Interviewing at an HBCU: The Question is a Different Question (A Guest Post)

This post is in two parts.

Part One is by Melissa Geil

Melissa Geil is a freelance writer and English teacher. She worked for five years at a public HBCU in Tennessee, where she served on multiple job search committees. She kindly responded to my request for a blog post on interviewing at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).

Part Two is by an anonymous contributor

Our contributor is an HBCU graduate with an M.S. and Ph.D. from public, southern PWIs (Predominantly white institutions). She interviewed at 2 private HBCUs before landing a tenure track position in education at a public HBCU where her senior colleagues have finally stopped calling her “Baby Doc”

Part One

So, you’ve landed an interview with an HBCU. No problem! You have prepared for other interviews and this one is no different. Just do the same kind of research and prep you have done for your other interviews and you will be all set. Right?

Yes and no.

Yes, you will get some of the same questions that you get at any other interview. But what that question is really asking may be asking something else entirely.

Moreover, you will also get questions that you will not get anywhere else.  Below are some of the questions you might get when interviewing at an HBCU and what it is that the search committee really wants to know.

To begin with, there is ONE thing they really want to know:

WHY do you want to work here?

You will get asked this question as many times and in as many formats as you have meetings. And while this may be the opportunity for you to show that you have done your research about why a particular institution is special and unique for other institutions, this question is of VITAL importance at an HBCU.

Why is it so important? Because you are interviewing to work at an institution that has a place in history, that strives to educate and uplift African American students—often since the mid-19th century—and this identity matters to the people that work there and the students who choose to go there. This identity shapes the very fabric of the educational structure, and to work at the university is to believe in and contribute to that structure. To be a part of the university is to become a part of that history and legacy.

“Why do you want to work here” at an HBCU is not about you. It is about whether or not you believe in and want to become a part of the mission of the university. To take part in the education of students who have made a very conscious choice regarding the educational experience that they want.  It is about showing the search committee that you understand that to work at an HBCU is an enormous privilege and responsibility, one that you want to take on.

Moreover, you must understand what it means to assume this responsibility. One version of this question that I was asked was in regards to the place where I received my doctorate: an elite private university that lacked diversity (the students compared the campus environment to living in a bubble). Why did I want to leave my bubble to come work with students who may come from less privileged backgrounds and who may not possess as high a degree of academic training as my previous employer? In other words: tell me again why you want to work here?

Sample Question (actually asked at interview): You work at an elite institution right now;  the students come from the top of their high school classes. We are not an elite university. Why do you want to work here?

(Note: while this is definitely not true of all HBCUs, a number of the state schools serve urban, lower income populations with sometimes underperforming students)

Sample Answer: I think that is precisely the point. My background is in public education. Although I attended a private university for graduate school, I went to a public high school and a public university for college, a fact of which I am proud and for which I am very grateful. Working at [this HBCU] provides me with the opportunity to give back to the public education system of which I am a product.

Now, for some of other questions you might encounter.

Tell us about your research:

As Karen writes in The Question is Not the Question (if you haven’t read this yet, go read it right now and then come back to this entry)

You think they care about your research. You say way too much about narrow, narrow, oh so narrow, tediously narrow interests.

“No. They want to learn about how your expertise fits into their departmental needs as expressed by the job ad, and connects with the work of the people doing the interview (which is why your methodology and  contribution are actually the most important portion of your answer), and is quickly getting funded and published in ways that bode well for tenure.  At the same time, they observe how you express yourself, how self- absorbed you are or aren’t.”

The same goes for your HBCU interview, BUT, I want to emphasize Karen’s point about FUNDING.

An article in the New York Times last year spoke about the shrinking, sometimes mismanaged, and unstable endowments at many HBCUs. Which means that being able to find funding for your own research and, even better, for department and university programs is essential. Funding for tenure is wonderful, but HBCUs also need to know that you can find funding to help to start new programs or keep existing ones running.

Sample question: Tell me about your book project. (i.e. do you understand that you have to do research, but you are also realistic about getting that done while teaching the course load we offer)

Sample good answer: Title of Book Project is about [INSERT ELEVATOR PITCH HERE]. It is currently on its third revision and I am planning on shopping it to publishers at next year’s MLA. Moreover, I have applied for an NEH summer grant to support some additional research for the project.

A quick note about this answer: notice that it is a summer grant. You do not want to spend your time telling them about all the teaching leave you are going to need in order to publish this fantastic books. A lot of HBCUs are very teaching intensive.

