Receiving the Call: What To Do When Scheduling A Conference Interview

December 7, 2008, 9:49 pm

There has been so much heartbreak and angst lately about the state of the job market, here and elsewhere, that the Radical has neglected one critical function of this blog: professionalization. This post is aimed indirectly at search committee chairs and mostly at the people who love them. That’s right, this one’s for you, you lucky folk who will be called to a convention interview sometime between now and the first of the year, primarily in the fields of History and Literature, both of which have their Big Annual Meetings in the next month. What follows is information that you need to elicit in that first telephone contact, or if you haven’t — which is fine — follow up with an email tomorrow and get it.

Let’s begin. You are a person who has applied for a job, and you are at home playing Minesweeper — er, I mean working on your dissertation. Is that the telephone? (Imagine sound of phone ringing — brrring! brrring! – or more likely, your cell’s ring tone, now cued for the season to the first lines of Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?”) Yes it is! You look at the caller ID. It’s the area code for Los Angeles/New York/Ann Arbor/Duluth! Omigod. Ok. You answer.

How do you begin crafting their impression of you? What information needs to be exchanged, other than when and where?

Who is on the search committee? While not essential information, this does give you some way of preparing for the interview. Look them up; figure out if you know their work, and think about how your research relates to — preferably in a complementary, not a redundant way — their fields of interest. Other than providing the grounds for small talk, knowing who they are will allow you to strategize what to say, and perhaps not say, about yourself. It will also prepare you to connect to people on the committee in the interview itself by crafting logical, conversational connections with them. “As you know from your work on the Cold war, Dr. Strangelove….” might be one verbal gambit for beginning the process of allowing them to imagine you as a colleague. Yes, they are calling because they are interested in you, but you will create a better impression if you appear to be interested enough in them that you have done your homework. They know you want a job next year: what they don’t know is if you will be a good fit with the department. As a candidate, the fruits of this labor will not even be apparent to you. When the hotel room door clicks behind you, you want someone on the committee to say something inchoate and spontaneous like, “I can really see him teaching our students,” or “Wouldn’t she really fit into our department?”

How long will the interview be and how will it be structured? This is the moment to learn as much as you can about how the committee will prune the list of semi-finalists and how much you need to tell them about what. Will it be a half-hour interview, equally divided between teaching and scholarship? Will teaching be the top priority — or will teaching be one of several topics? If I were you, I would keep a folder by your telephone so that you can look up the precise wording of the advertisement as you are talking to the person who is calling to schedule the interview. If it says “French Revolution” as one of the fields, say maturely, “I’m assuming you will want someone to teach a course on the French Revolution — would you like me to bring a sample syllabus? Would you like me to sketch it out as a seminar or a lecture course? Or try it both ways?” Then follow this up with: “Are there any other courses I might be regularly responsible for that I should think about prior to the interview? Perhaps the Modern European History Survey?” Ask if they want syllabi faxed in advance. They probably don’t, but it makes you sound businesslike, and it would make for a more substantive interview if the committee did review your courses in advance.

As for your scholarship, every search committee will want to hear at least a little something about your research, but this is the time to ask about whether the committee will be interested in talking about your research trajectory as well. Sure, you are finishing your dissertation and your idea of a trajectory may be the path a crumpled page of a draft takes on its way to the waste basket, but there’s no time like the present to think of that next project — particularly if they plan to ask you about it and give you three minutes to answer the question.

Don’t act like you are the busiest person in the world and that you are doing the committee a great favor to make time for them. Yes, it’s a good idea to slip in that you are giving a paper at the meeting, and that you will be meeting with a series editor from Fancy Eastern University Press. Why not? But don’t be elusive or act self-important; don’t find some way of letting them know that Ken Wissoker is on your speed dial, or leave the impression that this search committee just got in under the wire of a very busy conference schedule. If you need to reschedule with an editor do so. S/he will understand, believe me, and it’s better to do that than make a search committee think you are a diva before they have even met you in person. And don’t let slip that you have multiple interviews — now is not the time to make a school that may end up being your best or only option feel like they may already be your second choice, or worse — that you are so desirable that it is hardly worthwhile to bring you to campus because you will surely get a better offer.

Make sure you get the search chair’s cell phone number. Candidates get lost — particularly when there are several hotels involved. Several search committees from one place may be using a suite reserved in the name of only one person — who might not even be on your search committee. It happens. Be prepared.

Make sure that before you start jumping up and down, whooping and hollering “Yabbadabbadoo,” that you have actually hung up the phone.

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