Monday, June 8, 2009

Singing the Search

For several weeks after I'd happily accepted EMU's offer of a faculty position, the dmueller-edition Q&A recordings continued churning through my portable MP3 player every so often. By then I found them somewhat silly-sounding, an off-key sequence of quirky, wandering think-alouds, something like little pacts between me, my iPod Shuffle, and Kathryn Hume, whose Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt was never out of reach from September through late February. I finally removed the tracks after CCCC, more than a month after I no longer needed to listen to those droning loops of me rehearsing 120-second answers.

Early on, I decided that I didn't want to memorize answers, didn't want my responses to interview questions to be too inflexible, robotic. I casually plotted with a couple of other market-goers from my program about organizing a jam session in which we would quiz each other and bounce ideas around, but that never came together. It wasn't that I felt on my own with the process, exactly, but I did want practice. That is, I did feel on my own with the task of familiarizing with the genre of the interview answer. It's an important genre, it turns out, and it took me a little while to get used to how much I could say (well, completely) in under two minutes, 2:30 tops. My program provided mock in-person and phone interviews, but I still thought I needed more practice.

Sometime in late Octomber last year (ED: More like early Dissember, actually.), I plugged in a USB microphone, opened Audacity, sketched a list of about eight likely questions, cleared my voice, and asked, then answered each question, recording one after the other until I had something like the dullest, geekiest album of all time: eight home-studio tracks of me asking typical job interview questions followed by me answering the question in under two minutes. (Of note: I categorized the tracks as 'jazz' just to add pep). Rather than polish them, re-record, or fret about the quality of the performances, I imported the raw, uncut tracks in iTunes and slid them onto the shuffle, right along with the more or less stable collection I was at the time carrying to the YMCA with me each day.

Now, I don't have any idea whether other job seekers did the same thing. No clue. But I was pleased with what this approach allowed me to do. I did not so much treat these questions and answers as focal and specific, which is to say binding, but I preferred instead to have them wash over me, deliberate, ambient noise very close to thinking, only slightly more measured. I'd be at the Y, humming along on the elliptical machine, and one of the tracks would come on. The questions would spring up, as if out of nowhere, and surprise me. The exact answer mattered, but it didn't matter as much as getting the genre (that is the generality of the utterance) down, getting to know approximately what was possible in such a time-bounded exchange.

Who can say whether it worked? Or how well it worked? Well, I am attesting to its convenience, for one thing. It was comfortable at MLA to prop up my feet in the evening, mute some televised sporting event, and listen to those forty minutes worth of questions and answers. And in public, it felt a lot more hip than sitting, as others did, with scripted note cards clenched in their trembling hands minutes before the elevator ride to destiny. Being on the market is tough (not scary, exactly, just intensive, demanding). May as well do as much of it as you can with headphones in. All the better if the headphones are tied to a playlist as likely to land on something speedbeat funky as on a self-recorded practice question: Please, tell us about your dissertation. Eventually the two start to blend together, the answers begin to have a faint cadence, something on the verge of musicality: academikocoapopfunkfusionbliss. And then you know it's time to press pause, stow the ear buds away, and knock on the hotel room door (or answer the perfectly timed phone call, as the case may be).

By the way, had I to do it over without a microphone, I would simply open a Voice account and use my cell phone to call in a couple of MP3 audio messages, download, import, etc. In fact, what brought this entry on is that just a few minutes ago I was chatting on the phone with a friend who will be on the market in the year ahead. Only, no mike. I suggested the Voice workaround. Also, about the questions, they were a mix: about the dissertation, about future plans for research and writing, two about classes I'd taught, two more about classes I want to create, something on administrative experience, philosophy, and style, another about framing TA training and mentorship, and then something definitional about new media and digital writing practices (their value, etc.). There are hundreds if not thousands of possible questions, but there's not much value, I'd argue, in overdoing it. Diminishing returns, if you overdo it. I guessed that these few would get a lot of play, and, while some came up more than others, all of them came up at least once during the interviewing process.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at June 8, 2009 8:30 PM to Academe

Fantastic idea! I'll have to keep this in mind. :) Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: Michael Faris at June 9, 2009 12:30 PM

I don't know if this study technique was the tipping point or not, though we did indeed hire you, so I guess it must have helped. I will say this though: the phone interview (which is what we conducted) is definitely a style/mode/genre of interviewing with characteristics that do require a different sort of delivery, both for candidates and for interviewers.

When I was on the market way back when and did phone interviews, I did two things that I thought were helpful. First, I made sure I had all my notes and whatever laid out in front of me for easy access-- you know, teaching philosophy, outline to the diss, notes I had on the place I was interviewing with, etc. Second, I had a mirror, because in a weird way, I think that facial gestures and expressions can come across on the phone, if that makes sense.

Posted by: Steve Krause at June 10, 2009 8:33 AM