Questions They Might Ask You

This post by Katherine Ellison and Cheryl Ball originally appeared on their Get a Job! blog and was previously published by Inside Higher Ed.

The questions you’re asked at a preliminary interview (phone, Skype, at Modern Language Association meeting, etc.) will depend on the job description, sometimes on your rank (e.g., whether you’re entry-level or advanced), and whether the institution is research-intensive or teaching-intensive. Below are a few of the sample questions we’ve received, heard, or asked over the years for tenure-track jobs at four-year teaching and research institutions.

Research Questions:

Most research questions will be rather detailed and direct; looking back on our own experiences, most of those specific questions fell under one of four categories: to explain, to expand, to apply, or to translate. The general questions, below, are good places to start practicing. You should have thoughtful answers for each of them, ranging from 30 seconds to two minutes in length depending upon the scope of the question.

  • Tell us about your research/dissertation/book project. (For this one you can have a two-minute “spiel” prepared!)
  • Are you familiar with theorist X? How would you apply his/her work to your project?
  • How do you define X hotly contested term in your field? (e.g., “digital humanities,” “new media,” etc.)
  • What are you working on next? or, What is your research agenda? or, Walk us through the next five years in your research.
  • Where do you plan to publish your (first/next) book?
  • What’s important about your research?
  • How does your work contribute to the field?
  • How will you bring your research into your teaching?
  • Tell us about your grant experience; or, How will you bring your grant experience to bear at our school?

Most of the research questions we have received were too specific to our individual work to be helpful here, but they are often related to the writing samples we have used. So, be sure to look back at the writing sample you sent that department (and remember if you sent different samples to different departments) because committees will usually ask you specific questions about that paper or dissertation chapter.

Search committees may quote lines from your writing sample and ask you to elaborate, explain, etc., in a particular direction. Sometimes this feels like an interviewer is trying to trip you up (e.g., tell us why you didn’t use X theorist in your work), but that’s not usually the case. Most often the search committee just wants to get to know you and your work better; you should treat these questions as conversations, not as grillings. Relax. You got this.

Teaching Questions:

You won’t always receive teaching questions, especially at universities that consider themselves research-intensive. (We’re not using the Carnegie designations here, as those have changed in the last few years. We just mean that some institutions value research as their first, and sometimes only, priority.) Those universities may not ask you any teaching questions, and so you should also consider how you feel about that absence in relation to your own academic identity and job-search needs.

  • How would you teach an introductory course in your field?
  • How do you get students excited about learning _______? (18th-century literature, for example, or composition, or linguistic semantics, etc.?)
  • How would you teach a survey course that also includes the century before or after the one you work in? (for literature applicants)
  • How would you teach the history of composition course for our graduate students? (for writing studies applicants)
  • How would you teach a senior seminar/capstone in the major?
  • How would you teach the introduction to the major?
  • What courses do we offer that most interest you?
  • How would you teach X kind of student (continuing learners, first-generation college students, speakers of languages other than English, engineering/computer science/etc. students, differently abled students, etc.)?
  • (for literature candidates) No matter what your field, be prepared for: How would you teach Shakespeare, if you were asked to? (or the other big-names courses that draw large enrollments, like Milton, Chaucer, Faulkner, Eliot, etc.) A similar question we have begun hearing more recently for literature applicants during these past two years is: Could you teach our classics course?
  • We have a 4-4 teaching load with one possible course release a year: how will you adjust to this?
  • If you could teach anything you wanted, what would it be?
  • What courses do you not see in our curriculum that you would be interested in adding?
  • What online teaching experience have you had?
  • Do you use electronic resources or tools in your teaching and, if so, how?
  • How do you implement your teaching philosophy in X kind of class?

Other Kinds of Questions:

Other questions often accompany the standard teaching or research questions. If you’re applying specifically to an administrative position (e.g., writing program administrator, lab/project director, writing center director, WAC director, etc.), it’s likely that half the preliminary interview questions will relate directly to that position. Other questions may align with the service aspect of the position.

