Don’t Be That Asshole (by Kellee Weinhold)

We continue in our series of interview-focused posts by Kellee Weinhold, the master of Interview Interventions, Job Talk Interventions, and Campus Visit Interventions here at TPII.

Kellee, accompanied by Penelope the Rabbit.

Kellee, accompanied by Penelope the Rabbit.

Several years ago, at a Yom Kippur break fast with a group of professor friends, the conversation turned to my work preparing newly minted PhDs for academic job interviews. After the requisite job market horror stories (Theirs, not mine–I DO NOT discuss client names, disciplines or search details ever, under any circumstances!), a senior colleague at an R1 institution announced, rather dramatically:

“The thing they don’t understand is that they’re being surveilled from the minute they walk on campus until the minute they leave!”

Others chimed in. It’s not just at the campus visit, they said, but from their very first engagement with the potential colleague’s work. “Yes, we want them to be good scholars,” a Department Chair said. “Yes, we want to know what they can teach. AND… we are trying to figure out whether they’re going to be colleagues we enjoy, or assholes.”

Colleagues or assholes?  That is the question.

That one conversation established my core ethos for the live Skype Interview Interventions: A) You are being surveilled;  B) Don’t be an asshole.

What is surveilled? Your scholarship, your potential for tenure, your teaching, and your collegiality. And the most challenging element, without wandering into arrogance and self-absorption, is that last one:  collegiality.

Turns out, it’s kind of hard for new Ph.D.s to illustrate that they are not assholes.

This isn’t personal, it’s structural.  Think about it: if you ask someone to be utterly absorbed by one single obsessive project for 6 to 10 years in order to produce a document proving that you are worthy of the PhD, it’s going to be almost impossible NOT to come out sounding self-absorbed.

This basic truth of academia colors the job search. Faculty members know that many, many Ph.D.s leave their graduate programs sounding like self-absorbed prima donnas.  (Yes, I see the irony in those who bear responsibility for creating potential assholes trying to screen them away). As another colleague of mine was fond of saying after faculty meetings in his department, “We build an entire cohort of people who want to be left alone to do their own thing, who don’t play well with others, then we ask them to work together.” One more of academia’s little paradoxes.)

But enough about the causes. What can you do? For the job candidate, the challenge is facing a potentially bizarre array of questions designed to determine: “Are you an asshole?”

There are several forms these questions can take.

Some institutions simply use the fit question. “What do you want to be here?” or “Why did you apply for this position?”

They want to know that you’ve thought about being there. That you know a little bit about them. Your answer needs to be more than simply “This is how your department and university serves my agenda and goal.” What is about THEM that attracts you?

Your answer should include who they are and how you fit into that ethos. Check out my post “The Dreaded Fit Question” for a complete workup on how to handle this question.

Some departments stretch a little further and include the contribution question: “How do you see yourself contributing to XXX Department?

Once again, they want to know you’ve thought about being there. Do you have a plan for going out and shining in the larger discipline and reflecting positively on their R-1? Do you have ideas about how to grow the profile of the department on campus? Have you thought about how you would advise students at a SLAC? Can you articulate how you would work with graduate students at an R-1? Are you able to explain the role of the academic adviser for a teaching college?

In other words, are you going to play well with others and serve the department’s interests as well as your own or hide in your office focused on your own work, drain resources and be an asshole?

Remember academics contribute in three ways: scholarship, service and teaching. So your answer needs to address what you will bring in all three.

Some departments rely heavily on the “Do you have any questions for us?” query. The tricky part here is that your questions should not be to get information. They are to show that you are thinking about what they want you to think about. Check out this post for more on the minefield of “questions for them.

Some departments fall back on more traditional private sector questions:

  • “What do you value in yourself as a colleague/in other colleagues?”
  • “Tell us about the biggest challenge you faced as an academic, how you faced it, and what you’d do differently now?”
  • “Tell us about a conflict you had with a colleague and how you have handled it?”
  • “What has been your biggest challenge with a student and how have you handled it?”
  • “What do you do when students challenge you or have conflicts with each other about controversial issues in class?

These questions may be designed to deal with issues in the department. Maybe they are protecting against someone messing up a good thing and/or attempting to avoid repeating or exacerbating existing problems. At any rate, they dig deeper to get insight into how you cope with the vagaries of an academic (and real) life.

See the theme here: When you compare yourself to other people and/or shit goes wrong, how do you handle it? Does your answer indicate that you focus on being slighted? On being the victim? On being persecuted? Does it show that you have no backbone, buckle under the slightest pressure, give in to keeping the peace at all cost? Will they see the flashing warning lights of a rigid ideologue who cannot adapt to the inevitable changes of life in the university/department/classroom?

Here is one model response: “One significant challenge I faced recently in the classroom was with a young man/woman who strongly disagreed with the author of a piece we were reading. It is important to me that my classroom be a place that is safe for all viewpoints and that they be engaged with in a respectful way. I set that up in the first class by establishing the criteria for respectful communication, including engaging based on evidence not beliefs. So, with this student, when she got really frustrated, I was able to respectfully redirect her to focus on her evidence and facts and keep those students who disagreed with her focused on their evidence as well. It ended up being a very productive conversation where all the participants were able to engage with a range of ideas.”

I know you hear this over and over again from The Professor Is In, but it bears repeating: Faculty members are over-extended, called on to manage multiple demands from increasingly large constituencies. The last thing they want to add to their lives is a colleague who sucks up administrative and emotional resources without a concern for the larger collective project.

Don’t be that asshole.

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Don’t Be That Asshole (by Kellee Weinhold) — 1 Comment

  1. This does not only apply to academia! It is THE question that everybody who doesn’t understand hates.

    Just remember, it’s not about you. It’s about them! They are hiring you for THEIR benefit, not yours.

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