Ok, so my earlier post was all about me being disgruntled and stressed out, and I admit, I'm still somewhat disgruntled and stressed out, but I want to do a post that is a little less oriented toward whining and more oriented toward something productive. (Note: my greatest destressor of the day was that I left campus for a couple of hours, and I spent money I shouldn't have spent at Dillards - because apparently stress turns me into a shopaholic, but also a bargain-hunter, as it's 40%-off all already reduced merchandise this weekend, so I spent 30 bucks when I could have spent, at full price approximately $130 - and then I went to Panera Bread for lunch and I did some work there. I should always leave campus if I've got 2-3 free hours, as sitting in my office is not the ideal way to destress. I did this last semester a couple of times, too, and it was great. I must remember to do this in future.)
But so anyway, I had to attend a job talk this afternoon - my second of the week - and it's incredibly interesting to do this given my current situation. Whereas my first time on the market I only knew job talks from my R1 institution - and I wasn't in residence during my year on the market so I didn't attend any in close proximity to my own experience - now, well, I have the lay of the land a bit more as to what is required in such a talk (or so I think). Today's talk was incredibly interesting, but at the same time, I left the talk feeling like the candidate didn't really pay attention to us as much as he might have done. In contrast, the talk earlier in the week wasn't quite so interesting, but the candidate did seem to have a good sense of the needs of our institution.
Now, one thing that is true about my institution is that we require an unconventional job talk. And one is never quite sure what the candidate gets told beforehand, so the talks tend to be all over the map, from the traditional talk (which isn't really what we want) and a very loose kind of talk that doesn't really fit the bill either (an overcorrection on the part of the candidate based on really believing it when the person who tells them about the talk inadvertently says something about being "informal" and they don't further ask about what "informal" means). In other words, one might say that we set candidates up to disappoint us (which I do think that we do, incidentally). Oh, I should also say that candidates at my institution do not teach a sample class - the job talk is meant to be a two-for-one deal, in which we get a sense of their teaching while at the same time we get a sense of their research.
Now, I've got an upcoming talk to give, and I'm not claiming that I'm an expert on what that institution wants, but at the same time, I do think that my experience of having given a talk (and done very well at it) and of watching many job talks (both in grad school and at my current institution) has been valuable experience. And so, even though I may well not get the job for which I will be giving the upcoming talk, I'm going to go out a limb and give some tips about what to do in a job talk, whatever the institution.
1. The job talk is not about your research.
Not really. It's about how you fit into the institution. As such, your primary concern is in tailoring what you do to the institution at which you are giving the talk. This is true for all institutions, even R1 type places, though what it means there is something different from what it means at an institution like mine from what it means at a SLAC. The point is, your research is your research whatever way you slice it. But your presentation of that research is really the point in such a presentation. They've already seen your writing samples and stuff, or at the very least your CV. So what they're looking for is NOT to find out who you are as a researcher, not really. What they're looking to find out is whether you "fit in" with the department. It's not about whether you're interesting (though you have to be) or whether you demonstrate your knowledge of a topic (though you must). It's about how you organize that interesting knowledge into what the institution is looking for. Now, most grad students know (if only intuitively) what that means for an R1 sort of a situation. Don't bore people. Show that you've done your homework. But at my institution, it's not really about that (only). It's about how you show that you fit that into teaching. It's about being practical in your approach (talking about how things fit into specific assignments or approaches in the classroom, for example). It's about making what you do accessible, as if to students. This will be like nothing you've ever seen at your grad school when they've been hiring.
2. You can't know what the institution wants if you don't ask, especially since the talk really isn't about your research.
The thing that got me my job, aside from being my usual charming self and my cv, was, I believe, the fact that I hounded the Search Committee chair for more information about the expectations for the job talk. The first information that I got was that it "wasn't a traditional job talk" and that they wanted me to "talk about my research" but that I should also talk about how that relates to teaching. I responded with a flurry of emails requiring the chair to specify. First he said something about me avoiding the "narcotic effects" of just reading a paper. But that was not enough for me. So I asked more questions. And it was through asking those questions that I was able to come up with a talk that really did address the needs of my audience. I had a mountain of handouts - sample assingments for a range of courses, sample syllabi, sample approaches. Yes, I read for 10 minutes or so, so that they would get a sense of what I was doing in a traditional sense. But that was it. I moved on. I answered the question, "so how does this relate to you all and to the students at your institution?" I answered the question, "what will I bring to this institution, if you hire me?" And that's ultimately the question that all schools want answered. At an R1, the answer is "brilliance" and so it is about the brilliance of your work in a more conventional way. But elsewhere? It's about other things.