  • What do you think “service” means or entails?
  • What has been your most fulfilling service role?
  • What leadership role would you take on in our department?
  • How would you recruit students to X new program?
  • Are you interested in administering X new program?
  • What do you know about our university?
  • Why do you think you would be a good fit in our department?
  • Have you heard about our program/certificate/center on ______? Do you see yourself contributing to that?
  • And at the end they always ask, Do you have any questions for us? (Do have some.)

Finally, for some reason, phone and Skype interviews often engender questions that otherwise seem odd, such as ones we have heard in years past including “If you were offered this position, is there any reason why you couldn’t take the job?” and “Tell us something about yourself that wasn’t in your job materials.” Don’t let these questions throw you off. They’re often standard questions that the school’s human resources office requires them to ask of all candidates. They’re not fishing for secrets, just covering their bases.

TOP TEN TIPS For Those Attending the MLA Convention

By Stacey Donohue (@bendprof) (with a little Facebook crowdsourcing)

10. Wear weather-appropriate comfortable shoes and clothes.  Until recently, I saved funds by staying at a hotel far from the convention center, which allowed me to see more of the city, but also required up to a mile walk, usually in the dark. This worked fine in San Diego, but not so much in Philadelphia the year it was 17 degrees and snowing.  But even if you stay nearby, you’ll still need to walk between the hotel and the Convention Center: do so in comfort.

9. Related to the above:  there is a reason why everyone wears black at the convention, even when the convention is held in sunny southern California.  Black doesn’t show stains, and can be worn several times, saving you from over-packing.  Women can pack a few scarves to brighten up the black, and men can bring a few bright shirts (though a certain MLA member is now infamous for the brightly colored shirt he wore in 2011). Hotel conference rooms can be either too cold or too hot, so layer, layer, layer.

8. If you have little patience with sessions where the presentations aren’t exactly what you expected, don’t suffer in silence. Sit by the door so you can quietly sneak out (ideally between speakers) and go to the other session on your schedule.

7. Related to the above: although it’s tempting, don’t pack your schedule with back to back sessions from morning till cocktails. Go through the program beforehand (and don’t forget to download it to your computer or phone so you do not have to lug it around).  Try to select sessions that are a mix of topic areas: those you want to learn more about, and those directly related in some way to what you are working on or teaching currently. With the former, you might learn some new ideas; with the latter, you might leave the convention with something practical that you can take home immediately.  But don’t try to cram in too many sessions: build in breaks, for meals, for a walk around the convention center, for chatting with old or new friends.

6.  If possible, make a few social plans before you arrive at the convention: coffee with a friend from graduate school, a former colleague, or someone you met on Twitter. Not on Twitter? Get thee an account and follow the hashtag #mla13.  There you’ll find out when the next Tweetup is, or, if you’re so inclined, the MLA Fun Run.  And while we are on food and drink: the line for any Starbucks near the convention center and main hotels will be huge. Chat with the person next to you who, mostly likely, will also be going to the convention (they will be in black with a new tablet case or a ratty leather shoulder bag).  Since the lines are everywhere at lunch time, too, consider stocking up on water and food in your hotel room, and carrying snacks with you to eat between sessions.

5. Bring business cards, a smile, and your inner extravert.  The odds are good that you’ll attend a few sessions by folks whose ideas you’d like to hear more about. Chat with such presenters afterwards, and ask if you can contact them via email for more information, or better yet, look for them at one of the wine receptions offered by the MLA (after the president’s keynote and after the awards ceremony).  Always wanted to get involved in an MLA Committee or Discussion Group? Attend one of their sessions, introduce yourself to the moderator and tell him or her that you’re interested in being involved. Once you are involved, of course, you won’t need any of these tips at MLA 2014 in Chicago.

