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.

The Question Is Not The Question, Postac Version – Langer

by Jessica Langer

Jessica Langer

Jessica Langer

Following her (really, really important) post on the academic interview, “The Question Is Not The Question“, Karen asked me to write a version for alt/post-ac life.

Interviewing, as Karen has said many times and as I concur, is in part an information-gathering session and in part a performance. Karen’s suggestion that “‘yourself’ is the very last person you want to be” in an academic interview is similarly true in a non-academic interview, but in some ways it’s even more so. Performing the academic self is a little easier if you’re an academic by training; performing the non-academic self if you’re trained as an academic takes some doing.
You’ll need to get over whatever impostor syndrome may dog you from your years as an academic. Everyone in the non-academic world feels like an impostor, too – but the difference is that outside of academia, you really do just have to fake it til you make it, and everyone’s taught that pretty early on. (As Oliver Burkeman says, “everyone is just totally winging it, all the time.”
So this is your guide, dear reader, to “winging it” effectively in a non-academic interview when you’ve been trained as an academic. And the way I’m helping you to wing it today is by teaching you what interviewers are really asking you when they’re asking you questions in your interview.
“Hi! Welcome. How are you?”
“Hi! Welcome. Let’s exchange pleasantries.” The only appropriate answer here is “Hi! It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m very well, thanks, and yourself?” or some variation of such.
You would be shocked at how many people start the interview off on the wrong foot from the first words. Please don’t tell them how you actually are. They don’t want to hear that you’re five minutes late because you got stuck in traffic or couldn’t find parking. (You should never, ever be five minutes late.) They don’t want to hear how you got there. They don’t want to hear that you’re sick but still make it in (if you’re sick with a cold, then take a gallon of Dayquil and bathe in Purell, and if you can’t, then try to reschedule the interview). Don’t tell them you’re tired or hungry. Tell them that you’re very well, thank you, and ask about them. This is pure performance. They want to know whether you’re going to be pleasant to deal with or not on a daily basis.
“Tell me about a time when you dealt with a difficult situation at work.”
For example: let’s say you successfully managed to help a student worker who had poor time management skills to better plan their time and improve their performance. Here’s the wrong way to explain it:
“I had a student who was really disorganized and missed a ton of deadlines, and it really held up the rest of our work. We couldn’t do anything because he couldn’t meet deadlines. Eventually I showed them how to keep a calendar effectively and it helped a lot.”
Here’s the right way to explain it:
“One of my student workers had some challenges around time management, and found it difficult to meet deadlines. I worked with the student on calendaring, prioritization and daily planning to help her use her time more effectively. This assistance has improved the department’s efficiency, and has also helped the student to be more successful in her academic work.”
See the difference in tone? It’s more positive. It’s not accusatory. It talks about poor time management as a problem in the student’s approach, not in the student’s character (“disorganized” vs “some challenges around time management”), and suggests that you see problems as solvable, not intractable.
Remember: no one wants an excuse, and no one wants negativity. No one wants to hear why you couldn’t do something. Everyone wants to hear why and how you managed to be successful in the face of difficulty.
What’s your biggest weakness?”
I really dislike this question, because it almost never gets the responses a company is looking for. But I understand why interviewers ask it, and if you answer well, then it can be effective in helping them screen for whether you will fit into the workplace well and can help you screen them as to whether you think the job will be a good fit for you. (Remember, you’re not just looking for any job – you’re looking for a good fit.)
The conventional wisdom is to answer with a “weakness” that’s actually a strength; i.e. “I’m a workaholic” or “I’m a perfectionist”. Most interviewers will see through this, though, and it doesn’t do anyone any favours.
The best approach with this question is to answer honestly, with a weakness that is relatively minor but real, and follow this up immediately by telling the interviewer how you mitigate this weakness.
For example:
“I find sometimes that I focus on my work so much that I’m slow to develop relationships with my colleagues. I find, though, that taking scheduled breaks and being open and friendly really helps with this, and this approach has helped me to develop great relationships with my current colleagues.”
“I struggle sometimes with organization, because my default mode is to synthesize information rather than to organize it. Organization doesn’t come naturally to me. Because of this, though, I developed a very effective system during my doctoral work that helps me to organize my tasks.”
The other benefit of this approach is that you won’t be hired for a job that you simply can’t do and/or will make you miserable. If, for instance, you’re generally disorganized and it’s a job that requires a high level of innate organization (and enjoyment of organizing things), you won’t be happy in the job anyway, and you employer won’t be happy with your work.
Where do you see yourself in five years?”
The unspoken end of this sentence is “…at our company?” They don’t want to hear about how you’re planning to make a career change in five years. They don’t even really want to hear about how you’re hoping to get your foot in the door at their company in Accounting so that you can move into Marketing.
This question is a question about where your interests lie and what you hope your trajectory will be at their company and in the trajectory they’re hiring you for.
To make sure you can answer this question, do some research before the interview about the company. (You should research the company anyway.) Check out the LinkedIn profiles of people at the company who are in similar roles to the one you’re interviewing for, or who are further ahead in their careers, and look at what their career paths look like. If it’s a small company, think about how you might be able to use your skills to grow the business in your area of expertise.
The fly in the ointment here is when you’re interviewing for a job that you have no intention of keeping for five years: if, for instance, you ARE planning to make a career change, or you ARE planning to get your foot in the door so you can make a move to a different department.
My advice in this case is to remember that things don’t always turn out the way we think they will: it’s very possible that you’ll take the job and end up loving it so much that you do want to stay in Accounting. It’s also very possible that the company itself will change and you’ll have opportunities you hadn’t even considered. Try thinking creatively about the best-case scenario for you in the track you’re being hired for, or about synergies between that track and the one you’re ultimately going for.
“Do you have any questions for us?”
My advice here is similar to the advice Karen gives to academics. This question has two purposes. First is what it says on the tin: they want to know if you have any questions that might help you make a decision. And second: they want to hear that you’ve researched the company, you know what they’re about, and that you’re intelligent and interested enough to ask good questions that will help you make a decision.
(Do not ask about salary or benefits here. It sucks, but it’s the convention. Ask about these at the offer stage.)
I hope this has been helpful. If you have any more questions about, well, questions, feel free to post them in the comments and I’m happy to address them.

