How To Make Small Talk on Your Campus Visit

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.

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How To Make Small Talk on Your Campus Visit — 22 Comments

  1. This makes me think about what my uncle told me about small talk when he served in the navy for months at a time. To avoid conflict everyone understood the following topics to be taboo: politics, religion, and sex! This is oversimplifying things, of course, but I have found it useful over the years.

    • In general society that is absolutely valid, John! What is interesting in my observation about academia (and granted this is just my personal observation) is that talking knowledgably about liberal/progressive politics marks you as a member of the tribe. So does talking about the New York Times. These are markers 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.

      • I agree with John on this one. It is a good rule of thumb not to mention politics the first time you meet someone, even if you suspect they might be of the same convictions. A candidate who launches into these issues too hastily might be perceived as someone who is liable to make other, less forgivable conversational gaffes down the line.

  2. I will absolutely echo Karen’s suggestions (read all of the “Most Popular” articles on NYT for sure!). I’d also add NPR (and to the list, particularly because they do a lot of pop-science coverage and have a decent amount of apolitical reporting (I honestly started one lively conversation with “did you see the story about the unexplained series of beached whales in South America?”) and encourage people to watch 2-3 TED talks that are relevant to their field but not specifically their research. Also, don’t be afraid to allow people to talk about themselves! What are they reading? Where do they spend winter break? Where do they go to see live music?
    This may be a bit overboard, but I read the local paper headlines, Google-d all of the faculty (one of them had written a beautiful chapter about teaching that I had not found anywhere else!) and Yelped local restaurants. All of those things were helpful in allowing me to ask questions and generate discussions that were both relevant to my hosts AND demonstrated that I was genuinely trying to determine if this was a place I could call home. Truthfully my favorite part of the interviews was chit-chat, which spanned quite naturally from Bruce Springsteen to implicit biases to AWOL Marines. Read up!
    And I got the TT job 😉

    • I have some kind of tempermental aversion to listening to radio news (it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me) so I have never listened to NPR for longer than 1 minute, but despite that, I completely second what CAS says: NPR may be, indeed, the single best thing that you can familiarize yourself with to quickly add a veneer of social acceptability prior to entering the campus visit.

  3. I always find the best strategy is to ask people about themselves and let that guide the conversation rather than trying too hard to show off yourself and your own views. We never have trouble working that in, but we do often forget to ask questions about others. A sterling piece of advice is that people don’t remember what you say, but they remember how you make them feel, as the advice from CAS above also reveals.

    • You are so so right! Sometimes people are just so over-amped that they forget that these are CONVERSATIONS, not monologues!

      I just want to say that I lost a campus visit once when I didn’t know who Kazuo Ishiguro was. I’ve mentioned this before on the blog. He’s a British author (wrote Remains of the Day, for crying out loud!) who happens to be of Japanese nationality. The old school elderly British social anthropologist of Africa, who clearly thought we “postmodern” Japan type candidates were a bunch of freaks, tried to engage with me over dinner about his writing. I’d never even heard of the guy. Much contempt and judgment followed. Now, reading the NYT Review of Books for one week is obv. no guarantee that I would have known ishiguro….but the larger point I’m trying to make is that we all tend to become way too myopic in grad school, and become very ham-handed about ways to engage with people outside our microscopic area of specialization. It is basically good to be, or appear to be, well- and widely-read.

  4. P.S. Surprisingly perhaps, I’ve also found that the people in my own department (I’m a grad student but used to be Director of the University Press of our U) include quite a large number of church-goers (no, not a department of Religion nor a denominational college). This sort of info is hard to find out via Google, but this and other such useful tidbits might be gleaned from other grad students you’ve met at conferences. Religion may not be a topic to stay away from, depending on who you are chitchatting with. In this, as in other things, people like to feel comfortable around new hires.

    • I totally hesitate to say this, and god knows I’m going to offend someone, but basically it always seemed to me that if you were jewish or catholic or buddhist or Quaker, you could be openly “religious.” But if you were any kind of mainline denomination protestant, there was no good way to speak of church withyout looking like some kind of outlyer freak. I say this as someone who attended a United Church of Christ church for many many years.

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  6. I’ve met enough closet conservatives in academia to suggest that people should hedge their bets when opening up conversation:

    “I’ve seen a lot in the news about the governor trying to break union contracts… what is the general sentiment around here about this?”

    This doesn’t force you into a position and it opens your interlocutor up for further conversation.

    The Other Professor Karen (TOPK) 🙂

    • You’re probably right, Karen. I have never actually encountered that myself—my depts and interviewers have always been steadfastly liberal—but then again, they’re anthropologists…! There is undoubtedly greater variation out there than I have personally experienced. Would you hazard to say this is more likely at east coast elite institutions?

      • As something of a right leaning moderate, this is something which bugs me about my department. Free thinking on politics is discouraged, and I’m forced to hide my politics and opinions while others run roughshod over my freedom of personal opinion. I hate when politics get discussed because then I have to fake it or risk losing my job.

  7. This is all extremely good advice. Some info from the field: at my institution (a humanities dep’t in an R1 in the Northeast) the periodical that comes up most often in conversation is the New Yorker.

  8. This is all useful enough, but assumes that the candidate knows some other basics, like LISTENING. Candidates need to express interest in others, seem open and warm, and listen. Candidates have been sunk by yammering on and not showing simple courtesy and turn-taking. An important thing to remember is that everyone loves talking about themselves…so let them do so! You’ll get a lot of brownie points AND get to eat your meal.

  9. During the informal parts of a campus visit (at an East Coast R1), several faculty brought up their spouse/partner/children/family situation and then (without asking a direct question) would pause awkwardly for me to fill in about my spouse/partner/family situation. I know it benefits me to be single/no children (no partner hire!), but I’m a bit self-conscious about not having a partner/family and I really didn’t have anything to contribute. What should I have done? If I said “well, the NYT said fewer and fewer people my age are getting married…” That would have been more awkward.

    • You probably should create a narrative that you’re content with that kind of deflects weird insinuations about your marital state without sounding defensive, defeatist, or going into too much detail. Or saying, “my dissertation is my baby.”

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