3. A job talk is not a conference presentation.
So this might be obvious, but it's not. One, people in the audience won't necessarily be familiar with what you're talking about. And I'm not talking just about the texts - I'm talking about even the discipline in which you situate yourself. Departments have many configurations - some are departments just of English and American Literature, but some are departments of Literature and Language (i.e., the foreign languages are grouped with English), or they are English departments but they also hire people who specialize in professional writing or creative writing or comp/rhet. In other words, if you give your talk as if you are giving a conference presentation, you're going to leave people out of the conversation. They don't catch the references. They've never even heard of some of the references. If you're not prepared for that, you're going to fail.
4. A job talk is not a conference presentation, part II.
When you read a paper for 15 minutes, people can pretty much follow it. When you are told that you will have an hour block of time, well, things change. When in doubt, go short rather than long. You can always elaborate in the Q and A. Be sure to state up front what you will talk about, and if possible give people an outline of your main points, so if they tune out they can tune back in. Aim for clarity over complexity, even when what you discuss is complex. This is true in all scenarios, because I'll tell you, even when attending job talks that were more traditional in nature at my grad institution, I valued these things. If they say that you have 30-40 minutes to speak, aim for 30. Take time of day into account - if the talk is at 3PM, that's naptime; if the talk is at 6PM, that's dinnertime. Take care of your audience by not going on and on, even if you are really interesting and engaging.
5. Technology is not always your friend.
In today's talk, the candidate used technology brilliantly. The candidate used images, and those images were essential to the candidate's presentation. The candidate did not just have main points on the screen as a power point. The candidate did not have a power point with points that didn't really add to the presentation, just looming in the background. The candidate did not have a picture of a labial flower on the screen to remind us of the candidate's personal sexual orientation (as a candidate in the past did). The candidate did not keep the images on the screen after they were no longer pertinent. I'd much rather see a presentation with no use of anything on a screen, particularly if things on a screen are not essential, than see a candidate put crap into a powerpoint that doesn't really help me as a member of the audience. Technology should be for the audience. I believe anybody can figure out how to put something up on a screen - if that's the only reason you've decided to use AV, then you should just say no. You've got (or are getting) a PhD - I believe that you can figure out a smart classroom, and I don't need to see an unnecessary demonstration of the fact that you can.
6. Don't rely on your audience to ask questions that are central to your success.
This may seem to contradict #4, in which I say that you can elaborate during the Q and A. But it really doesn't. What I'm saying is that if you know your audience is interested in X, give them X in the talk, and let them ask questions about Y, even if Y is what your private passion is. Don't make me ask you questions that will save your candidacy. Specifically, if you're interviewing at a teaching institution, and you don't have a teaching demo to show your stuff, don't make the audience ask you about how what you do translates into your work in the classroom.
7. Don't evade questions about challenges to what you do.
Let's say that an audience member asks you about students who would resist your approach. Don't just say that "this has never been an issue for me" and leave it at that. Let's say an audience member challenges your theory in a section of your talk. Don't just say that what they have to say isn't really pertinent to your approach. ENGAGE. Give a REAL response. A CONCRETE response. Obviously, you need to be polite, and you may need to stall a bit if you've not thought the question through, but you shouldn't pussy-foot around a question and fail to answer it.
8. Don't expect the audience to connect the dots.
Make the trajectory of your talk clear. Make it clear where your ideas come from and why you move from point A to point B (or C or D or E). Make it clear how your ideas in the talk fit into your broader identity as a scholar. Make it clear how everything comes together. If you expect your audience to connect the dots, they may just not do that. They may just not see how it all fits together.
So these are my thoughts on job talks. We'll see how I do in my upcoming one, but the point here, is this is all I've learned from attending many of them, and I suspect that this information may be helpful to others.
2 years ago