Americans Don’t Brag

Americans don’t brag.  That’s not true; Americans brag all the time, about many things–money, sex,  the fish that got away.  However, we don’t brag as much as you’d expect in our job applications.  This may seem counterintuitive, considering the global American reputation for being over-confident, over-assertive, and loud.  Self-promotion, however, which IS a generally accepted American cultural practice, is not bragging.  This is a fine distinction.  And I’ve come to understand it’s one that troubles many international clients.

I’m an anthropologist. What I do at TPII is a kind of applied anthropology, although I rarely call it that, and didn’t conceive it in that way when I began the business.  Only after a bit of time passed did I begin to recognize that I was extracting the insider, taken-for-granted, unspoken cultural practices of American academic hiring, and holding them up for scrutiny and analysis, in a highly anthropological manner.

But I don’t overplay this hand.  I don’t want to exaggerate a “cultural” analysis of the American academy.  I don’t think it’s helpful.  I’m really not here to analyze.  I’m here to describe and explain.

So when I work with clients, I don’t usually spend time connecting my suggested edits to American cultural norms.  However, there are exceptions, when I come out and bluntly state: “you’re doing something culturally problematic for an American context.”   Where this happens most often: some international clients’ tendency to brag in ways that might alienate American search committees.

At issue are claims that to an American ear/eye appear wildly — even laughably — grandiose. Examples:

  • I am doing exceptional cutting-edge research that will  put your department on the map as a leader in the field.
  • My unique approach has never been seen before in the discipline and has garnered effusive praise and widespread imitation.
  • My numerous articles in the leading, highest-prestige journals have been enthusiastically received by countless colleagues in the field and prompted many requests for collaboration.
  • My pathbreaking conclusions will finally correct the persistent and tragic misunderstandings that have long plagued the study of this topic.
  • Many top-ranking presses will eagerly invite my important manuscript for publication.

To an American ear, language like this feels cheap and overblown.  One of the main culprits here are adjectives and adverbs that are hyperbolic and grandiose.  While cutting these won’t solve the whole problem, it’ll solve a large chunk of it.  Read the posts, “This Christmas, Don’t Be Cheap” and “Grad Student Grandiosity” for more on how to identify and fix these.

