ParagraphCity is filled with predictable moments. I can prepare for them, imagine how they will come about, research even, yet each one often unfolds in the most original way. Registration days, the first minutes of the first class session, the class when the first paper is returned, and the exchange with a student who has plagiarized a paper are all like this. So is that moment in a search committee’s life when one of us asks a candidate we’ve invited on campus, “Well, after all of our questions for you, do you have any questions for us?”
I enjoy the work of the search committee: short term and fairly intensive, important work; an interesting interpersonal investigation of sorts; a distinct end point when the committee dissolves; and afterwards some years to see how well the hopes and predictions we make when we hire will pan out. For that reason, and because in Paragraph City we usually include one person on the search from outside of the discipline, I rarely turn down an opportunity and have found myself in all sorts of searches. I look forward to the questions the candidate asks; they can tell so much.
Search committees always want to hire people who are more than competent in their field and who have the communication skills to teach well, but by the time we have a live applicant in front of us, we are pretty well satisfied on that score: the cover letter, resume, conversations with references, and a phone interview have told us that. At the point of the in-person interview we are wondering if you’re better than the other people we will interview, and we wonder what it will be like to work with you. Will you make us better at what we do? The search committee often asks itself, “Is this a good match?”
What I first look for during the candidate questions phase is whether or not the candidate is interviewing us as sincerely as we are interviewing him. Do you want any port in the storm of your work life? Or are you looking for a “match,” too? I understand the “just hire me and give me a chance and I’ll prove how well I can do the job” feelings; been there. But any search committee has probably talked to a dozen or more competent candidates with the same desires, and they have to choose only one.
The second thing I look for in these questions is how the candidate thinks about teaching his discipline. Do the questions you ask reveal you care about seriously challenging students and thereby seriously teaching them? Do you have something like a calling to your discipline? Do you understand the quirky burden of being a professor, that calculus of responsibilities to students, to discipline, to college, to your own integrity, to a craft?
I’ll write elsewhere about the worst questions I’ve heard. Here are some of the best.
- “How would you describe your students?” Especially assuming the applicant has looked up the demographics of the student body on our website, I like the subsurface work this question does. What they – the search committee – say about students will probably be nothing new, but may reveal much about the faculty and their teaching philosophy. Does the question initiate a quick, thoughtful conversation about the students at Paragraph City, and does it sound like something that these faculty (our search committees are entirely faculty) talk about often? Is the description of students laced with vitriol (some faculty are surprisingly hostile toward students), with weariness, or regret, or enthusiasm, or hope?
- “What support does the college give to faculty who want to develop their teaching?” This question sends the message that you care about teaching, a core principle for nearly any community college. If I asked that question, I would want to hear three things: teaching technologies are in the classroom & office and training is ongoing, the college has money for faculty to attend conferences, and most importantly, the college has regularly scheduled conversations about teaching. Teaching, that stuff that happens in the classroom and online, not the stuff that goes in reports to the accrediting agencies, as important as that is. As an applicant, I want to work at a college that goes out of its way – and spends money to do so – in an effort to make its teachers fantastic.
- “What do you do to help your most under prepared students?” Even if you expect to teach nothing but rigorous, upper level courses, you want to ask this question, and you will want to hear about a tutorial center, special programs or paired courses for academically weak students, counselor involvement and a placement process, and a faculty committee that oversees these efforts. I had a dean one time who glared at me and said, tapping out each word on the table with her finger, “You don’t throw away people. You give them a chance.” A college that isn’t straining at the impossible task of preparing the unprepared is throwing people away. You should know that before you sign up.
- “From your own experiences, tell me about some students you consider successful and some that were not.” This is another chance to see what they think of their students, and also how honest they are willing to be with you. If they speak only of grades and placement in transfer schools or jobs, that’s understandable but a bit troubling. It’s better if they can also see the notion of success from a student’s eyes, where attaining a C in a skills class or not skipping a day of class may be a meaningful success, one that breaks the pattern that has always created failure in the past.
- “How are decisions made at this college?” This so wide open a question as to be hard to answer, but you will want to hear that there is a process (or more likely a number of processes) and they are known and even published somewhere. You probably want to hear them describe lots of communication around big decisions, faculty involvement and debate, and an evaluation process for really big decisions. That means deliberations can be slow and that faculty burn too many hours in committees, but it’s better than autocratic decisions where cost efficiency is the dominant consideration.
- “How innovative would you say this college is?”
- “What do you think are the most important qualities your graduates should possess?”
- “What would you hope to see over the next year from the person you hire for this position?”
- “What values or goals unify the faculty and administration of this college?”
- “What other positions have been hired recently?”
- “Is there a direction the college is taking? Something it hopes to attain in the next five or eight years?”
- “What was the last accreditation process like?”
I have left off a lot of other questions that you will probably have answered in the general course of the interview, such as why the vacancy you are applying for has occurred, the size of the faculty in your department, and what the process for retention and tenure is. It’s OK in my opinion to write questions down on a card and bring them to the interview, but never read them to the committee – too much like they belong to someone else. OK also to jot down and ask questions that the interview brings to mind. Several times, I have seen great conversations begin when the candidate asked us a question we had asked of her.
You will have to judge on the fly how many questions to ask. If the group is getting bored or distracted after one or two, it probably means they are deciding against you and this is your last shot to make them interested. On the other hand, if the interview has fallen way behind schedule (and your questions are often the last element of an interview), then when the committee head encourages you to email any further questions you have, take it at face value. I remember one interview, however, where a meeting with a candidate that was scheduled for thirty minutes stretched to two hours; it was that interesting.