Until I found myself on the answering end, I never realized just how bad most of the standard questions are in community-college job interviews.
About half of the questions I've been asked during recent job interviews have been almost laughably predictable. I could have written them myself and answered them in my sleep. The other half were hopelessly complex, with so many moving parts that I forgot the question before I'd really begun answering it.
My frustration was tempered by the sheepish knowledge that, while serving on search committees, I've been guilty of asking similar—if not exactly the same—questions. In fact, there seems to be a kind of standard question bank that nearly all community colleges use. I've even written advice columns giving prospective job candidates the lowdown on the questions they can expect in interviews.
Obviously, there are advantages to being able to anticipate some questions. It's also true that there are certain questions, or categories of questions, that nearly all two-year colleges need to ask, because the answers pertain directly to the type of work that candidates will be doing and the environment in which they'll be doing it. But that doesn't mean our interview questions have to be quite as predictable, or as byzantine, as they've become.
Search committees often put a tremendous amount of work into selecting the candidates for interviews—and then treat the list of interview questions as an afterthought. Yet assuming we've done a good job of identifying qualified applicants, what we ask them may well be the most important part of the entire process. At the very least, those of us who regularly serve on search committees ought to be giving the questions a great deal more thought than perhaps we have in the past, with special attention to the following:
Canned questions. As I mentioned, we do need to ask certain questions in order to determine whether candidates have the requisite job skills, experience, and temperament to teach at a community college. For instance, because most two-year campuses are pretty diverse places and tend to be extremely wired, we need to know if candidates are familiar with our diverse student populations and if they've used technology in their teaching. Often that information isn't made explicit in an application or résumé. The only way to find out is to ask in an interview.
That said, questions like, "Tell us about your experience with diverse student populations" and "Tell us about your experience using instructional technology" are so standard these days that any applicant who has done the bare minimum of homework can concoct an answer that will sound just fine—a canned answer to a canned question.
What if, instead, we asked broader, more open-ended questions, such as, "Tell us about the student body at the last place you taught" or "Tell us a little about your teaching methods"? Such questions invite the candidates to bring up topics like diversity and technology—and if a given candidate doesn't bring them up, then we have our answer. We also open the door for candidates to talk about much more than just ethnic diversity and Smart Boards—and we might very well get a telling answer to a question we didn't even know we were asking.
Impersonal questions. Most search-committee regulars have been trained to avoid asking questions that are inappropriately personal—about a candidate's age, marital status, or children, for example. But that doesn't mean our questions have to be appallingly impersonal, or that, as committee members, we needn't do our homework on the candidates and their backgrounds.
In my most recent telephone interview, a few months ago, I got the distinct impression that the members of the committee knew almost nothing about me. I found that puzzling, given the detailed, two-page cover letter and 14-page CV I had sent. Yet they asked me things like, "Tell us about your experience with civic engagement," when it was readily apparent from my application materials that I had had extensive experience in that area over the past six years.
A better question, one that would have addressed the issue while at the same time been much more personal, might have been something like this: "I see from your cover letter that you helped to launch a book festival in the Atlanta area. Tell us more about the festival and about the role you played in it as a representative of the college."
Two-parters. Every job candidate's least favorite questions are the ones that have more than one part. I know I always cringe inside when I hear a member of the search committee say, "I have the next question, and it's a two-parter." (Or maybe a three- or four-parter.) I just know that I'm going to forget the second half of the question by the time I finish answering the first half. And I usually do.
I understand that search-committee members feel pressed for time. I also recognize that some questions are closely related and therefore obvious candidates to be combined. That way, committee members can satisfy themselves (and perhaps their supervisors) that they don't have "too many" questions for the time allotted.
But here's a tip: If you have a standard multiple-part question, and candidates are constantly asking, "Can you repeat the second part of the question, please?," then you probably need to break it up into separate questions. If the questions are indeed closely related, then perhaps the second part can become a follow-up, to be asked only if it hasn't already been answered. If you're concerned about time constraints, remember that answering two separate questions probably won't take the candidate any longer than answering both halves of a two-parter.
Questions with no good answer. I get a fair number of e-mails from people asking how to answer some of the standard questions. (That's how standard they are.) But I also get asked about questions that stymie me when I am the candidate. Perhaps that's because there are some questions to which there simply are no good answers.
Ask yourself this: How many really good answers have you ever heard to the question, "What do you see as your greatest weakness?" The best that committee members can hope for is a bunch of prepackaged bull: "I tend to put too much pressure on myself to perform at a high level." The worst-case scenario, if you actually manage to catch someone off guard, is some sort of awkward confession that leaves everyone in the room feeling uncomfortable.
Falling into this same category is "What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?" How are candidates supposed to answer that? If they say that they still expect to be teaching in 10 years, the committee might think they lack ambition. If they tell us they expect to be running the place by then, we're going to think them arrogant or worse. Again, the best we can hope for is some weaselly, canned answer that leaves no one satisfied.
I understand that the "business model" of hiring says we ought to be asking those sorts of questions, but they really don't work in a higher-education setting—if, indeed, they work anywhere. I say we throw them out.
In their place, I recommend that search committees ask questions that are more open-ended, perhaps requiring a short narrative; questions that are specifically tailored to the particular candidate's background and experience; questions that are clear, concise, and easy to remember; and questions that actually provide us with useful information. I'm also a fan of the "case study" approach to interview questions, in which candidates are given realistic scenarios and asked how they would respond.
Whatever list of questions we settle on, we need to give it serious thought, and not merely settle for the sample list provided by the human-resources office, or the questions the last committee used, just because it's late and we're tired after reviewing all those applications and we want to go home. That's a disservice both to the candidates we'll be interviewing and to the institutions we represent.