How To Dress for an Interview as a Butch Dyke

Today’s post is a Special Request post for Digger, who asks, “how is a butch dyke to dress for a conference or campus interview?”  She goes on, “I recently tried to girl-up my wardrobe, and it was pretty much a disaster (ranging from Oh Hell No, to my shoulders don’t fit in any of these tops, to wtf, women’s shoes [even the flats!] are dangerous). Not all was lost, but given that presenting as a “conventional” woman is pretty much out of the picture, any advice?”

I have advice.  I’m a femme dyke who has lived with my butch partner for almost 10 years.  We have raised two kids together and navigated joint university positions together, both in Oregon and the Midwest.  We are both now happily out of the academic career track, and back in our beloved Oregon, where I do The Professor, and work half time at the UO, and she has a “big” high pressure job in regional management for a high profile international internet sales start-up that is much in the news these days.

My comments are going to come from my decade of watching my partner successfully navigate the two professional realms of academia and the corporate world.

My partner is an old-school butch dyke.  She’s 50, and hasn’t worn an article of women’s clothing probably since she graduated middle school (with the exception of a bridesmaid dress for her sister’s wedding oh so long ago, which was the fulfillment of a childhood promise).   For years she had her hair cut at the barber, although now she gets a really good men’s haircut from a hip hair salon.  She had to work with them a bit to make them understand she wasn’t asking for a “pixie,” but now they’re totally on the same page.

The “lesbian,” “androgynous,” “post-butch,” “boi,” and “FTM” moments passed her by unheeded.  She wears men’s clothes exclusively but does not consciously attempt to “pass” as male.   She is a butch dyke: that’s the category.  She is, nevertheless, mistaken for a man with some regularity, especially when she’s wearing a suit, or sitting down at a restaurant, or in Japan, where there just isn’t any other cultural means to interpret her.  But people almost always realize their mistake pretty quickly, and then some awkward moments ensue before the flow of conversation resumes.

A former journalist, she has not interviewed for a job in many, many years, whether it was as the publisher at a small newspaper, a tenure-track position at an R1, or a major start-up, in which she did not arrive for the interview in a men’s suit, with men’s dress shoes, and a man’s haircut.  (She tends not to wear a tie, as these interview contexts did not demand that level of formality.)  She has gotten every job she’s interviewed for and has succeeded, and been promoted, in the institutions in which she has worked, despite the fact that in these institutions she is generally the only butch dyke, or conspicuously gay person, on the payroll.


In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to ask why, because we’d know that she was being judged on her qualifications, skills, and character.  But we know the world is not ideal, and people are judged on their appearance all the time.  Heck, one of the mantras of The Professor Is In is: attend to your clothes! You are judged and found wanting when you don’t!  So why would a sartorial profile so obviously marginal, so obviously outside the mainstream, so obviously fraught with subcultural meaning and potential controversy, have absolutely no observable impact on her level of professional success?

Well, I’m not omniscient, so I can’t say for sure, but I have a theory.  And it’s a theory my partner shares from her own subjective experience of her life.  The theory is:  she is completely and totally at ease with who she is, and so people respond with similar ease to who she is, instead of getting hung up on what she “signifies.”

I know that’s not super precise, but it’s the closest I can come to articulating how it works.  She doesn’t hold up the dress style or the haircut or the masculine affect as any kind of barrier to other people, or to her own personality, which is very large.  When you interact with my partner, you are instantly *in* an interaction –you’re engaging with her, responding, thinking, reacting, talking, listening, joking, exchanging ideas.  There is no time or energy from her devoted to a subtext of:  “you get that I’m butch, right?”  “you know that I’m different than you, right?” “don’t just assume that I’ll share your experience…” “you probably disapprove of me,” or any other kind of unspoken judgment or assumption put up as a barrier to communication.  The substance of the communication prevails.  She’s quite charismatic, and people generally just want to keep talking.  And know more.  And get her onto their team.

Now, what does this mean for those of you who are wondering how to dress, as a butch dyke, on the job market?  Well, in a way, it is a message that applies to everyone on the market, butch or not.  The message is: you need to be comfortable with who you are.  If you’re butch, go butch.  If you’re androgynous, go androgynous.  If you’re femme, go femme.

Now, that would seem to contradict my perennial message that you need to wear potentially unfamiliar, formal clothes to interviews, clothes that might not be all that comfortable.  But I’m speaking of a deeper level of comfort.  My partner would not go to an interview in jeans and a t-shirt, even though that is her most comfortable style.  She wears interview-appropriate clothes, clothes that might chafe a bit, but that are both appropriate to the context and consistent with her larger identity.

I had a colleague years back who was a dyke.  She wasn’t butch, and she wasn’t femme, which was neither here nor there.  But she seemed to have this misguided idea that she had to “pass” as extra-feminine to be legit in the academy.  Don’t ask me why.  Day after day she’d show up in pencil skirts, and constricting tops, and little heels, and day after day she’d walk stiffly and awkwardly around the department, the strain evident on her face.  Now granted, she had a job and got tenure and promoted and so on, so this is not some morality tale of how she crashed and burned because she wasn’t “true to herself.”  But it is a tale of a colleague who was (and is) excruciatingly uncomfortable in her own skin.  No, the sky hasn’t fallen in on her.  But most of the grad students and a lot of her colleagues stand by and wonder…..”Why?”  And…. “What is UP with that?”  And…. “Really?”  And…..”hmmm.”   There is always something “not quite right.”  Intangible, yes.  But real nevertheless.  There’s a constant tension, a barrier, that emanates from her.  No, of course it’s not just from clothing.  But clothing reflects a deeper discomfort in her own skin.

I had another colleague, a butch dyke, who showed up for her campus interview in a three piece suit and wing-tips.  She got the job, and proceeded to come to work in three piece suits and wing-tips for her first couple years on campus.  Over time she got comfortable with the laid-back vibe of campus, and ratcheted down the formality level, but she never stopped dressing full-on butch.  And, as far as her career goes, it’s basically a non-issue.  Sure, she stands out.  That comes with the territory. You’re never going to be a butch dyke, or gender-variant in most ways, and not stand out.  But standing out is different than being “a problem” and “rejected,” and “unemployed.”

Let’s look at Ellen Degeneres for a moment, shall we?  She passed as femme-ish for years.  She was successful to a degree, sure.  And she came out, and it was pure hell.  She was brutalized.  But what has happened since?  Watch her over the intervening years.  She’s gotten butcher and butcher, albeit Hollywood butch.  And the butcher, and more herself she gets, the more people love her. The more comfortable she gets in her own skin, the more successful she is.

Femme-y Ellen

Ellen butching it up

Life going extraordinarily well for Ellen

Ellen is anointed


I get that not every campus around the country is going to be equally open to candidates showing up dressed in gender-bending ways.  I get that the South may well be more conservative than the West and Midwest, and that small schools , and certainly church-related schools, will be far harder nuts to crack in this regard than R1s and Ivy Leagues.  It’s a risk to show up for an interview, or any high stakes encounter (like meeting my mother) dressed like a guy.  But what’s the alternative?  Are you going to fake it?  Do you think you can?  I’ll bet you can’t.  And the strain is going to show, and undermine your performance in a host of overt and covert ways.

Ultimately, my advice is: if you’re a butch dyke, you damned well better go to that campus interview dressed as a butch dyke (not in your jeans and leather jacket, and not in wrinkled chinos and a short-sleeved poly blend shirt, but in a REALLY NICE suit and dress shirt, and quality shoes, and socks that match your trousers, and a fresh haircut), because you do NOT want to get offered a job under false pretenses.  They need to know who you are.  And you need to know who you are.  And then, when you get the job, your productivity, and teaching, and contributions, and collegiality, will prove your value to your colleagues and the institution.  And then you can work on aging gracefully as a butch professor, and setting an example for the baby butches finding their way.

Addendum:  here is a company that tailors suits for butch dykes: The Butch Clothing Company.   TPII is not affiliated with them in any way!


The Campus Visit, Part 1: Search Committee Interview

[This post is excerpted from the Professor’s Guide to Taming the Academic Job Market, available at The Prof Shop.]

I will address some specific questions to expect in the search committee interview below. Before that, however, I wish to emphasize that before you ever open your mouth, your body language and overall demeanor will make a powerful impression that may well gain or lose you the job. Your body is speaking, at all times. Control what it is saying.


