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Monday, October 21, 2013

Tell me what I need to know

How would that be as an opening question in a meat market or faculty interview? Certainly out of the ordinary. But in theory it gets to the heart of things very quickly--it tests how well a candidate thinks on his feet, while also giving her control over the conversation.

Would you want to deal with a question like that as a candidate? Would you want to ask that question as a committee member/interviewer?

BTW: The idea for this question came from a colleague with extensive non-academic, real-world interviewing/hiring experience.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 21, 2013 at 10:03 AM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


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I should note that, while I am not a dude, I feel pretty confident that I would excel in answering this type of question, which probably has something to do with why I like it. It definitely favors a certain personality and perhaps intellectual type.

Posted by: SWP | Oct 22, 2013 12:22:14 PM

I survived the market last year. i haven't been on a hiring c'ee yet, so can't speak from that perspective, but i agree the screening interviews are probably only useful at the margins. (almost) all of my 12 or so interviews seemed to go very well, but i strongly believe the 33% the resulted in callbacks turned on factors independent of the interview, namely, my fit with the school's areas of need, publications, references, and teaching experience. nothing surpasses experience as an indicator of productivity, collegiality and teaching. when i have influence in my school's hiring, i expect i will strongly push for VAP or fellowship candidates who have shown they can publish and read their colleagues' papers while carrying real teaching loads. fellows who don't have to teach can produce great scholarship, but imo it's easy to write when you're in a cocoon and there's no indication of what your productivity will be when you start carrying a course load.

but getting back to the point of this thread, i'll add that say the stock, formulaic questions that came up in multiple interviews seemed especially useless as predictors of anything. who was your favorite law prof, what text book would you use for x or y course, etc. i understand how a skillful answer to such questions might demonstrate (a little) thoughtfulness about how / what one might teach, but they seem lazy and not particularly diagnostic. i found myself feeling impatient when i fielded them and wishing we could get the questions that would let me talk about why i wanted to come to the school and was a good fit for the positions, and my scholarship.

is only marginally useful at giving either the applicant

Posted by: abc | Oct 22, 2013 11:58:25 AM

Not so long ago, this was the kind of question that would likely be asked (to the extent anything was) when committees were looking for smart folks, usually dudes, quick of mind but perhaps, as it would turn out, lazy with the pen. Law schools traditionally hired only from the top tier of schools, with Supreme Court clerkships, law review membership and grades really the only factors in play (even though all three were really the same thing in most cases). It was not always a good means of picking out individuals who were likely to be productive scholars though it was very good at picking out individuals who very much resembled the questioners. Being clever is kind of cool but hardly sufficient.

Posted by: MLS | Oct 21, 2013 9:22:54 PM

Hi Orin - Yes, I think it is absolutely right that everyone is in spin mode at the conference, to greater and lesser degrees. But it has to be that some spins are more credible than others--why else bother to meet in person? So just as someone's spiel about their research agenda may or may not carry the day, so would their awareness of/sophistication about collegiality and what it takes to create a vibrant scholarly environment. Like with any other credibility analysis, you would be looking for details and specific examples rather than platitudes ("I'm fantastic!").

I completely agree that the standard line on the part of committees about collegiality and support for junior scholars is just that--a line. At least most of the time. I guess we all need to tune in for signs of sincerity.

Posted by: SWP | Oct 21, 2013 1:15:01 PM

Its a question that will benefit some candidates and hurt other candidates, some some candidates will like it, and others won't...

But I think its a terrible question.

Its a terrible question because it will reward maximally confident, commanding candidates who can structure and present a sales pitch in a way that evokes a business-like confidence in their personalities...

Despite the contention that it gets candidates to think on their feet, it doesn't get candidates to think on their feet about academic or intellectually challenging questions, it actually just enables candidates to put forward a prepared self-promotional statement.

And I don't particularly think hiring committees should be further rewarding candidates for their ability to self-promote or display magnetism in personality. People with magnetic personalities and self-promotional skills have already had numerous advantages prior to the interview stage.

If I was hiring a law professor, the qualities I would look for would not be someone who can give a sales pitch and make me feel like he's/she's my friend. I'd be looking for people who can produce original and creative research that will advance their field, and who can provide a rewarding experience to their students and their academic collaborators. Its a question that shows you mostly how well someone plays professional games but little about how they think or work academically.

I think in a lot of ways the question may also have a biasing effect in favor of traditional candidates, especially, frankly, white men and people with business backgrounds who have long been encouraged to take up conversational space, speak highly of themselves, and exude a sort of privileged confidence that fewer women, people of color, people of non-affluent backgrounds have been encouraged to develop.

Posted by: anonsome | Oct 21, 2013 1:12:46 PM

I think you judge the "colleague" factor on both sides of the table based on personality-type judgments. Does this candidate seem engaging and engaged? Do these committee members treat each others and the candidate with the kind of respect you'd want? (This is not the same as whether the questions are hard.) It's an imperfect proxy, to be sure, but it's the best I see.

