Technical Interview Ideating for the Business of Academia


For various reasons I find myself on the hiring side of technical interviews. This is not a customary position, as most of the hiring I've done has been in a role as a professor on a hiring committee. Academic hiring is its own idiosyncratic hellscape.

This new role had me thinking about how academic interviews function (or fail to function) as technical interviews for the business of academia.

For my own go-rounds in the academic hiring cycle, as a job candidate, I used to think that job talks and the like were piss poor ways of assessing candidates. I've come to see their value a bit more as I've gotten older. Certainly on the teaching side, having a job candidate do a mock class of the sort that they might regularly be called upon to teach has proven illuminating. More often than not, people who have experience and are good at it can show off pretty effectively. On the other hand, poor performances under such conditions can be misleading, as it may well be the case that a particular candidate has never been in, for example, a very large lecture class, but would be an amazing teacher in that medium if given a semester to get their lecturing legs under them. I certainly didn't have a lot of experience with big lecture classes early on, but a semester of teaching a big lecture class can work wonders. So while the exercise is useful in seeing who is comfortable and effective off the bat in that forum, it still strikes me as a bit unfair if misinterpreted. And, of course, old crusty faculty have a tendency to misinterpret, saying all matter of nonsense (as I realized later, sitting on the other side of the process) about how a poor performance in that mock lecture meant that such and such candidate couldn't do the kind of teaching necessary.

The case with academic lectures (so-called job talks) and their associated rituals (Q&A and varieties of interrogation or collegial deep discussion) is a bit different. In theory this is what graduate programs train you for, conducting and presenting your research in an academic forum. People's mastery of their content shows pretty clearly, both in the way they present and in the way they answer questions. That said, it's still a hazing ritual of sorts. I've done some shorter job talks, where the emphasis was on conversation, or where a hiring committee reads a bit of your work first and then the talk was a kind of bonus. These have all worked well, as they imitate in various ways the conferencing and lecturing world of professional academia.

But the more I thought of all this I wondered at how the kinds of things that academic job processes tend to focus on — mostly research and teaching — are ignoring the real technical pain points of higher ed. I am speaking of course of the ultimate academic pain point: having to work in the fucking academy.

It's not just so-called “service” or the idiosyncrasies of your “colleagues” (potentially lifelong); it's also the various rules and regulations and institutionalizations that make life miserable. It's the less fantastic parts of teaching, the daily grind of all of that. Academic job processes, against the kinds of questions that are de rigueur for technical interviews in some other fields, feel like they are rituals of academic idealism, attempts through sympathetic magic to convince ourselves that the business of professoring is other than it really is.

One quick example: I rarely heard, either as a candidate or on a hiring committee, behavioral interview questions. The few times I did hear them, it was because I asked them. Over time it became my signature kind of question to ask, the “tell me about a time when...” kind of question. I thought for a while about why that was, both about why I found that kind of question compelling and why it was not something I often heard from others. That I asked such questions become one minor indicator of my being a bit out of step with the world I was in. On the one hand, most hiring committees aren't really trained or versed in the business of hiring. That's a stain upon universities that they can't help define best practices and employ HR or other professionals to make searches better. It's no wonder that academics fall back to a kind of idealized notion of the life of the professor as researcher and teacher and employ crude tribalism and various kinds of snap judgements about personality and qualifications in order to make decisions via committee. (I should be clear here — I am not saying that other hiring processes are fantastic. However, it is fair to say that most corporate hiring, however problematic in various ways, has a more intentional thinking around the business of hiring.)

What would it be like if academic hiring had technical interviews that were really about the business of professoring? Sure, a research talk and a swing through a classroom could be part of that, but I think there might need to be some other parts too, a technical exam on the finer points of higher educator-ing:

Surely there are more.

And, yes, all of the above are, in one way or another, based on things that actually happened. Usually more than once.