Master the confident sitting posture. Take up all the room in the chair to which you’re entitled. Square your shoulders, and keep your arms wide apart. Do not fold or nervously twist your hands in your lap. Keep them up, visible, on the arms of the chair or on the table. Gesture visibly for emphasis. Keep your chin up, and make strong, steady, direct eye contact with each and every committee member in turn. Speak directly to the person asking each question, while also including the others in your response.

Do not laugh nervously. Do not fiddle with your hair. Do not fiddle with your jewelry. Do not let your eyes dart anxiously around the room. Do not apologize. Do not make excuses. Do not open any response, or any kind, at any time, with what you “don’t know,” or “didn’t do.” Here’s an example:

Q: Tell us about your publication plans.

A: Well, I haven’t really sent anything out to a refereed journal yet, but I am definitely planning on it. I just haven’t quite finished the essay yet.


Banish this! Let these words never pass your lips! Here’s what it should sound like:


Q: Tell us about your publication plans.

A: I have a manuscript nearly finished that I will be submitting in the Spring to the American Anthropologist.


Let’s try another one, a common question that easily trips up a candidate:

Q: What do you think of Nelson’s new book?

(You have not read Nelson, although Nelson is famous, so you know his general point of view)

A: (bad version): Oh, gosh, I haven’t actually read that yet. Ummm, yeah, sorry. I, um, know it’ll be good and I definitely need to read that!

A: (good version): Nelson and I agree on a lot of things, and I’ve taken many insights from his work on XXXX. But my work departs from his in its focus on XXX.


Get it? You use scholarly Jiu Jitsu to move the discussion away from what you don’t know and back to what your own work is and does.

In the search committee interview you should be prepared to answer all of the questions listed above under the conference interview, as well as other ones. These include:

  • We notice you were trained at a large public institution; how do you feel you’ll fit in at a small liberal arts institution like ours? (and variations on this theme)
  • What is the most significant piece of research that you have read in the last year?
  • What do you envision for creating a research program here?
  • Do you plan to apply for research funding?
  • What is the funding record of your field?
  • We have a large teaching load here – 3 classes a term. How would you manage this and still stay productive in research and writing?Your current research requires more technological support than this institution is able to provide. How will you deal with this?
  • We see that you have done a lot of conference papers and presentations; we have limited research funding here to support that kind of travel. How will you adapt to that?

(Many of the questions above I drew from a now-defunct online resource that I reproduce below).

As you can see from this selection of questions, once on the campus visit, you must be prepared to move beyond abstract discussion of your dissertation and teaching experience, to answer direct questions about your fit with that particular institution and department.

Some questions can become quite pointed (although all questions related to private issues such as marital status or children are illegal), and you must be prepared to offer thoughtful, plausible responses. How would you deal with highly limited research support? How do you feel about living in the Midwest? How will you cope with a heavy teaching load? These are questions you MUST answer satisfactorily in your own mind before you ever set foot on that campus.


Be aware that all departments in the humanities and social sciences are facing severe budgetary crises. Many are in a chaotic state of flux. Many are confronting immediate imperatives from the Deans and upper administration to reduce costs and increase enrollments. You may be asked questions specifically about saving money. Be prepared for these.

If the search committee asks you, “how do you feel about teaching large classes?” there is only one correct answer, and that is: “I believe large classes can be a powerful and effective learning environment. I would look forward to using new technological innovations to maximize the opportunities for student discussion and participation.”

If the search committee asks you, “how would you propose increasing the undergraduate enrollment in our discipline/department?” you respond, “I would certainly welcome the opportunity to create classes that show how fascinating our discipline is to new populations of undergraduates. I am developing a class on sexuality/popular media/blogging cultures/major league baseball/reggae/slam poetry that I would be happy to open up to enrollments over 100.”


Be the job candidate who saves the Department Head (and Dean) money.


And of course, you must be prepared to ask questions of your own. One of the biggest interview pitfalls is when the candidate is asked, “do you have any questions?” and he can’t respond with a single one. To prevent that from happening, here is a selection of questions, all drawn from Tara Kuther’s site, “What To Ask During an Academic Job Interview” (be aware that her list includes some absolutely inappropriate questions as well, such as “How is the university organized? What are the major units and administrators of the school and what are their responsibilities? What does the organizational flow chart look like?” You would come off as bizarre and maybe a bit paranoid if you asked anything like this on a campus visit. I have included below only those questions that I feel can be safely asked in any interview context.)

  • What’s the relative importance of teaching, research and service for tenure?
  • About what percent of faculty receive tenure?
  • Can grants be used to supplement salary?
  • What type of retirement program is there? What percentage of the salary goes to retirement? What does the school contribute?
  • What type of health program exists? What are the costs and benefits?
  • How many undergraduate and graduate students are presently in the department? How are their numbers changing?
  • Tell me about your student population.
  • Where do the undergraduate students go after graduation?
  • What kinds of technology are available in the classroom?
  • How well does the library meet departmental needs?
  • What courses are you looking to fill?
  • How does the department and university support the improvement of teaching?
  • What resources for research are available within the department (e.g., computer facilities, equipment)
  • Is there a research office on campus to help faculty write grants?
  • Is outside grant support essential for promotion and tenure?
  • How are graduate students supported?
  • How do graduate students select research advisors?
  • What kinds of financial support are available for research and supplies?

Remember, on the campus visit, you are also interviewing them. Make sure that your major questions get answered. If you’re worried you’ll forget them, write out the list ahead of time, and refer to it at the end of the interview. It’s ok to do that.


