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.