Reflections on Interviewing
I remember going to bed the night before the 2004 D.C. annual meeting knowing that I was going to get very little sleep. I felt conflicting emotions: the expected nervousness, coupled with excitement, confusion, and even fear. I silently asked myself a range of questions, mentally ticking off my bullet point answers and formulating adequate responses that I could use the following day (though I doubt that I used any). Sleep did come, though fitfully, but I will always remember that long night spent in contemplation of what the annual meeting might hold.
Interviewing, I am now convinced, is a game. A successful interview requires skill, cunning, advanced planning, careful observation, and a lot of luck. Yet, unlike a game, the stakes of this particular contest are much higher. “Winning” a job not only provides the victor with material comfort, in the form of salary, benefits, and the like, but also with confidence in their academic credentials and future. With such an important outcome riding on the often mysterious decisions of search committees, it is unsurprising that the night I spent reflecting upon my coming interviews was so long (though to give away the ending of what could have been a good story, I did not get a job).
The most important lesson I learned during my interviews is the need to be flexible. Each interview required that I emphasize different parts of my historical training. The questions I answered varied enormously. One committee asked a set list of questions, inquiring about such things as my favorite historians and how these individuals most influenced my work; other committees tested me on how to design an online class and to what extent I was planning on incorporating electronic media into my teaching. I found that discussions regarding pedagogy revealed much about the expected “fit” of the new hire into a department. One committee, representing a school whose faculty possessed an enviable degree of flexibility in designing courses, asked me to list upwards of 15 courses that I could teach. During another interview, the interviewers questioned me fiercely about how I would teach the 20th-century black experience (for the record, I am a colonial Americanist). While I tried to highlight how I would explore certain important themes about 20th-century African American history (and even pointed out that privileging one particular century might be problematic), it quickly became apparent that the committee had a different candidate in mind for the job. Every committee also asked questions regarding my dissertation, though the nuances of these questions varied. Smaller schools, in which the interviewers were from vastly different specialties, required me to explicate my arguments within a broad context. Other search committees, composed of specialists closely allied with the job description, asked detailed questions about argument, analysis, historiographical context, and other authors’ interpretations. And most dizzyingly, these types of interviews came back-to-back.
Equally surprising was the speed at which time passed during an interview, leaving the feeling that I had barely highlighted any of my strengths as a historian. I also realized that short answers are preferable; brisk responses allow for more exchanges, especially during short interviews. Interviewers, particularly those with many candidates, have a limited opportunity to acquaint themselves with you, and lengthy, elaborate responses will allow them to tune you out. If you feel that you left a good impression with a committee (and to be honest, it will never be more than an impression), then you did your job.
While I certainly found the interview process to be stressful, I left the Job Register very happy with my interviews. The brief periods of time that I spent with a range of potential future colleagues forced me to elucidate why I wanted to be a historian, what I was trying to say with my dissertation, and how I teach. For almost five hours during that weekend, I had the undivided attention of some of the brightest minds in the profession. Such an experience was invaluable.
Looking back at the night following my last interview at the convention, I am amused that I again slept very little. A number of conflicting emotions flowed through me, similar in composition to those mentioned earlier, and I silently asked myself a range of questions, though with far less creative variation than with those that I had interrogated myself two nights before. While last year’s search did not yield the positive result I had hoped it would, I am actually looking forward to the Job Register this year. In many ways, I know its opportunities outweigh the sleepless nights.
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