Tell us about your plan for the next five years:

As Karen says, they are not looking for abstractions about your life; they are looking for specifics about your plans for research goals and teaching goals. With an HBCU, I also want to emphasize the point that, when describing these goals, see them in terms of how you are contributing to the department and the university.  In other words, your plan is to stay.  Your plan is to continue to help the university grow and thrive. If hired, you will be committed to the university.  Basically, even this question ultimately turns into “why do you want to work here?”.

Sample question: Where do you see yourself in five years? (i.e. why do you want to work here)

Sample “bad” answer: I’m on my third book, and I have published in all of the major journals in my field and have received a prestigious grant to work in Germany for the year.

Sample good answer: Ideally, I would like to be in my fifth year of teaching here. I’m involved in the development of our curriculum for undergraduates, I’m working with other departments on some team-taught courses, and my colleagues and I are writing an NEH Humanities Initiative HBCU grant. I’m in the final stages of revising my second book and am putting together my tenure package.

Tell us how you would teach our big survey course? Our first year writing course?

Again, Karen’s advice is paramount. Show that you a) are willing to teach the big survey courses or first year writing courses and that you b) understand what it means to teach these courses to non-majors and majors and not hijack it to teach your own personal agenda. However, at an HBCU, it is key that you factor in the students when talking about teaching. These students chose to attend an HBCU over other universities. Therefore, it is also important to address the fact that, when choosing readings for your survey course, you consider their choice of school.

For example, say you are asked how you would teach the giant Early American Lit survey course and you trot out your syllabus of dead white guys and start talking about how important it is for students to read the complete works of Cotton Mather. First of all, don’t do this. Second of all, tailor your sample syllabi and dream courses to reflect, at least to a degree, the interests of your students.

Sample question (actually asked): how do you get your composition students to turn in quality papers? (i.e. what do you do with students who do not write well?)

Sample “bad” answer (also actual): I heavily penalize late papers, so the students understand that there are consequences for late work.

Sample good answer: For starters, the paper is not the first thing that they turn in. We start with an introduction workshop, then have a revising workshop, and then they turn in a final draft. This takes the pressure off of the first draft, allowing the students to learn that writing is a process rather than a one-and-done event.

Another sample question (actually asked in a phone interview): You come to class and realize that no one has read for the day. What do you do?

Sample “bad” answer: I send everyone home for the day, give them all a zero for participation, and tell them that there will be a quiz every day in class from now on.

Sample good answer: I try to figure out a way to make the class work for that day. If it is a literature class, I will select a few key paragraphs and do a close reading exercise that enables the students to participate even if they haven’t read for the day. I also like to remind the students that this is their education, and that they are the person who really being shortchanged by failing to do the work that is being asked of them.

Do you have any questions for us?

Another way of asking “Why do you want to work here”? Yes, it is.

Do your homework. Research the history of the university—I’m not kidding here. When was it founded? Why? This will help to inform your questions. See what kind of outreach the department and the university do. For example, NPR recently did a piece on how Drexel University (KK:  which is not an HBCU, but author included this example, and it may still be useful to readers) is working to revitalize its Philadelphia neighborhood of Mantua.

One of the best questions to ask at an HBCU—really anywhere—is to ask about the students. What do you like the best about teaching there? What are some of your recent graduates up to?

One question that I wasn’t expecting when I first interviewed at an HBCU was this:

Tell us about your community service.

There was no question of if I did community service. It was just assumed that if I was going to be a good fit for that institution, then I was community minded and actively committed to service.

This question knocked me for a bit of a loop. I was community minded and did do volunteer work, but hadn’t prepared to talk about it. Many HBCUs are extremely service-minded; at my old institution, every single member of my department did some form of volunteer or community service in addition to all of their departmental and university commitments. Thus, if you are a good fit, you understand that to work there is a privilege, one that is repaid with service and outreach.

Community service can range for a lot of things, from formalized volunteer work to campus/department programming. Volunteer for Special Olympics every year? Talk about that. You are the secretary for the Graduate Student Union? Talk about that. You work in your neighborhood community garden? Talk about that. The important thing is that you are engaged and invested in making the world around you a better place.