I note that clients from Western Europe and South Asia seem to struggle with this issue the most.  I am not an expert in these regions and I cannot speculate why my clients from these places are the most likely to depend on this kind of language in their job applications.  I only know: they do.  My American clients are by no means immune to the problem of bragging, of course.  But it’s not usually as patterned and persistent.  Which is what finally alerted me to the cultural nature of the issue.  Many of the examples that I use in the Grad Student Grandiosity post came from international clients from those two regions above.

As I said above, I think there are different causes for this phenomenon.  As an anthropologist of Japan with background in the study of East Asia more generally, I know that some of my East Asian clients turn to grandiosity in an anxious attempt to compensate for cultural norms in that region that emphasize diffidence and humility.  These clients tell me that they are painfully aware that they must “toot their own horn” in America; they just have no idea how.  They sometimes overcorrect. In other parts of the world, I surmise that it must be accepted professional behavior to make effusive claims of this kind, and they operate as effective professional communication practice.  Or maybe everybody is over-correcting based on stereotypes of Americans?  I’d be very interested to hear from readers:  is this true?  what insights can you share?

But on the American academic job market, all applicants come up against what I call the Academic Skepticism Principle.  Nobody accepts claims at face value.  If you can’t stand up at a major American conference and announce, “My perspective on Austen is pathbreaking and widely-imitated!  The field of Austen Studies will be fundamentally transformed by my conclusions, and academic presses are clamoring for my book!” then, you shouldn’t say that in a job application letter either.  Your case for yourself must be the same, in all of these American scholarly contexts. It must be based on the presentation of evidence.




Framing Your Freelance Experience on the Academic Job Market – Fruscione #postac post

by Joe Fruscione

Joe Fruscione

Joe Fruscione

After my most recent piece on academic editing, a reader asked a valuable question: Can anyone comment on the fear that establishing a website advertising editing services will negatively affect your chances of getting a tenure-track job?

I was curious about this issue myself, so I crowd sourced it. A handful of tenured and other full-time, experienced faculty responded in ways that should be helpful for editors, consultants, and other freelancers applying for academic jobs. The common denominator in the answers I received is this: the value (or lack thereof) of your freelancing experience depends on (1) the job you’re applying for and (2) how you frame your extra-academic skills. According to a Dean of Arts & Sciences at a school in the Midwest, a sustained, active publishing record and teaching experience ultimately matter most for tenure-track positions, but freelance experience should not necessarily weaken a job candidate.

These answers from my colleagues should help you get started framing yourself as an experienced, versatile job candidate. As always, use your common sense and best judgment based on the specific department and job ad when deciding how—or whether—to share your freelancing experience.

Dawn Fels (Writing): I wouldn’t consider that experience as bad, especially for a compositionist. To borrow from Victor Villanueva, we “do” writing, so I can’t imagine how doing writing (as an editor or writer outside the scholarly realm) makes one less scholarly. To write outside the scholarly realm shows someone to be a writer with a wider and deeper understanding of audience, genre expectations, and one’s place in that mix. As a compositionist, I know I’m teaching students to write for much more than scholarship, so I’m only going to be better at doing that if I bring more diverse writing experience to the table. I had a professional life before becoming a teacher and wrote a lot of what is now considered professional writing, which is valuable to students’ experiences and success.

Robert Tally (English): We’d view such freelancing as valuable practical experience that could be passed on to the students, possibly in formal classes (editing, professional writing) or in service projects. It’d be considered a plus…once all other job requirements were met, of course. Such work may not “count” as scholarly (unless it’s peer-reviewed), but it would still be valued as experience. A lot of scholarly things I write—e.g., book reviews—also don’t “count” for things like Tenure & Promotion, but they are generally celebrated by the college.

