Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dining with the Candidate

First, let me confess that I'm not the most socially adept person in the world. I'm fairly shy, and in larger groups tend to either be a bit quiet or try to make jokes. (I manage to teach because I've developed a teaching persona.) I tend to do okay in most small conversations because I find other people interesting and am happy to learn about what their interests. That said:

I went to dinner with some department folks and a candidate last night. The department folks included a married couple (TT), parents to two toddler types, an adjunct married to one of our TT folks, also parent to two toddler types.

There was a LOT of discussion of nannies, pre-schools, and other toddleresque topics among the two married women. The married man talked about bourbon and his beloved porch drinking club. (He's the type who babysits occasionally, so he didn't have much to add to the parenting discussion.)

The candidate listened politely but didn't seem to contribute. I don't know if s/he is a parent or a partner (s/he didn't contribute that information, and we sure don't ask).

But I can't help wondering if that dinner was at all useful to the candidate in terms of learning about our university, department, programs, etc.

I tried to move the topic onto program stuff, but it didn't really work, because the two married women really, really wanted to catch up on the latest pre-school news. I tried to get to know the candidate a bit, but there wasn't much room, since it's hard to move from diapering issues smoothly into pedagogy issues without an intermediate step that involves bringing the candidate in on the diapering issues. And I have little to say about diapering issues. I tried to move the topic onto things to do in the area, and the married man was just a tad snide at me (as he tends to be).

Do you ever wonder why someone who seems reasonably intelligent would marry a man who's a jerk? I wonder that a lot.

I left the restaurant and immediately wanted to check the other candidate meal lists to make sure I'm not eating with these folks again. Please, dog, no.

So, if the candidate is interested in small children issues in our department, then s/he likely thinks we have a reasonably decent place. If s/he is not, then perhaps s/he thinks this is the sort of place where only straight, married parental folks have a place.

In a purely social setting, I'm happy to hear from parents about their parenting, their beloved children, etc. It's not like that's the only thing I want to talk about, but it's certainly a fine thing to talk about as part of a conversation. But for a job dinner, I think we could do a lot better.


  1. Peter7:29 AM

    I love talking about kids, as I have one, but I try to remember the audience and purpose of a business dinner--just as I try to remember the interests of someone I am with in social settings. It's plain boorish to neglect the candidate this way.

  2. Anonymous7:37 AM

    I was once chastised for talking about the department too much at a recruitment dinner for prospective phd students. I really thought that's what I was there for but I guess not.

    I think it's rude to ignore the candidate this way, yeah. And I can see where the candidate, even if s/he had kids, wouldn't feel exactly like jumping in if one is not supposed to talk bout family and kids too much in interviews. How deeply awkward--and clueless, really, to spend a professional dinner catching up with each other.

  3. I love talking about kids as well, but as Peter said, I try to remember who I am talking too. Although it was a social event, it seems that the conversation should have revolved around the candidate, the candidate's interests, the program, the town/city, and so on. If the candidate wasn't jumping in to talk about kids and bourbon, the conversation should have changed.

  4. That seems odd. Meals with candidates--especially dinner--can be a funny thing, as we never get much overt training about what is the point of the meals and how to handle them. Meals can be a good time for the candidate to get more of a feel for what it might be like to live in an area, but the whole thing is still a job interview, which means that we should be trying to make sure that candidates get their questions answered--as well as trying to make a good enough impression that the candidate goes home with a favorable impression. Having a conversation that seems to ignore the visitor at the table seems unhelpful on both fronts.

  5. Oh God, this is giving me job market flashbacks. I'm not the most socially clueful person by any means, but some of the search committees had the most BIZARRE ideas about what constituted appropriate small talk.

    At least the kiddie conversation sounded relatively inoffensive, if boring. I never did figure out what to say to the s.c. member who kept quoting bits of my recommendation letters at me over dinner and asking me to react to them, or the one who greeted me like this:

    "Where are you from?"


    "Oh." [pause] "I find that people in the South can be very superficial. They act friendly, but they don't really mean it."

  6. I'm getting job market flashbacks, too. At one of my campus interviews, there were probably 6-7 faculty members at the dinner, and two sitting next to me started having a fairly loud conversation about the merits of a spousal hire in a different department. I felt extremely awkward, and was quite grateful for the efforts of the person sitting on my other side to distract me by talking about history.

