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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Academic Interviews

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Settling into life after my PhD, and finding it now only mildly frantic, it is scary to contemplate re-entering the full pace of academic life. But that is precisely what I have been doing over the last month or so, applying for every plausible academic job that comes up in the hopes of hitting that all important first post. If nothing comes through I may be able to stay teaching part-time at my current university next year, and I have several other temporary jobs that keep the economic wolf from the door, but these are nothing compared to the long-term security an academic post would bring.

So far I have sent off six applications, and been invited for three interviews, which is not a bad success rate (though despite having a generally free summer, one interview was unfortunately scheduled on a rare day I could not do, so I had to drop out). However, interestingly, all the jobs I have been shortlisted for have been for teaching-only roles. It seems clear that the old adage about publish or perish still stands. I may have a few journal articles to my name, but it is only having a book publication that opens the door to a full academic role. And revisiting my PhD to prepare it for publication is something for which I don't quite have the stomach yet.

So what have been my experiences of the two interviews for teaching-only posts that I have just been through? As ever, my thoughts and advice to you, dear reader, are most relevant to someone interviewing in English literature, but can probably be extrapolated across subjects.

Firstly, there was an odd difference in the duration of each interview. One was an hour and a half marathon, in which the interviewers went through my CV step by step, challenging gaps in my experience, whilst also encouraging me to show how other facets might compensate for my weaknesses. The other interview, by contrast, was short, just thirty minutes. The questions were more directed, asking me to give examples of certain points where I could show I met the person specification. Additionally, the first ten minutes were occupied by a presentation I had been asked to prepare, on "The Challenges of Teaching Contemporary Fiction."

From these two experiences, I can draw the following conclusions. In the case of the longer interview, I tended to waffle, because the interview was so broad and lengthy. I may have ended up speaking a great deal, but I'm not sure I put myself across in the best possible light. I am convinced myself that I met the needs of the post, but I gave the interviewers a hard task in trying to extract the relevant pieces from my long responses, so they could connect them to the person specification. In the latter, by contrast, I knew - because I was told how short it would be from the outset - that I had to be more succinct and to the point. I spoke less, but in the thirty minutes my voice really had to work, if I was to distinguish myself from any of the other applicants.

On the other hand, I am not sure how my presentation was perceived in the second. Not knowing who would be on the interviewing panel, I decided to pitch it at a fairly colloquial level rather than with the detail of a conference paper. I tried to deliver it from memory and ad libbed at times, though in actuality I'd written a 2000 word essay to work from. I also tried to give examples of "The Challenge of Teaching the Contemporary" with reference to texts and modules on the course at that university. However, I fear I may not have been innovative enough. Candidates were asked to present "in any manner deemed appropriate." Speaking a presentation that originated on paper, to a panel who unnervingly gave little feedback other than an occasional nod, may not have portrayed a sense of my enthusiasm for teaching, or my ability to talk about texts in the spontaneous, largely unprepared way required in the classroom. But maybe there is no right way to give a presentation of this kind, and maybe, given that a successful interview depends a great deal on confidence, it is better to be over-prepared and to do a safe presentation, rather than to risk showing off and using unusual approaches on the day.

That ambiguity aside, to anyone preparing for an academic interview, the following specific advice is worth passing on. To make the interviews relevant, ensure you have the person specification at the top of your mind, so that you know precisely what the interviewers are looking for. Discoursing on the science fiction film Forbidden Planet, as I did in my first interview, may have been interesting to me as it was based on my research, but did not really demonstrate my knowledge of textual adaptations as the role required, since the film was never a book to begin with. By contrast, when one of the panel in my second interview asked how I had got a flagging tutorial re-energised, I had the example of a tutorial on Toni Morrison's Beloved at the top of my mind, which given the racial subject matter allowed me to show not only my teaching methods, but also the way in which in that tutorial I had integrated opinions of students from diverse backgrounds, which was another element of the person specification.

One factor that was common to both interviews was that although these posts were teaching-only, both nevertheless asked how my research might integrate with my teaching. Go in with a quick and easy synopsis of your research at the tip of your tongue, and do not be afraid to simplify, as if for a lay audience. It is probably not good, as I found in my first interview, to talk about obscure postmodern theories that are irrelevant to the post, and outside of the specialisms of the interviewers.

In order to show this synergy, it is important to be thoroughly acquainted with the modules you may be required to teach, so that you can point precisely to how you can match research and teaching. There may, for example, be particular texts that you have already written on, even if you have not taught them. Because an early-career academic like myself is unlikely to have taught all the books on a reading list, it is important to show how one's research has given one a confident, broad coverage of a field or period, even if not the specific works. But, even if you think that you are knowledgeable about a work that is on one of the modules, ensure that this confidence is justified. Asked about Jane Eyre, a novel I must have read tens of times and taught just six months ago, it probably did not show me in the best light that I could not remember the name of Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic.

On a positive note, though, I got the impression from both interviews that the interviewers were quite open-minded about the demands of teaching at university level. At this level, in discursive subjects in the arts and humanities, teaching in tutorials and seminars is definitely not about conveying information. It is, rather, about effectively stimulating, guiding, and summarising a debate amongst students, so that they are then enthused to explore the nitty gritty detail for themselves. In this context, it is not your own knowledge that matters so much as your soft skills: the ability to communicate succinctly, to be sensitive to students' differing abilities and the validity of their different opinions, to convey passion for a subject. It is not essential that you know the works to be taught intimately. In fact, this can sometimes be a negative thing, leading you to lecture to, rather than respond to, a student discussion. And, of course, if selected to teach a particular course, you have as a PhD graduate presumably got the ability to research a new topic efficiently - with courses not starting until September, both interviews made clear that there would be ample time for preparation of new texts before the start of term. Consequently, the interviews were not, as I had feared, tests of my current knowledge - In what year was Wide Sargasso Sea first published? Who won the Booker Prize in 2003? - but tests of my underlying ability to teach anything that happens to be required by a syllabus.

Responding to these perceptions would not, of course, guarantee a successful interview. It is easy to forget, when one is focused on preparing, that there may be many other candidates shortlisted for a role. However, even if unsuccessful it is always better to reflect on the outcome as being due to the fact that the panel pro-actively chose a candidate with more and better experience, rather than that they simply dropped you because your interview was so poor. On that note, I must confess: just this morning I've received a letter confirming I've not been accepted for the second post. For the first, I have to wait until the university knows its student numbers, but I'm not hopeful here, either. What I do know is that the two interviews were quite productive experiences because quite different, and next year, with more teaching and a few more articles (maybe even that first book) behind me, things could be looking up.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:55 pm


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