Seth Kahn (Writing): It would depend on two things: (1) what the position is and whether the freelance work had anything to do with the specialty and (2) if it didn’t, whether the candidate was trying to make a trumped-up case that it did. In other words, freelance experience could help if it’s connected to the specialty, yet it could hurt if it’s disconnected but the candidate overplays or otherwise embellishes it. Here’s a hypothetical example of what I mean: a candidate for a position in Professional Writing has no scholarship in that area but has been teaching it successfully for a while. Since the work needs evidence of scholarly potential, the candidate claims that, say, a self-published coffee-table book about a relevant topic shows research ability and publishing experience. I might be inclined to give that person the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t think most committees would. The question is how the applicant claims the freelance work; simply having done it wouldn’t hurt.

Patricia O’Connor (English): The applicant could pitch his or her experience as part of being versatile or as part of a public intellectual role. Several of my colleagues have done consulting on writing with government agencies or other organizations.

Mark Mullen (Writing): As always it would depend on how you pitch that experience. For a position in writing studies, I would see it as a distinct advantage to have experience writing in a wide variety of contexts. Indeed, the more academic “scholarly” writing I have to read, the more I think that academia would benefit from people with experience writing for non-academics. However I suspect that if someone was applying to, for example, a literature position this would be seen as a liability. Definitions of what counts as scholarship can be a lot less fluid there, and there’s also a lot of resistance to writing for a living.

Sara Kosiba (English): It would depend a lot on the job description and department. On my campus, it would be a bonus since we have a technical writing/editing minor, so even if the job wasn’t a specific hire in that area it would be great because we would still have someone with extra skills who could help with those classes. If you don’t have that, then some may write it off based on wanting a candidate to have more experience in other areas. The only way it would be a true disservice is if the experience was in unrelated or irrelevant subject matter, or in an area that would raise red flags with a committee. So if the experience was in proofreading for businesses or writing advertising copy for local events, it simply is just bonus experience that candidate brings to the table.

Given the state of the academic job market and continuing cuts to full-time positions, freelancing outside academia while still working inside it is increasingly common. (At least two editors I know are still teaching and seeking full-time professorships.) If you’ve done work as an editor, consultant, or something else not directly connected to an academic position, think about how you can connect your freelancing and teaching skillsets. Perhaps you teach writing-intensive undergraduate courses while working part-time as an editor: conceivably, your editing work informs or improves your standing as a writing teacher, mentor, and versatile job candidate. Or, as Mark Mullen and Dawn Fels said above, having experience writing or editing in a variety of contexts could be an asset to an interdisciplinary department.

If you’re not sure about mentioning your freelance experience for an academic position, ask a trusted colleague who’s been on a search committee for a similar job. A website and other aspects of freelance experience—regardless of whether they’re related to editing or something else—is part of your evolving digital identity. Curate it for academic jobs in the same way that you would for alt-ac or post-ac jobs.


I don’t mean for this post to be the last word on the subject. I’d love to hear more perspectives on or experiences with this issue—especially from people in STEM or Social Sciences fields who can complement the English and Writing perspectives shared above. If you’ve been on a search committee and evaluated an applicant’s academic and freelancing experience, or if you’ve successfully highlighted your freelancing experiences for an academic position, email ( or tweet at me.

Strategizing Your CV for the Job Market

It’s that time again!

Alert readers know that each Spring I provide a limited-time CV Strategizing Session service between February and April.  The idea is to look ahead to the Fall 2015 market, and help graduate students going on the market for the first time, as well as experienced job seekers who haven’t yet landed the kind of position they are seeking, utilize the next six months most effectively to build a competitive record for the job search.  In six months, you can get out a peer reviewed article, arrange to teach a summer course, apply for a grant or conference… all manner of things that will make a difference on your CV.

In the CVSS, I first send you to study my column in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, called “Graduate School Is a Means to a Job,” so that we are on the same page about what constitutes a competitive record.  Then, I review your CV (note: I don’t edit it!  I just evaluate it for content), in light of what you tell me are your career goals, aspirations, and concerns.  Then I give you the low-down on what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of your record, and suggest some steps you can take to strengthen it.  If I think you’re doing everything right, I’ll let you know that too (it has happened once or twice!)  You follow up with clarifications, questions or comments, and I’ll respond to those.  The service covers two email exchanges.

You can find the CVSS any time during this period on the Prof Shop page, but just for today, here is the info and link right here, delivered to your inbox.  Don’t forget that once you purchase you do have to email me to get a date on the calendar.  CVSSs have to be scheduled.

