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Inappropriate, Hostile, and Awkward Moments

Written by: David D. Perlmutter
Published on: Dec 7, 2015

Adoctoral student on the job market described a truly uncomfortable moment during a campus visit. An assistant professor was giving her a campus tour. He stopped in front of an office filled with packing boxes and gestured inside, stating with a wistful air, "This is mine, or rather was. They are firing me; hence the opening." Then he stood there, waiting for her reaction. My informant was so shocked that she responded, "That’s nice. …"

Academic job hunts can be full of incidents zany or mortifying. Thus this series on the hellish aspects you might encounter as a candidate. So far we have considered how to handle "fake searches" and how to detect a miserable work environment.

Now we turn to those moments in interviews (conference, phone, Skype) and campus visits that catch you by surprise — and not in a good way. Certainly, when you are on the faculty job market, no matter how much you prep for the rote questions (e.g., "So why do you want to join us?") and events (e.g., the research talk), you will find yourself in situations and exchanges that are not on the expected list.

The most obvious are illegal personal remarks or questions. A friend — not Mormon but from Utah — described being asked about "his" Latter-day Saints theology. Obviously, you should not be quizzed about your faith. Yet it happens all the time. Likewise, many candidates — more often than not female ones — are still queried about their marital status and whether they have children. Variations of affrontery abound: A candidate of Chinese-Anglo parentage recounted a search committee member asking her, in all seriousness, "Are you Asian? We need to check the box for HR." And so on.

Such questions are illegal or borderline at most public and private universities. (A private religious institution, on the other hand, has the right to ask you about your faith and may even ask you to sign a profession of it.) Yet no matter how rigorously a campus HR office or a department might police its own faculty, staff, and students about what they can and can’t ask a candidate, the inappropriate is not unusual.

Why are these inappropriate queries so common? The good news is that, for the most part, they stem from a desire to be helpful. For example, a search-committee member might be genuinely interested in letting you know how great the local schools are. Or the department wants to let someone of a religious minority know that there is indeed a local house of worship option. Illegal? Yes. Innocent and innocuous? Very likely.

Of course sometimes there is bad intent in asking candidates for illegal personal information. Many female academics have wondered whether to tell a search committee that they have a child or are pregnant. Legally, that’s none of the committee’s business. But candidates know that prejudices about hiring mothers early in their career on the tenure track can factor into a committee member’s decision.

Why haven’t such practices been stopped? A simple answer: In my 25 years in higher education, I have never heard of a single case of a professor being fined, put on leave without pay, or fired because of violating the rules of a search. Maybe it has happened somewhere, but not often enough to deter idiocy, carelessness, or malice.

Another species of inappropriate moments and remarks on the job hunt falls into more of a gray area. These situations occur when you are asked a question that is not necessarily illegal but is unfair or even hostile.

I once sat on a search committee at another university. We were looking to hire a new assistant professor and, like most public universities, we wanted someone who excelled at both research and at teaching undergraduates. Hence my irritation when a member of our committee asked a candidate, "You seem to be a great researcher. So that means you must be short-stinting your teaching, right?"

I have also heard of — but not witnessed directly — candidates who sense that they are being grilled for their potential recruitment for departmental politics rather than their actual qualifications. An acquaintance described an interview at an anthropology department that was riven by a civil war between the "quants" and the "quals." The position for which she was applying was methodology agnostic, but both sides were trying to gain a pledge of allegiance from her in return for their support.

So how can you avoid being tripped up if the inappropriate happens?

Expect the unexpected. During a visual ethnography I conducted of a police department, I learned that the best way to survive being a crime victim was to rehearse possible scenarios (like being jumped in a supermarket parking lot) and think through the range of possible reactions you can commit to. Likewise with the unhappy pop-ups of the academic job hunt. You can’t be surprised by something you expect to happen and for which you are prepared.

