Being Yourself on the Interview Trail

October 29, 2001

On a campus interview for a faculty job, a friend once found herself sitting across the desk from the curmudgeon of the department. He asked her to pick a book off of his shelf and describe how she would use it in the classroom.

My friend rose and surveyed the interviewer's shelves. "Well," she said, "I wouldn't use any of these books."

She got the job offer -- albeit only after someone else had declined it.

The moral to this story? Who knows? After all, the job market is moral-proof. Perhaps she truly did wow the curmudgeon with her pluck, particularly as the pluck was backed with an intelligent argument. Perhaps the curmudgeon voted against her, but was overwhelmed by his colleagues, who secretly admired her defiance of said curmudgeon. Perhaps everyone agreed that her behavior was brash, but felt that she would "mature in time." But if the nature of any specific job interview remains incomprehensible, that only reinforces the moral I draw from my friend's story: Since you can't be all things to all people, you may as well be yourself.

Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson argued, the attitude behind statements often matters more than the "contents they contain. ... The highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men [thought], but what they thought."

Of course, Milton never had to do three MLA interviews in three hotels in three hours on a windy, snowy day in Chicago. Plato was never stuck in a stalled elevator with five other sweaty job candidates, feeling their futures slipping away with their interviews. Even Moses needed a few miracles to win over Pharaoh -- and he was trying to get his people out of a lifetime appointment.

It's stressful enough being on the hiring side of the table, especially if you are going on the market yourself the very next year. Consider my experience as a graduate-student representative on a hiring committee at the MLA. After one candidate left the hotel room where we were holding interviews, the committee chairman asked, "OK, Mike, you let out that sigh. What bothered you?"

I had to ask at what point I had sighed; when he told me, it all came back. "Oh, that's just the point I have in every interview, the time when I think, 'No one's ever going to hire me.'" We agreed that from then on, I should sit farthest from the candidate.

But what I learned from my collegial, fair-minded committee was invaluable. We asked no trick questions; no one's candidacy fell or rose based on a single answer. Content mattered, but we already had content galore -- in the form of cover letters, letters of reference, CV's, and writing samples -- before we even invited our MLA candidates to interview. What we wanted on interview day was to get a general sense of the person.

That included the candidate's ability to articulate interesting things in a fairly concise way, but, as a friend advised me, "It's not comps, it's batting practice. They're just going to lob something up at the plate and see how far you can hit it."

Given that everyone we interviewed hit it a country mile, the next consideration was a general sense of the person's attitude, and even there everyone checked out. So, in the end, it came down to fit, not failure.

When my time came, I decided, if I didn't fit, I might as well find out at the start. If I was going to be rejected, let me be rejected for who I really am. But what if part of what you are is, well, weird?

Fast forward to my interview with a small religious liberal-arts college in the Midwest. At the time, I was A.B.D., with four on-campus interviews under my belt and nary a job to show for it. I'd supposedly barely lost out for my favorite of those jobs, had only a one-in-four chance at my second choice, and was glad not to be offered the other two. Going into this fifth interview, I knew I had one more year of grad-school support ahead, I liked my life in Columbia, Mo., and -- most dangerous of all -- I was becoming bored with answering the same questions the same way, again and again.

Which was why, as I drew the rhetorical triangle -- the traditional diagram depicting the relationship between writer, audience, and subject -- on the board during my teaching demonstration, it somehow possessed me to draw a figure beneath the triangle and say: "Look, the gay Teletubby!" (At the time, the religious right had alleged that one of the Teletubbies was gay. After all, he had a triangle on his head, was purple, and carried a bag.)

At the end of the day, after I had interviewed with the whole committee and the chairman was driving me back to my hotel, he said, "Well, the committee agreed on one thing: You certainly are the most relaxed candidate we ever had."

A month later, I got a brief letter from the same man, apologizing for the late notification that the search was over. "The process took longer than we expected," he explained. In other words, even when the other candidates came up short, the department had gone to even greater lengths to avoid me.

In retrospect, my campus performance seems a subconscious plea. The college was in a town of a few thousand people and four restaurants, one of which was a Subway.

To this gregarious single guy, it looked like the kind of place an Alice Munro character might go to quietly wither away and die. Yet my prospective colleagues were great, the job good, and the students fine. In other words, I would have felt compelled to take the position, probably would have been miserable in my personal life, and then would have sought another position within two years. Perhaps the hiring committee sensed that in deciding not to hire me. If they didn't, well, thank God for the gay Teletubby.

Meanwhile, all these experiences helped me the next year, when I came up with seven MLA interviews, three on-campus visits, and two offers, either of which I would have taken. This time I didn't mention Teletubbies. But I continued to emphasize attitude over content, projecting who I really was as a candidate.

And a big part of who I was, after all, was someone who enjoyed sharing ideas that might matter to students. As a candidate, I was going to be a pedagogical Johnny Appleseed, wandering the country demonstrating my teaching skills and teaching students I'd never see again. So I vowed to make the experience meaningful. That shifted the focus from my self-consciousness to the students' welfare, transforming the situation from one more hoop to jump through to a genuine chance to accomplish something, regardless of whether I was hired.

The result was a study in contrasting imperfections. In one interview, when I saw the syllabus of the class I would be guest-teaching, I tossed my original proposed lesson to go with a topic that would serve the class better. Of course, that class ran out of questions to discuss with five minutes left. Meanwhile, when I did use the original lesson idea at another interview, it was a little more ground than I could cover in the allotted time. "Poor planning!" I could imagine committee members muttering. "If he's this messy in the job interview, how much messier will he be in the day-to-day classroom?" (The answer: Pretty messy.)

Yet those two places were the two that offered me tenure-track positions. As one committee member told me later that day, "What I liked about your demo was that it was too ambitious to cover in the allotted time." Which is just the kind of observation that can drive a job candidate insane with contradictory expectation. Do you go for an interview that is perfectly formatted but sterile? Or risk a little messiness for boldness's sake? To whose values do you ultimately appeal?

To which I answer, your own.

Mike Land, an assistant professor of English at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., teaches nature writing, journalism, and American literature. He earned his Ph.D. in English, with an emphasis in creative writing, from the University of Missouri at Columbia.