Lastly, let’s talk about what can be the elephant in the room when interviewing with an HBCU: race, ethnicity, and diversity. Only a couple of HBCUs have doctoral programs, so chances are if you are interviewing with one, you will be coming from a campus where African American students are a minority. If you are asked a question, as I was, about how you would go about transitioning from teaching where you are to teaching at the HBCU where you are interviewing (which, by the way, is yet another way of asking why do you want to work here), here is my advice:

Be honest. If you have some experience teaching in a diverse (racially, economically, academically) classroom, speak to that. If you do not have experience, speak to that as well. One thing not to do, however, is to assume that a classroom is a classroom and students are the same everywhere.

For example, if asked: “How might you alter your teaching approach to reach our students?” it would be a bad idea to say “I don’t think I’ll need to change my teaching at all.” Be up front about what you don’t know without being ignorant.

Sample answer: “With every place that I have taught, there has been a learning curve about what works and what doesn’t with the students. When I develop new syllabi, I start by talking to my colleagues and looking at their syllabi to learn about their successful teaching strategies. I also talk to my students, and tell them if there is something about our class that isn’t working for them to come and discuss it with me. This is their class, too. In the give and take of the classroom environment, my teaching style will adapt and evolve to meet the challenges and expectations of the students at this university.”

An HBCU can be an incredible place to work, if it is the right fit for you. As I said earlier, students have deliberately chosen to learn at these storied institutions; what the search committee really wants to know is that you are consciously choosing them, too.

Part Two:  A Different World: Interviewing at an HBCU

In many ways, interviewing at an HBCU is like interviewing at any other institution.  However, if you are unfamiliar with the unique history and culture of HBCUs, an interview at such an institution can present additional challenges.

Why are you interested in an HBCU/xxx institution?

If you are not a person of African descent, this is code for “Why do you want to come here and work with all of these Black people?” They want to know to know why you want to be at an institution where you will be racial minority (and therefore, hypervisible), working with a mostly Black student population, faculty, and administration.  They may even ask something crass like “How do you think you will work with Black people?”  That has actually happened.   Give an answer such as: I’ve researched the history of your institution and this department and I admire its legacy of preparing African-American leaders in XXX field.  I also admire Dr. XXX’s (longtime or recently retired professor) contributions to this field. I think that my teaching and research interests will continue this legacy of preparing leaders in XXX field.  This is an appropriate answer for any applicant, regardless of their background.  If you happen to have a former teacher/professor, advisor, or classmate that attended an HBCU, it is okay to mention that you learned about HBCUs from this person and developed an affinity for this institutional type through them.   If you are not Black, do not say you have always wanted to work at an HBCU. It will sound fake.

How will you balance teaching with research?

Thought most HBCUs are baccalaureate-granting institutions, this question is most relevant at larger, doctoral granting HBCUs.  HBCUs as a group tend to be more focused on teaching than comparable PWIs (predominately White institutions).  The nurturing culture of HBCUs makes teaching a priority, regardless of Carnegie designation.   You can say something like: I plan to reserve 1-2 days a week for my writing and research. Give an answer that shows you given some thought on how to get writing and research done on a campus that is research intensive on paper but teaching-oriented in action.

How are you prepared to teach the types of students our institution serves?

In addition to enrolling a primarily Black student population, HBCUs enroll larger percentages of first generation and/or low-income students than PWIs.  This is where you emphasize your experience teaching students of color, if you have such experience.  If you don’t, discuss how you’re researched culturally relevant teaching and the challenges of first-generation/low-income/students of color.  Again, HBCUs are teaching oriented.  How you will interact with and meet the needs of HBCU students, especially if you look different from most of them, is important.

How can we be convinced you will stay at an HBCU?

The search committee may not ask this question in those exact words, but they want to know that you are committed to staying at an HBCU and aren’t viewing the position as a holding place for a more elite institution. Be prepared to address how you will fit in on a HBCU campus.  Discuss how the geographical location appeals to you.  Address how you are passionate about teaching and attracted to teaching the first-generation and/or Pell-eligible population that HBCUs primarily serve. Highlight any experience you have teaching students of color.  Even if you attended an HBCU for undergrad, but earned a doctorate from a PWI, there may be concerns that you really aspire to put your doctorate to so-called better use at a more elite institution. This is an opportunity to reiterate your commitment to HBCUs as an alumnus/alumna.

A question you should ask… (Because you will definitely ask questions when given the opportunity)

What mentoring opportunities are available to help me get acclimated to the campus?

