Michael Gamer and Anne K. Krook
Much of this information has come to me from my colleague Anne
Krook. If you have suggestions about this material--particularly what
might be added or corrected--please let me know.
B. Your Audience and the Question of Time.
Your interviewers will likely be the chair of the department, the
chair of the hiring committee and its other 2-3 members, and perhaps some
other faculty who either happen to be at MLA or who happen to work in
areas similar to your own. I have had interviews where there were over ten
people in the room, and I have had one-on-one interviews. Both are
comparatively rare, and 4-7 people is usually what you can expect. Most
interviews run 30-45 minutes, but a few may be as short as 20 or as long
as 75 minutes. Committees often aim to be mixed in gender and in faculty
rank. This means that many times, with a little homework, you can make
educated guesses about who will be interviewing you before you walk into
It's likely, however, that not all of the people who read your
letter, vita, sample, and dossier will be at the interview. It's also
very likely that at least some of the interviewers will not have had time
to read your material carefully. You will need, therefore, to convey a
good deal of information about your work quickly, clearly, and
efficiently. This is most important in the case of Question #1.
Remember that as much as you want them to like you, they want you to
like them as well. Job searches are expensive and time-consuming, and
given the economy, a lot of schools are going to be making very few
appointments for a while, so it's in their interest to find someone with
whom they will be happy and who will be happy with them.
C. Basic Interview Guidelines.
1. Do not lie.
Present yourself in the best light possible, of course, but do not
lie. If asked whether your theory of world reading
audiences might apply to the audience of Barchester Towers and
you've never read it, either say so gracefully or redirect the
question; but avoid pretending that unfamiliar material is under your
control. An underfed Trollopist will eat you.
2. Never badmouth another job-seeker or your own department, as it
will be perceived as a bad omen of your future habits as a colleague.
3. Answer short rather than long. Most candidates do themselves in by
not knowing when to stop. Remember: they can always ask follow-up
questions if they want to know more.
4. Do not be arrogant or condescending. Remember: the opposite of
"polite" is not "smart."
5. Anticipate questions and practice answers. If you can, have a mock
D. The Mix of Questions.
In general, you can expect research institutions to more of the
interview asking you about your research. A state
university with a diverse and international student body like UVA will
likely see itself as having a somewhat different mission than a satellite
campus of a smaller state university with a local clientele like Central
Michigan University. Often, the Department Chair will explain to you (if
the job description hasn't already) how many and what kind of courses the
successful candidate will teach; this should give you a fair idea of where
the interview will lean. A small college with a 3/4 load will likely be
more interested in your teaching than a small college with a 2/2 load.
E. Basic Interview Questions about Your Work and Research.
1. Please summarize your dissertation project.
While the question is not always put this baldly, you will be asked
to map out the contours of your dissertation and to frame its key
questions in a way that will be interesting to a non-specialist audience.
You may be asked particular questions about your dissertation, or asked
to explain certain parts of your job letter or your dissertation
description. Whatever you do, don't ramble on; you need to give them
time to ask you questions about subjects that they find interesting. It
may help to write a sample answer of around 300-400 words in your
speaking voice, so that you can present your work in a couple of
minutes. Although obviously you will not want to adopt a teacherly tone,
it may help to think of your job as one of teaching your dissertation,
since you will be likely dealing with an audience with other specialties
who already likes your work and wants to like it more. Ideally, the
formality of this question will evaporate, and a real conversation about
your work will supplant it. That is your goal.
Be prepared for some version of the "Why would anyone want to do
that?" question, or for the "Why don't you do X instead?" tone, though
not so baldly put.
2. What will your next major project be?
3. How do your research and your teaching influence each other?
4. What theorists have you found most useful in formulating your
5. What critical approaches do you find most persuasive? How do they
translate into your teaching?
6. What would you hope that a non-specialist reader of your
dissertation would take away from it?
7. Where do your place yourself in relation to other writers who work
in [the your dissertation field]?
8. [They may describe their library, and then ask] Could you conduct
research from our library?