The Academic Job Interview: Sample Academic Job Interview Questions

Questions about Research
• Describe your current research. Will you be continuing in this research track? Describe your future research plans.
• How would you involve graduate/undergraduate students in your research?
• Where do your research strengths lie? (Quantitative/qualitative, etc.?) Why? What are your research weaknesses? And how will you improve?
• Your current research requires more technological support than this institution is able to provide. How will you deal with this?
• We see that you have done a lot of conference papers and presentations; we have limited professional development funds. How do you feel about that as a limiting factor? (Will you continue to go and pay your own way – stop doing research? Resent the limitations?)
• Could you tell us about your dissertation?
• What audiences are you addressing, what are the other hot books or scholars in your field, and how does your work compare with theirs?
• What is the cutting edge in your field and how does your work extend it?
• How will you go about revising your dissertation for publication?
What is the broader significance of your research? How does it expand our historic understanding, literary knowledge, humanistic horizons?
• Can you explain the value of your work to an educated layperson?
• Tell us how your research has influenced your teaching. In what ways have you been able to bring the insights of your research to your courses at the undergraduate level?
• How would you balance your teaching duties and your own research plans?
• If you were organizing a special symposium or conference on your research topic, which scholars would you invite?
• In what journals do you expect to publish your research?
• Would you be able to take on a graduate student immediately?
• Tell us briefly what theoretical framework you used in developing your research?
• If you were to begin it again, are there any changes you would make in your dissertation?
• What facilities do you need to carry out your research?
• How does your research address culture, language, race, ethnicity, socio-economic factors?
• What is left out of the talk?
• What is the most significant piece of research that you have read in the last year?
• What do you envision for creating a research program here?
• Do you plan to apply for research funding?
• What is the funding record of your field?
• We have a large teaching load here – 12 hours per term; how would you manage this and still work on doing research and publishing?
• Tell us about a research project in which you’ve been involved that was successful and one that was not. Why do you think these were the outcomes?
Questions about Teaching
• What is your philosophy of teaching?
• What do you consider your teaching strengths/weaknesses?
• If you have a student who is doing poorly in your class, but has not missed classes and appears to be a good student, what would you do?
• There is a strong move to infuse interdisciplinary work into the curriculum. With what other disciplines could you work (teach/research)? Have you done such work in the past?
• What classes could you teach in our program?
• How would you plan a course in ___? What texts would you use? What topics would you cover?
• How would you evaluate student learning?
• How do you assess your students’ performances?
• Have you ever conducted formative evaluation or an SGID?
• How do you bring diversity into your day to day teaching?
• What is the difference between collaborative and cooperative learning?
• Could you tell us about your teaching experiences?
• How have you used technology in the classroom?
• How do you feel about teaching students of mixed abilities?
• If you could teach any course you wanted, what would it be? What would you teach next if you could teach two of them?
• How would you organize a freshman composition course?
• How would you organize an upper division course in your field?
• How would you organize a senior seminar in your field?
• How would you organize a graduate course in your field?
• If you could teach your dream upper level specialty course, what would that be?
• What critical approaches do you find most persuasive? How do they translate into your teaching?
• What kinds of essays do you want your students to write?
• How do reading and writing interact in your classroom?
• How do you feel about teaching ……… (composition, calculus , public speaking – substitute course from your field) ?
• How do you know you’ve been successful in teaching ….. (composition, calculus, public speaking)?
• How would you teach a major work in your field? (They may name one)
• Can you think of a specific example of when a student you were teaching really seemed to learn something that you regarded as worthwhile? Briefly describe what happened. What thing or things did you do that contributed to that student learning? Why, do you think, did these actions of yours work?
• Take course ___. As you would teach it, what three goals would the course achieve? When students had completed your course, what would they have learned that is of lasting value?
• What experience have you had teaching at (community college, private, liberal arts, faith-based) institution? How if at all do you think teaching at [type of] institution differs from teaching at a four year college or university?
• What experiences have you had teaching diverse students? (Well prepared, under prepared, first-generation, low-income, full-time, part-time, students with full-time jobs and/or family care responsibilities, students representing different ethnic groups and races, religions, ages and genders?) What teaching methods have proved effective with such students?
• How well prepared are you to teach the following 5 basic level courses? (Insert appropriate courses from your field)
• Describe your familiarity and experience with different teaching methods such as collaborative learning, learning styles adaptation, and classroom assessment.
• Tell me about your teaching techniques (e.g., group projects, case method, etc.)
• What is your favorite lecture and why?
• Tell me about your industry experience (if you have any)? How would you bring that industry experience into the classroom?
• If you have no industry experience: How do you expect to be able to teach students about the field if you have never worked in it?
• What is your favorite theory or theorist to teach?
• How do you motivate your students?
• How would you encourage your students to major in our field?
• How would you work with our students as opposed to those at your current institution?
• What would you change in an undergraduate/graduate/teacher education curriculum?
• How do you address culture, language, ethnicity, race in your courses? Give me an example or an activity that helps teachers/researchers talk about these issues.
• How should teacher education programs be set up so that prospective teachers are prepared to teach?
Questions about Department and Community Involvement
• Institution ___ is dedicated to providing a liberal arts/ spiritually based/ holistic education. How would you describe your place within that vision?
• You’ve seen our mission statement. How would you see yourself contributing to our mission and campus atmosphere?
• We have instituted a community service requirement for all undergraduates – how would you see yourself interface with such a program?
• Could you tell us about your long-range plans and commitment to this department?
• What is your opinion on single sex education? (if it is a Women’s University/ College)
• How will you fit in as a department member and what kind of contribution will you make to our community?
• Why do you especially want to teach at University ___? How do you see yourself contributing to our department?
• Apart from the obvious financial reasons, why would you like to join the Faculty of Y at University X?
• We conceive of our campus as one large community. What non- or extra -academic activities would you be interested in sponsoring or participating in?
• What is your perception of the responsibilities of a full-time faculty member in a University / College? …To the department? …To the division? …To the University / College as a whole?
Questions about Career and Personal Choices
• Describe your goals and plans for professional development as a University / College instructor?
• Where do you see yourself professionally in 5 years? In 10 years?
• What are some of the specific things you would like to address/learn in your own professional development? How is this connected to your work as an academic?
• What about our position is particularly attractive to you?
• What do you do when you are not working? (Modern equivalent of “what are your hobbies?”)
• How long do you plan on staying at University ___?
• What is the last book that you read for fun?
• How do you feel about living in ___ city?
• I understand that your partner is completing his/her Ph.D. What if you receive job offers in different locations?
• What kind of salary are you looking for?
• Why have you changed jobs so frequently?
• If you get more than one job offer how will you decide between them?
• Who else is interviewing you?
• How did you go about researching / preparing for the interview for this position?
• What questions do you have for us?

Resources used in compiling this list include The Chronicle of Higher Education, Chronicle Careers Mary Dillon Johnson “The Academic Job Interview Revisited” The University of Georgia, Teaching Assistant Resources “Job Search” University of Maryland College Park Department of American Studies, Mary Corbin Sies “Academic Job Interview Advice” Michigan State University, University Teaching Assistant Programs K. M. Johnson “Talking about Teaching in the Interview” The University of Michigan, Division of Student Affairs The Career Centre “Interview Questions – Academic Job Search” University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences, Department of English Michael Gamer and Anne K. Krook “Job-Interviewing Handout” San Francisco State University, Department of Mathematics Julia Aguirre “Academic Interview Preparation Resource Document” The University of Texas at Austin, Trina Sego and Jeff L. Richards “Ph.D. Interview Preparation Guide for Positions in Academia” The University of Western Ontario, Teaching Support Centre Graduate Career Day Handout October 2007 “Entering the Academic Profession” University of Minnesota Centre for Teaching and Learning, Preparing Future Faculty Retreat Handouts (2001) Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning Harvard University


On To The Conference Interview!

(This post is an update of an earlier post, “How Not To Fuck Up Your Conference Interview.”  )

You have submitted your cover letter, your c.v., and your recommendations. And lo! You’ve been long short-listed, and invited for a conference interview!  Congratulations. Now what?

The conference interview is about speed and first impressions. Generally this interview may be only 20-30 minutes in length. The interviewers are on a tight schedule, with a large number of candidates being hustled in and out of a small, cramped interview space.  It is awkward and exhausting for everyone.

If it is a 20 minute interview, and 2 minutes are taken up in taking your seat and greetings and 2 minutes in closing and walking to the door, that leaves 16 minutes for talking.  If the search committee members talk for half of that, it leaves you a sum total of 8 minutes of speaking time.  Brevity is key.

The elite departments from well funded schools will conduct the interviews in conference hotel suites reserved for the purpose, or at one of the search committee member’s own hotel rooms.  Broke departments will be forced to use the dreaded conference careers center, with its walls of tiny cubicles and humiliating lack of privacy.

Once I went to a conference interview for an Ivy League Anthropology department.  I entered the expensive suite in the conference hotel, to be greeted by a phalanx of Famous Anthropologists, with one of them, the most famous of all, stretched full length on the sofa, hand dramatically resting over his eyes.

The interview commenced, with Famous Anthropologist sighing his questions from his supine position.   As my snarkiness overcame my desire for the job, my eyes fell on a dirty, half-empty glass of water on the table in front of me.  “Is this the water for ALL the candidates?” I inquired.  “Oh! Oh, no, uh….”  Hasty scrambling ensued. Even F.A. half-rose in consternation.  A clean glass of water made its appearance.

I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle. Needless to say, I was not invited to a campus visit.

I tell this story not as a model for emulation, but as an example for edification.  Conference interviews are bizarre and awkward.  Your task is to nevertheless appear “at ease,” to project an aura of calm and good humor in a stressful situation.

To succeed in the conference interview you must speak quickly and directly to your strengths, with no—absolutely no—digressions, and to dress and walk and talk and comport yourselfas little as possible like a graduate student, and as much as possible like a confident, experienced faculty member and future colleague.

Preparation is key. Prepare by learning who is on the search committee (it is ok to call the department secretary and ask), and checking to see if they will be in attendance at the conference.

Once you know the likely interviewers, spring into action. Research their work, and the profile of the department as a whole. Familiarize yourself with their course catalog, and review their website to see their recent accomplishments. Check on the large classes that young assistant professors are most likely to be asked to teach, and prepare ideas on how to teach them. Suss out the financial footing of the department, and the level of graduate support, and whether the department is in deep financial cutting mode.  If it is, be prepared to talk about how you will teach large classes, develop new popular ones that draw large enrollments, and seek external funding.

Be prepared, in short, to engage with those faculty as much already on their wavelength, as a potential colleague, as you can.

Do not ever forget the #1 critical rule of the job search:  They are hiring a colleague, not a graduate student.

Do. Not. Look. Or. Act. Like. A. Graduate. Student.

