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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Last Five Minutes of the AALS Meat Market Interview

At the Faculty Lounge, Bridget Crawford has a post about the hiring interview.  She notes that her school sends candidates a memo prior to interviews with "information about our summer research grants, conference funding, research assistants, summer works-in-progress series, term-time colloquia with outside speakers,  internal workshops, course relief policies, etc."  I think that's a terrific idea, and completely applaud it.  I've talked here before about thinking about the duties of both candidates and hiring committees.  Given the strongly emerging norm that candidates are coming in with a written research agenda to give to schools, it seems fitting to me that hiring committees can do something in return.  

Given the memo, she writes, she finds it especially silly that candidates then, when asked if they have further questions, still ask what research support the school offers.  That's a fair point, although I think that we can leaven it with a good deal of mercy: it's tough enough to figure out where you're going at the Marriott Wardman, let alone to remember all the materials you've looked at from a school.  And then, quite frankly, although law schools differ in all kinds of ways, it seems to me that this is an area in which the differences between them are not generally profound (although there are outliers in either direction).  

Given the duties of hiring committees, rather than candidates, perhaps a better question to ask is what those committees can do to make the last five minutes of an interview useful.  

The memo certainly helps, and again I think Bridget and her school deserve praise for it, but evidently it doesn't help enough.  Especially given that the whole process is about to start, perhaps we can think collectively about what would make those last five minutes more useful and less canned.

Generally, when I serve on the hiring committee, I take it upon myself in the last few minutes to talk a little about what I think makes my school distinct, what actually distinguishes it from other schools or at least makes it a good place to work.  That might make for a more productive and useful exchange with candidates, who will at least know what one faculty member thinks is special about this particular school and be able to respond to it with particular questions (or canned responses like "that sounds great," but who can blame them).  

The other thing I think gets way too little attention at the meat market, and in discussions of the meat market, is that we are asking candidates to think about moving somewhere.  Although I sometimes harbor the suspicion that what everyone really wants to know is whether there will be a decent number of acceptable Thai restaurants in town (remember--my next project is about class/social status and the legal academy, so Thai restaurants, as a proxy, have been much on my mind lately), the fact is that moving somewhere is a major step.  Some candidates--especially, in my view, those who have always moved in elite circles--clearly have not thought much about what that entails.  But whether they are moving themselves, or a whole family, this is an incredibly important point.  Especially if research support packages are mostly pretty fungible, and I think they are, it ought to matter a lot more what life is like after hours.  What are the housing costs, and what kinds of neighborhoods are there?  Do faculty live near each other, or is it an urban school where faculty live all over the place?  What are the schools like for kids?  What job opportunities are there for spouses?  What's the community like as a community?  All these are tremendously important questions.  

I personally have loved living in Tuscaloosa--where there is a lovely historical district and faculty can afford lovely places to live--and for reasons I didn't necessarily anticipate.  I understand that the Deep South is foreign territory to some candidates, especially if they have been slumming it in Cambridge and Arlington for the past 25 years.  But I have found that I have an incredibly strong network of friends here, not just from the law faculty but from across the university and outside the university too.  Our son was born here and was significantly premature; when we went into the hospital, a neighbor ran over to look after our daughter, a faculty colleague soon came over, spent the night, and looked after my daughter in the morning; we had tons of visitors and care while my wife was in the hospital and lots of support after my son was born and spent ten weeks in the NICU.  My wife ran for and won a seat on the city board of education, and is deeply involved in civic affairs.  When we take our kids places, we run into tons of friends with their own kids.  We shared a beach house at Gulf Shores this fall with eight other families and their kids, all of them involved in the university in various ways and none of them at the law school.  We will see many of them tonight at the local Hillel sukkah.  Our friends run local arts activities, and I help select films for the annual Jewish Film Festival.  And on and on.  Candidates often ask about proximity to Birmingham, and I get that; but what I am struck by, in terms of what has made my life here in Tuscaloosa so full, is the powerful sense of community I have here.  The fact that, as everyone should know, we were struck by a tornado has, in a sense, made life here even more precious.  You learn a lot about a community in times of adversity.