4. Do not forget to visit the Exhibit Hall. Most late afternoons, particularly on Friday of the convention, complimentary wine is poured by various book publishers. And Sunday morning is a good time to stock up on books that publishers are practically giving away so they don’t have to ship them back home (however, you will, so consider that when you pack). This year, MLA Commons will be showcased each day the book exhibit is open, with cake to celebrate the unveiling at 3:30pm on Saturday.

3.  While the sessions, the book exhibit, and the wine receptions are all fabulous, don’t forget that you probably traveled to a city you may not be familiar with.  As one of my colleagues wrote on Facebook, when you’re 70 you won’t remember the 5th session you sat through in a row, but you will remember a visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts or taking the tour of Fenway Park (the MLA, alas, isn’t during baseball season).

2.  Another colleague wrote: “I’d advise against being the drunk person who picks up ______ (fill in the blank: graduate students, former colleagues, dissertation committee members, an ex).  However, if you like to people watch, sit in the hotel lobby around midnight . . .

1. Finally, as my mother used to say (or was it John Berryman?), to say you are bored means you have no inner resources. If you are bored at the Convention, please send me a tweet @bendprof or an e-mail: I hear there is a dance on Friday night after the president’s keynote that you might enjoy. Blue suede shoes are optional.

Boston Restaurant Recommendations

Recommendations for restaurants near the convention hotels from MLA Program Committee member Anjali Prabhu:

For those coming with kids in particular (best organic burgers in town)
http://boston.menupages.com/restaurants/bgood-5/

For those who can’t do without P.F. Chang’s, there’s one close by at the Prudential
http://www.pfchangs.com/Locations/LocationDetail.aspx?sid=9834&checked=1

All-time favorite
http://www.shabuzen.com/

Never go wrong at
http://www.elephantwalk.com/

And there are two Legal Seafoods for fans
http://boston.menupages.com/restaurants/legal-sea-foods-5/
http://boston.menupages.com/restaurants/legal-sea-foods-4/ (Prudential)

Closest Ethiopian
http://www.addisredsea.com/ (Tremont)

Sushi
http://douzosushi.com/ (Dartmouth)

Worth going to Lê’s for Pho
http://lescambridge.com/

French
http://www.troquetboston.com/about.html

Love this place
http://bistrodumidi.com/#/home/

Middle Eastern, straightforward good food
http://www.cafejaffa.net/

Have your own favorites in Boston? Leave a comment with your recommendations!

MLA Interview: The Big Picture

This piece by Cheryl Ball and Katherine Ellison originally appeared on their Get a Job! blog and was previously published by Inside Higher Ed

Here’s a typical Modern Language Association (hotel-room) convention interview story:

Because you have timed your interviews at least half an hour apart (but an hour is better), you arrive at the next interview hotel with a good 10-15 minutes to spare (i.e., not sweaty). You enter the hotel lobby and there are 200 other suited individuals looking just as nervous as you feel. You, however, appear calm and cool because you’ve done your homework on the college you are about to interview with, know that your outfit is clean, have your dissertation explanation down to two minutes, and have at least two questions ready to ask the committee. You also have on hand extra copies of syllabuses, research agendas, and teaching philosophies in case the committee will welcome additional materials at the end of the interview. Plus, you remembered to double-check the hotel and time of the interview, so you’re set. Feel free to make small talk with other lobby-sitters. Or go to the restroom.

At five minutes before your interview time (no more, no less!), if the interviewers have told you to call them to find out the room number, go to the nearest house phone and ask for the person designated as contact for the room. Ideally, they will have given you the room number in a confirmation email. If the lobby phones are swamped, most hotels have house phones on the second floors, and some have phones on all floors. Go ahead up the stairs to the second floor and call. Write the room number down, then proceed to the elevator to go to the floor. Make sure you have left yourself plenty of time to wait for a busy elevator, as MLA elevators are infamously slow. At some hotels, you will also literally fight for space in the elevator along with 20 other nervous interviewees. You, however, are not showing your nerves because you know what to expect!