9. When will you get your degree (be absolutely specific and positive)?
F. Sample Questions about Teaching.
For all the course questions below, it may help to draw up sample
syllabi in advance. In general, it may help to think of what way that you
are most comfortable organizing courses intellectually. At the very least,
you should be able to explain not only what texts you'd choose but also
what general principles you'd use to organize the course (chronological?
generic? theoretical? combination?), whether you prefer essays or exams,
etc. You also may want to map out what kind of work you ultimately want
your students to be able to do and what kinds of assignments you will give
in order to teach them the skills that will produce that work. When you
answer questions about upper-division coures, don't hesitate first to ask
what preparation the students taking that class would normally have: one
or two semesters of composition, a literature survey, etc. Again, a look
in the undergraduate catalogue will tell you much, and enable you to
handle the question more quickly and impressively. Bear in mind, however,
that while a department may want you to teach courses on the books that
have not been taught in a while, they likely are also looking for someone
who can enrich their curriculum.
In general, I find it also important to present oneself as being aware
that departments need students, and that departments therefore need to
hire faculty who can draw interested students into their classrooms.
Consequently, I usually find it useful when I begin to answer a question
about a course to describe the course rubric first, making it
clear that practical things like enrollments and
accessibility matter to me. I then usually describe what kinds of basic
questions that my course rubric will enable me to ask students. If you
pitched a senior seminar called "Romantic Ruins," for example, how does
that title immediately make certain basic questions (about the relation
between poetic and historical notions of imagination, for example)
inevitable? Does the course allow you to short-circuit certain inevitable
traps into which students fall? Is there a text that all of the interview
committee are likely to know that you can use in a sentence or two to
demonstrate what you will do with texts in the course?
I try to cover these issues in under a minute; only then do I
describe some of the other texts for the course, giving most of my
attention to how they interact with one another within the logic of the
1. How would you organize a freshman composition course?
2. Introductory courses for non-majors: How would you teach a Beowulf
to Milton? The Novel? Dryden to Yeats? Colonial to Civil War? Civil War to
WWII survey course? US Literature or Literature of the Americas? World
You will probably only be asked about the survey course closest to
the job for which you have applied, though some schools, especially
smaller ones, will need and expect you to cover a range of survey courses.
3. If you could teach any course you wanted, what would it be? What
would you teach next if you could teach two of them?
4. How would you organize an upper division course in your field?
5. How would you organize a senior seminar in your field?
6. How would you organize a graduate course in your field?
7. How do your research and your teaching influence each other?
8. What critical approaches do you find most persuasive? How do they
translate into your teaching?
9. What kinds of essays do you want your students to write?
10. How do reading and writing interact in your classroom?
11. How do you feel about teaching composition?
12. How do you teach composition?
13. How do you know you've been successful in teaching composition?
14. What interdisciplinary courses could you teach?
15. How would you teach a major work in your field? (They may name one)
G. Other Kinds of Questions.
1. Do you have any questions for us?
Answer: "Yes." On one hand, this can be a way of a committee
letting you know that they're done interviewing you, so it would be good
to address this question quickly. And with so much information on the web,
it's harder these days to come up with a really good question -- something
that shows you're already thinking about this particular institution and
are excited by the prospect of working there. Still, here are some common
questions you might tailor to your own needs: Where the school draws its
students from (commuter/resident? in/out of state? traditional
age/returning student?); What challenges the department sees itself facing
now; what the students' greatest strengths are; How has the department
changed in the last 5-10 years. Or, along different lines: What is
school's relation to externships/international study; school's
realtionships to the community. In general the question should show that
you have thought carefully about the school (i.e., checked the
undergraduate catalogue) and are interested enough in it to inform
yourself about it.
2. What do you do when you're not working? [the modern equivalent of
"what are your hobbies?"]
3. [well-meant-but-thoughtless, instrusive, boorish, or illegal
questions or remarks]
How you handle these depends on the nature of the comment or question
and on the tenor of the interview thus far as a whole.
Well-meant-but-thoughtless remarks are fairly easy to ignore or deflect
with a vague comment. Sample response to "Nice suit!" (someone did say
this to me): vaguely friendly smile. Current tough and perhaps illegal
question: "would you be moving with anyone who would need help looking
for a job?" Depending on how this question is phrased, it can be either
illegal nosiness (e.g. trying to find out whether you have an
appropriately legal spouse of the appropriate gender) or a polite
invitation to discuss the issue if you want or need to. In general,
though, this issue should be left to job-seekers to raise, and I think
that the most appropriate time to do so is at the campus interview, or
after you've been offered the job. Truly ghastly, illegal questions are
rare; thoughtlessness is much more common.
4. [Snide asides (as opposed to critical but professional questions)
directed at you; at other interviewers; at other critics; at other
Whenever possible, politely ignore but don't engage these.