• August 22, 2014

The Campus Visit

The academic job search is like reality TV. Candidates compete in a half-hour conference interview in order to qualify for the 36-hour miniseries known as "The Campus Visit." This should be an opportunity for an extended dialogue where candidates and departments evaluate one another as potential colleagues in pleasant surroundings and without commercial interruption. But the truth is that campus visits -- also known as "fly backs" -- are tense, high-stakes affairs: for the candidate, it seems like Survivor, without the rats.

I find going on campus visits nerve-racking: I feel always on camera, and I never seem to read the cue cards right. After one job talk, I realized I had rolled up my pants cuffs to keep them dry while walking across a rain-puddle-filled campus, and then forgotten to roll them back down. The audience thought I was an avid cyclist, or maybe just weird. I didn't get that job. Another trip culminated in a search-committee lunch. I had never been asked to eat and answer questions at the same time. I approached this dilemma by ordering what I thought to be the simplest item on the menu. But my BLT proved so thick that I couldn't bite it without it spilling all over the table. Fortunately, the committee was having too good a time to notice I hadn't touched my food, and going hungry during my long trip home seemed a small sacrifice when they finally offered me the job I've had for the past 27 years.

Eating gracefully is often the least of a candidate's worries. Campus visits can be so tightly-scheduled that visitors are whisked from activity to activity with no time in between. I've learned the hard way to refuse beverages whenever possible. Risking dehydration is always preferable to having to find a restroom halfway through a job talk.

Now that I'm on the other side of the search process, I know there's a reason to keep the candidate moving, and it's not that the fly back is a test of stamina. Many groups both inside and outside the department want face time with the visitor, and since most visits last a day and a half, a lot of events inevitably get compressed into a narrow time span. We try to schedule the campus visit coherently, events that lead inexorably to the job talk, and then descend gently from that climax -- like a well-plotted novel moving toward its denouement. But more often than not we have to slate events when people are free for them, not when they make sense.

The following annotated schedule illustrates what we do. If it sounds like Bridget Jones's diary, that's because campus visits, serious as they must be, are separated from the madcap absurdities of life by the thinnest margin, if at all.

Day Zero

6:00 p.m. Candidate arrives late afternoon. If delegated to meet plane, worry that, having met 40 candidates at conference, I won't recognize visitor, making total fool of self. Next time will stand like one of those chauffeurs, holding sign with candidate's name. Late plane requires move of dinner with search committee from upscale nouvelle-cuisine restaurant to lively but probably unhygienic bar that serves pizza late. Must repeat mantra to late-arriving, now-exhausted visitor, "It's not usually like this at all." With luck visitor too disoriented to notice parking ticket on my car in front of pizza joint.

Day One

Reminder: Make time between meetings; make sure candidate knows where restroom is.

8 to 9:30 a.m. Breakfast with graduate students. Candidate meets future students; learns department culture from group of peers. Graduate students see whether candidate is too eager to identify with faculty members, though still A.B.D. Our students value specific advice about their dissertation projects. Candidate who talks only of self gets low marks.

10 a.m. Meet with department head. I summarize various aspects of faculty life, including assessment, tenure review, salary policy, committee work, research opportunities. Not that anyone can remember all these details (I read them surreptitiously from small paper in hand). Continue discussion from conference interview of candidate's scholarship; explore ideas for first book and possible future projects. Look for evidence of active engagement with the world of scholarship beyond the dissertation; appreciate knowledge of who we are, what we do, confirming interest in us. Hope candidate does not ask about retirement system, which I still fail to understand.

11 a.m. Meet with director of graduate studies; explore opportunities for graduate teaching. Since we involve new faculty members quickly in graduate program, director assesses whether candidate has specific ideas; wants to know, can candidate teach more than dissertation?

Noon to 1:30 p.m. Lunch with junior faculty members, who evaluate visitor as potential peer, and who give visitor the real scoop on life as an assistant professor. Group seems to think the less I know about this secret life, the better. Remind them I was assistant professor once, though before cable TV invented.

2 p.m. Meet with associate head to discuss undergraduate teaching options, rough out potential schedule. Looking for candidates ready to put broad range of courses into language undergraduates can understand.

2:30 to 3:30 p.m. Free time before job talk. Provide office (with computer and Internet connection) or show candidate to coffee shop. Discourage return to campus hotel. Tell urban legend about visitor who did just that, fell asleep, missed talk. Did not get offer.

