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Grand Hotel: The AHA Conference Interview Redux

December 30, 2008, 1:37 pm

Baron: You’re so beautiful. It tore my heart to see you in despair like that…Please don’t cry any more…I’d no idea you were so beautiful. I’d like to take you in my arms, and not let anything happen to you, ever…I’ve never seen anything in my life as beautiful as you are….

Grusinskaya (getting up): You must go now.

Baron: I’m not going. You know I’m not going. Oh, please let me stay.

Grusinskaya: But I want to be alone.

Baron: That isn’t true. You don’t want to be alone. You were in despair just now. I can’t leave you now. You, you mustn’t cry any more. You must forget. Let me stay just for a little while. Ah, please let me stay.

Grusinskaya: For just a minute, then.

Okay, so your conference interview won’t be this exciting. But here’s hoping it won’t be so mysterious, convoluted and indirect either. Surely you are starting to get excited? Aren’t you? So let’s start to prepare for the Big Event, now that you have your all-important outfit exactly the way you want it and you have acquired the information you need about what the committee will wish to discuss.

Last year I went over the basics of the conference interview in this post; shrewd readers will note (have noted) that this year’s advice on how to dress was both more detailed and more conservative than last year’s advice (to sum up last year’s advice: be yourself — within reason.) For those who don’t follow hyperlinks, the formula for a successful interview is this: have a five-minute description of your dissertation ready to go; be able to talk about specific courses you will teach, particularly those mentioned or implied by the original advertisement; enter the room as if you commanded it, making self-confident, eyeball-to-eyeball connection with everyone there, and sustain it throughout the interview; and have a couple questions about the school that indicate both that you have done your homework and that you have a warm, genuine interest in the school (even if you do not yet feel it.)

As I have written elsewhere, there are three obvious elements to every conference interview: scholarship, teaching and the conclusion to the encounter that is so easy to fumble: “Do you have any questions for us?” Throughout, there is a tricky subtext to every interview. You, the candidate, should be trying to figure out, no matter how well you have prepared for this moment, “Who are these people?” And they are smiling and looking at you and thinking, “Who is this person?” Only their question needs to be answered before you leave the room. Although your perception of them can help you do a skillful interview, the only perception that matters in any practical sense is theirs. If the committee cannot answer it to their enthusiastic satisfaction, you don’t get a second chance.

But just for a minute I want to address the perils of the candidate acquiring fixed ideas about the search committee, and the school, prior to the interview. I am hearing two things on the graduate student grapevine this year prior to this weekend’s American Historical Association Annual Meeting. One is terror, because jobs have been canceled and may yet be canceled even if the committees are being permitted to go ahead with interviews; the other is some version of “Oh, I have an interview at Xstatic University, but I would never go there.” For some reason the response to a shrinking job market among some graduate students is to shrink their prospects even further by setting personal criteria in which the candidate announces that s/he “could never live outside a city” (an even better version of this is “I couldn’t ever leave New York/Chicago/San Francisco.” Well good luck with that one.) Another is, having done the appropriate research on the institution and the committee, for the candidate to announce that s/he is probably going to withdraw from the search because the ideological atmosphere at that university, or in that part of the country, is unbearable in some way. OK, be that way — but withdraw now so they can interview someone else at AHA, ok?

Those who are in touch with their inner terror are probably doing the best at this point: not only are you going after all your interviews like the dog to the proverbial bone, but you are also planning on going to the gang interviews held at long tables (known as the “cattle call” in my day) where schools that can’t afford to rent an interviewing suite, or who have been authorized to search at the last minute, are interviewing people on a first-come, first-serve basis. And you know what I say to you? Nice work. Because not only can you make a great life as a tenured professor at a school your mentors at Ivystan University have never heard of, you might even hang in with the profession long enough to figure out what you want out of it, and whether you want to (or can) write your way out to someplace else. Or you could find out if you actually care about writing at all, and would be happier at a teaching-intensive school.

But I want to talk to the rest of you for a minute. Those interviews that you are writing off before you have done them are interviews that need to be prepared for just as zealously as the interviews for the jobs you covet. Why?