Be prepared to answer any of the following types of questions, in 1-2 minute responses:

  • How is your dissertation different from other work in your field?
  • What are your publication plans arising from the dissertation?
  • Who are the biggest scholarly influences on your work?
  • How would you teach a large intro class in your/our discipline?
  • Which textbook would you use for that class?
  • Can you name 3 classes that you would be interested to teach for us? Why?
  • How do you see your work fitting into our department?
  • How would you teach a foundational theory/methods graduate seminar?
  • What do you think the most important intellectual debate is in your/our field?
  • Can you envision any collaborations with faculty currently in the department?
  • What inspires your teaching?

Keep in mind the issue of time.   To reiterate, in all of these responses, you must be BRIEF and to the point. Any tendency to rambling must be eradicated.

To achieve this level of focus and brevity, practice is essential.  Write out the answers to questions like these and others, and practice them in front of a mirror and in front of friends, and at mock interviews in your department, over and over and over again, until they become second nature to you. Then and only then are you ready for the conference interview.

And because you have read the work of your interviewers, you will also be prepared to mention it in the interview. They will love you if you can respond, “I would certainly consider assigning YOUR recent article in an upper division class on political economy, because I think it provides an excellent case study from Eastern Europe.”

You have to be sincere, but if you can be, that is pure interview gold.


I cannot leave behind the conference interview without a word on clothing.I have seen unspeakable things, sartorially speaking, in the halls of the conference hotel, amongst the milling throngs of interview candidates.

Let us revisit the #1 critical rule of the job search: They are hiring a colleague, not a graduate student.

Do. Not. Look. Or. Act. Like. A. Graduate. Student.

Your task at this short interview is to give the overwhelming first impression of being a dynamic, successful young professional.

What does that mean? For MEN, this means buying a new suit fresh for the interview season, which fits you at your current weight, which buttons across your middle, and which you have tailored so that the sleeves and pants hit you at the proper spots.  And btw, blazer and jeans are not acceptable, men!  Addendum:  This suit does not have to be an ultra high-end suit that costs thousands of dollars!   A good department store suit from JCPenney’s or Macy’s that has been tailored by their in-house tailor to fit you is completely adequate.  We’re talking a cost of hundreds here, not thousands.  Just avoid the $99 suit from Men’s Wearhouse if you can.

In addition, you need a good quality, department store shirt, which you have ironed to remove the package folds! You also need  a classic tie of recent vintage (the last year or two), a new leather belt (no cracked leather), the best quality leather black oxfords you can afford, and socks that match either the shoes or the suit.

Men, you hair should be recently cut.  Facial hair continues to be acceptable in academia; just make sure you’re well-groomed.

For WOMEN (by which I mean, women who present conventionally as women [butch dykes and transgendered candidates will have other requirements]), this means you buy a new, stylish, well-cut, fitted grey or brown suit (not black, which can be too severe) fresh for the interview season.

This must fit you at your current weight! It must also fit you properly through the shoulders, across the bust, and hit you at the proper spot on your hips and wrists.  Find someone with fashion knowledge and taste to evaluate the fit of your suit.

Skirt or pants, it matters not.  You will need a stylish blouse in a not too bright color, stockings or tights in a neutral shade, good quality, stylish leather pumps with a 1-3 inch heel (for the height; less critical if you are 5’7” or above), and conservative jewelry.

Women, your hair should be cut and styled in an actual current style, not dragging or sproinging about in the stringy or unkempt clump so commonly seen in our graduate lounges. Also, no ponytails or barrettes.  You are not 9.

Neither man nor woman shall carry a backpack.

Both men and women will invest in the best quality leather or microfiber (but, emphatically, NOT fake leather) briefcase that they can manage.  Last season models are often on deep discount at office goods chain stores like OfficeMax. TJ Maxx and Ross are also excellent sources.

For both men and women, the cut and fit of the entire ensemble should be rigorously checked and rechecked by a reliable source such as your mother, or a trusted advisor who actually knows how to dress.  Suits are difficult to fit, and a poorly-fitting suit will hurt your chances on the job market!  Invest the time, and make sure your suit fits.

Why do all this?  Because these clothing rules mark you as “one of the tribe.”  In an ideal world how you look doesn’t matter.  But academia is far from an ideal world, as we know all too well.  You want to blend into the faculty “identity” as seamlessly as possible.  Yes, of course we all know that actual faculty dress like slobs. Nevertheless, interviews require interview-wear.  Marking yourself as looking like you are already employed and earning a regular income is the quickest way to do that.

One of the saddest sights in the hotel conference hall is not so much the sloppily dressed interview candidate, asthe ineptly dressed interview candidate—the one in the brand new, ill-fitting suit with too-short sleeves and too-long pants, rushing through the halls clutching a a beat-up old backpack.

That person smells of desperation. Don’t let it be you.


Rocking the Phone/Skype Interview

A number of clients have asked me for a post on phone and Skype interviews, and I’m happy to oblige. There are some tricks of the trade for this kind of interview that can very helpful to know.

Now, the standard preparation for interviews of course prevails in these interviews as well. You want to thoroughly investigate the campus, the department, and the specific search well before the interview. You want to know the names of the people interviewing, and can call the department secretary to inquire ahead of time.

You should thoroughly familiarize yourself with the current course catalog as well as this semester’s course offerings, and which faculty teach what. You should glance at each of the search committee members’ work, so that you can refer to it intelligently, should it arise naturally in conversation.

Have the best foundation of knowledge that you can about the ethos of the campus—-does it emphasize warm, immediate connections with undergraduates, or hard-hitting research and a competitive graduate program?

Anticipate 10-15 questions that they are likely to ask you, and write out 1-2 minute responses to these, and practice until they are second nature.

Now, in terms of preparing for a phone interview, here are some pointers:

  • Dress for the interview. Wear your interview suit with shoes and the whole nine yards. This puts you into the proper frame of mind for the interview.

  • Set up your interview space at a spacious desk or table, with plenty of privacy, and on that desk space set up your laptop or else index cards with some short mental cues that you can quickly refer to when responding. These would include: “My dissertation’s three main themes are xx, yy, and zz”; or “For the Intro course I would use xx textbook with yy supplement,” or “My methods bridge quantitative and qualitative approaches. I can teach a Methods seminar by using xx and yy projects.”

  • Make a one-page cheat sheet of the department and set it next to you, with the names of the faculty (search committee at the top), and their research foci, and the title of one publication.

  • Do NOT put any pieces of writing near you that will distract you or that require close reading. You must be prepared to speak quickly and conversationally and naturally, so the briefest sound-byte cues work here.

  • Have a tablet and pen next to you to take shorthand notes as questions are asked. You may be given a compound question, such as “Tell us about your dissertation, how you got interested in the topic, and what you see as its primary contribution.” Make a note of each part of the question to be able to address each in your response.

For Skype interviews, most of these same techniques equally apply.

Obviously you will thoroughly dress for the interview. This includes the pants, or skirt, and shoes, etc. that will be out of sight of the camera!

You may set up a few cue cards around your skype space, but be very cautious that you don’t give the impression of constantly looking off-screen before speaking. If you can control your eye movements, then the cue cards are useful. If you cannot, then skip them.

Keep the department cheat sheet, but it is even more important that you have nothing around you that will distract you from the interview.

The pen and paper is valuable here as well. It is fine, even in an in person interview, to have a pen and paper in front of you to jot a minimal note or two as questions are being asked.

Now, in terms of Basic Interview Skills.

1) Tell me, what is the most important single factor in an interview response? What? What? I can’t hear you…….

Yes. It is brevity.

Do. Not. Ramble.

Please refer to this post, “The Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student (And how that’s killing you on the job market)” and mediate on it deeply and profoundly from today until the day of your interview.

It is of paramount importance in a phone and Skype interview, which are rarely more than 20-30 minutes long, and which do not have the benefit of real human interaction and non-verbal cue-exchange, that you ALWAYS LIMIT YOUR RESPONSES to no more than one or two minutes at a time.

It is of critical importance that you give your interviewers the chance to absorb what you’ve said (remember how hard it must be for THEM to keep track of difficult academic topics on the end of a phone call!), and to have the chance to formulate a response.

Always give them the chance to say, “How fascinating, tell us more.”

The PAUSE is your friend! Do not fear The Pause!  End your sound byte on a strong falling note that signals unmistakably:  I have now finished speaking!  Then count, silently, to 5 (1-mississippi, 2-mississippi, etc.) and either allow the next question to come, or resume with something like, “In terms of FUTURE research, beyond my dissertation, I will be moving on to a major second project on xxxxx.”