Here’s to a productive Spring and Summer!



CV Strategizing Session:  $150

**Feb-April 2015 only**

What you do in the next six months is critical for your competitiveness on next year’s market.  In this short-term service, I will examine and evaluate your CV for any gaps, weaknesses or red flags, and help you create a plan to remedy them in time for the Fall 2015 job market.  Covers two email exchanges.

**Please note that after you purchase this Session you must email me, Karen, at to set a date on the calendar for the work to begin. Please do this first, before sending me your CV!

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Editing is Not Grading (and Clients Aren’t Students) – Horton #postac post

by Margy Horton

Margy Thomas Horton

Margy Thomas Horton

Just because you’ve graded 10,000 pages of student writing over the past decade does not mean you’re ready, just yet, to hang out your shingle and earn a living as an editor. First, consider the difference between these two tasks:

Grade (v): to sort, rank, and evaluate the quality of individual texts produced by a class of students in response to an assignment; provide individualized feedback designed to support student learning.

Edit (v): to assist an author in preparing a text for publication by helping the author to understand and conform to the criteria that publishers and audiences will use to evaluate the quality of the work.

These definitions show that the work of grading and editing–for all their similarities–are two distinct forms of communication that take place in very different rhetorical situations. Elements of a rhetorical situation include the author, the intended audience, and the larger context in which the author, audience, and text exist. Rhetorical awareness is key for two kinds of people: authors who are trying to communicate and readers who are trying to understand. This post is concerned with the texts that professors and editors create as they grade and edit for students and clients, respectively. The two genres may seem interchangeable at first glance; both grading and editing consist of of marginal notes on manuscripts, Track Changes in Word documents, and holistic assessments written by hand or in emails. Yet the tone, content, and emphasis of the texts are shaped by important differences between the grading relationship (between professor and student) and the editing relationship (between editor and client).

This table breaks down some distinctions between grading and editing.


The Grading Relationship (Professor and Student) The Editing Relationship (Editor and Client)
Author Professor chooses which criteria to apply and what to emphasize; Professor usually knows more than Student about subject matter/ context; Professor has created assignment and set due date Editor works to understand the criteria by which committee members, journal editors, or publishers will evaluate Client; helps Client to meet those expectations
Audience Student is under Professor’s tutelage Client is the subject matter expert and the CEO of the project
Context Course and assignment created by Professor Project initiated by Client, extends beyond Editor’s involvement


The professor’s objective is to evaluate the student’s work against that of other students and against an ideal, and to offer feedback designed to promote the student’s long-term development. The editor has the quite different objective of supporting and assisting the client through the writing and publication process, improving her productivity and making her life easier.

As a teacher, back in the day, my comments on student work were designed to optimize student learning: “Consider rephrasing this topic sentence so it links more clearly to your thesis.” “This paragraph seems to be making more than one point. Can you split the paragraph into two, each with its own topic sentence/claim?” “Please review the punctuation rules that govern the joining of two independent clauses.” Such comments provide tailored instruction based on what the teacher perceives to be areas of potential improvement for the student. Effective grading focuses on skills and knowledge that are relevant to the assignment, the course, and the discipline. When a specific error appears frequently in a student’s work, the effective teacher does not go line-by-line correcting every instance of the error, but rather points the error out a couple of times and explains the error to the student. The goal of grading is to help students understand principles that will help them in future work, not to perfect this specific piece of work.

As an editor, I spend less time instructing and more time simply doing–tweaking topic sentences, splitting paragraphs, adding transitions, suggesting what kind of evidence to add where. My clients are high-level researchers and professional scholars; they don’t need me presuming to tell them what to do.

Which brings me to another point: the service I provide as an editor would not be appropriate to offer to the undergraduates whom I once taught. Editing services are for scholars, researchers, and professional writers–not for college sophomores trying to pay their way to a  higher grade. So in transitioning from teaching to editing, you will likely go from working with low-level, undergraduate writers to working with high-level, professional writers.

