Thursday, December 06, 2007

Hiring a Colleague: Job Talks

A while back, I did a couple posts on the job market from the other side: in general, a bit more specifically, the calendar, and a question/answer/link post.

And here's the academic job wiki page.

Editing to add: Look at this great post on job interviews over at Tenured Radical's place!

Today, I want to talk about job talks. There are several sorts of job talk, the give us a paper talk, the answer a topic question talk, and the teach this class section talk. In my experience at SLAC and regional schools, I was usually asked to answer a topic question and teach a class. I'm guessing that more research oriented schools are more likely to ask candidates to give a paper.

If you're asked to give a paper, I'm guessing your department is looking for two things, brilliance and understandability. Your potential colleagues, I'm guessing, are hoping that you'll be able to translate your brilliance into terms they can understand, even if they haven't mastered Zizek or Gower or whatever.

What's far more important to me are the topic question talks and teaching a class section talks. Let me say, every topic question talk I've ever seen is utterly bizarre. They're always something along the lines of "discuss the importance of teaching poetry in a school of engineering," or "explain how your work fits into the broad field of so and such," or "why does this field fit in a school of liberal arts." Don't take the questions personally; they're nuts, but they're nuts in important and interesting ways. Too often, there's one "right answer" for the job, and you probably know what it is: if you're materials science program is at a liberal arts school, then the right answer is basically that the liberal arts are vital to educating people in materials science. Sometimes that feels either adversarial or preaching to the choir.

But, these questions usually give the candidate the opportunity to show that s/he understands audience contexts. So my first suggestion is to do your research. If you're talking to a liberal arts place, look at what they have to say about the liberal arts and look at what the AAC and U says about the liberal arts. Make sure you have a quick and dirty definition that gets across the basics in a way that will make sense to the people you're talking to. And if you're talking to the engineering school, then figure out what they and their professional groups have to say about communication and such, and work from there. (And if you decide that you don't want their job based on your research, then that's important to know, too.)

Here's what I think people are looking for with these questions. Can you communicate with other folks on campus about what's important to you and your potential department, and can you communicate in ways that will work with their students? Can you make sense of something bizarre and do something useful with it (vital for most committee work). Do you understand what sort of place you've applied to, and are you really ready and prepared for that work?

The teach a class questions are more explicitly about your ability to communicate with and motivate students.

So here are my big suggestions:

Be VERY organized. Map and signal! These talks tend to be in the late afternoon when everyone is tired, and if you're hard to follow, they're not going to be happy.

Be concrete about examples, especially related to teaching and research! A lot of folks like to think in terms of goals/objectives for an assignment and then of ways to get there, so it can be useful to set those out a bit. Be ready to talk specifically about assignments in different classes at different levels.

For example, I do an assignment where I ask students to look up a single article on a text and write an accurate summary of the article in two pages or so. I want students to practice using the MLA or other academic index and to practice reading carefully and summarizing accurately. Secondarily, I want students to begin to get a sense of how critical arguments work, so that assignment may lead into (or be combined with) outlining the argument at some point. I do this assignment in a lower level class where I want to begin building research skills without being overwhelming, and where most assignments are close-reading oriented. Then if I can talk specifically about how I teach summary skills to prepare students for the assignment, and how students demonstrate reading and summary skills in a concrete way, I can show what the assignment's trying to do and how it works pretty well. You don't have to use assessment language (I don't! and I hate assessment language), but showing that you're aware of having goals and teaching students how to succeed might be useful.

Run short. Seriously, at 5 pm, no one is going to complain that you've timed your 45 minute talk out to 35 minutes to leave time for questions. If you're talk is incredibly good, you'll get plenty of questions. But no one will be sorry that it's a little short. (This is especially true in departments with a variety of fields, such as foreign languages. The X field profs want to know that you can teach Y field and make it sound fascinating, but they probably really aren't that thrilled with Y or it would already be their field. In most departments, you aren't just talking to people in your sub-field.)