2) And always think like a candidate for office.  You need a platform.  The platform has, say, five planks.  Generate those planks, memorize them, and never, ever deviate from them.    In my own former case as a young assistant professor on the market, they were:

  • Japan area specialization with current gender and race sub-specialization
  • Working at the intersection of anthropology and contemporary social theory
  • Dynamic publishing and conference program and a book manuscript under advance contract
  • Interdisciplinary and transnational, but grounded in hands-on ethnographic methods
  • Innovative and dedicated teacher with unconventional methods, especially in large classes

All of my responses would refer back to one of these five elements of my platform.  In this way, I was constantly reinforcing my legibility and memorability as a candidate.

3) Frame always in the positive, not the negative.  Banish the negative.  The negative is the graduate student’s instant default.  Take a question like this:  “Tell us about your plans to revise your dissertation into the book”  Graduate students almost invariably answer in some form of the following, “Well, the dissertation isn’t really in a publishable state yet.  My third chapter is still missing some major elements on the pre-war period that I need to add.  I will need to visit the University of Tokyo library to access some of that material.  I haven’t really submitted the manuscript to a press yet because I’m waiting to resolve issues like that before I do.”

This is one gigantic “reject me now” response.  This person is NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME.  She is talking entirely like an excuse-making subordinated graduate student.  Here is the proper answer, in the positive, not negative, mode:

“I’m planning to take the book into a couple of exciting new areas of research.  Nobody to date has explored this phenomenon in the prewar period, but I found out that there is a brand new collection at the University of Tokyo library of prewar materials that my former mentor at Tokyo has invited me to visit and use this summer.  I’ll be incorporating that material into my third chapter, and in the meantime, I’ll be drafting a proposal of the book, with a clear statement of the revision plan, to send to presses next Fall.”

Get it?  All positive and forward looking.  Never negative and backward looking.

Now, in terms of interview questions. In fact, there are some excellent resources on this topic all over the web. Here is one link to start.  I like it, by Mary Corbin Sies, because it’s both savvy and attuned to the snark-factor.

For the purposes of this post I will merely jot down a few questions that I got in interviews and that tripped me up, or that have tripped up clients:

  • How does your dissertation intervene in the field of xx?
  • What is the most influential book you’ve read in the field of xxx recently?
  • How would you teach our Introductory course? Which text would you use? What kinds of assignments would you use?
  • How would you teach our Core Theory Seminar? Who would you have them read?
  • How would you teach our Methods course?
  • How would you incorporate undergraduates into your research?
  • Name 2 specialty courses you would teach, one undergraduate and one graduate.
  • How do you see your work intersecting with the other emphases in the department?
  • We are hoping to build a strength in xxx. How would you participate in that effort?
  • We don’t have a lot of funding for the kind of equipment/travel that you require for your research. How would you work with this?
  • Our campus is very student-focused. You come from an R1. How do you see yourself fitting in?
  • Our campus has high expectations for publication for tenure. How do you see yourself handling the expectations?
  • What is your research program for the next five years?
  • What are you immediate and longer term publication plans?
  • Do you have plans to apply for any major grants? If so, which ones?
  • Have you spoken with a publisher about your book?  Where do you stand in negotiations?
  • What’s your basic teaching philosophy?
  • What you’ve said is all very interesting, but doesn’t some of the work in your field really border on the far-fetched?  (thanks to Mary Corbin Sies for this one).

Be aware that they may ask you this question: “Do you have any questions for us?”

There are good and bad responses to this. The bad responses include:

  • No.
  • Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I guess not, I can’t really think of any offhand….
  • I’d like to ask about your spousal hiring program.


  • Your department seems to be weak in xxxx; are you planning to hire to fill that gap?

***Very bad!   Never, ever appear to judge the department.

  • What is your department’s relationship with the Dean?
  • How is your department viewed on campus?

***These latter two are actually excellent questions to get the answers to while on the campus visit, indirectly and subtly! But they are emphatically not questions to be asked in an initial interview because you look superior, arrogant, and judgmental.

Good responses include:

  • What kind of support is there available on campus for conference travel?
  • What kind of support is available on campus for summer research?
  • What kind of graduate student support is available?
  • Is there an active undergraduate/graduate student association? What kinds of activities do they do?

These are benign questions that most departments can answer truthfully with some kind of positive response that doesn’t make them feel bad about themselves or judged.  Be sure that your questions allow the search committee to save face.  Don’t ask questions that might necessitate a negative, embarassing answer.  Ie, “Do you provide automatic junior sabbatical for assistant professors?”  “Uhhh, no.”   That leaves a bad taste in their mouths that will work against you.

In Closing, the most important thing you can do is PREPARE. Know the department inside and out. Make and study the departmental cheat sheet. Know the ad inside and out and be prepared to respond to the specializations mentioned in it. Prepare your responses ahead of time and practice them in front of harsh critics.

And remember, you are the expert in your field. That is why they are shortlisting you! Never, ever grovel, or apologize, or hedge. Speak out, audibly, with confidence and firmness.  Banish any of your graduate student behaviors, and comport yourself entirely like a young, up-and-coming professional with things to say and points to make, hotly pursued by a whole posse of top-ranked campuses, and securely confident in the impact you will make on your field.

Good luck.







Editing Your C.V. and Letter for Teaching/Writing Positions

Today’s post is a Special Request post for a reader who shall remain anonymous. Her question concerns how to tailor her letter and c.v. for different jobs.

Here’s the background: She is a Victorian literature specialist and on the job market in English (I know, more’s the pity). She’s applying for Victorian specialist jobs, but also writing jobs and the occasional generalist position as well.

She has experience teaching writing, and she’s heard through the grapevine that search committees are impressed with her application for writing/generalist positions, but that her c.v. is so Victorian lit-heavy, that Victorian lit colleagues have responded unfavorably, claiming that she is going to invade their turf, so to speak.

So she wants to know: how can she ethically tailor her letter and c.v. to appeal to the writing/generalist positions without frightening the Victorianists already on the faculty?

I have not actually seen her job letter and c.v., so I am not basing my response on an actual example, but on principles. And English is not my field, and at the same time it’s a highly regimented field that serves many service needs on campuses, so it’s possible that my understanding of the principles may need some amplification in the comments below. So, readers from English, please feel free to comment.

The principle is that in this kind of case, where not just the specialization, but the very nature of the job is distinct, the cover letter should be highly tailored to match the position. What that means is that if she is applying for a writing job, then her primary role in the department is to teach writing, and not to act as a period specialist. In that sense, the profile she will present to the department is a teaching profile, with some Victorian research skills thrown in as an “extra.” I would recommend that her letter put her teaching paragraphs first (after her self-introduction paragraph), and that these be the main bulk of page one.

The teaching paragraph should describe what she has taught, what she is capable of teaching, and what she envisions teaching for the department, based on the needs identified in the ad, and on their course listing (but never, ever using course numbers, which is tacky). She should give some specific teaching strategies that she uses in the basic remedial, introductory and advanced Writing classroom, and how and why they worked. These should be innovative enough to be memorable, and not just obvious things like “I encourage discussion.” She should indicate or summarize student responses or evaluations.

After these two paragraphs (I don’t normally recommend more than two paragraphs dedicated to either teaching or dissertation research in a job letter), she can move into her dissertation research, and her publications, a second project, and then her tailoring paragraph. The publications do not have to be listed in their entirety—one or two are appropriate. Her second project should be mentioned, as I am assuming that this is still a tenure track position, and tenure requires a forward-looking research trajectory. If that is not the case, and it is not a tenure track position, then a second project should not be mentioned. Her tailoring paragraph should emphasize teaching innovations and initiatives, as opposed to ones focused on research.

In terms of the c.v., again, Teaching can be listed first after Education and Professional Employment. Publications should of course be listed in their entirety; I never, ever recommend removing a publication from a c.v. for tailoring purposes. Teaching Awards and so on should be emphasized if there are enough to make a separate heading or subheading.

She should have a teaching reference, preferably a colleague from her current position if she is beyond graduate school. That reference will be a fourth reference, after three academic references, if the job is a tenure-track position. If it is not a tenure-track position, then the teaching reference can be the third of three references.