HBCUs can be very insular.  If you’re an outsider (read: not black or have no ties to the institution or HBCUs), a mentor or buddy can be helpful in getting adjusted to campus.

Some final points:

The academic dress code is more formal at HBCUs.  You may be interviewed by potential colleagues who wear suits/ties/heels/dresses every day. Even though you’re already planning to be dressed to the nines, this is something to keep in mind.

How to address search committee members? Call them Doctor. If a committee member doesn’t have a doctorate, call them Mr. or Ms. (calling them Professor sounds too grad student-ish).  HBCUs tend to be much more formal in this regard.  Unless a search committee member requests that you call them by their first name, call them Dr.

HBCUs campuses are challenged with microaggressions and incidents of discrimination just as PWIs are challenged with these unfortunate occurrences.  Don’t think that just because HBCUs were founded to educate former slaves that the campus culture is going to be all I Have a Dream-Kumbaya-We All Get Along.

Keep in mind that while there are unique traits that all HBCUs share, HBCUs are heterogeneous.   The differences are primarily based on control (public or private), religious affiliation, and location (from the Mid-Atlantic through the Deep South and Southwest).

If you need to learn more about HBCUs, check out these links

And check out a few episodes of A Different World on youtube.  Just kidding…those might not help with interviewing but you will be entertained and informed about HBCUs.

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Interviewing at an HBCU: The Question is a Different Question (A Guest Post) — 10 Comments

  1. Drexel is not an HBCU and no one with any real knowledge of higher education would ever mistake it for one. Unless that’s a typo and it doesn’t appear that it is by the linked article, I have to seriously question how well the author really knows HBCUs.

    • I was wondering the same thing…it’s not a typo, though. Drexel is located nearby Mantua and is doing various outreach to Mantua and West Philadelphia, but it’s not an HBCU (it doesn’t even have a particularly large proportion of African American students relative to the entire student body).

      • I checked this out and you’re all right–Drexel is not an HBCU. I edited the post to reflect this. I left the example in, however, since it might perhaps still be helpful on how to make community connections.

  2. Thank you. One question that I would anticipate is along the lines of “How do you approach the education of students whose first language is non-Standard American English?” You’ll need some coherent strategy to communicate to a student who, for example, writes “axe” for “ask” in a paper that she will need to change that if she wants to pursue her dream of being a journalist, while at the same time not embarrassing her by treating this as a linguistic error instead of what it is, a dialect feature.

    • I don’t know if you teach at an HBCU and have encountered this as a particular problem. I attended an HBCU for undergrad (as well as predominantly black middle and high schools), and have worked with diverse groups of students on the other side of the desk. I personally can’t see an HBCU professor asking that question. First of all, “axe” for “ask” is a feature of Southern dialects in general, not just African American Vernacular English. Secondly…most African American students grew up speaking and writing in standard English alongside AAVE. I grew up speaking AAVE but I would not say that my first language was non-Standard English, and the distinctions between the vernacular English spoken at home in black homes and the standard English necessary to function in the wider American world is a point that’s overemphasized many black families/homes. I have never seen a black college student write “axe” instead of “ask” – I’m not going to say that it doesn’t happen, but I’m not sure that it’s enough of a significant issue that a professor would ask about it. I would be surprised if they did. I’ve encountered other kinds of misspelled words that are based on the way words are spoken and not written, but I haven’t noticed that this is because of a background speaking AAVE – all students do it.

      I do think that this question does reside in the larger topic of how to address students who might be coming from underserved schools and communities – who are bright and talented but haven’t had that intelligence and talent adequately developed because of lack of resources in their communities. Writing skills ARE a huge thing in that regard.

  3. THANK YOU for the tip about addressing search committee members as “Dr.” I know Karen is adamant about addressing search committee members by their first names, but I was wondering – even at an HBCU?

  4. First, my sister friend, I am extremely proud of you. I have watched you become an outstanding doctor and I can’t wait to see you take the world by storm. I echo many of your thoughts taking the same path as you. If I could do it again, I STILL would choose Howard. My sense of self was questioned when applying to medical school as I didn’t even touch the MCAT until it was almost to late. I only received two interviews for medical school, and even had a Dean at Meharry tell me to leave Meharry, somewhere else is better. I was accepted and I still chose Meharry because the experience is incomparable and I had formed a family. HBCUs are relevant, necessary and an experience of a lifetime. I thank God daily for them and know I wouldn’t be where I am had it not been for Howard University ana Meharry Medical College. ??

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