Be flexible. If you have a powerpoint, have a back up plan for something not working. Have it on a flashdrive and a cd. Be ready to teach in a classroom with or without chalkboards. On any given day, every teacher runs into obstacles. If you can show your potential colleagues that you'll go around the obstacle and not make their lives miserable in the process, that's good. Your potential colleagues will recognize that you're under a lot of stress, and seeing someone handle a difficulty gracefully under stress is doubly impressive.

Answer questions. Make sure you've understood the question, and make sure that you answer it concretely. If you don't have a good answer, it's probably better to say so and posit a conditional answer rather than blathering on about something else for ten minutes. Yes, there are tough questions. I always hate the "should we have a Shakespeare requirement?" question because it's a landmine. But if you've done your homework and seen that the department doesn't have a Shakespeare requirement, you should be work with that. If it does, then be aware that the requirement may be a source of tension.

Questions or other suggestions?


  1. maybe you have advice for me. I haven't been asked to respond to a question, teach a class or give a paper. They say they want me to talk about something I'm comfortable with--acknowledging this will probably be my dissertation--for 20-25 minutes. I'm planning to aim for 20 minutes and give an intro to my diss. No one is likely to have any familiarity with my topic, so I'm planning a pretty basic introduction to my topic rather than an overview of the argument of my diss.

    Are there any pitfalls here I should watch out for?

  2. Yes. This one: "planning a pretty basic introduction to my topic rather than an overview of the argument of my diss."

    Those aren't opposing goals--communicating your arguments should also communicate a basic introduction to your topic (eg, I argue X, and it's important because of big and small events A and B, but some people argue Y). Or you might invert the order there. But if they do not know why they should care about your topic, or the work that *you* are doing, they will not care about you. Unless they are totally uninterested in your work, in which case they would presumably have you give a different talk.

    This sounds like a school that wants to hear about your research, but isn't requiring a research talk, which is odd--and I've only given talks at phd-granting places, admittedly. But I think to talk about your research at all without showing off your arguments is not good. Also check the age of the department--regardless of the status of the school, recently trained profs will expect to hear someone talk about their dissertation in a way that shows why it's worth doing, even if that isn't the focus of the talk.

    My random guess is that they perceive research talks to be boring and want something more interesting. Also that they will be extrapolating from your talk to gauge your likely performance as a teacher, which I've seen happen at an elite SLAC.

    Bardiac, sorry to hijack your comments. I had never heard of "topic questions" at all--interesting!

  3. Sorry! Bardiac, hijacking again--Anastasia, I'm a historian, where "a pretty basic introduction to my topic" could easily equate to something that mixed a chapter in a survey textbook with an undergrad lecture, lots of facts and details and a couple of big ideas thrown at the audience. I think that would be the kiss of death at any school, in history. But it probably means something different in your field.

  4. No problem, Dance, hijack away.

    Anastasia, Rather than an intro to your diss, how about an intro to the coolest bit from your diss? Something you're pushing to publish, and that you can talk about where you're going with it. The diss talk sounds grad studentish to me; the cool research result talk doesn't, even if it's from the diss. The cool bit also helps you limit it to 20 minutes really well. Think conference paper?

  5. Seconding Bardiac's idea with a PS--an invitation to talk about something you are comfortable with sounds maybe like an invitation to show your passion, rather than give a high-theory, name-dropping, jargony talk.

  6. sorry I didn't check back. I forgot. Thing is, i work on something no one in my field works on. I don't think I should assume they'll know anything about what I work on that they didn't learn in 9th grade.

    okay, so I am thinking conference paper.

    I asked them if this was more about teaching or research. He said teaching. They want to see how I interact with students/what I'm like up in front of the room but they don't want to do a guest lecture (b/c it's weird) and are letting candidates talk about whatever they feel comfortable talking about, which they assume will be the diss.

    it's just...yeah. You know. This is a job in religion in a department where everybody does christianity and I'm afraid if I assume too much background knowledge about my goddess, they'll be lost and lose interest.

    I'm going to solicit feedback on my blog about this because this conversation is really helpful.