When you reach the door of the interview room, check the time. If you’re early by a few minutes, it’s best to wait until one to two minutes before the hour, then knock. The reason? They may be running late interviewing another candidate, and you wouldn’t want some other interviewee interrupting YOUR precious interview time twice – remember that there was already the in-room phone call — by knocking too early. But don’t linger. Review your interview notes about the college, which you’ve looked up online and printed out or downloaded to your e-device before you left town. Have your post-interview questions ready. And remember it’s likely that when that door opens, it may be to let out another interviewee for the same (or, also likely, a different) job. Don’t stress it. You look mah-velous!

When they’re ready, they’ll invite you inside, maybe take your coat to hang (yes, please), maybe offer you coffee/water (sure, if you don’t have some of your own with you, but it’s also O.K. to decline), shake your hand with brief introductions, and invite you to sit.

At this point, there are rumors of MLA hotel-room interviews that need to be addressed. It is the setting that distinguishes MLA hotel-room interviews from MLA job barn, phone, or Skype interviews. Each have their benefits and drawbacks, and one major drawback in hotel-room interviews is that you’re in a hotel room. This can be awkward, not the least of which because the size of the department’s budget often determines the size of the room you’re interviewing in. And it has been said that sometimes candidates end up sitting on hotel beds during their interviews. Awk. Ward. Thankfully, we’ve heard of this happening less and less over the last decade, as departments strive to show their professionalism.

But there are still pitfalls of the hotel-room interview seating arrangement, including being seated in a prime, cushy chair that overlooks the beautiful view from the 14th-floor suite, only to realize that the committee is sitting in front of the window and you’re staring into the noonday sun and can only see their silhouettes. Or there’s a lamp in the line of sight to someone’s head. Or the graduate student on the committee was asked to sit slightly behind you. We’ve experienced/heard all of these scenarios, unfortunately. Do not hesitate to put yourself into a position of strength in the interview by adjusting your seating position, slightly (!) moving the chair, or asking for the curtains to be partially closed (and explain that the sun is in your eyes). Then the interview will commence, and you’ll be feeling more confident from the start.

Although it’s O.K. in some fields to have notes, sometimes they prove more cumbersome than they’re worth and you probably won’t have time to refer to them. Know what you’re going to say before you go in. There are some set questions (which we’ll discuss in a subsequent essay) you’ll receive at every interview. Know your answers by heart and have them practiced, but deliver them with ease. You know your stuff! At the end of the 20-40 minute interview, they’ll ask if you have questions.

It’s likely you won’t be able to take notes then, unless you’re really good at listening intently while writing. Make eye contact instead and you’ll better remember what they said. If one of them has stopped to answer the phone, pause and keep going. After they have answered your questions, you can make the decision about whether you would like to offer to leave copies of syllabuses or other materials you have brought with you to wow them during their final deliberations (that were not in your mailed application packet). Often, a committee will have asked you a question – such as how you would teach a grad course on Y – and you happen to have a syllabus for just that. Perhaps you were even quick enough to reveal your brilliant syllabus at the moment of that question. If not, you can wait until the end. Do ensure that the syllabuses, assignment prompts, or other materials are directly relevant for that institution. They will be impressed if you created a syllabus for one of their catalog courses that they would potentially like you to teach.

When the interview finishes (and don’t just ask questions to ask questions — two or three is plenty, unless you feel the situation warrants more), they will thank you and you will thank them. Shake everyone’s hand, if it’s appropriate, and leave. Do not elbow the next person waiting for an interview. You are better than that.

Go down the hall to the elevator (out of eye- and ear-shot), or go to the hotel lobby/bar and jot down your reactions to the interview (both personal and professional) as well as any particular questions they asked you about classes or research so that you can follow up when you get asked back for an on-campus interview. If they asked how you can teach X class and you did not have a syllabus with you, remember to create one and take it with you to the on-campus interview. Also jot down your gut reactions to the interview. Was it invigorating? Bristly? Fun? Did you sense tension of some kind? Remember that these are the people you may end up working with, and these informal notes will go a long way toward helping you decide the institutions from which you want to accept or politely decline on-campus interviews (if you’re in the position to turn down interviews — and as rock stars, I expect you might be!).

