The Top Three Questions to Ask on a Campus Interview

By: Nicholas Behm, Assistant Professor, Elmhurst College, behmn@elmhurst.edu

When I talk to graduate students planning a career in the academy, I always speak candidly with them about the dearth of tenure-line opportunities and the seemingly relentless challenges of working in the academy. So, before I address questions that should be asked on campus interviews, I want to relate what I wish I had known about the market before I went on the market.

Given that academics relentlessly champion critical thinking, I was disheartened when I realized that there is nothing necessarily rational about the job market or about how hiring committees and departments treat candidates or choose candidates to ascend to the next level of interviews. It all seems fairly random. Each time you are rejected and/or each time you agree to a conference interview or a campus interview, know that you possess very limited power to affect the confluence of factors, forces, and conditions that literally instantiate the dynamics of the situation. You have no control over the funding of a position, the speed at which applications are reviewed, the chess game of applicants dropping out, rejecting invitations, and accepting other positions. What is more, you cannot fully control how your job documents will resonate with members of a hiring committee. You may be rejected because of some peccadillo, like a missing Oxford comma, or because you provided one document too many, or cited a theorist recently deemed passé. The best advice that I can give candidates, then, is to urge them to focus solely on what they can control, like tailoring each application to show how they are uniquely qualified to assume an advertised position and contribute to a particular institution, practicing their research talk constantly, and participating in mock interviews.

For a campus interview, you should prepare a number of strategic questions, particularly ones that enable you to discern departmental and institutional dynamics, challenges, and culture. Here are three such questions that, in my opinion, are crucial:

(1) Can you tell me about the tenure and promotion process and the review of tenure applications? What criteria are used to evaluate a faculty member’s candidacy for tenure and/or promotion?

When advertising a position, a department seeks a long-term relationship with a qualified candidate. As with dating, in this process, each interested party has a certain set of threshold criteria, like the required qualifications noted in the job announcement. You must have a set of criteria that help you determine whether a position, department, and institution are right for your goals and career. One of those criteria should be the apparent reasonableness and transparency of the tenure and promotion process. During a campus interview at a liberal arts university located in the Southwest, I had a dean respond to this question by telling me that the institution only tenured faculty who “inspire awe in their students.” Of course, I immediately asked, “What criteria distinguish ‘awe’?” To which, the dean responded, “You know, ‘awe.’ We just know.” The dean’s comments raised bright red flags, and I knew that I would not accept a position at that institution. With a professional rite of passage as important as tenure and promotion, you don’t want your academic freedom and job security to hinge on whether you fulfilled some nebulous criteria, like inspiring awe in your students. Rather, as an applicant, you need to find out whether an institution values transparency during the tenure/promotion process; provides clear guidelines regarding the value of teaching, scholarship, and service; and offers professional development to ensure your success.

(2) [Name of college or university] appears to be a vibrant, collegial institution: what is the financial outlook for the institution in the near and distant future?

As a result of numerous factors, like the financial malaise, draconian cuts in state investment in higher education, and demographic shifts in student populations, many institutions confront serious financial challenges. As a candidate, you need to gain a candid representation of an institution’s financial outlook so that you can make informed projections regarding your early career. If you’re interviewing at a small liberal arts college that is running a budget deficit, for instance, you should be cognizant of the possibility that you might not receive cost of living raises, which might financially burden you. If you’re interviewing at a state institution, you should peruse public documents related to that institution’s budget, seeking information about state funding, revenue sources, and financial liabilities. For example, any person interviewing for a position at a state school in Illinois (my home state) should be aware of the public employee pension and healthcare crisis, one that compromises Illinois’ investments in all public services and jeopardizes the entire retirement system for professors at state institutions. Now more than ever, academic job seekers must consider how larger economic forces might significantly influence how well they can fulfill their duties and accomplish their personal and professional goals.

(3) What is the outlook for the English Department/Writing Program? How will composition and rhetoric continue to be an integral part of the department and major?

As an applicant, you also need to discern a department’s or writing program’s role in and value to an institution. Responses to this question may give you some indication of what resources the department or program receives from the institution, whether opportunities for growth in faculty lines may exist, and what role the department or program might play in shaping the future of the institution. Moreover, you may be able to glean information about the extent to which a rift exists between the literature faculty and the rhetoric/composition faculty, which could help you understand interpersonal dynamics and make inferences about the working conditions within the department.