Perhaps candidates ought to think more strongly about what makes life in particular places unique and special, and what tradeoffs are involved.  (Among other things, they might think more carefully about the frequent bias in favor of living in one of the standard big cities.  It's not just that life there is expensive.  It's that your colleagues will probably be scattered far and wide, the school will have more of a commuter vibe, and you may get lots of bookstores and Thai restaurants but lose a good deal of community and quality of life.)  And perhaps hiring committees can say more about what unexpected challenges and benefits they have found in living in a particular place.  These kinds of rich details and thick commitments are a major part of our lives, and they can lead to discussions that are far more productive, and more important to a person's day-to-day life, than "what support do you offer for faculty research." 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on October 12, 2011 at 10:20 AM in Getting a Job on the Law Teaching Market, Life of Law Schools, Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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Great comments and observations about moving, Paul. Moving is a very big deal. Thanks for posting.

Posted by: Debbie Borman | Oct 12, 2011 11:04:45 AM

I guess I have one general point of agreement with Paul, and then two points of objection. Clearly the last 5 minutes of the interview need to be rethought, as it is generally a waste of time at best (or killer to the candidate at worst - see below). And I applaud Paul's theory that the committees themselves can work to spruce the process.

Yet I do have two points that I thought merited discussion. First, Paul states the differences between schools in support for faculty scholarship are essentially meaningless. I think that in the rarified air of the best schools out there, this is no doubt true. Yet for those of us at less nationally known schools, the differences can be profound. And the differences relate to specifics of: the amount for a summer research grant, the amount of $$ for RA support, other support (non-library), support from the greater university, etc. None of these would be on the law school's website (except in general terms), so it does merit a question.

On a separate point, I think Paul's focus on the committee is correct, but I take a different angle on it. Lets ask the question: why do candidates resort to the "scholarship support" question? Becuase they are being risk-adverse in a world where even 1 strike against a candidate can be 1 too many. And so I wonder if - in a world of candidates asking meaningful questions - the candidates are doing themselves more harm than good? The answer depends largely on the committee response to the questions. If they are seen as evidence of an unconscious bias of dislike for non-city schools, or the south, or whatever, then a candidate would be crazy to ask them. If they are a credit to the candidate who is considering moving to an area of the county unknown to them, then that is good. So the focus on the committee is not one of resprucing the questions themselves, but not too quickly giving a candidate a "strike" when they are - in good faith - trying to learn more about the place they may be living soon.

Posted by: Not an Interviewee | Oct 12, 2011 11:37:15 AM

These are great questions that anyone who is serious about this process should be thinking about. I just worry about sending the wrong signal if I bring up questions regarding quality of life -- will committees perceive me as a dilitante? Something along the lines of, "If s/he really wanted to be a legal academic, s/he would be willing to move to this institution. S/he doesn't seem to have the right priorities." I am not agreeing with this sentiment, I just think that it is out there.

Posted by: anon candidate | Oct 12, 2011 1:19:01 PM

I agree with Not an Interviewee's point regarding the location question. As one on the market last year, and to be again next fall, the standard advice I hear is don't give any indication of any geographical limitations. I fear that regardless of whether I were open to moving to non-urban college towns (which I certainly am; I'm in one now), asking a committee "so, what's it like to live in [Tuscaloosa, Iowa City, Valparaiso, etc]" would suggest less-than-total enthusiasm for the school. Seems better not to ask until after an offer. I feel that I need to project that I am so interested in teaching that I would be lucky to do it anywhere, even if the reality (espeically with a family) is a lot more nuanced.

Posted by: Once and Future Candidate | Oct 12, 2011 1:24:24 PM

After reading several of these posts and their comments -- not to mention having lived through more screening interviews than I want to count -- I'll just say it: "Any questions for us?" has become a pointless interview time-filler. Let's just stop it.

Posted by: BDG | Oct 12, 2011 5:54:40 PM

SECONDED. This is nightmarish. I'm sitting in a coffeehouse in DC right now doing some interview preparation and this last question is making me more terrified than the rest now. Research? Teaching? Ok, I actually know what I'm doing there. I'm good at those things... you know, the actual qualifications for the job. Sending some kind of bizarre and mysterious signal with a question that everyone knows is meaningless? Not quite so good at that!

Posted by: Foxey McFoxworthy | Oct 13, 2011 7:59:46 AM

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