Saturday, February 10, 2007

The week that wouldn't end

Normally weekends don't make much of a difference in my life, nor have they for a long time. I frequently work half- or full days on Saturdays and Sundays, either at home or at the office, and my weekly schedule is open enough that if I'm totally overwhelmed, I can take some me-time midweek. It's one of the reasons I love my job.

But all I could think this week was "My god, is it Friday yet?"

I'm not sure what it was, but this week seemed to last forever. Part of it -- or much of it, I guess -- was simply the intersection of a variety of tasks and concerns. We're hiring two new people for next year, a postcolonialist and a Shakespearean, and we saw candidates for both; as I'm on the search comittee for the former, monday and tuesday were taken up with the interview and squiring the candidate around campus to her various meetings. We had a department meeting on Wednesday (always fun), a candidate for the renaissance job thursday and friday, and we hosted a poetry reading last night -- which, being on the Pratt Comittee, I was partially responsible for organizing this week.

Oh, and there was that teaching thing I do as well. On tap for this week was Alfred, Lord Tennyson in my second-year class, and The Human Stain by Philip Roth, the film Dark City and some apparently blood-pressure raising writings by erstwhile neocon Francis Fukuyama. Good times.

And marking essays ... though I did not get as much to to attend to that as I would have liked, as my second-years can attest. Monday, guys, I promise!

All in all, not exceptionally mind-blowing ... I hear my computer network-guy brother tell of his not infrequent 36-hour (or more) marathons getting a new network up and running, or of the all-nighters he pulls when a network goes down somewhere, and it makes me feel positively lazy. I think part of my problem this week was just frustration with the glacial progress of my own research. Considering that I come up for a formal interim tenure review in September, I'm getting a bit anxious about getting some writing out there. I have three articles on the go, two relatively close to completion and a third a little more of a ways off, but what they all need is a few days of focused attention. Would that I were that enviously hated species of academic who can devote the odd half-hour of free time that surfaces in a day to productive writing. But no ... I'm one of those who requires a certain amount of momentum, and that first half-hour is usually taken up in necessary screen-staring.

However, as Danine pointed out to me yesterday in a much-appreciated reality check, I'm actually in pretty good shape for the review, and when it gets down to it I can use the summer to devote uninterrupted time to the articles. (Given that the ideal plan however is to finally perform major surgery on my thesis this summer -- a task I look forward to as much as I would to, well, major surgery -- I'd really rather have them out of the way).

OK, enough of me whining about my week. Given the administrative circus I've been engaged in this week, I would like to provide my non-academic readers with one occasional glimpses into the machinery of academia offered here on this humble blog. The topic du jour: the academic job interview.

I bring this up in part because of course I'm involved this year for the first time in the hiring process, but also because of a question raised by a student. I had let my second-years go a little early on Monday because I was heading directly from class to the two-hour interview with this week's candidate. One of my students commented, as we walked from class, "A two-hour interview? Wow, that's pretty intense." To which I responded: "That's just a fraction of the interview, actually."

You see, not satisfied with the various fiery hoops through which we have to jump over the course of a graduate degree -- comprehensive exams, ball-breaking scholarship applications, the thesis, the thesis defense -- universities impose a particular species of hell on prospective faculty members in the form of the day-and-a-half interview. First of all, there's the process of application, in which you send your CV, letters of reference, teaching dossier, and writing sample (the assembling of which represents a week of work in and of itself), which the search committee pores over with excruciating minuteness.

(Seriously -- I was quite amazed at the level of detail with which we examined the applications. When the cut comes down to a handful of comparably impressive candidates, any mistake or inconsistency can sink an applicant. It made me somewhat incredulous that I ever made it to the interview stage).

Some universities then perform a series of phone interviews with a long list, and on the basis of that narrow it down. Mercifully, we skipped that step.

Then, if you're called in for an interview, you fly out to wherever the university is (we had two candidates come in from the prairies, which made for a lot of travel time), and you a subjected to a series of meetings with a variety of administrative types -- the Dean of Arts, Dean of Graduate Studies, Vice-President Academic, Faculty Relations, Faculty Union, and of course the Head of the Department -- all of whom ask you questions that are variations on the same theme: namely, Why Should We Hire You?

You also deliver a half-hour or so lecture to the department to demonstrate your research chops, followed by a half-hour question period. And then of course is the interview with the search committee, which here lasts two hours.

Also on the roster: an open lunch to which all members of the department and graduate students are invited, and dinner with a three or four faculty members. And if there is one thing drummed into you -- if you come from a university nice enough to train its graduate students in how to interview well -- it's that there is no time during this process when you are not being interviewed. So in other words, limit yourself to one glass of wine with dinner, and keep your game face on. More than a few promising candidates have sunk their chances by saying something off-colour after one glass of wine too many.

The basic idea behind all this is partially to test the candidate's stamina. This is an exhausting process, even if you're gregarious and like to talk about yourself (as I do). I can't even begin to imagine the seven types of hell endured by people who are shy. At MUN, we're actually comparatively humane -- spreading it out over a day and a half gives the candidates a breather here and there, and our faculty is generally very friendly and courteous. Some universities however make a point of cramming it all into one endless day ... starting at 8am, leaving no time between meetings, and basically trying to run the candidate off his or her feet. Also, some people, even if they're otherwise very nice, will be difficult or even hostile in the job talk question period, or the interview -- principally to see if they can rattle the candidate, to get him or her to drop their guard.

Yes, we're all really rather mad here.


Lesley said...

Wow, and I thought graded performance type interviews (like the one I had to go through for my current job in which they grade you on your response and that total is what gets you the job) that also include a test were difficult. Now I know why I never wanted to be a professor. The thesis might have had something to do with it as well...

Rebecca said...

Now I understand why you were ready to drop on Friday afternoon! And I thought my week was bad!

Sheena said...

My friends overheard academic types talking about Shakespeare to excess, with a bit of Serenity, at the Govenor's Pub. Was that you?

Anonymous said...

Just curious, in your opinion, how much of the interview process is really about one's level of social skills? How much does charm, wit and friendliness count at the end of the day? I mean if you have the interview, you have satisfied the minimum requirements, right?

Chris in NF said...

Sheena: if it was early friday evening, maybe ... there certainly was some shakespeare talk, and some Firefly/Serenity talk as well.

Anonymous: charm, wit and friendliness certainly count -- as they do anywhere -- but not as much as coming off as professional and in command of your area of expertise. You could be the most urbane and charming person imaginable, but if you can't answer questions about your research or teaching in a satisfactory manner, then you're not getting the job. Keep in mind, there's a certain sub-species of professor more or less immune to charm.