3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Candidate presentation (recommend 30 minutes for formal talk, or a little more, followed by 20 minutes of Q. and A.). Prefer subject well-developed rather than exploratory. We are hard sell; excuse nervousness but not lack of ideas. Expect candidate to respond thoughtfully and creatively to unanticipated but nonhostile questions; very interactive audience regularly tries to help candidates explore their responses. After questions, short coffee and cookies thing to continue discussion of presentation informally. Nothing worse than reception where no one shows. Consider luring faculty members by scheduling earlier lunch meeting to discuss sudden crisis and not serve lunch?

5:30 to 7 p.m. Candidate taken back to room for nap (who can sleep?), workout, shower, staring into space, catching up with CNN, calling home, all of the above; picked up at 6:50 and taken to dinner reception. Hope designated driver doesn't get lost on way to reception.

7 to 9 p.m. Catered in-home dinner reception. No one RSVP's any more. Hard to know who will come. Invitation list designed to impress candidate with our intellectual energy and at the same time include those whose feedback will be most useful to search committee. Once, anxious to recruit new Ph.D. who as undergraduate played on national championship women's basketball team, invited high-profile coach of our own women's basketball team (possible NCAA violation?). Candidate signed, despite campus failure to offer TV show or product endorsements.

9 p.m. to the wee hours. Some younger faculty members take visitor out on town. Rest of us regard such energy with envy, as we cradle mugs of decaf and herbal tea. Visitors should read impromptu invitation as sign they've made good impression. Hope am not called in middle of night to make bail.

Day Two

8:30 a.m. Breakfast with select group of faculty members (those willing to wake up that early). Continue discussions of research, teaching, life on campus and in town. Candidate who tried to beg off breakfast ("I'm not a morning person") got breakfast, did not get job.

10 a.m. Town tour. Show areas faculty members tend to live; avoid areas where doctors and lawyers tend to live. Also, show local schools, bookstores, whatever candidate expresses interest in seeing. Skip fields of corn and soybeans unless candidate particularly agrarian. Possible meet with real-estate agent (note to self: find agent with less hair next time).

11:30 a.m. Library visit. Library a major campus asset and national presence; candidates unmoved by its strengths not likely to succeed. Once, during power outage, candidate shown rare-book stacks by flashlight. Impressed, accepted our offer.

12:30 to 1:45 p.m. Lunch with faculty. Still more talk -- talk at these meals, and there are many meals, centers more on ideas and "the field," with forays into professional gossip. Don't talk to candidate about weather. Especially if weather threatens to disrupt candidate's trip home. If must talk about weather, go to mantra, "It's not usually like this at all."

1:45 to 2:30 p.m. Senior candidates, hired with tenure, meet with dean. Not a formality; dean looks for energy, engagement with "the big issues," fit with departmental strengths and needs. Dean reads vita as well as we can, sometimes better. Fear when we arrive at deanery, secretary reports he is called away to put out a fire (polite administrative phrase meaning someone on faculty has gone berserk).

3 p.m. Exit meeting with department head; tell candidate what happens next on search timetable. Thence to airport. With luck, plane leaves on time. Stay with candidate till plane boards. Four hours after one candidate got on plane, she called to say, "I'm still here." Ice in Chicago. By then too icy here for me to retrieve her from airport. Took van back to hotel, got home -- to sunny California -- late next day. Calls to ask, "Is it always like that?"

As soon as the candidate departs -- and they all do get back home eventually -- I e-mail faculty members and graduate students for feedback. When all visits for a search are done, the search committee and I go over feedback and align it with our own reactions. We focus on the job talk: Was it smart? Could the candidate think on her feet when asked questions? Was he able to go beyond his topic and deal with wider issues? Would undergraduates find his words stimulating? Would graduate students flock to her classes?

We also focus on the candidate as a person. Because we are a community of scholars and teachers, we like indicators that the applicant is interested in joining our community: Did the candidate ask questions that were not always self-centered? About faculty and graduate-student research? About participating in reading groups? About interactions with colleagues in other departments? About starting new initiatives?

Finally, we go back to the writing sample, then make a ranked list. With luck, that list will have at least one name on it. In my next column, I'll illustrate how we go about making an offer.

 

Dennis Baron is chairman of the English department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is writing a regular column this academic year on how the academic job search process works from the hiring side of the table.

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