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December 24, 2011 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Planning Campus Visits and Preparing Job Talks

So you’ve weathered the mid-list, made it to the short list, and now have to prepare for an on-campus visit. Although there’s often variation in what happens on each campus, there are some general trends. Across the last four institutions I’ve been a student or faculty at (BGSU, U of Minnesota, Wayne State and UCSC), the same general components are part of campus visits, although they’re done in a different order on each campus. Visiting job candidates meet individually with most of the faculty in the department and the dean, meet over lunch (or tea) with graduate and undergraduate students (usually two separate events), give a job talk, and eat dinner with department members (usually some mix of faculty and graduate students). It usually means two very full days — often starting at the start of the school day and running through the end of dinner. It’s sort of like running a marathon, and like that, some advanced work goes a long way to making it through. I’ve broken the following up into three sections — preparing for the visit, preparing a job talk, and what to do while on campus. I’m happy to take questions in the comments section.

I should also add that there are really three reasons for campus visits: First, faculty want to make sure that you fit into the environment. The discourse of fitness is pretty expansive, and can mean lots of different things depending on the institution, but basically it means that you share concerns with the faculty and that you fit in socially. Secondly, they want to know that you’re a collegial colleague. Any tenure track job hire potentially means hiring a colleague for life, and people want to make sure that they’re hiring someone they can see working alongside for the next 30+ years. And, finally, they want to know that you would take the job if it were offered to you. If you’re visiting an out of the way college town (see below), it can really help to show people that you’re interested in the region and city as much as the university and the prospects of a job. If you’re visiting campus, it means that you’ve met the minimum requirements of the position, and it’s basically your job to lose. And if it isn’t you that gets the job, it’s more likely one of these campus-visit concerns than your work itself.

Planning for a Campus Visit

1) Familiarize yourself with all of the faculty’s work. It can be a huge task, but it’s the most important thing you can do: read something from every faculty member, and try and read as much as you can from each of them. The reasons are many.

A huge part of discussions about job candidates is their ‘fit,’ or how they articulate with the rest of the existing faculty. If you can get enough of a sense of other people’s work that it comes through in your discussions with them, they’ll leave those conversations with a good sense of what kind of colleague you’ll be. People won’t want to sit around and discuss their work with you in depth — the visit is about you after all — but knowing who you’re talking to is vital in coming across as a conscientious colleague.

It can also help you finely tune your job talk. Knowing my audience at UCSC (an anthropology department founded on feminist scholarship in the 1980s-90s) led me to make explicit in my job talk what’s normally implicit in much of my work, namely that feminist medical anthropology is the basis for much of my work. It probably didn’t get me the job, but it helped convey to my audience that I understood how I fit into the department.

And, finally, you never know who has the power of persuasion or sheer voting power in a department. One very eloquent faculty member can lift or sink your fledgling boat, and you want to make sure that you leave everyone with a good impression of you and your work. In a discipline like anthropology, a department can often be divided between its subfields, so it’s especially important not to ignore the work of people outside of your subfield — they want a colleague too, and it can make all the difference in the world if you’re fluent in their work and are able to have a conversation connecting your interests with theirs. Added to this, if there are subfield groups (e.g. a few archaeologists), they may vote as a block. If you can get the support of them as a unit, it can make a huge difference in the final departmental decision.

2) Know your path to tenure at the institution. Take a look at the profiles of associate professors in the department and try and reverse engineer their paths to tenure — did they need a book? a bunch of articles? a huge outside grant? Looking at a variety a profiles (and you might need to look at other departments as well) should give you a clear sense of what the institution expects of its tenure-seeking professors. When people ask you about your current and near-term work, you should be able to put it into these kinds of institutional objectives so that they know your path to tenure.

3) Prepare six classes to teach based on the school’s curriculum. One of the things that every job candidate gets asked in one form or another is what kinds of classes he or she would like to offer in the department he or she is interviewing in. If you’ve been professionalizing yourself throughout your graduate studies, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem. But there are some things to keep in mind. First, be sure to know how you would teach classes related to the job search — if it’s a search for someone in the anthropology of North America, you better have a survey class of North American anthropology prepared. It’s also a given that people will ask you about ‘service’ classes — introductory classes and other classes in the requirements for the major in the department. You might never be asked to teach these classes, but knowing how you would tackle a beast like Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (or any other Intro to a Discipline) — and doing it with some innovative flare — can really set you apart from other candidates. It’s also important to know what’s already being taught in the department: you don’t want to poach some other faculty’s course or appear ignorant of the curriculum. And it can be nice to build synergy; if other people are offering classes like the kinds of stuff you would teach, think about how they might build into a mini-curriculum.

4) Look around the university’s website. Some of the key things to look at are grants for junior faculty, faculty housing, the faculty senate (or other form of faculty governance), the breakdown of academic divisions and departments, the structure of the academic calendar, and orientation materials for new employees. This stuff isn’t vital to conversations while you’re visiting campus, but it can give you a really good sense of the institution, and as people tell you about things during your visit, you’ll have a sense of the context. Some campuses post the minutes of their faculty senate meetings, and looking at these can give you a really clear sense of the campus climate and what is currently being debated by the administration and faculty.

5) Figure out who the people you’ll be meeting are. You’ll almost definitely have a meeting with the dean, and most deans will have academic profiles somewhere on the university website. Getting a sense of where a dean is coming from — discipline-wise — can ease your conversation with someone who has the potential to approve the department’s decision to hire you.

