The Art of the Interview

"The Study of Adam," Michelangelo

“There will be time, there will be time,” writes T.S. Eliot, “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”

Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

- “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Interviewing for a faculty position is a lot like these words from Eliot: it involves preparing a “face,” a way of presenting yourself articulately, a manner of knowing what you’re about while still being flexible enough to think on your feet. The following reflections relate to things I learned as I went, things that helped me prepare, and what I would have liked to know ahead of time. I have divided these reflections into three categories: (1) questions I was often asked, (2) exhaustion, (3) “all in all…”

It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

QUESTIONS EVERYONE SEEMS TO ASK:

(1) Why are you interested in [insert name of institution here]?

What might first come to mind when asked this question is something like, “I’m just plain excited anyone is interested in me!” Do not say this. Ever. What they are looking for here is what makes you, as a professional, interested in the school that is interviewing you. What about the place is attractive to you? Why did you submit your CV? Give it some thought, and show how your interests align with the school’s. Be alive to who they are.

(2) What can you contribute to [unique attribute of institution]?

Make a study of the department’s website. Know the faculty and the classes. Get a sense of their identity and mission. Be able to articulate some of these things when asked this sort of question, and show how you reflect these emphases. You also want to show how you are able to expand a department or school’s toolbox. Most schools have a sort of mythos, a self-narrative that they repeat to explain who they are to their students as well as their employees. (“We are a Jesuit school…” “We were founded by…” “Our focus is always on…” “What we do better than anyone is…”) Be aware of these “mythical” attitudes: know the basic contours, and be prepared to respond to them.

(3) What sorts of classes do you see yourself teaching?

Here it gets a bit more concrete, more nitty-gritty. They want to see that you have been thinking practically about how you can contribute to a department’s duties as an active and creative faculty member. Look at course lists, imagine classes you might pick up or that you might create. Write down some of these ideas, and think of a few texts or methods that you might use. This is one of the hardest questions to anticipate, as it is not always clear what sorts of classes they are interested in having you teach, but it is also one of the most common questions you will receive. The more teaching experience you have, the easier it is to answer the question. Don’t back down from these kinds of questions, even if they ask it in a way that surprises you, and don’t be afraid to ask them for what they are imagining for you. Make it into a conversation; be responsive, and do your best to imagine with them.

(4) What makes you an effective teacher?

Here you can explain how you see your students, what you see as your strengths, and that sort of thing. This is more about pedagogy than specific classes. They want to see someone who reflects carefully on how to teach, and someone who likes teaching. Your job talk, your class lectures, your dinner with the department: these all help them see if you mean what you say in theory. So think about how you relate to people, and be aware that they are constantly observing you. They are trying to pick up on the signals of an effective communicator, and not just when they are asking you a question about it.

(5) Where do you see your research going in the future?

The faculty and other higher-ups will be asking you questions about your dissertation and the like, but they will also be asking you about your future. They want to see someone who is itching to keep publishing, keep asking questions, keep exploring. Give them general ideas, and try to be specific about one or two. It is possible to give a sense of research interests (which are broader), while also showing that you have been concrete about where these interests might go in the near future.

(6) Do you have any questions for me?

Come up with questions for them! Learn about the faculty and staff, get a feel for the school. You are interviewing them as much as they are you. Prepare a few questions based on your research on the school, and add to these questions as your day moves forward. You will get a better sense of things the more you talk to people, and your questions will shift. It is always good to ask about students, to ask about research, to ask about the department or school’s mission. These general questions lead into more specific concerns. Pay attention to these, and start to narrow in on them. This shows your interest in them, and it also allows you to gain a more accurate view of an institution.

EXHAUSTION

Be prepared for near-total exhaustion. You are going to be dragged around for a day or two and asked a million questions by more faces than it is possible to remember. There is not a moment to relax. Even the dinner at the end of your day: that’s another interview. You are going to feel a lot like Eliot’s poem:

And I have known the eyes already, known them all–
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin…

The questions are constant, probing, helpful, and frustrating. Some questions come to you empty of meaning; others are loaded with so much meaning that it is overwhelming to start answering. Every question and response, no matter how genuine, is also calculating. It is draining.

Part of the exhaustion involves the long days, the constant activity. The other part is being under constant supervision, always observed. You will feel a lot like a bug pinned on a wall. The faculty will have an idea of who you are based on your CV, an idea that will be accurate – and inaccurate. You also will have something you imagined about them. This is also accurate and inaccurate. Be prepared for the odd disconnect. The interview is about learning how these early premonitions about one another need correcting, expansion, depth.

It can be disheartening sometimes, and sometimes exciting. I find honesty has been important: I know what I am good at, and I know what I don’t know. At the same time, this is not the moment to reveal all of one’s insecurities and weaknesses. This is not a confessional. Be serious, prudent, and attentive. Show a willingness to grow as a scholar. Be personable as well as professional.

ALL IN ALL…

All in all, is important to discover what sort of person a department is looking for, and to show them how you are able to fit that need; it is just as important to reveal who you are as a scholar and what makes you tick. The procedure is a balancing act, a constant attempt to manage external expectations and interior desires. The “face” you prepare is a professional one: it should never be a lie – that will be found out almost instantly, so don’t try it – but should be one meant to express what makes you a desirable candidate for a position. You are not going to be perfect, but you can always give it your all.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question…

It all takes a great deal of effort, and I cannot say what does and does not promise success. That is too much for any of us to know. All we can do is prepare and do our best.

I hope these reflections are helpful to you, and that you have enjoyed my little re-imagining of T.S. Eliot’s famous “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” along the way.
- Anne M. Carpenter

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One Response to The Art of the Interview

  1. Reblogged this on Catholic Kung Fu and commented:

    I wrote this for the people over at “AnGST Underground,” for Marquette University.

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