In closing, here are five more distinctions between the professional editor and the effective teacher:

  1. Professors constantly make judgment calls in designing courses, assignments, and rubrics, and they are not strictly obligated to please each individual student. By contrast, editors don’t choose which criteria to apply or which principles to emphasize in their comments. While editors can certainly make recommendations to the client about the nature and scope of the work to be done, the client has final approval.
  2. Professors often have some control over when to complete their grading, whereas editors must meet strict deadlines.
  3. While professors privilege instruction over correction, editors don’t tell clients to fix something they (editors) can fix themselves. For example, an editor doesn’t say “get rid of these ambiguous pronouns”; an editor gets rid of every ambiguous pronoun in the manuscript and then gently informs the client about the issue for future reference.
  4. Professors can and should affirm what students get right, whereas editors tend not to praise clients’ work as it can come off as condescending.
  5. Professors make students’ lives harder in all the right ways. For editors, although they can take advantage of teaching moments in the editing process, they do not presume a professorial role over clients.

Great editors and great teachers are different in important ways, but they do share three essential qualities in common. Both editors and teachers cultivate expert command of the language. Both listen to the client or student. And finally, both listen through what the client or student is saying in order to understand and provide what the client really needs.


“I Plan to Take Full Advantage of My Acquired Skills!”

A line from a letter last week:

“In my own lab I plan to take full advantage of my acquired skills and use the XXX equipment  to further investigate xxxx.”

This kind of language is braggy and at the same time, completely devoid of meaning.

Who doesn’t take advantage of acquired skills? When a person washes their dishes, are they not taking advantage of acquired skills?  When you drive a car, are you not taking advantage of acquired skills?

If it is a thing that can be said of LITERALLY ALL HUMAN ENDEAVOR then it adds nothing of value to your candidacy for this job.

This is a close kin to the problem of last week’s post:  stating the obvious.  But here, it’s “bragging the obvious.”  Don’t brag about engaging in generic human behavior!  Job documents are short. Don’t squander words.  Make every word count, with substance and distinctive meaning about you and your profile.


Dr. Karen’s (Partial) Rules for the Artist’s Statement

It may surprise you to hear that I edit Artist Statements, but I do.  Not a ton, but enough that this post has become necessary.  I want to urge everyone to read this excellent post on the subject by Ben Davis, which targets the kind of overblown, pretentious language that this genre is so prone to.  And read this, by Daniel Blight, “Writing an Artist Statement? First Ask Yourself 4 Questions.”

This is how Blight starts:

“Combining radical notions of performativity and the body as liminal space, my practice interrogates the theoretical limitations of altermodernism. My work, which traverses disparate realms of object-making such as painting and performance, investigates the space between metabolism and metaphysics and the aporia inherent to such a discourse.”

Are you impressed yet? These forms of writing are scattered across the contemporary art world. You can find preposterously complex, jargon-laden artist statements on the websites of galleries and pop-up project spaces all over the English-speaking world. If you don’t believe me, join the e-flux mailing list. I regularly visit such exhibition spaces in London and beyond, and read – with total, dulling indifference – the often pompous ramblings of what Alix Rule and David Levine call International Art English.

This is a dialect of the privileged; the elite university educated. If you can’t write it effectively, you’re not part of the art world. If you’re already inside but don’t understand it, you’re not allowed to admit it, or ask for further explanation. This kind of rhetoric relies on everyone participating without question. To speak up would mean dissolving the space between inside and outside: quite literally, the growing boundary between the art world and the rest of society.

While Blight starts from the position that hyper-pretentious, overblown language is the norm in university art settings, I want to strongly argue that it should be the norm nowhere.  It is bad writing that obscures your work instead of describing it.

Note what is said in this interview with artist Kathleen Caprario Ulrich, in reference to her Artist Statement:

VKA: Who were you talking to when you were writing the old statement?

KCU: I was talking to myself. I was coming from a place of emotion. I was BS-ing myself. At one point I said something like, “I hear the murmurings of paint.” That’s so embarrassing! Such purple prose! It’s so easy to fool yourself when you’re writing from a place of emotion, with no intellectual critique.

VKA: But the artist wants some emotion in their statement.