  7. Anonymous9:05 AM

    This isn't exactly the same thing, since I wasn't on the job market, but it's job-market related and illustrative of collegial cluelessness. In my second year in my first job, I was able to bring to campus a well known speaker in my field who has been a great mentor to me, but was not in any way involved in my graduate education. At a dinner with the visiting speaker, two of my colleagues went on and on about how much they wished they had been able to hire Person X from his program for the job into which I had been hired; Person X had, to their dismay, turned down the offer. Basically, they revealed to the famous visiting speaker that I was their vastly less preferred second choice. Both the visiting speaker and I were horrified and embarrassed by the conversation, but neither of the colleagues ever seemed to realize there was anything remotely wrong. That's the moment I decided I would leave that job as soon as I had the chance!

  8. Anonymous9:31 AM

    Job market flashbacks, here, too. I've been at the all family conversation dinners, and as someone who did NOT have young children, I was bored out of my skull. The ones when the committee members spent the whole meal talking about campus gossip and politics were almost as bad. I interpreted those dinners as signs that they were not that excited about me as a candidate, and they certainly made me less excited about the job! But by far the worst was a candidate dinner held not in a restaurant, but at the home of one of the interviewers. Along with her developmentally disabled child. I spent the whole evening feeling completely invisible, as no one said a word directly to me once the greetings were over, until it was time to take me back to the hotel. WTF?

  9. Wow! That's definitely awkward. I wonder what the candidate was thinking. I think I'd, personally, be relieved that kids are a welcomed part of life. But then, I would be hesitant to speak about my own children. It's a catch 22. As a candidate, you don't want to seem like all you care about is your family. But then, you also don't want to seem like you're a bad parent and uninterested in children. And if you don't have children, how can you contribute? Dinners like that should definitely be more about business!

  10. Anonymous10:31 AM

    At an interview, I went to dinner with a group of junior faculty who spent the entire evening bad-mouthing the senior faculty. I thought, "If everyone hates each other this much, I don't want to work here. And if the department is this badly divided, do people have problems getting tenure?"

    I was lucky enough to have two offers, and the memory of that dinner helped me decide which to turn down.

  11. @Fretful Porpentine:
    I have a similar anecdote. I was interviewing for a job, the dean asked me what school was I graduating from, I answered (it was in the South).

    Her comment: "Oh, how could you manage to live there for some many years? People in the South are so racist!"

    My answer: "Well, there is racism in many other places besides the South. It just takes a different form"

    Her answer: "You are right. We can be very racist here. For example, we think everybody in the South is stupid"

    No answer from me. And no, I didn't get the job

  12. Anonymous11:45 AM

    My absolute favorite as a candidate: The long discussion of the toe fungus of the gentleman sitting across from me.

    It actually brought back flashbacks to faculty dinners with my mom's department back when I was a small child. Something about certain older gentlemen and their desire to discuss physical ailments.

    I also didn't get that job.

  13. Bardiac wrote: "But I can't help wondering if that dinner was at all useful to the candidate in terms of learning about our university, department, programs, etc."

    On the contrary, I think ze learned a LOT about your department and how it works. Ze learned that hir potential future colleagues are crashing bores! I just would wonder how that kind of talk might sound to a gay candidate or to a candidate who doesn't have or want children. Talking about preschools and diapers (DIAPERS!?!?) just sounds very small-town. What ever happened to talk about books read, research or pleasure travel, or stuff like that?

    (And we wonder why faculty are stereotyped as socially inept?)

  14. Our department took a visiting speaker out to dinner recently and throughout the ENTIRE meal, no one said a word to her except me. She tried to enter into the conversation a couple of times, but got talked over, and ended up just sitting and eating in silence.

  15. I would be happy to come over and wield the rod of smiting against your self-absorbed colleagues. I wouldn't be surprised if that dinner is a memorable part of the visit and not in a good way.

    There are topics you don't go into at professional dinners, except in the most innocuous of ways. Children are right up there. Unless a candidate asks me about childcare, schools, etc., I don't do anything more than acknowledge that I have kids who're in school and thriving. What could be more boring than being a captive audience for someone else's catching up?

    (And nannies? Really? I can't comprehend of being in an income bracket where one could have nannies. Nor could the candidate, I'm pretty sure! Way to alienate your candidate.)

  16. Thanks for the comments, all. It's good to know I'm not totally off in thinking this was bad.

    Janice, by "nannies" around here, they mean college students who babysit here and there for very little money. Two income academic families with kids tend to have a (sometimes shared) cadre of students. I've never thought about why they call them "nannies."

