First Journeys: Interview Stories

With the history department in the middle of two searches—we’re hiring a colonial US/Native American historian as well as an ancient historian—we thought it would be fun to share a few interview stories. Everyone has one; the excruciating sequence of AHA screening interviews (now often conducted via Skype) and the nerve-wracking, two-day on campus interviews are rites of passage for any historian. They can be memorable; they can also scar you for life! But to commemorate the “hiring season,” here is a little trifle of a blog post about interviews past and present from faculty members and former graduate students alike. A few names have been changed to protect the hapless.

Faculty member Alison Efford starts with a cheerful story about interviewing here at Marquette several years ago: On my flight to Milwaukee for the on-campus, I sat next to a person who I now know is a member of the political science department. He saw me reading over materials and worked out that I was on my way to an interview. Of course, he didn’t know anything abbot the search, but he gave me a very welcoming introduction to the university. We’ve hardly ever talked since, although we did catch up at a reception when he won a research award.

Before arriving in Milwaukee in the early 1980s, Julius Ruff held several jobs and endured countless interviews. Here’s a story from one of them: In 1977 I had an on-campus interview for a one-year job at a New England university where budgets must have been tight; I was housed in the chairman’s basement, sleeping on a convertible couch. The basement had a bathroom complete with a metal shower stall. During my stay, I also learned that the chairman’s wife vacuums the living room carpet directly above the basement room at 6:00 AM.

Ann Ostendorf, another of our former PhD students, tells about an interview she experienced: During the part of the process when I was being interviewed by the full department, a (rather senior) member of the department asked if I was into the whole Annales School philosophy [the early and mid-twentieth century French social history movement], (remember this was 2009). I looked around the room and could tell everyone else was embarrassed by this question, so I randomly made up some stuff that sort of talked around the question.  As soon as I finished, he promptly fell asleep for the rest of the department interview, and the rest of the department seemed quite relieved.

From PhD alum Ed Schmitt (now associate professor of history at UW-Parkside): I have a funny hiring story that my colleagues and former students have never let me forget. It was my first year at Parkside and we were interviewing for a second Americanist. I was running late for a candidate’s 8:00 am research presentation, so I parked in an unauthorized spot that was going to save me quite a few steps. When I went back out to get my bag that had lecture notes for a new course I was teaching, I found that my car was gone. It had been towed to an impound lot, and the only one available to give me a ride there was the candidate. And that candidate didn’t end up getting the job!  So I felt kind of terrible about the whole situation, but hopefully the candidate found happiness, better parking, and more responsible colleagues elsewhere.

Lezlie Knox has two stories featuring cars: On one interview, I was picked up at the airport by a faculty member in a pick-up truck that had seen much better days.  I had to enter through the driver’s side door, since the passenger door was tied shut with a rope connected to the gear shift.  This situation raised a lot of questions about faculty salaries, but I didn’t feel it was appropriate to ask her why she drove that particular vehicle (she had it the next day too).  Once she had a job, at a school in California, she witnessed the worst job interview ever: Two colleagues took a candidate out for coffee off campus.  Coming back, they were stopped in a turn lane on the Pacific Coast Highway and were rear-ended by a driver on a cellphone.  The candidate could only be extracted from the back seat by using the “jaws of life.”  She wasn’t hurt too badly, but when she stood up, the force of the accident had stretched the fabric in her suit so that her skirt fell off.  She also had two black eyes—which she took to the Rhode Island campus where she interviewed the next week. She ended up getting that job.

Ken Shonk, who completed his PhD at Marquette several years ago and has held tenure-track positions at two different universities, has had more than his share of interviews, and offers several stories from both sides of the interview process (warning: these are not for those easily offended by officious or clueless academics!): I was interviewing at an east coast university that was located about 25 miles from a major international airport. I was instructed to take a bus from the airport to a bus terminal, from which I was to take a cab to hotel (where I had to make reservations myself). What they did not tell me was that the bus ran every 90 minutes, resulting in my waiting in the cold for well over an hour. Shivering, I arrived at the bus station where I had to wait another 45 minutes for a cab to arrive. The cabbie took the long route to the hotel and drove off without providing the requested receipt. The interview was fine, but when it came time to return me to the airport, I witnessed members of the faculty doing their best to get out of giving me a ride: ‘I don’t want to do it, you should do it. It’s your turn.’ ‘I gave [full name of another job candidate] a ride the other day.’ Etc., etc. Transportation aside, my teaching demo—for a secondary education position—was given to a classroom full of elementary education students.

