Monday, December 10, 2007

MLA Convention 2007 in Chicago: If You're Going for a Job Interview

Recently I was asked to give some job interview advice to some of my old fellow graduate students at Tulane. Since I had eight job interviews last year and now am on a tenure-track Assistant Professor job, I feel a little confident that I'm not giving terribly bad advice. Here are some edited sections of the email that I sent in response to some questions I was asked.

Since I teach Spanish, the questions were about my teaching methods in language classes. Most people wanted to know how I would teach Spanish 101.

I told them that I used a communicative approach (and I explained how I knew what that meant; I wasn't just spouting jargon) making use of several different kinds of activities to improve their skills.

As a sample class, I would do "los tabúes" for vocabulary; take a list with the word the students have to get their team to say, and then a list of 3-4 words that are taboo. Then divide the class in two teams, have two people come forward, and let them have at it. For example, if the word were "manzana" then the taboo words would be "fruta, roja, redonda." They can use any words, but those three. It really challenges them to use their language skills, to use circumlocution to describe something. The students ALWAYS love this kind of activity.

Then for a grammar component, I chose the present perfect: I would do a basic explanation on the chalkboard 2-3 mins, and then have an overhead transparency with an exercise and model. I then would put them in small groups and have them practice the model. Then I would make sure to use some of the exercises from the textbook.

It's important to incorporate the textbook a school uses into your sample class. Show them that you can effectively use the tools that they have selected to use on their students. Do not ever criticize the book or talk about the one you use where you've taught (unless they ask). To reiterate, I'd make sure to avoid buzzwords about teaching style other than telling them that you use a communicative approach that uses different kinds of activities (each class) to improve and test students knowledge of the language.

Most importantly though, be yourself (I'm going to say that a lot in this post; I'm not being redudant). If you're at the MLA Convention, as I was in Philadelphia, just relax. They cannot cook you and eat you. They do have some control over your destiny, but they're wanting to know what kind of person they might be hiring as their future colleague and friend (hopefully). Be yourself, your mature self. If you think of something funny to say in response to a question or comment, have at it. They'll know how you really are, and you'll know if they're sticks in the mud or not. You are shopping too, though it might not feel like it when you're unemployed and rushing to finish the dissertation. I found this article to be very useful in helping me understand MLA interviewing:

As much as you'd like to know, don't ask about salary at the MLA or on the phone (unless they bring it up). You can ask about professional development funds, faculty resources (library, travel funds, campus services), but don't ask about anything that would involve salary or benefits (anything that involves taxes and IRS forms). If you get the on-campus invite, that's when you'll get the benefits information.

If you get the on-campus interview, especially if you're going to a small liberal arts school, they're going to want you to teach a class. The bigger research schools are going to want a job talk, in which case, I would ask for the specific advice of your dissertation director about your talk.

If you're going to teach a sample class, relax. At the places I interviewed at first, I was all stiff and tried to be perfect. The students won't know you and might not react well to you. Don't get discouraged, just be yourself; a good teacher knows how to adapt a lesson when the plans don't work out. Don't be afraid to scrap an activity if it's not working. It shows just how adroit you are as a professor if you can change things on the fly. Also, don't overly prepare more than you would normally do. Everyone knows when someone is going over the top. It's like when people put trouffles on the food on Iron Chef; everyone knows this isn't normal.

I'd also contact them and ask them for a sample lesson plan or suggestions about quantity, "so you can get a feel for how much material the students normally review in each class." I had three on campus interviews, and taught 3 classes. The first one was a disaster because I expected the students to be of the same caliber as Tulane; this was not the case and I didn't adjust well because I got frustrated--you should expect it. The second one went well, but they chose one of my good friends over me (I can live with that); the third place was here at Coker, and I was just myself. When they asked me to name "your biggest weakness" (I hate that kind of question), I was just myself and said, "Pride." When they asked for clarification, I said, "it's pride because my biggest weakness is that I don't think I have any weaknesses, after nine years of university level teaching and over 30 classes, that merit mentioning in a job interview. I am an excellent teacher." Later, a colleague told me that that comment let them know that I was being myself, that I wasn't fake, and that what-they-saw-was-what-they-were-getting.

You hear people say it when you're looking for a job, but it never really registered with me until I quit caring IF I got the job. I wasn't apathetic--No. I just quit worrying about finding employment, because I knew that I was good, and that a job was an eventuality. If not this job, then some other one would have come my way. Research all the places you apply to, so that when they call, you're ready. For example, I was surprised to learn in my job interview that the Citadel requires all faculty to wear a uniform and go by the title "Captain." Had I known this beforehand, I wouldn't have applied--wearing a uniform is anathema to my personal style and comfort. I had no qualms about working for a military school, but the uniform requirement would've changed my application plans. I looked surprised in the interview, and they could immediately tell that I didn't know. In essence we wasted each others time, so it's best to avoid the awkwardness created by being surprised in an interview. Of course, of all the interviews I had, I enjoyed the Citadel's the most; the three professors were exactly the kind of colleagues I had always hoped for, and ultimately found at Coker.

Personally, I think the MLA is a waste of money for graduate students. If you have your dissertation defended, it's a different story. But, for ABDs, I prefer phone interviews. The costs of attending the Convention are very high, and it's in the absolutely worst week of the year (between Christmas and New Year) if you have children. I only had three interviews at MLA, and it cost me well over $1k. I seriously wonder how many convention attendees ultimately wind up with jobs they got from interviews at the convention. I would like to see the data. I did attend several panels, but it wasn't worth the money. Go to MLA when you're hired and have travel and personal development funds.

Also, remember that money isn't the most important thing. I had a major research university stringing me along about a Visiting Professor job offer that would've paid a king's ransom for a 2 class per semester/no committee work position. I chose the lower-paying job because I was treated me with respect (they actually cheered on the phone when I told them I was coming to Coker!).

My wife summed it up best when we were debating our decision: "Mac, go where they want you. Not where you hope they want you." We didn't go into teaching for the money; go where you'll be happy.

Shameless plug: If you found this post helpful/useful, please consider doing a search (for anything) in the google box to the right (be sure to click on a couple of links from the search) so I can earn some ad money to pay off my student loans. Good luck.


JC said...

1. Regarding Iron can use Truffles, and not be over the top, when the secret ingredient is Mushrooms! I think that was the first Iron Chef I watched. That Mario dude sure likes his truffles.

2. When did you grow a beard? I had a goate all summer.

Cindy said...

Seriously good advice, Mac!!

chattypatra said...

Speaking of truffles, the word is always associated with chocolate in my mind. There's a place called Magritte at the largest mall in San Juan, and you could actually see the chocolatiers making them. My favorite was the dark chocolate with raspberry filling. YUM. You can see how sophisticated I am!

Ben and Carolyn said...

I googled your monkey's uncle, puppies, chocolate and something else. :)

Daniel Lopes said...

Hi, Mac, how do you do? I came here through Idelber, cuz I saw your comment about the best book you read this year (Will Self's "The book of Dave").

Well, as Idelber told in his post, I'll make soon a post with the best of 07 books of some blogers, journalists and writers. Would you like to participate?

What about you reducting that comment about Self to some two paragraphs and send to me publish?

my e-mail:
the blog: