6 Terrible Questions I’ve Gotten in Academic Interviews

January 10, 2014

Yesterday, I had an interview for a job outside academia. It was absolutely normal and wonderfully refreshing–pleasant, even. The questions were about the job, and how my experience and knowledge is relevant to it, and I answered them to the best of my ability. So, if I do not get the job, I have no regrets, because I was treated like a human being.

However, I can’t say that about my academic job interviews. Of the conference and on-campus interviews I’ve done, there’s exactly one that stood out for being a truly humane experience: it was a small liberal arts college in Maine, where everyone was polite and professional, from the start of the day to the finish at dinner. I didn’t get the job, but I still have an incredible amount of respect for every single person there.

Otherwise, it’s been a series of WTF to just plain wrong. There was the time when I was scheduled on the same day as another candidate. After the committee took too long at lunch, I was asked to start my interview an hour late, and, oh, by the way, they’re not taking me to dinner (which meant they’d already decided on the other person). There was the time when a scholar whose work I really admired turned his back on me and refused to shake my hand because he disliked one of my letter writers. I could go on, but I won’t.

Mostly, though, I’ve heard a ton of bizarro questions. Here are six of them that stick out in my mind:

6. “What do you think about specificity?” This was a real question at an R-1 university. Although I’ve done a lot of thinking about specificity, especially when it comes to writing, I had no idea what this person meant. Specificity is good, in any kind of writing: In an article, you want specific details to prove your point. You see this blog post? It has specific questions, all of which I really experienced. But the vague quality of the question made me unsure if I was supposed to answer about research, teaching, or, say, the lunch menu. This person is a wonderful scholar and probably a good colleague, but this was one of those questions that demonstrated how out-of-touch R-1 academia is with the rest of the world.

5. “Why is this music so angry? There’s too much shouting, and it delegitimizes their feminism.” This was from a professor who identifies as feminist, and she was tone policing the music I was talking about in my job talk. You might think that this was a legitimate question, but it’s not. I could have talked more about why the music was so angry (and, in fact, about a third of my job talk was about that), but the second part is key: the declarative statement showed that she didn’t have room to even hear an answer. This is the worst kind of question to get after a job talk, because it means that the person is already a no-vote, and the best you can do is hope your answer makes you seem collegial yet firm.

4. “How do you see the role of this new hire in your department’s growth?” OK, this is something I asked, and I hope it’s not really a terrible question. I have no idea why it caused the following to happen: One of the committee members slammed his hands down on the table and shouted, “I don’t see us hiring an ethnomusicologist!” He then got up and left, slamming the door behind him. I had fifteen minutes left to ask the rest of the committee questions, but no one would say anything. Worse, no one apologized for his behavior; instead, they acted like it was normal. Dear committee members at that school, if you happen to read this: that’s not professional.

3. “The kids are going into finals. Could you cut your teaching presentation from an hour to, say, 25 minutes?” This was asked as I was getting ready to teach and the students were filing into the classroom. If I had been asked to prepare an alternate 25-minute lesson, this would have been fine. If I’d have been given a day’s notice, this would have been fine. Hell, if I’d have been given a half hour, maybe. But this was just impossible, not to mention incredibly dismissive of the work that I’d put into my sample class.

2. “Can you give me a compelling reason why we should hire an adjunct, when we are trying to raise the profile of the department?” I was adjuncting at a state school, teaching courses for someone who was (no joke) no longer allowed in the country because the university had messed up his green card. Despite the bad karma involved in such a position, I applied when it came open and became the inside candidate; however, the dean had issues with adjuncts in the department, regardless of pedigree or degree obtained (almost universally, the music adjuncts had PhDs, while the tenure-track faculty did not). The school ended up passing on me and a former adjunct who had two well regarded books on excellent presses. They hired someone ABD, because, you know, potential.

1. “So, do you have any kids?” Normally, I’d be happy to talk with people about my plans to have children. But the only reason people ask a woman that in an interview in academia is to suss out whether she’ll be taking leave in the next few years, and/or whether she’s a “serious scholar.” This is also not legal. Yet it’s happened at almost every interview I’ve ever been on.

