Tuesday, January 1, 2008

There's So Much Noise, All the Signal Seems to Fade Away

I want to start trying to pull together some thoughts about my interviews. On one point, I've already done a 180 from my first impressions. There's this idea you can find floating around the Chronicle forums and other places that the search committee's not just interviewing you, but you're interviewing them about their school. I guess the idea is, both the search committee and you are looking for the right "fit", and the interview's as a much a chance for you to get a feel for that stuff as it is for them.

After my interviews, I thought I knew exactly what this idea was about. I had some interviews where the conversation seemed easy-going, interesting, productive and collegial. And I had interviews that were, well, not that. You know those times when you just can't seem to make yourself understood, and you can't seem to understand what other people are saying? Or those times when either the person you're talking to is a huge asshole or somehow without realizing it you've pissed them off so much they think you're a huge asshole, because there's just this thick asshole-ish vibe hanging in the room? Yeah, I had interviews like that. Awesome, huh?

But then, I sort of felt like that crappy vibe couldn't have been all me. Because in at least one interview, the failure to really communicate wasn't just happening between me and the interviewers. It was happening between the interviewers themselves, like there was this invisible force-field in the room that took philosophical sentences and changed their meanings around so all their hearers got from them was, "Puppies are cute. I like puppies, because they are cute."

I came away from those interviews feeling like I'd learned something about the department. I thought I'd seen a little of picture of how their philosophical interactions worked, and I didn't like what I saw. I sort of felt like, even though they're the ones making the decision about whether or not to fly me out for a job-talk, I'd learned enough to know I might not have been happy there anyway. Sort of like I'd been interviewing them.

But that's ridiculous. I didn't learn a damn thing about their departments. Maybe there's a weird lack of collegiality in those departments, and they can't usually manage to get a decent philosophical discussion rolling amongst themselves. Or maybe they'd been sitting in the same room talking amongst themselves pretty much non-stop for a day and a half, they were dog-tired, they had serious burrito comas, and they hadn't had time to make it to Starbucks after lunch. Frankly, that seems a fuck of a lot more likely to me.

People have talked before about the shitty signal-to-noise ratio in conference interviews. But that goes both ways. I just don't have any trust in an interview experience to tell me anything reliable about how a department operates.


BornInTheSixties said...

I'd agree. While the idea that the department is being interviewed as well strikes me as true for campus visits (which should be just as much about trying to recruit candidates as it is about interviewing them), trying to form much of an impression of a department at an APA interview is a risky venture if only because APA interview committees typically make up only 15-50% of the actual department, so many departments have between 5 and 20 members who aren't at the interview. Further, the ones who do turn up are often just the one's who are willing to, say, go to Baltimore over the holidays, not necessarily the one's who would have been best suited to talk to you about your work.

Anonymous said...

You're better off with the knowledge that you didn't get any reliably information than falsely thinking you did.

But, then again, it doesn't really make too much of a difference, since whatever impression you have would be outweighed by what you learn from a campus visit. And if you don't get a visit, then the impression doesn't make a difference either.

So at least you don't have to sweat about whether you learned anything about them for real or not, leaving all of your sweat for more important matters.