Your prepping strategy can be simple and straightforward. Spend a few hours searching The Chronicle’s forums on job hunting or other blog forums and wikis on the topic. That will give you a pretty comprehensive itemization of the wacky, offensive, off-putting questions that job candidates have received during the hiring process. Meet with some fellow job seekers — either locally or online — to go through the list of obnoxious questions and discuss reasonable answers.

If you’re preparing for a campus visit by giving a mock job talk or rehearsing your interview, make sure someone asks you an illegal or inappropriate question, so you can practice your answer. It happens, so the more you get used to it the less it will fluster you.

Context is important. Some job candidates are so incensed at being bushwhacked by an illegal question that they protest to the campus HR office. And action is certainly within your rights. In fact, if every victim decided to formally protest, it might occasion greater professionalism in job searches. But you have to keep in mind what your ultimate objective is.

Consider the context and the culture. If you spent two pleasant days on a campus visit and fell in love with the environs, were attracted to the cohort of faculty and students, and genuinely felt that the position itself was a good fit for you, is it worth going nuclear over one awful impropriety? Maybe the interrogator is a minority of one; or maybe that person slipped up, with good intentions. If so, you might just decide to forgive and forget.

However, if you are met with enough inappropriate or offensive questions and statements that you begin to think they represent not the accidents of individuals but the mores of a dysfunctional culture, then you might elect to step back and consider whether you really want to commit yourself to joining these knuckleheads, possibly for life.

Decide what you want based on the cues you are given and react accordingly.

Be the professional in the room. One of the most important aspects of becoming a professor — and something that, unfortunately, we rarely deal with directly in graduate school — is how to act like a professional. People who get their Ph.D.’s without spending any time in the nonacademic world are at a disadvantage because they don’t know what a normal white-collar workplace looks and feels like. But you can increase your chances of being hired if you exude an air of being in control of your thoughts and emotions. Think of those inappropriate or offensive moments as a test of your own character that might actually score you some points.

Most of the time, the lobbers of the inappropriate do not represent the voice of the whole faculty. Say you are asked about your religion during a dinner. You may notice a lot of other people at the table wince, roll their eyes, or shake their heads. That’s a good sign that the questioner is a rogue. Try not to stumble, but rather, take the question in stride. Perhaps make a little joke or answer the question straight and then move on to the actual topic at hand. You may win over the crowd even as you stymie the odd man out.

Gain experience and see what works for next time. Most searches are good training grounds, no matter the outcome. Awkward moments, unfair questions, and sheer looniness can guide you on what to do — and what not to do — next time.

During one of my first campus visits as a doctoral student on the tenure-track quest, I was in the middle of my research presentation when an assistant professor in the department ambushed me. As I recall he pounced on my methods, theory — everything. I felt his only motive was to grandstand.

My response was addled; blood pumped to my temples, and my thoughts were murky. I was sure he was way off base and I argued back strenuously. The result was not a shouting match, but it came close. Even then, I recall taking a moment to read the room. The onlookers registered a "both these guys are crazy" look of distaste. Needless to say, I was not offered the position.

For weeks afterward I plotted revenge — until it dawned on me that, well, "stuff happens." The trite self-helpism is true: Other people can try to upset or rattle you for nefarious reasons, but you have the power to stop yourself from being rattled or upset. In retrospect, I should have kept my composure and just stuck to arguing the theory and methods. Many times in academic life, that lesson has helped me, from job talks to curriculum committee meetings. In the original case, if I had remained cool, I think it likely that the crowd’s reaction might have been, "Our guy is trying to showboat; what an insecure jerk. The candidate, on the other hand, is really showing professionalism."

Keeping your cool is your best option if you get a zinger that seems crazy or hostile, or if something awkward or even offensive happens during an interview. Usually, it’s not you — it’s the nature of the game and of some of the players. Rehearse ahead of time what your philosophy, tone, and manner will convey about you and your character. Take whatever happens — even if you lose it — as a lesson for the future. After all, while it may be your first big interview, it is unlikely to be your last.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book, Promotion and Tenure Confidential, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.