  17. Anonymous12:01 PM

    I was at one of these dinners as a candidate where the entire table of tenured faculty, male and female, spoke to the server as if they were channeling Clarence, the angel from "It's a Wonderful Life." It was all snapping fingers and "waiter, waiter." Then they left next to nothing as a tip on a very expensive bill. I actually slipped a $20 to the server and apologized.

  18. Anonymous1:34 PM

    I was the (female) candidate at a dinner at which a senior male professor waxed nostalgic for the days when candidates went for a drink before the job talk. When asked why that changed? "We started having to hire women, and that spoiled all the fun."
    There was no controlling my facial expression, and I'm sure that the junior (also male) faculty members there wanted to crawl under the table. Thank god I got two offers, and I didn't have to spoil that guy's fun...

  19. Oh, job marketing.

    How's about the potluck in the snow, where I was the only single, childless person (save the creepy older dude who'd picked me up from the airport?) This was also the interview where the chair told me that I needed to "prove to the committee that you're a real medievalist, and not just a poet masquerading as a medievalist."

    I did not get the job.

  20. Ok, also chiming in here to say that that sounds like one of the most unprofessional job interview experiences ever.* IMO that sort of conversation is entirely inappropriate on so many levels, not least because if introduces a subject that the search committee cannot ask about. Even worse (and this is a real peeve for me), I hate it when faculty go to job dinners and it seems more for the free meal and brownie points than to further hiring a good candidate.

    *worst was my interview at a campus shared by a CC and a branch of Flagship State. I can't even remember who I was interviewing with, it was so bad. I gave up a free day to go, was submitted to a bizarre (and really badly run) "fishbowl" interview which included planning a class and assessments with four other candidates and then presenting it with them. Oh, and best? State school, so they had to use all the same interview questions. It was a general history position and the person was supposed to be able to teach world civ and have a global perspective. During the individual interview, which came at the end of a very long day, I was asked about how my perspectives and approaches towards US history made me the best candidate for the job. I looked at them and said I wasn't entirely sure why I'd been brought in, as I was the only non-Americanist, and the question clearly did not reflect anything in my CV. My guess is that they had one person they wanted to hire, two people not qualified (a high school teacher with a shiny new MA and an archivist who had never taught), and me. Screw you, oh dual campus on the east side of Lake Washington.

  21. On "Nannies:" Typically, this is a term used by status-conscious people who want others to think they have professional, full-time, in-home care for their children although they don't offer health insurance or a living wage and are paying the babysitter under the table.

    No one should talk about their "nannies" unless they're paying her legally (including paying into her social security), workman's comp, state and federal taxes, etc. And given that nannies are looking after one's own children, NOT paying for health insurance (or at least making a contribution towards it) seems downright stupid.

  22. Oh god, I just had so many of these dinners. But it DOES give you an idea of fit. In some ways, it was the most helpful thing of all. Just, do you fit with the kinds of people. I think though, that programs should put a lot of thought into who they are sending out to do those dinners and tours because it makes a huge impression, and I bet they aren't aware of that.

  23. Sharon11:55 PM

    Here in the UK, sometimes candidates get taken to dinner the evening before interviews, sometimes not. As such, we're always taken as a group (4 to 5) with a handful of people from the department. It's always an informal thing, not part of the interview process - the department members at the dinner are usually not part of the interviewing panel, although they might be in the audience for the presentations part of the process.

    (On the other hand, in the category of the inappropriate, there was the head of the research centre which was hiring, a dinosaur only a year or so from retirement, who managed to shoehorn in several snide comments about feminists when he showed us around. I was somehow profoundly unsurprised when they gave the job to the only man among the four interviewees.)

  24. Anonymous11:00 PM

    When they just talked about this kind of thing at dinner, I always assumed it meant I wasn't candidate #1, and had just been invited for appearances' sake. I've been right on that, I think.

  25. Anonymous12:49 AM

    I'm also flashing back to horrible job interview dinners, as candidate and as search committee member. As candidate, you're helpless when they bore you to death with diaper stories and their own issues. But as hiring committee member, I've engineered things so that we switch seats halfway through the meal, so at least saner folk (like me) can talk to the candidate about our university, the good things, and academic matters. We could all use some conversational skills.

  26. Anonymous6:21 PM

    Part of it is that at those dinners, faculty are assembled who do not necessarily enjoy each others' company, but must feign a nice atmosphere. It's awkward.

    My worst moment involved a colleague who has since left, rather chauvinistic. He asked the candidate whether she planned to take off her shirt at Mardi Gras. She laughed, you know that is an actionable question.

    (He really didn't like it when we voted to offer her the job, and created all sorts of mayhem later.)