6) Get a sense of the region and what it has to offer. Most universities are in university towns — not small, not large, and usually only semi-cosmopolitan. And most faculty know it. Getting familiar with the region — look at the weekly independent newspaper, real estate websites, tourism websites, etc. — can help you find things that will make the area more appealing. It also helps show to your interviewers that you’re taking living in this particular area very seriously and that you know what you’ll be getting into if you make the move.

7) Just try and think of it as a colloquium talk and the chance to get to know some colleagues. There’s no doubt that a campus job visit can be a nerve-wracking event. The best thing you can do is just approach it like you’re getting to know some colleagues and they’re getting to know you. You might get a job out of it, and you’ll definitely expand your social network and get some feedback on your work while you’re there. Being too nervous can come across negatively; being a good colleague and a considerate and curious visitor is usually just what a department wants.

Preparing Job Talks

Here are some suggestions regarding job talks, which I think work with colloquium talks too. First, though, be sure to clarify departmental expectations about how long the talk be — 2 minutes of speaking time generally translates to 1 page of double-spaced text. Most talks are 45 minutes long, but some departments expect longer or shorter talks. (And some might replace a job talk with an in-class presentation on your work!)

Beyond that:

1) Give people one big idea to think about, one of the key ideas from your dissertation or current work. A lot of talks suffer from trying to do too much, and to impress everyone on every page. One tightly focused argument centered around one novel contribution is enough. Also remember that people phase in and out of attention, and if you’re skipping all over the place, they’ll lose the thread.

2) Start your talk with an illustrative example from your research. Anthropologists love their opening anecdotes, and while there are other ways to grab an audience’s attention, a good example from your fieldwork gets people thinking. And it shows what your fieldwork was like. But your first example should only be 1-2 pages long, and it should set up the problem that you’re going to explore in the rest of the paper.

3) Keep your literature review short, and focus on your contributions. No one wants to hear a summary of Foucault’s thinking on governmentality or similar — unless you’re doing something really novel with it. Instead, move quickly though the most immediately relevant literature — the stuff that people know you should know — but don’t go into too much depth in discussing other people’s arguments or research. This is your show after all, and people want to know what you think and are capable of.

4) Use content from throughout the dissertation or your current work to make your point — from various fieldsites, from various empirical sources — so people get a sense of everything you do. Over the course of the paper, you should probably have 3-5 examples from your fieldwork, including the introductory example. Given that many current anthropology projects are multi-sited, and sometimes textual- or archival-based, it’s a good idea to give your audience a sense of what all you can do and what the research looks like. Following from this…

5) Don’t be too data-driven: too much focus on data doesn’t breed very compelling Q & A sessions. With each of your examples being 1-2 pages long, it doesn’t allow for tons of depth for each of them — which is a good thing: it provides people with easy things to ask questions about. Overlong examples tend to lose people’s attention, and the details that are salient to you aren’t always important to your audience — most of them won’t be specialists in your area after all.

6) If you want to use a Powerpoint presentation, keep it simple. It can be great to give people something to look at other than you, and moving between slides with text on them gives you a chance to pause and have a drink of water while your audience reads. Slides can be helpful to convey basic information to your audience that would otherwise eat your talk-time — like geography & maps. I also find it really helpful to put long quotes from respondents or texts on-screen so that the audience can tell the difference between my voice and the voice of my interlocutors.

7) Close with a conclusion that reminds people of all the points that you’ve made in the paper. It’s always a good idea to recap your argument and revisit your examples again — it doesn’t need to be long, but it primes your audience to have a conversation with you.

After your talk, there’s usually anywhere from 15-45 minutes for you to field questions from the audience. If you’ve given people enough to think about, the conversation should lead itself — people will ask for more details about your research and thinking.

While You’re On Campus

The best advice I ever received about campus visits is:

1) Stay hydrated. You’ll be talking all day for a day or two, and it can really begin to wear on your vocal capacities. By the time you get to your job talk, your voice might be in serious disrepair. It’s important to keep hydrated — but not with anything caffeinated (you don’t want to come off as manic). People might be plying you with coffee and tea, but stick to water (unless you really need a pick me up). It might mean frequent trips to the bathroom, but if it means you can get through your job talk with your voice intact, it’ll be worth it.

2) Be a kind and gracious guest. I’ve heard tales of job candidates who were so focused on impressing the faculty that they slighted the administrative staff in the department. There’s a couple problems here: first, these are your potential support staff, and if they dislike you before you’ve even gotten the job, they have the power to make your job miserable. And, second, you never know who wields power in the department, and being rude to a staff person might mean that he or she communicates that to faculty, and suddenly you’re sunk. Beyond the staff, things come up and it’s important to roll with the punches unperturbed. I had a campus visit once in the dead of winter, and one of the faculty was unable to make it to campus due to road conditions — which I only found out after he hadn’t shown up to our scheduled meeting. He made it to the job talk and was effusively apologetic. I wrote to him after the visit and offered him the chance to ask his questions via email. It was frustrating at the time — being stranded in a hallway waiting for someone — but it worked out in the end, and leads to:

3) Bring something to read. Nothing pretentious or trashy, but something that can keep you occupied while you wait for meetings since you’ll never know who’s running late. Sitting in the dean’s office looking at your phone can both be dull and look less than professional. Grading a stack of papers is probably out too. But a novel or some slim academic book can help to fill waiting periods.

There’s probably a ton more to add, but these are the gross contours — ask questions in the comments (or post helpful anecdotes), and we can continue the conversation.

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