It’s about that time of the academic year when eager young Ph.D.s and A.B.D.s spend more than they can afford to attend the annual meetings of their disciplines with the goal of landing a job for the coming year.
Advice to them about how to be interviewed isn’t hard to find, but there isn’t as much information to help faculty members conduct these interviews. They do it anyway, however, some better than others. Their purpose is to find out what the candidates know and whether they look like a good fit for their department. In my experience, the best interviews are rather informal and the worst are more like catechisms.
I will never forget one at my own university in which the interviewee was seated in the center of a circle, surrounded by professors bombarding her with disconnected and often irrelevant questions. After the applicant was excused from the room, I was furious with my fellow faculty members for how badly they had treated this excellent candidate. In spite of their rude interview tactics, they agreed with me that she was a good fit for the job and exactly the person we needed. They shamefacedly agreed with my criticisms of the way they treated her, and we hired her; she soon became one of the leaders in our field. That job interview easily qualified as the worst one I have ever experienced.
My memory of that disastrous event remained with me as I spent the second half of my academic career working in the area of language and law, in which detectives interview suspects. Here the reverse is true about training manuals. Interviewing guidelines abound for law-enforcement officers but, as far as I know, there are no available instruction manuals for suspects who find themselves at the mercy of unfair techniques that are even worse than that interview endured by my department’s job applicant.
A detective’s proper purpose is to find out what happened during what is called an “information interview,” and, if possible, to elicit the suspect’s confession. After I retired, I reviewed some of the many cases I’d worked on and looked for the best and the worst interviews. There is considerable competition for my worst-police-interview award, but the 1979 interview of a Florida homeless man named Jerry Townsend is the easy winner.
Since the local police were unable to solve the murders of a number of prostitutes, they trolled the streets for suspects and hit gold when they interviewed a mentally retarded man who admitted every accusation they made. Over five consecutive days the police partially tape-recorded interviews, sometimes at the police station, but mostly as the two detectives drove Townsend around to visit the sites of the murders, during which they frequently turned their tape-recorder off and on. During the many times the tape recorder was stopped, the detectives failed to follow the accepted protocol of noting that the recorder had been turned off and then back on again. Whether or not any electronic signatures of these on/off occasions were discoverable, one could easily notice this by sharp breaks in syntax, sudden topic changes, and by the unusual variations of the background noises.
For example, a rumbling noise from a nearby train was audible when Townsend started his sentence “No, I — ” followed by a clicking noise. But when the tape went back on, the rest of his sentence had no relationship to the question he was trying to answer. At another time Townsend said that one of the prostitutes was a black girl driving a white car but after an audible on/off click, he then said she was a white girl driving a black car. Sometimes when the detectives accused Townsend of the murders, an off/on click followed and his response was not recorded.
Many such unidentified breaks led to the obvious conclusion that the detectives were tailoring Townsend’s responses to fit their theory that he was guilty of the murders. This manipulation of the tape recorder made it surprisingly easy to get Townsend to appear to have admitted to the first murder, which encouraged them to ask him about the several other unsolved cases remaining on their books. Then, as they drove Townsend around to the places where the bodies were found, Townsend was consistently wrong about the details. Each time he erred, we could hear breaks in the tape, after which he then corrected his wrong information to make it fit what the detectives apparently wanted to hear.
Before trial, Miami’s court-appointed psychologist gave Townsend a battery of tests and concluded that he had “a low level of mental functioning and/or brain damage.” He diagnosed Townsend’s drawing of a human figure as at that of a 3- or 4-year-old and his reading ability as second-grade level, adding “within a range of mental retardation.” A second court-appointed psychologist came to essentially the same conclusions.
Undaunted by these psychologists’ evaluations, the prosecutor then hired his own psychologist who claimed that the suspect operated at the level of a 19-year-old. This psychologist was not licensed and could not be used as an expert witness at trial, but the judge still allowed him to testify about his assessment. Since he didn’t qualify as an expert, the defense was prohibited from cross-examining him.
Linguistic analysis also could have made important contributions by demonstrating how the detectives used coercive interview strategies and manipulated the tape-recorder to create the odd question/answer sequences. But judges have the right to exclude any expert witnesses offered by the defense, including linguists. Townsend’s defense lawyers did the best they could with the information I gave them, but Townsend was convicted and served 22 years in prison before DNA evidence was discovered to prove that another man had committed the murders. The many interviewing contradictions, coerciveness, and recording flaws in this case produced one of the worst police interviews I ever experienced.
Fortunately, we can expect this season of academic job interviews to be not nearly as bad as the two worst-case scenarios of the job applicant surrounded by faculty members who peppered her with irrelevant questions and the coercive police interview of the suspect Jerry Townsend.
For very different reasons, both sets of interviewers were looking for a perfect fit. The police sought only the perfect fit of someone to admit the crime and were willing to do anything to find it. They were superficially friendly, knowing that this would lead to cooperation, and they tricked Thompson in order to satisfy their need to get a confession.
The faculty interviewers almost missed that good fit by the inept way they went about trying to find it. The formal setting inhibited natural conversation and was more a catechism than an interview. They spent far too much time grilling the candidate about whether she knew as much as they did rather than trying to discover how what she knew would fit and even supplement the department’s needs. They were aggressive rather than friendly, providing a poor vision of any future cooperation with them. They must have confused this interview with a Ph.D. oral exam.
As both of these interview examples illustrate, we can certainly do better.
Roger Shuy is a professor emeritus of linguistics at Georgetown University, where he created and led its doctoral program in sociolinguistics.