you could set a standard against which subsequent candidates will compare unfavorably.
You may also chat about other things, such as travel expenses (some two-year colleges pay them, some don't), directions to the campus, and the weather (hey, search committee chairs are people, too). Just be sure you write down the caller's name, title, and telephone number before you hang up. That information could come in handy at any number of points down the road, such as when your car breaks down on the way to the interview.
A week or two after the call, you should receive a letter from the committee confirming your appointment and containing other useful information. If the letter is correct in its particulars, accurately reflecting what you discussed on the phone, there's no need to acknowledge it. Only if details are wrong or missing -- such as the college's commitment to cover your travel expenses -- should you call or e-mail. (Personally, I prefer e-mail; it's less intrusive, and I can answer it at my leisure.)
The letter should also give you a better idea of what will be expected of you during the interview. For example, many two-year colleges include a teaching demonstration as part of the interview. The letter should tell you if that's the case and give you some ideas about the topic, the time limit, and the availability of resources (in case you plan on using technology during your demonstration).
Most colleges include, along with the confirmation letter, a hefty information packet -- catalog, brochures, area maps, and so forth. Plan on spending a lot of time with these documents, familiarizing yourself with the college and the local community as much as possible.
The first thing you should do is pinpoint the exact location of the campus, especially if you're driving. Then study such items as course offerings, student and faculty demographics, and the college's history and mission statement. Go online and look at the Web pages of departments and individual faculty members. All of this will give you an appreciation for the place and its culture that will be readily apparent to the committee members during the interview.
You should also begin preparing for some of the questions you might be asked during the interview. Every search is different, and I can't claim to predict which questions you'll be asked. But over the years, as a candidate and as a committee member, I've noticed certain ones that usually come up.
For example, the committee will probably ask you about your academic preparation and experience. Obviously, this is all laid out in detail in your résumé and cover letter. During the interview, what they're really asking is what would make you a good fit for their institution. Here's where good preparation will serve you well: Your knowledge of the institution, the department, and the community should give you a good idea of exactly what they're looking for and enable you to present yourself as a strong candidate. Remember to emphasize your teaching experience and try to relate it to the job description.
You can also expect questions about your experience with diverse student populations (two-year colleges tend to be more diverse than any other type of postsecondary institution), your familiarity with and use of technology in and out of the classroom, and your approach to teaching underprepared students.
You might even get one of those annoying "strengths/weaknesses" questions. If so, use a discussion of strengths to emphasize your commitment to teaching and learning. Under weaknesses, merely talk about the negative side of some of your strengths -- for example, maybe you spend too much time grading, or you are sometimes too trusting of students.
Another important way to occupy your time between the telephone call and the interview is to prepare your teaching demonstration. Most committees will ask you to talk for 10 to 15 minutes about a specified topic or about one of your choosing. Understand that what they're almost certainly looking for is a 15-minute segment of a lesson, not a 15-minute synopsis of an entire class.
One of the most common mistakes candidates make during this portion of the interview is to tell the committee what they would do if they had more time, instead of spending the time they have actually doing it. Remember, this is a demonstration, not a presentation. Imagine the committee members as your "students," and use your 15 minutes to leave no doubt in their minds as to your effectiveness in the classroom.
Finally, you should prepare a list of short, incisive questions for the committee. I regularly judge candidates as much by what they ask us as by how they respond to our interrogation.
You have to be careful with your questions. Asking about time off for research (there won't be any) will make you appear better suited for a research institution. Asking about the workload might suggest that you're lazy, especially if your face registers shock at the answer. (That information should be available on the college's Web site, anyway, if you look hard enough.) And the interview isn't the place, in my opinion, to ask specific questions about salary and benefits. That comes when you're offered the job -- though again, you can probably get a general idea beforehand by searching the Web.
You can, however, ask about the college's support for faculty travel to conferences, about training opportunities on the campus, and about tuition reimbursement for faculty members taking additional graduate courses. Ask which types of courses you would be expected to teach and how those courses are assigned. Ask about committee work and other opportunities for service. Such questions signal to me that candidates have a pretty good idea of what they are getting themselves into.
You can also ask questions that highlight your knowledge of the institution, acquired through weeks of Web-browsing and poring over often-tedious college publications. For example: "I see from your last annual report that enrollment has grown more than 25 per cent in the past two years. To what do you attribute that growth?" Or how about a question like this, illustrating not only your knowledge but your enthusiasm: "I noticed when reading up on the college's shared-governance structure that each discipline has its own curriculum committee. Are junior faculty members allowed to serve?"
I don't mean to sound disingenuous or cynical. I hope you are genuinely interested in serving on curriculum committees, just as I hope your weaknesses are merely counterpoints to your strengths. Experienced faculty members on the search committee will no doubt be quick to sniff out any hint of obsequiousness or insincerity. But if you are an excellent teacher with enthusiasm for your subject and a yen to teach at a two-year college, we want to know. I've seen too many promising candidates -- people who I know are good teachers -- fail to get full-time jobs because they didn't do well in an interview.
One way to prevent that, I believe, is by being well-prepared. There's no reason not to be: You've got all the information you'll ever need right at your fingertips and two or three weeks (at least) before your date with the committee. Use the time wisely.