Posted by: anon | Oct 21, 2013 1:08:47 PM

SWP, it's an interesting question, but can you say more on how interview questions can really answer that? My sense is that both sides are in spin mode during these interviews. Every candidate presents himself or herself as the most supportive, most dialogue-friendly, greatest colleague-to-be that ever entered the Marriott Wardman Park. And appointments committees put on the same front, presenting their schools as extraordinarily supportive of junior scholars (did we mention our summer research grants?) and trumpeting their notably collegial faculty cultures. In that environment, I think it's hard to ask questions that get more than the stock answer that they would be fantastic colleagues.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 21, 2013 1:03:38 PM

One thing I find interesting is how the traditional line of questions does not get at something very important--what makes you a good colleague? Do you read and provide feedback on other people's work? Do you participate in the larger mission of the law school? Do you dialogue with your colleagues about teaching techniques? The current style of questioning really perpetuates an atomistic model. It seems like a more open-ended question might break free of that.

Posted by: SWP | Oct 21, 2013 12:24:48 PM

I should add that I was often thrown off the "tell us your agenda/job talk" question was asked in a slightly different way. "Tell us about yourself" (do you mean academically, or personally?) and "Tell us what's important about your job talk" (do you mean, assuming you know what it IS?), etc.

Posted by: anon | Oct 21, 2013 12:23:06 PM

Having just gone through this, I'd answer with my standard job talk pitch. Maybe that's wrong, but that's probably what I'd do.

Posted by: anon | Oct 21, 2013 12:11:31 PM

I think most candidates would interpret this as just asking for their research agenda.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 21, 2013 12:05:13 PM

As someone that was on the market recently, I initially wanted to like this question, but the more I reflect on it, the less I like it.

First, you want to think of what type of answers you will get. I don't think that you are going to get any better answers than you would to more targeted questions. The more experienced candidates are going to give you their spiel about what every school asks about, i.e. teaching package, research agenda, job talk subject, and why they want to be at your school. Since every school asks about those, it must by what you "need" to know, right? The less experienced candidates may flounder a bit, since they haven't been trained in what schools think is important yet (although you quickly figure it out once you have done two interviews).

Second, what are you looking for with this question? Having seen a modified version of this question in industry (although, in a non legal context), interviewers are looking for either a) you understand the requirements of this job, which is important when the job is non-standard b) you can think on your feet and sell yourself, which is important if the job involves thinking on your feet or sales. Neither of these is really applicable in the legal academic context. (In fact, the job theoretically involves long, deliberative thinking rather than "on your feet" thinking, although this may be debatable).

Third, as others have mentioned, it runs the risk of setting the wrong tone. While some may find it playful or interesting, given the fact that candidates are already going through a long, stressful two days, a non-standard question that puts all the onus on the candidate and comes with an implicit challenge ("do you really know what we are looking for"), and seems kind of "hide the ball" (you clearly think there are things you "need to know", but you won't tell them what that is), you run the risk of coming across as abrasive and certainly non-collegial. It also strikes me as setting up a difficult relationship down the line. The candidate may do well at the question (depending on your parameters above) and may even join your faculty. But they will always remember their first impression of you as the man or woman who asked an unnecessarily difficult and challenging question during the interview, when they could have started off a different way.

Posted by: anonandoff | Oct 21, 2013 11:47:33 AM

I would love this question as a candidate, and I would enjoy the fact that the committee was being so direct. The point of this question is to cut through the routine song and dance and give the candidate a chance to talk abut what makes her unique and uniquely valuable. This seems especially smart in the context of a 25-30 minute interview.

But, in my experience, many academics are not particularly comfortable wit being direct, which is why it doesn't surprise me that this question came from someone who has operated in a different context.

Posted by: SWP | Oct 21, 2013 10:48:27 AM

"it tests how well a candidate thinks on his feet"

Why is that an important thing to test here? Maybe it is of some use for responding to student questions, but I doubt it's a very good test of that skill. There is already quite a bit of evidence that interviews in general are bad at picking out good candidates, and my understanding is that google, for example, has decided that it's "odd-ball" questions provided no information at all about whether someone would be a good employee. I do think that interviews can be worth something, but probably only when they are carefully crafted for the situation. This approach seems very unlikely to be useful to me, but perhaps there's something I'm missing

Posted by: Matt | Oct 21, 2013 10:39:12 AM

I think you need to remember that the candidates are also interviewing you. Granted, in this environment, most candidates will not have much power, but, still, this question seems to set the wrong tone. I would translate this question as "don't waste my valuable time" and "we only care about the bottom line, and we don't care about getting to know you." I think many "real-world" employers may want to set that tone, but I am not sure academic institutions should.

Posted by: BA | Oct 21, 2013 10:30:58 AM

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