KCU: Yes, I was searching for an emotional truth. But an amateur is someone who makes art for him or herself and says to hell with everyone else. A professional engages with the world dynamically. They critically analyze their own work. There’s a dialogue of the mind; the professional is engaged in what’s happening in the world. To be a professional requires both sides of the brain, but they don’t always fire at the same time.

Here are a few rules to get you started:

  • Don’t exceed one page. Remember, SC’s read a lot of these statements. They will like you for saying what you need to say briefly.
  • Use a What-How-Why three part organization.  Make sure the “What” is very specific: is it painting? an installation? a sculpture?  of what?  where?  The “How” has to explain the technical aspects:  what material do you use, how?  The “Why” must make a conceptual case for the art.  Don’t succumb to the wooey and emotionally overwrought.
  • Keep your audience in mind. Just like the cover letter, your artist’s statement will differ depending on whether you are writing for a gallery opening or for your academic search committee. For the search committee, write it with an interested, educated lay audience in mind. This means: Clear, descriptive, jargon-free language. The statement is there to get people interested in your work- not to hit them over the head with technical jargon. If you’re to teach undergrads and graduates, you need to show that you are a good communicator. This starts with your own work.
  • Your artist statement does not serve as a confession booth where you unload your innermost feelings- save this for a therapist or a priest. If your art has a very personal component, state it clearly and move on.
  • Avoid third party statements- reviews, curators, professors or gallerists- it’s braggy and says nothing about your art.
  • No comparison to other artists- if they are well-known it’s presumptuous, if they are obscure, nobody knows them anyways. If you have been influenced by someone state this briefly and move on. In YOUR statement you need to focus on YOUR work.
  • Don’t engage in ideological battles and arguments- you can talk about your art without saying how terrible so-and-so’s work is.
  • Finally, AGAIN, do not use cliché language. See the blog posts:

“Banish These Words”

“Banish These Words 2014”

“Adjectives Are Not Arguments.”

“Grad Student Grandiosity”

For artist statements I’d add “creative” and “inspire” to the list of verboten words.

“Creative” is the equivalent of the sentence “I start my class on time”- as an artist it’s the bare minimum that is expected of you. “Inspire” and all its derivatives are also non-starters- if you weren’t inspired by something, you wouldn’t be an artist.

EnGendering Confidence – Part 1 (Cardozo #postac post)

by Karen Cardozo

Karen Cardozo

Karen Cardozo

When people ask what the Alt/Post-Ac consultants do, we usually describe a range of services: self-assessment and job-searching strategies, document generation and editing, mock interviews, etc.  Yet the more I work with this distinctive population—PhDs (or ABDs) effecting a career transition—the more I believe that the core of all these things is a two-word mission:

Build Confidence!

From a consultant’s external perspective, it’s easy to see a client’s strengths or appreciate the unique nature of their profiles.  For the most part my clients are multitalented and well-suited for any number of alternative pursuits. Perhaps this reflects a self-selective process in which highly multifaceted people are more likely to explore Alt/Post-Ac careers?  Whatever the case, far from being a one note Johnny or single-minded scholar, these folks have reservoirs of alternative interests and skills (though they often need prompting to recall that, as academic culture leads us to devalue or forget “other” experiences).

Strikingly, there is little correlation between my clients’ achievements and their confidence levels.  Despite impressive portfolios, they sound more like recent evacuees from a war zone than people on the brink of a capstone. As one of my clients put it ever so poignantly:

“I came to graduate studies with a sense of confidence after having engaged in leadership activities in the public and nonprofit sector. I left graduate studies with my ego quashed, my confidence shaken. The ideals that drove me to enter graduate studies, to effect incremental societal change through scholarship, slowly collapsed.”

The specter of self-defeat tends to raise its ugly head early on in our process and I have to point out: “Umm… you have a tremendous background chock-full of transferable skills” or, “if those people are such jerks, why would you want to work with them?” There is a huge gap between my clients’ actual conditions of possibility and the dejected way they tend to feel.  And there are good reasons for that.