All of these things together create an impression that the person is genuinely interested in teaching Writing, and will not be a shadow competitor to the Victorian specialists in the department.

Now, be aware that some Victorian specialists will be absolutely thrilled to get a specialist comrade in arms “for free,” as it were, through a Writing search. So this type of paranoia is not universally necessary. However, since she has received this specific feedback previously from a search, it is safe to assume that the problem does exist.

By retaining the research and publication elements of her profile (which always increase her capital on the market), while clearly demonstrating a primary interest (in the letter and c.v.) in the Writing position, she should be able to balance the two audiences for the search, and let the search committee feel that she is a “both/and” candidate, rather than an “either/or” candidate.



Job Letter Issues When You’re Beyond the Dissertation

Today’s post is a Special Request post for Amy, who wishes to know how the standard “dissertation” paragraph of the job letter should be adapted when the writer is well beyond dissertation stage.

This is a good question!  Applying for jobs mid-career is remarkably tricky. It’s hard to know how to frame your research when it has moved on from the single, discrete dissertation project.

The key here is to stay specific, and show a scholarly trajectory from the dissertation to the present.

Stay Specific:

You want to have a “current project” that you will be able to describe with the same level of care and specificity that you once used for the dissertation. Begin with this current research.  The project should be described in terms of the topic, the methods you’re using to address it, its significance, and the field-changing interventions that you are making through it.  You will then follow this paragraph with a discussion of the publications that have derived or will derive from it.

The temptation for people beyond the dissertation is to mention two or three or four new avenues that they are pursuing….but this is a mistake.  The candidate being hired as an advanced assistant professor still needs a coherent “second book project” (or series of articles) to get tenure.  The candidate being hired with tenure will still be scrutinized for promotability to Full.  These promotions hinge on the same kind of single-minded focus and productivity as the first project, under far more challenging conditions.  A discrete and specific project, with a clear publishing trajectory, communicates this productivity.

Scholarly Trajectory:

The second (or third) project should be shown to arise organically from the original dissertation project and/or other major project that preceded it.  These projects will be listed after the current research, and before the still-necessary “next project” paragraph.

It is not necessary to devote extensive verbiage in the letter itself to describing the old diss project, but it is important to reference it, in sentences like this:

“All of my work to date has been dedicated to using anthropological methods to study the impact on uranium mining on Native American populations in the U.S. southwest.  From my dissertation, which focused on cancer narratives among Navajo miners in Arizona, to my current work, in which I turn to Havasupai activism against mining in the Grand Canyon, I have used oral histories and collaborative ethnography to construct a “bottom-up” analysis of the U.S. nuclear industry.”

This trajectory shows the kind of scholarly focus and consistency that search committees want to see in mid-career hires.  This doesn’t mean you have to keep doing the same thing over and over.  But you do need to be able to show that your general scholarly profile is going to remain somewhat consistent.  In my own case I had a first project on Japanese women pursuing internationalized careers and life trajectories.  My planned second project (which I never actually brought to fruition) was on Japanese alternative, back to the land communities and their connections to a global eco-movement.  These projects are pretty different, but they are also: 1) both on Japan; 2) both on globalization; and 3) both on people who stray from the mainstream.  That is the level of consistency I’m talking about.

Think about it from the department’s point of view.  They want to know that the person they are hiring to fill a specific pedagogical and scholarly role is the scholar who will continue to do so for years into the future.  They don’t want a dilettante, or someone easily distracted, or who is going to leave a bunch of graduate students who came to work on U.S. nuclear issues in the lurch when he suddenly switches over to a major project on Pacific Islander taro farming techniques.

Trajectory shows maturity and consistency and predictability.  Again, this doesn’t mean you harp in a backward-looking way on a long-past dissertation.  And it also doesn’t mean that you can’t pursue interesting new areas of research.  Rather, you quickly and gracefully demonstrate the deep convictions and scholarly preoccupations that have continued to inspire you over many years.

The Golden Rule of the Research Statement

Today’s post is short. It’s about the Research Statement.

There’s undoubtedly a lot to say about Research Statements. But Dr. Karen doesn’t have time today, because she’s submerged in client work with looming deadlines.

So this post is simply going to introduce the Golden Rule of Research Statements. And that is:

Talk About the Research, and Not About Yourself.

What this means in practice is, beware the “I statement.” It is tempting to write a document that goes something like, “I work on transitions in the care of the elderly in Japan. I am particularly focused on the recent growth in government run care facilities. I use ethnographic methods to address the nature of the care given in these facilities, and I explore how the care is received by the patients and their families.  My dissertation explores one such facility in northern Japan.”

This would be bad, because it is entirely about you, and not about the research. Instead, write something like this:

“The rapidly aging society is one of the primary challenges facing Japan in recent decades.  Both the public and private sectors have hastened to respond to emerging needs of the elderly and their families.  Over 200 new government run elderly care centers have been built in recent years.  In my dissertation, I conduct an ethnographic study of one such facility in northern Japan, in order to explore the nature of the care provided there, as well as its reception by the elderly themselves and their family caregivers.”

I statements are not verboten.  They just need to be minimized, and carefully contextualized so that the research is always forefront, and your ego is secondary.


The Foolproof Grant Template–Where Did It Come From?

The fellowship season is upon us, and I’m working with clients on all sorts of grants and fellowships.

As part of that process I’m spending a lot of time talking people through the Dr. Karen Foolproof Grant Template. I won’t repeat the template here—I just direct you to this post. And if you want an even more substantial discussion of it, check out the Professor’s Guide- The Grant-Writing Handbook, in the Prof Shop.

Today I want to talk about how I ended up creating this template. Because the story is very revealing of how successful techniques circulate in quiet, backchannel ways.

When I was a brand new assistant professor, I had a senior colleague. This senior colleague had recently moved to Oregon from an elite East Coast institution. He had been successful and well liked there. He very kindly took me under his wing, and I learned a great deal from him.

One of the things that he told me in my first year was: apply for major national fellowships, and don’t stop until you get at least one full year off to write your book. I listened to him, and did as he said. He had received the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship a few years earlier, and he encouraged me to apply for it as well.

When I started work on the application, he passed on to me his own previous successful proposal. And he explained to me that this proposal was based on another proposal that had been written by one of his senior colleagues back at the elite institution. I was at least the third generation to draw from the model.

Now let me hasten to add, that we were not “re-using” a single proposal per se. Our projects were not remotely similar. Rather, we were re-using a consistent proposal STRUCTURE. The first iteration, and then my colleague’s, and then my own, all followed precisely the same organization. And, lo and behold, it worked for me just as it worked for him, and as it had worked for his senior colleague (and who knows how many before him.)

I immediately saw the utility of the proposal structure, and used it again and again. I got virtually every grant and fellowship for which I applied.

When I had graduate students of my own, I passed the model on to them. By this point, I was referring to it as the “grant template.” Each of my students structured their grant and fellowship applications according to the template, and every student got virtually every major fellowship for which they applied—over the years, some $600,000 worth of fellowships, in our modestly funded fields of Asian Studies and Cultural Anthropology.

I freely shared the template, in the form of my own NEH fellowship proposal, with anyone who asked. But not everyone was able to separate out the structure from the model. My proposal, after all, was on Japanese women who traveled abroad in search of Western men and Western careers. Not everyone could see the organization beneath the surface, and apply it to their own project.

When I left my academic career and came to the University of Oregon McNair Program, I began working with advanced undergraduate students, who are very green in the ways of the academic world, but who are ambitious and eager to apply for much-needed fellowships. I quickly saw that my template would once again be useful, but that I was going to have to help. They were much too inexperienced to be able to decipher the organization themselves. So I took the next step, and I did it for them.

I reduced my old NEH proposal into its elemental building blocks, and provided a basic explanation for its parts. I saw that the structure is, at root, a Hero Narrative, and named it as such. I came to understand that constructing this narrative is entirely formulaic, and hinges on the construction of urgency. Those grants that create a sense of legitimate and credible urgency get money. Those that don’t, don’t.

Now the template is in the form of a one-page diagram, with a brief textual accompaniment. You can see it here. I am happy to share it, although I appreciate getting credit.

