Today’s post is a Special Request post for several clients who are fretting about what to “chat” with faculty about during the informal parts of a campus visit. “What in the world do I talk about??” they inquire.
It’s always hard to know how to make small talk with faculty when you know that they’re evaluating everything you say and do. But make small talk you must, or else sit there mutely as the conversation ranges around you.
There is no one sure-fire rule for small talk, of course, since everyones’ interests are different. But in general, you’ll be on solid ground with any group of academics if you have a passing knowledge of the contents of the previous week’s New York Times, primarily the front page and the Arts section, with a special notice of recent art films.
You’ll also want to have educated opinions about current politics. I recommend you acquire familiarity with Huffington Post coverage. You’ll earn extra points if you can speak knowledgably about recent commentary on blogs such as Talking Points Memo and The Daily Kos. If there are pressing and relevant local political issues—for example, if you’re interviewing in Wisconsin, which is coping with Governor Scott Walker’s assault on collective bargaining, or in Arizona, where they’re actively eradicating ethnic studies programs, then read up on the basics of that before you arrive.
[I am cutting and pasting this addition from the comment stream: Talking knowledgably about liberal/progressive politics marks you as a member of the academic tribe. So does reading the New York Times. These are markers of a certain, dominant, type of academic identity. Of course there are republicans/conservatives around campus, more predominant in some fields than others (the business school perhaps, or econ) but in my liberal arts world, everybody shared a bond over mournful progressive critique of the Democratic Party and the New York Times.]]
If you follow national sports, that may help in some cases (although academics are of course less likely to follow major US corporate sports than other sectors of the population, but correspondingly more likely to have an opinion on something like women’s volleyball). But also take a moment to familiarize yourself with the sports teams on the campus you’re visiting, especially if it’s a Big 10/12 School.
Take the time to read an important recent novel or memoir that has been featured in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Have intelligent thoughts about it.
The point here is, and I’m sorry to be the one to break the news, you must be able to range far and wide conversationally, untethered from your dissertation topic, and your discipline. The fact is, after 5-10 years single-mindedly dedicated to the dissertation topic, you must now be able to speak conversationally and collegially as if you actually have had a life, during all those long years.