  1. Many academics lack information about alternative careers (this is the aspect most easily remedied by the crack research skills of most PhDs and informational interviewing): once you find out more about what the rest of the world does, it’s easier to imagine yourself out there somewhere.
  2. There is the problem of translation that I and others have addressed in prior posts:  it’s not always easy identifying transferable functions across different roles or fields; we’re so focused on job titles that we miss the constituent parts which might transfer readily between academic and other kinds of work. (TPII consultants can help with this).
  3. Emerging from a Ph.D. program is like a mole tunneling out into sunlight: it’s disorienting. Taught to prioritize and think one way for so long, it takes some time to find your bearings in expressing other values or pursuing other goals.
  4.  Most significantly, my job as a confidence-builder exists primarily because the unspoken mission of doctoral education is to destroy confidence.  How else can you get a bunch of smart people to toe the academic line against all known odds, often in the absence of humane treatment and in the presence of (as the client above put it) “far too many academics and colleagues who in one way or another exhibited the worst of the human condition?” If you are not identified as ascendant in the star system (and maybe even then) you are destined to be plagued by imposter syndrome and besieged by doubt – doubt in your own intellectual abilities when compared to those who seem effortlessly accomplished (in part because you are rarely privy to the process that got them there), and doubt of ever having a viable academic career (a well-founded concern, as things turn out). All of which—via a concatenation of logical fallacies—leaves you convinced you’re not fit for anything else.

In short, graduate school is to confidence as expeller pressing is to olives – a method of extraction by squeezing under high pressure. Matriculate into any doctoral program let the oozing begin!

The Confidence number from The Sound of Music perfectly captures what any PhD goes through when considering jumping off the track that has structured your life for so long.  Maria’s struggle to be a good nun in the Abbey is a pretty good analogue for the monastic commitment of the scholar.  But the drama of leaving that sheltered life to serve as a governess to seven unruly children in the shadow of the Third Reich pales in comparison to the perceived terrors of Alt/Post-Ac job searching!

As the musical number begins, Maria is on her way to her new assignment, wondering why she feels so scared when she has always longed for adventure. She gives herself a musical pep talk of monumental proportions, delivering some pretty impressive footwork while singing and toting both a guitar and a suitcase, reaching the jubilant crescendo of “I have confidence in confidence alone” just as she arrives at the Von Trapp mansion gates.  Abruptly, the music cuts out, and she faces the imposing façade in a poignant silence during which –we may safely surmise – all of her confidence evaporates.

Every Alt/Post-Ac seeker recognizes this dismal moment, as you peer into YOUR uncertain future. Having been expeller-pressed from the academy, it’s perfectly normal to feel crushed. But you must never take those feelings of guilt, loss, shame and self-loathing as an objective indicator that you are unsuited to life beyond the surly gates.  I’m here to tell you that you will be an EXCELLENT governess! They are going to love you in the real world. But you have to regain your confidence first.  Like Maria, you need to realize that the Abbey isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that Captain Von Trapp isn’t always right, and that you have something important and unique to contribute (let me now drop this analogy before it leads to the inevitable prospect of literally getting in bed with your new employer*).

*If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you must watch the Sound of Music immediately (fair warning: you’ll need about 3 hours).

In my next post I will look particularly at how confidence is gendered – a significant issue given that academe’s contingent sector and overlapping Alt/Post-Ac seeking population (in my client roster, anyway) is predominantly female. In that context, we will talk about practical ways to build confidence.

Don’t State the Obvious

 There is a kind of line in job documents that is technically blameless, but is so generic, so very much “stating the obvious” that it also completely pointless.  This kind of line fills space while doing nothing to distinguish you in any way.
The rule here is: If Anyone Can Say It, It’s Not Helping You.
Here are a few examples:
  • The ultimate aim of my classroom strategies is to help students gain useful skills and knowledge.
  •  My courses present writing as a means of communication and a tool for developing thought.
  • As a recipient of the grant, I will have the opportunity to apply my expertise in short-term projects and longer-term projects, expanding my learning capabilities and diversifying my network.
  • By presenting my current and future research in the departmental symposium, I would be able to put my work in dialogue with fellows in various departments, and to collaborate with researchers in disciplines other than my own.
  •  I can teach a variety of courses in the department.
  • Your department offers many opportunities for collaboration.

In each case, there is literally no academic who could not write the sentence!

Study your job documents and make sure that every line tells something about YOU, not about “Generic Job-Seeker X.”