The point I want you to take away from all this is not just that this template, now called the Dr. Karen Foolproof Grant Template, really works. I also want you to understand that effective grant-writing, like all other professional academic writing, is at its root completely formulaic. Your project can be creative and innovative, but your grant proposal had damned well better follow the formula. Deviation means failure.

Some of the most creative thinkers in the land are the worst grant-writers, because they can’t or won’t write according to formula. I can see that. My analytical and linear mind loves to reduce things to their component parts and find the underlying structure. But not everyone is like that.

The template does some of the work for you. Not all of it. I’m still surprised sometimes at what comes to me from clients who swear that they’ve followed it “exactly.” But it helps.

And on a larger scale, the story of the template demonstrates the ways that hidden codes and understandings operate in academia. They’re not secret, exactly. But they’re hidden, and passed along through personal connections and contacts.

Stay alert to these codes and models when they cross your path. They are the capital of an academic career. And always be ready to pass them on to others. It’s good karma.


Stop Acting Like a Girl! A Response to Feminist Critics

Some feminists don’t like the Dr. Karen method. By the Dr. Karen method I mean my practice of telling women to stop acting “like girls” and to start learning to recognize and master the codes of power and authority that operate in academic settings, which are almost entirely derived from male patterns of behavior.

I get it. I mean, what feminist can really get behind telling women to act more like men? And yet, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I look at the modes of behavior that the vast, vast majority of young women unconsciously adopt, and what I see are the ways that they systematically, with extraordinary consistency, undermine their own voices and sabotage their own career prospects.  To the degree that they continue unconsciously adopting these behaviors, they will fail to advance in their academic careers. And I want to see them advance. So I target the ineffective behaviors, and urge on them replacement behaviors that are, quite simply, less stereotypically female, and more stereotypically male.

What is it that women do that is self-sabotaging in academic settings? Minimize their accomplishments, hang back from debates, apologize for their opinions, make excuses for their so-called “failures,” smile too much, laugh too much, dissipate their time and energy in nurturing needy students and peers, compromise their intellectual integrity, shrink into the background, bend over backward to be agreeable, and spend more time soothing professorial egos than standing up for their points of view.

What do I tell women to do in professional settings? Well, here’s a representative list:

  • Cut excessive emotion out of your speaking patterns
  • Speak in short declarative sentences without rambling
  • Smile less
  • Square your shoulders
  • Take up all the space in your chair
  • Master the straight, direct, level gaze
  • Master the firm handshake
  • Stop apologizing
  • Stop making excuses
  • Stop focusing on what you didn’t do and don’t know
  • Be the sole author
  • Collaborate less
  • Teach less
  • Nurture less
  • Promote yourself

With great consistency, audiences with feminist tendencies object. “No!” they insist. “That’s terrible advice! We should be telling young women to reject those behaviors, because they are the very behaviors that make academia cold and isolating. We should be telling young women to be MORE collaborative, more nurturing, more caring! We should encourage a variety of ways of being, because women’s ways of being are equally valid!”

They inevitably conclude, “if we want academia to change, we have to encourage young academic women to behave in nurturing and collaborative and cooperative ways!”

I do hear what they’re saying.

And I reject it.

I reject it because, at The Professor Is In, we’re not about the normative, we’re about the descriptive.

I’m not saying that the academic world “should” be dominated by individual ego competition, aggressive argumentation, jealous isolation, a fear of emotion, a contempt for teaching, and a hostility toward collaborative work. I’m saying that at its highest and most competitive levels, it “is.”

And if a young woman who comes to me for advice wants to have a career in that world, after already investing some 5-10 years in preparation and indebtedness to do it, then my ethical commitment is to arm her with the full set of weapons she needs to succeed. Yes, I am using the military metaphors deliberately. She needs to stop acting like Little Bo Peep when her job is taking her into the Killing Fields.

Out on the job market, too many young women mistakenly believe that they will be judged and hired on the basis of their niceness, their nurturingness, their brilliant teaching, their selfless service, or their willingness to “go the extra mile.”

No, you are judged—on the job market, and at tenure—by your individual production of scholarly work and your ability to make claims for this work that are bold, assertive, and supremely confident.

How do women’s diffidence and self-effacement ruin their chances of professional success?  To answer this i’d like to quote extensively (bold added) from Clay Shirky’s post “A Rant About Women”

“When I was 19 and three days into my freshman year, I went to see Bill Warfel, the head of grad theater design (my chosen profession, back in the day), to ask if I could enroll in a design course. He asked me two questions. The first was ‘How’s your drawing?’ Not so good, I replied. (I could barely draw in those days.) ‘OK, how’s your drafting?’ I realized this was it. I could either go for a set design or lighting design course, and since I couldn’t draw or draft well, I couldn’t take either.

‘My drafting’s fine’, I said.

That’s the kind of behavior I mean. I sat in the office of someone I admired and feared, someone who was the gatekeeper for something I wanted, and I lied to his face. We talked some more and then he said ‘Ok, you can take my class.’ And I ran to the local art supply place and bought a drafting board, since I had to start practicing.

That got me in the door. I learned to draft, Bill became my teacher and mentor, and four years later I moved to New York and started doing my own design work. I can’t say my ability to earn a living in that fickle profession was because of my behavior in Bill’s office, but I can say it was because I was willing to do that kind of thing. The difference between me and David Hampton isn’t that he’s a con artist and I’m not; the difference is that I only told lies I could live up to, and I knew when to stop. That’s not a different type of behavior, it’s just a different amount.

And it looks to me like women in general, and the women whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what? We ask people to cross gender lines all the time. We’re in the middle of a generations-long project to encourage men to be better listeners and more sensitive partners, to take more account of others’ feelings and to let out our own feelings more. Similarly, I see colleges spending time and effort teaching women strategies for self-defense, including direct physical aggression. I sometimes wonder what would happen, though, if my college spent as much effort teaching women self-advancement as self-defense.”

Academia is not a particularly nurturing or kind place. There are kind and supportive people in it, to be sure. And there is much good that is done in the classroom, and among colleagues, and in scholarly collaboration. But ultimately, academia is based on judgment and evaluation of individual productivity. And the agent of that productivity is you, and you alone.* You are judged by your work. The person who stands up for your work, is you.

Guess what, women?  Nobody’s going to help you gain this confidence, this ego, this ballsiness, and few are going to praise you for displaying them.  On the contrary—these have been beaten out of you since the day you were born–through shaming, and rejection, and criticism, and undermining.  But that doesn’t change the facts, which are, without them, in professional and academic settings, you will always play second fiddle to some man, and you will always be and do less than you are capable of.

It is the starting principle of The Professor Is In, that if you want an academic career in this disintegrating market, you cannot be distracted by time investments that do not pay off. You have to be both selfish and self-promoting. You have to advocate for yourself. Oftentimes you have to fight for yourself. At the bare minimum you have to be prepared to “toot your own horn” (in my Depression-era parents’ favorite phrase), insist on your place at the faculty conference table, form a strong opinion, express it audibly and firmly, and defend it, and not back down.

I want to see women get into the academy and succeed there. Women in the academy change the academy. I saw it countless times in my own university surroundings. Women sitting at the table changed the nature of the dialogue that took place at the table. But the women who were sitting there got there did not get there by acting “like girls,” but by being tough, and fierce, and talking and acting quite a bit like the guys.

Again, Clay Shirky:

The institutions that offer these opportunities operate in an environment where accurate information is hard to come by. One of their main sources of judgment is asking the candidate directly: Tell us why we should admit you. Tell us why we should hire you. Tell us why we should give you a grant. Tell us why we should promote you.

In these circumstances, people who don’t raise their hands don’t get called on, and people who raise their hands timidly get called on less. Some of this is because assertive people get noticed more easily, but some of it is because raising your hand is itself a high-cost signal that you are willing to risk public failure in order to try something.

I may personally wish the academic world was other than it is. But as Dr. Karen, I will not make individual young women Ph.D.s on the job market, or in the probationary pre-tenure period, the martyrs to an imagined feminist fantasy of what the academy “should” be. The academy is what it is. I take my job to be to prevent young women from misreading it so profoundly and wandering out onto the market (and sometimes all the way to tenure) like Little Bo Peep, or like so many sheep to the slaughter.


