Technical Interview Ideating for the Business of Academia
For various reasons I find myself on the hiring side of technical interviews. This is not a customary position, as most of the hiring I've done has been in a role as a professor on a hiring committee. Academic hiring is its own idiosyncratic hellscape.
This new role had me thinking about how academic interviews function (or fail to function) as technical interviews for the business of academia.
For my own go-rounds in the academic hiring cycle, as a job candidate, I used to think that job talks and the like were piss poor ways of assessing candidates. I've come to see their value a bit more as I've gotten older. Certainly on the teaching side, having a job candidate do a mock class of the sort that they might regularly be called upon to teach has proven illuminating. More often than not, people who have experience and are good at it can show off pretty effectively. On the other hand, poor performances under such conditions can be misleading, as it may well be the case that a particular candidate has never been in, for example, a very large lecture class, but would be an amazing teacher in that medium if given a semester to get their lecturing legs under them. I certainly didn't have a lot of experience with big lecture classes early on, but a semester of teaching a big lecture class can work wonders. So while the exercise is useful in seeing who is comfortable and effective off the bat in that forum, it still strikes me as a bit unfair if misinterpreted. And, of course, old crusty faculty have a tendency to misinterpret, saying all matter of nonsense (as I realized later, sitting on the other side of the process) about how a poor performance in that mock lecture meant that such and such candidate couldn't do the kind of teaching necessary.
The case with academic lectures (so-called job talks) and their associated rituals (Q&A and varieties of interrogation or collegial deep discussion) is a bit different. In theory this is what graduate programs train you for, conducting and presenting your research in an academic forum. People's mastery of their content shows pretty clearly, both in the way they present and in the way they answer questions. That said, it's still a hazing ritual of sorts. I've done some shorter job talks, where the emphasis was on conversation, or where a hiring committee reads a bit of your work first and then the talk was a kind of bonus. These have all worked well, as they imitate in various ways the conferencing and lecturing world of professional academia.
But the more I thought of all this I wondered at how the kinds of things that academic job processes tend to focus on — mostly research and teaching — are ignoring the real technical pain points of higher ed. I am speaking of course of the ultimate academic pain point: having to work in the fucking academy.
It's not just so-called “service” or the idiosyncrasies of your “colleagues” (potentially lifelong); it's also the various rules and regulations and institutionalizations that make life miserable. It's the less fantastic parts of teaching, the daily grind of all of that. Academic job processes, against the kinds of questions that are de rigueur for technical interviews in some other fields, feel like they are rituals of academic idealism, attempts through sympathetic magic to convince ourselves that the business of professoring is other than it really is.
One quick example: I rarely heard, either as a candidate or on a hiring committee, behavioral interview questions. The few times I did hear them, it was because I asked them. Over time it became my signature kind of question to ask, the “tell me about a time when...” kind of question. I thought for a while about why that was, both about why I found that kind of question compelling and why it was not something I often heard from others. That I asked such questions become one minor indicator of my being a bit out of step with the world I was in. On the one hand, most hiring committees aren't really trained or versed in the business of hiring. That's a stain upon universities that they can't help define best practices and employ HR or other professionals to make searches better. It's no wonder that academics fall back to a kind of idealized notion of the life of the professor as researcher and teacher and employ crude tribalism and various kinds of snap judgements about personality and qualifications in order to make decisions via committee. (I should be clear here — I am not saying that other hiring processes are fantastic. However, it is fair to say that most corporate hiring, however problematic in various ways, has a more intentional thinking around the business of hiring.)
What would it be like if academic hiring had technical interviews that were really about the business of professoring? Sure, a research talk and a swing through a classroom could be part of that, but I think there might need to be some other parts too, a technical exam on the finer points of higher educator-ing:
- Say No to the Narcissists: This would be an exercise at a dinner party, or possibly for in between any other events — corridors, chance meetings, etc. — where you have to navigate an obstacle course of other academics, some meaning you well and others not so much. You must say 'NO' firmly but politely to the academic narcissists who are only trying to get you do their work for them, whether that be bits of research or some sort of service obligation where they want you to “partner” with them (but you're the only one who doesn't know that that means you'll be doing all the work for it.) You have to find the few allies who actually mean what they say about working with you collaboratively, if such people are even there in the room (no guarantee!). Bonus points for how deftly you shoot down the narcissist and protect your time without them thinking negatively of you so that they'll screw you over on your next merit review.
- 1000 Emails: Plain and simple one here. Just an hour in my inbox. Have fun. See how many useless adminstrative emails you get through before you feel IQ points slipping from your grasp. Respond to the student emails without being an a@#hole and without losing your mind (“Dear [student], Thank you for telling me about your impending absence from class. Unfortunately, the “required” cruise with your family, while sure to be fun and a much deserved break these 4 weeks in to the term, does not constitute an “excused absence” under the class absence policy. As to your request that I send you the class notes...“)
- Administrative Endurance Challenge: A 24 hour technical challenge which simulates what it is like to get a new class approved. Fill out all necessary paperwork, send to committees for pointless feedback, make changes and wait on more pointless feedback by faculty member with ax to grind about some issue that he dealt with 20 years ago with some other member of your department who is his mortal enemy... and so forth.... Then wait. And wait. And wait. At last moment, throw in an administrative snafu generated by some deanlet who last taught in 1975 but is convinced (fucking convinced) that they know a thing or two about teaching and how to structure a proper essay assignment. This exercise requires a locked room and a clock so that you can feel the hours of your life tick away. Needless to say, the room should be emptied of all heavy or loose, throwable objects before beginning.
- Inappropriate Tolerance: The field's wide open on your creativity here. My favorite is to send job candidates to some elevated faculty member or even administrators house where said house has been decorated, floor to ceiling, with art that shows something obviously inappropriate to sane people. (e.g. genitalia, like loads and loads of male members. Just.... everywhere. On 14 foot high ceilings.) and then
- Beg for money: Nothing fancy. Just set them loose on campus and make them beg for money. If you can scrape together at least $500 then you can put on a conference. Can be combined with the Narcissist challenge by allowing one of the narcissists to define the topic of the conference at the last minute.
- Travel budget: This is an advanced mathematics challenge. Try to figure out how to get to a conference, vital to your professional career, on your allotted yearly travel funds of $300. Bonus points to those who choose non-traditional accommodations or forego eating or paying for their children's clothing. (In that case, it's a bit of a wash, as points have already been deducted by at least that portion of committee members who find the idea of procreation offensive among the professorate. They will, in any case, make sure to schedule you to teach at 6 PM in order to punish you.)
- Faculty meeting: Simple exercise really. See if a candidate can make it to the end of the meeting with minimal visible sign of having been traumatized by what they've heard. Bonus points for being able to restrain themselves form pointing out how much of what was just said violates multiple laws or is just generally wrong-headed and absurd. If the candidate manages to do all that while contributing in any way, all the while not pissing off the old crusty folks for having the gall to speak up and express any sort of view and dexterously avoiding aligning with the wrong faction, then that's the person to hire.
Surely there are more.
And, yes, all of the above are, in one way or another, based on things that actually happened. Usually more than once.