Make sure to use the restroom, drink water, and eat something, and then head out to your next interview. Remember that it’s two miles away and you have scheduled 30-45 minutes to get there. Walk quickly or taxi it. Then repeat.

One Newcomer’s Convention Experience

Until I attended my first MLA convention in 2012, I always imagined that it would be a stressful, competitive, and overwhelming experience. Instead, I found it to be collegial and stimulating, and I’m happy to be participating more deeply in MLA 2013.

Admittedly, my first-time experience was probably atypical. I wasn’t interviewing for a coveted faculty position–not because I already had one, but because I was working at a grantmaking organization in New York City and had no intentions of pursuing a position in the professoriate. What may come as more of a surprise is that I wasn’t even presenting. I had missed the deadline to submit a proposal, and simply wanted a chance to dive back into the humanities after three years immersed in an organization that focused on science and technology. My employer was willing to cover part of the convention expenses as part of their training and development package, so I headed to Seattle with the hope that I’d be able to make the most of my time there.

I happily found that the convention exceeded my expectations. While the lack of interview or presentation pressure certainly ensured that the convention would be far less stressful for me than I had pictured it as a grad student, my enjoyment of it stemmed from something else: engagement. I had been quietly blogging in the months leading up to the convention, and I had also been using Twitter to follow a number of insightful and thought-provoking people. I slowly shifted from lurking and listening to participating in conversations about higher education and alternative academic careers, and by the time January rolled around, there were many people that I looked forward to meeting in person.

My positive experience won’t surprise anyone who has found social media to be a valuable professional tool. Indeed, many others have written about the ways that Twitter helps to make such a large gathering feel smaller and more meaningful. During the sessions, I participated in backchannel conversations that led to deeper and more extensive discussions long after the meeting’s end. I’m quite introverted and have never felt particularly comfortable chatting up strangers at conventions, so the ongoing virtual interactions eased me into networking in a way that I had never really experienced before.

This year, I’m happy to be returning to the convention with a much clearer sense of what to expect. In addition to the many panels I hope to attend, I’ll also be presenting at two sessions (one on photography and elegy, and another on graduate education reform). There are people I look forward to seeing again, others I hope to meet, and many more that I don’t know but may encounter in unanticipated and meaningful ways. By focusing on a few sessions, engaging in virtual and face-to-face conversations about them, and keeping some flexibility to allow for the unexpected, I hope that this year’s convention will be an even richer experience than the last.

What’s Going on in the MLA Exhibit Hall?

Going to the convention? The exhibit hall in the Hynes Convention Center (Hall D, level 2) will be open from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Sunday. Pick up an exhibitor map or visit the MLA Web site for a complete list of exhibitors.

This year the exhibit hall will feature an Exhibit Hall Theater, where exhibiting companies will conduct presentations, feature publisher highlights, and offer product demonstrations during exhibit hall hours. For updated details, check the Exhibit Hall Theater schedule or the Convention Daily, which is distributed on-site and available online.

Visit the MLA booth (406) to catch up on the latest MLA publications and services, to meet with MLA staff members, or just to take a breather and sit in a comfy chair. All MLA titles will be available to order at a 25% discount off the list price with free shipping; display books will be sold cash-and-carry at a 50% discount on the final day of the convention (Sunday, 6 January).

A reception celebrating new MLA titles will be held on Friday, 4 January, at 3:30 p.m. Please join us for wine and cheese and visit with the authors of our latest titles.

A second reception will be held in the booth on Saturday, 5 January, at 3:30 p.m., to celebrate the debut of MLA Commons as well as the ninetieth anniversary of the MLA International Bibliography. Please join us for cake as we celebrate an MLA classic and a new venture.

Check the Convention Daily for updates on receptions and events that will be taking place at various exhibit booths throughout the hall—and remember to wear your badge!