*Of course for those of you who work in lab settings, collaboration is built into your process, and this advice does not apply in exactly the same way to you.  Yet the sciences are in many ways even harder on women, and it’s easy for women to end up as the “service workers” of the lab, in service to the male leaders. This is not an area of expertise for me, and I would appreciate hearing from readers as to how women sabotage themselves in a lab setting, and what they must do to claim a space “at the bench.”


Women Fail, But Men Bomb: A Special Request Post for Guys on the Market

Today’s post is a Special Request post for Jon, who wrote very good-naturedly to ask, “You have much advice for women. Got any male-specific advice for the ABD, on-the-market sort of guy?”

Jon went on to ask, “did you ever meet a promising job or postdoc candidates only to watch him screw up…and think, ‘wow, that is a very guy-type of mistake?!’”

I have to confess, this one brought me up short. In the first moments of reading the email, I drew a complete blank. I even momentarily thought that perhaps I had no “guy-type” mistakes to discuss. Then, of course, I immediately admonished myself. Of COURSE there are guy-type mistakes. We just don’t see them as such because “guys” are the unmarked normal. So their mistakes are catalogued as “mistakes,” not “guy mistakes.”

Annoyed with myself for even momentarily participating in the discourses of male normativity, I set myself to the task of contemplating guy-type mistakes. And I came up with three.

The first is: a tendency to miss social cues and barrel through the interpersonal elements of the interview process in a state of cluelessness.

The second, and this is related to the first: a tendency to profoundly mis-read the reception of the research by the audience and to proceed in a state of blissful ignorance of any possible negative response.

And the third, and this one is kind of basic: a tendency to dress wrong.

It goes without saying (for astute readers of this blog) that the first two of these tendencies (which of course are not shared by all male Ph.D.s any more than the women’s patterns of behavior I discuss are shared equally by all female Ph.D.s) are reverse images of the problems that women generally face. That is, where women routinely over-censor and over-efface themselves from feelings of intense inadequacy, men routinely under-censor and over-inflate themselves from feelings of intense entitlement. And these feelings of entitlement are just as unconscious and unintentional as are women’s feelings of inadequacy. But they have real impacts.

The third problem, of dress, is merely an extension of gendered expectations of proper attire in American society—women are scrutinized, men are not. Therefore, men have little to no experience in strategizing their clothing choices, and have little awareness of the microscopic rules of fashion, and in particular, of proper fit, that they are breaking.

How do these play out in interviews?

The first problem, of missing social cues, manifests in a tendency to pontificate. Particularly in the awkward social settings of the campus visit—the poorly defined spaces of the candidate dinners, lunches, and receptions—male candidates have a tendency to mis-read the expectations, and treat the social interactions as extensions of the “job talk,” (ie, requiring more monologue), rather than what they really are, which is more like “water cooler chats” (ie, dialogic and informal).

This can also happen in formal interview settings as well. Male candidates are far, far more likely than female candidates to give in to the temptation to “hold forth” at excruciating length, entranced by the eloquence of their own words, eyes glazed over or fixed on a spot over the committee members’ heads, profoundly oblivious to the cleared throats and shuffled papers that signal the NEED to MOVE ON.

Interestingly, a closely related problem, less often seen, is a tendency to talk too little.  This stems equally from a mis-reading of social cues. A remark such as “I can see how this line of research would raise interesting questions in the classroom….” must be understood as a QUESTION:  “How does your research find expression in your teaching?”  But not being asked directly, in the form of a question, led this type of question to be missed by male candidates with some regularity.   I recall candidates who would sit quietly looking at us, moments ticking by, silence dragging on, until someone finally realized that a question had been indirectly asked but not recognized as such.

My guess–and this is just speculation–is that this problem is most common where a male candidate is interviewed by women, who may equally unconsiously be relying on indirection and suggestion, and body language and facial cues that don’t always translate well across genders.


Now, the second problem—the excessive confidence in one’s brilliance and unawareness of the audience reception— is one that afflicts the job talk in particular.

As I counted back through the many, many job talks of my faculty career, I realized that men and women candidates gave good and bad talks in equal numbers, and no gender predominated, in my relatively gender-balanced fields of anthropology and Asian Studies, in ultimate hireability (or offers).  Nevertheless, one rule of gender and the job talk prevailed.

That rule was: women fail, but men bomb.

In other words, the good job talk was the good job talk. Gender played little role indeed.

But the BAD job talk? THAT was gendered. The bad job talks by women candidates were run-of-the-mill bad—They were dull, or poorly organized, or unoriginal, or unconvincing, or sadly presented.

But the bad job talks by male candidates? Well, those talks could be spectacularly bad. Flamboyantly bad. Memorably bad.

These were the job talks that lived on in departmental legend. “Remember ‘dog-boy’–the one who talked about dogs for an hour?” “Remember the one who talked about how the nuclear bomb wasn’t so bad for the plants and bugs?” “Remember the one who said ‘gosh I didn’t study any women’ when someone asked him to think about gender?” “Remember the one we had to cut off at an hour and 15 minutes?”

These male candidates had somehow managed to completely and totally fail to grasp the spectacular inappropriateness of their topics, their preparedness, and/or presentation styles. They had, apparently, blithely ignored any of the cautions or admonitions that they undoubtedly received from advisors, peers, and general well-wishers, and they proceeded with blissful abandon past the looks of shock, dismay, and outrage gathering on the faces of their job talk audiences.

I never saw a woman candidate bomb a job talk in this way.

Obviously, this is the flip side of male privilege. Women are not given the license to fail big because they aren’t given the license to try big. Women are disciplined (and punished) and circumscribed and admonished and chastised at so many levels, in so many ways, that men are not….that in the end it is by and large only males who have the opportunity to burst out onto the job market with wildly inappropriate egos and presentation habits intact.

This is not to say that all men do. I know well how many male candidates are filled with anxiety and insecurity, and a desperate desire to do well and be agreeable, and read the cues correctly. To be sure.

But the chances are higher, far higher, that a man may slip through the cracks of the graduate school socializing apparatus, meant to beat graduate students into a state of deference and submission and hyper-self-criticism, and emerge entirely unaware of the impression that he is making on his audience.

And that, readers, is the ultimate “guy-type” mistake.

Oh, and then there are the clothes. Guys, go out to Macy’s or Men’s Wearhouse and buy a suit in the $250-350 range. If you can spring for $500 do that, but it’s not crucial. Have the in-house tailor fit you, and DO NOT LEAVE with the suit until it has been tailored for you. This will cost around $40 more. Buy at least one new Oxford cloth shirt and one new tie. Buy a pair of decent quality leather dress shoes, and buy socks that match the shoes or the pants. Buy a good quality leather belt if you don’t have one—make sure it’s fresh and not cracked!

[Addendum:  As noted in the comment stream below, for many contexts and disciplines, the suit is unnecessary and a sports jacket with pants and tie is more appropriate.  Variables that will affect this decision include: is your discipline formal or informal (poli sci and econ tend to be formal, while comp lit and anthropology tend to be informal…), and is the campus formal or informal (the south and the northeast are more formal than the midwest and the west coast).  Ask all the reliable sources you can, particularly successful young male faculty members.  When in doubt lean toward formality.]

Practice wearing the suit or at least jacket around the house, and wear it out to work for a full day and to dinner at least once before you go on a campus visit, to get it broken in. Iron the package creases out of your shirts. Try the suit and the pants and shirts on in different combinations, and plan out day one and day two outfits for the campus visit, with day one (job talk day) being the full suit, and day two being just the pants and shirt and a tie. You can consider wearing a nice Ralph Lauren-style half zipper jersey sweater pullover, with the Oxford shirt and the tie, for day two, if it’s cold, or if it’s a casual, West Coast sort of place. 

Invest in a quality dress coat!  It is conceivable that this you can find second-hand.  Second-hand is a good budget option for everything but the suit itself, and the shoes, which need to be fresh and fitted.

A cool looking watch can be a nice addition. The ties don’t have to be boring. Men’s attire expresses individuality in these small details.

DO NOT CARRY A BACKPACK! Get a quality leather or microfiber briefcase. These can be found cheaply at places like OfficeMax.

Have your girlfriend or boyfriend or mother study your options and give you a stamp of approval before you pack.

And then, put on all these clothes, and commandeer a classroom in your department, and for god’s sake, give a mock job talk to a bunch of people who will tell you the truth. Because, while not all job talks will succeed, there is no reason at all to bomb.