As one blogging historian recounted to me recently, she had made a list of pros and cons for a possible job that would require a big move, and was discussing it with a friend. The friend (also someone I know, and it is a classic remark from this person) said: “Never turn down a job you haven’t been offered yet.” I’ll go one step further. It is the highest form of narcissism to convey that it is you, with your Ivystan degree, who have the right of first refusal. Can you still lay claim to the idea that you want a career as a working historian if you will only work at a school of similar status to the one from which you will receive your Ph.D.? Can you honestly imagine that Bogtown State University is desperately hoping that you will consent to move to the next stage of their process, but you — desirable you — will assert that you “vant to be alone?” Oh for heaven’s sake. Now, what you are probably experiencing is the same terror that is sending other candidates scurrying to those long interviewing tables in the basement of the Hilton, but you are responding to it in a self-destructive way by cutting a school that has a salary, students and benefits to offer before they have the chance to cut you. I “vant you” to know two things: I understand. And also — this is nuts, unless you have some other game plan that is equally acceptable to you, like moving into an administrative career, marrying money, cobbling together eight adjunct courses next year and hoping Obama has a health plan up his sleeve, or w
inning American Idol. So here are the Radical’s do’s and don’ts, for interviews at schools that make you want to cry just thinking about them.

Do regard all interviews as good experience. Self-presentation, performing all the basics of a good interview, tailoring your responses to the needs of the school you are interviewing with, and performing like a champ when you are nervous and in an unfamiliar environment are all learned skills. This is just as good a setting to acquire them as anywhere else.

Don’t imagine that just because you have researched a school you know everything about them, about how you would be received there, or even about whether you would like it. I know two gay men who, sequentially, went to work for the same state university in a fly-over state. Both were treated with graciousness, kindness and great generosity in a place where you might ordinarily expect them to have been committed to an asylum on principle. It was a stage on the way to somewhere else, and everyone knew it, but it was a pleasant stage for all concerned nonetheless.

Do treat all search committees with respect. They are giving you a chance — give them one too. I have had a few interviews in my life where some Big Research University graduate student has roared in and treated the Zenith committee (a group of people who has a proven teaching and publishing record, despite our lack of a graduate program) with absolute contempt. I actually think this is just inexcusable, but if my personal disapproval doesn’t sway you, try this: you have no idea who else may hear of your childish behavior at the smoker that evening. Like someone on your dissertation committee. Even if you are sure that you would rather sell hot dogs on the streets of New York (they may be hiring too — you should check as long as you are in town) than go to Struggling State U., SSU may be your only option this year. Or SSU may be the other offer that allows you to negotiate a bit for the job you really want. But even if neither of these things come true, someone else who really wanted the chance to interview didn’t get it because of you, and the committee had enough respect for you to give you a chance. Give them a chance too.

Don’t ask detailed questions about personnel matters. Starting salary, research budgets, tenure clock, personnel processes related to joint or shared appointments — all of these things are time-wasters in my view, until and unless you are invited to campus. Why? Because the committee is making decisions about you at this point, not vice versa. BUT:

Do ask questions that should have been in the ad but weren’t, and that might give you an opportunity to let them know more about why you are perfect for the job, or just a thoughtful person they might like to have on board. Let’s say the teaching load was not mentioned in the ad or by the committee. Asking about it (let’s say it’s a 3-4 load) then allows you to say, “and how do most of you manage that load?” Here, a point of information question has led you quickly to expressing interest in them, and what their lives are like as if being part of their enterprise was something that was real to you. Or that you love the twentieth century survey so much, teaching three sections of it simultaneously sends you to the moon. Here’s another scenario: let’s say you are interviewing for a women’s history job, and you know from your research that there is a women’s studies program, but it hasn’t been mentioned. A good initial question would be to ask neutrally: “Are members of the history department also encouraged to participate in interdisciplinary programs?” Here, you could get good information about the department culture. More importantly, you are communicating your interest in the department culture, but also reaching out to anyone in the room who was hoping you would want to be part of a women’s studies project and didn’t want to scare you off by loading the job down with too many expectations — or scare her colleagues off you by tarnishing your sterling political history credentials by suggesting that you might (gasp!) be a feminist.

In other words:

Don’t forget that they are interviewing you, but do shape the end of interview, if you can, by the questions you ask. While it is perfectly reasonable to solicit information about the institution that you don’t have, every second of the interview should be aimed at conveying positive information about yourself. I would argue that it is only appropriate to ask a couple questions, particularly since there is another candidate coming up on your heels, and question-time is always a way of concluding the interview. But manipulate every question to create an opening to convey something about yourself that either was not elicited by the committee, or that lets the committee know that you are interested in the uniqueness of their department, and their institution.

Good luck, History Scouts. See you in New York. And write in to tell us how you did.

Update: this just in from Historiann.

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