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10 Responses to “6 Terrible Questions I’ve Gotten in Academic Interviews”

  1. Paula said

    Shocking yet totally believable. What truly saddens me is the waste, the sheer waste of hundreds of millions of dollars that go toward sustaining thousands of uncreative, conformist, pathological and politicized departments and programs. What a waste of the talent, skills and visions that so many of us have. I so mean this, personal considerations aside. So sad. If only taxpayers and all those private donors (you know, those trusting gray haired people whose names are on buildings) really understood how their fortunes are misspent.

  2. Melinda Duncan said

    Actually, do not assume that the kid question had anything whatsoever to do with discrimination or anyone questioning whether you are a serious scholar. The vast majority of our faculty (men and women) have kids and we know that for those who do, schools, university day care center, tuition benefits and the ilk are important in making a decision whether to take a job. However, someone without kids would not care. Since a good part of a faculty job interview is to convince the interviewee that they want the job, it is helpful for us to know whether the conversation should go into the “why this is a great area to raise kids” direction. That said, we also know that we can not ask directly so try to get the candidate to reveal some personal details (kids, do they have a spouse who would need to find a job), by talking about our kids/spouses so that we can figure out how to sell that part of our environment. All of that said, if the candidate does not want to mention this either way, then we just talk about available equipment for their research program at dinner.

    • badcoverversion said

      I would be more charitable in my interpretation if research (see: Mary Ann Mason’s summary of her research in Slate) didn’t bear out the opposite conclusion. The vast majority (70%) of men with tenure do have children; the significant majority (56%) of women with tenure do not. Additionally, women with children are seriously overrepresented in adjunct positions. It is an illegal question for a reason: because it has, historically and now, been used to exclude candidates–especially women–with children.

      As to the benefits such as schools and day care, the place that handled this best was the interview in Maine that I mentioned in my post: all of that stuff was addressed by the dean, who went over all the major benefits in all areas. Daycare and tuition remission were talked about in an equal way with health care and retirement plans. Other people mentioned the university’s policy that faculty meetings were always scheduled at 3 p.m. so that parents could pick up their kids by 5 at the university day care. The person who told me about the policy was single, without kids, and he sold it as a benefit to everyone–he personally appreciated the extra time for work on publications. So, it’s possible to talk about all these things in a way that “talks them up” but also makes no assumptions about the candidate.

  3. tallystick said

    I had a telephone interview once where I was asked by a professor “What is your health?” The professor was an immigrant to the United States and didn’t read the sheet from HR that all search committee members should receive. And read. I reacted with “Excellent” though I have thought of much better responses since. I didn’t get a campus visit and I am glad I didn’t.

  4. I feel bad adding a silly example to a not-silly list, but I can’t help but tell my personal favorite: a well-known professor at a very well-known institution once asked me during my campus visit if I’d be willing to have a sex change. (They were under pressure to hire more women.) She was joking…I think.

  5. celeveren said

    I’m a Classics professor – we’re trained to teach Greek and Latin language among other things, but since both languages are no longer spoken conversationally (outside the Vatican and for-funsies clubs), we are not trained to teach immersion style. An hour before my teaching demo, I was told two things. The class was on a different chapter than the one I’d prepared. And I was to “Teach how you normally teach, only avoid using English at all.”

    Fortunately and unbeknownst to the committee, I belonged to one of those geeky Latin-speaking-for-fun clubs and could indeed teach that way. I had read the chapters behind and ahead so I knew what the students had just learned and would learn next. I gave a pretty darn good demo – and the search committee sat in the back scowling at me. I would have been the third woman EVER hired as a professor at this college. I was not offered the job. I can’t help but think that I was being set up to fail, given that incident and the way they couldn’t seem to find anything to talk to me about other than the way their wives spent their time in the community at gardening clubs and whatnot. I decided by day two that I would not accept a job there ever, and turned off my ‘don’t scare them with your gender’ filter – I asked what the maternity leave policy was. They didn’t have one. They said it had never come up.

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