In another on-campus interview, I was given the day’s itinerary and noticed that there were large chunks of downtime. After a 45-minute job talk in which two faculty attended, I sat in a dusty office for roughly two hours so that other faculty could meet with me. Nobody bothered to show. This was followed by a 90-minute block of time in which I was to meet with a number of undergraduate majors. The chair of the committee warned me that he expected at least 35 students, and it was important to hold the meeting in a large room. He was readied with four-dozen donuts and a large vat of coffee. Not a single student showed up. The chair spent much of the time apologizing and making excuses for the students. I don’t know who ate all of the donuts. Later that evening, I was given a city tour by another member of the committee who sought fit to point out every steakhouse that the city had to offer. I politely shared with him that I was a vegetarian—a fact to which he took great offense and sarcastically stated he’ll be sure to turn away when eating the big steak that he was planning to order. At dinner he continued to make snide comments prompting a series of odd looks from his colleagues.

Bonus high school story: I was interviewing for a high school teaching position. While waiting for my turn, the candidate before me was escorted out of the office by the school’s principal, and I overheard him say, “We will definitely be in touch soon. . . . [The job’s] as good as yours.” Obviously, this did not go over well with me, and I entered the interview with a chip on my shoulder. During the interview, neither the principal nor the department chair seemed in any way interested in my answers, as the principal made doodles on my CV. At one point the department chair fell asleep and proceeded to snore quietly.

A correspondent we’ll call Bob [not his real name] offers this example of how colleagues are sometimes not particularly helpful members of search committees: Two years ago I served as the chair of a search committee for a scholar specializing in non-western history. . . . The search resulted in our interviewing a number of international candidates, which caused [one senior member of the department who we’ll call “X”] great consternation, for X felt that the students at our university would not be able to handle anybody with an accent. When it came time to conduct phone interviews, X insisted on reading the longest of the scripted questions [state schools, especially, insist that all interviewees are asked identical questions]. When we interviewed native English speakers X affected a pseudo-British accent (“What classes would you like to teach in your shed-dule?”) and read the question just once. When we interviewed an international candidate—or one with a non-European name—X insisted on reading the questions in a very loud fashion, sounding out the long word, and was sure to read the question twice. More than once a candidate audibly sighed at X’s tone. Fast forward to the on-campus interviews: both of the candidates we brought to campus had become parents within weeks of their visit to the university. In each of the candidates’ teaching demos X asked—in front of an audience of 35 undergraduates and nearly a dozen faculty—how each candidate was doing with their recent fatherhood/motherhood. On a separate note, another faculty member [let’s call her “Y”] asked each of the candidates to say something in his/her native language. At the post-interview dinner, X and an intoxicated Y dominated the conversation, with the former spending much of the time listing every Asian restaurant and market within a 200-mile radius. Rounding out the evening was Y asking the candidate what he/she thought of Y as a person. These are but the highlights of a surreal and ridiculous experience.

Finally, on a happier note, Steve Avella recalls a chilly night during an interview here at Marquette from several years ago: Kristen Foster and I took Irene Guenther–one of our candidates for a German history position– out to a lovely Italian restaurant on the lower east side. The snow piles were mammoth and the icy wind whipped around that night–chilling us all to the bone. Poor Irene was freezing (her home state of Texas never got this bad.) Nonetheless, once inside, we had the best time: talking about everything from art to Nazis to movies to MU politics. We laughed so loud that the other diners gave us fish-eye looks and we ended up closing the restaurant.  Kristen and I were so impressed, but we both felt those damned snow piles doomed our chances to get this vivacious scholar to join us. When we drove her to the hotel and said our farewells, Kristen and I almost simultaneously remarked–“She’s never gonna come here!” Imagine how happy we were when she accepted our offer. Irene was a great colleague, but she eventually returned to Houston. But the night of entertaining the life-long Texan among the mountain-high snow-piles is my best interview memory.

Interviews can be uncomfortable, funny, rewarding—and sometimes they’re all three!



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