Monday, November 13, 2006

Job talk advice

Shitty times continue. What a fuck-up of a day. Argh, everything. (Except my students, who provided me with the one bit of comfort and happiness so far…)

But it’s on to the next thing. I would love some advice about my job talk. This will be the one for the upcoming interview and also for any other interviews, should I happen to get some more. I have seen exactly no job talks in my life because my grad programs were interdisciplinary and didn’t do their own hires. The place I was teaching at last year didn’t have open talks. And when I interviewed at that place, I made a short research presentation on my dissertation (then in progress) to the hiring committee only. I’m freaked because of my lack of experience in this area.

Here’s the deal, and here’s what I’m wondering. ..

I defended my PhD in early December of last year – so, essentially, a year ago. A version of one of its chapters has just come out in a collection of essays – so I won’t be presenting that. But the rest of the dissertation hasn’t been mined yet. My plan, outlined in my job letters, is twofold. It is, on the one hand, to generate two more articles based on the dissertation material – but really building on it, transforming it. (I find it organizationally unwieldy.) The other plan is to write a new book – and I have just begun to work on that project, having presented the first paper at a conference a month ago. The book project is in broadly the same area as my previous work; it really clearly evolved from that research, but is on a more specific question. An analogy would be if I were a Canadian historian and I worked on the Depression; my dissertation was on, oh, say, ideology in the labour-management relationship in the Depression and my new book project is on unions in a particular industrial sector in that same era. But both the dissertation and the new book are trying to “do” the same thing, to intervene in/have an effect on/build the literature in similar ways.

So, does it make sense to use the bulk of my job talk to present dissertation material (which sets up my theoretical interest and approach, and what I consider the urgency of the topic)? I’d have an example or two in there, to be sure, but it would be broad – a non-specialist, but at the same time not superficial, introduction to the kind of work I do, and where I see it fitting. And then, at the end, to spend ten minutes or so indicating the questions of my new project, with a sense of how they build on the approaches established in the earlier work.

Or should I be seeing this as a contained argument/chapter from my dissertation, rather than a broader introduction to what I do?

I feel as if the committee will watch closely how I interpret the vague imperative to “give a research seminar”, and choosing the wrong approach, even if what I say seems okay, could be a bad move.

What have you seen in the best job talks? Or, what did you do in yours when you were a successful candidate? (If it helps, this place I’m interviewing at next month could probably be characterized as a moderately research-intensive institution; it’s kind of hard to categorize at the moment for reasons I can’t get into here.)


New Kid on the Hallway said...

I think that what you describe works very well, and that's pretty much what I've done (and seen people do): describe the overall project - structure, sources, significance, delve into one or two examples in more details, close with future plans. I think addressing the larger project(s) is usually better than doing something more specifically contained - I've seen people criticize job talks as too much like a conference paper, for instance, and I think they want to see how you approach things broadly.

Now, if you were in the US, I would say that "give a research seminar" sounds much more like teaching a class, but I suspect that may be cultural divide (I don't usually see talks described as seminars, but I think that's what you northern types do? ;-D) (I should add that I'm married to a Canadian!).

Dr. Crazy said...

First, yes, your plan sounds good.

As for advice, and this may help you to tweak your plan if necessary, I'd do the following:

1) Be sure to ask who your audience for the talk will be. This can help you to know how specific you can be, and whether you need to include brief explanations of terms with which some might be less familiar.

2) If you have any questions about what the expectations of the committee are (i.e., do they want a traditional 40-minute talk, do they want a more "teaching-oriented" presentation, etc.) I'd ask. It can only help. If you know what they're looking for, disregard this.

3) Remember that whatever the audience is, most will not be in your field of specialty, so it can be helpful to practice your talk in front of a person in your general field though not in the area of your dissertation, who can give you feedback.

4) Practice practice practice some answers to likely questions. And practice how you will dodge questions that come from left field without seeming like you're dodging them.

Good luck!!!

Flavia said...

I agree with everyone else: that sounds like a fine job talk to me, especially for a school that's not an intensive research institution. It seems to me that it's always better to pitch to the nonspecialists (since the likelihood is that there won't be more than one other specialist there, in addition to you!), as long as you've got a few "goodies" in there--detailed, specific examples that show how you apply those broader approaches.

However, the fact is that job talks are *completely* different from one place to another (and yet individual institutions aren't always totally aware of this fact), so I would definitely take Crazy's advice and write back the chair or whomever you've been in contact with with a few casual but pointed questions: "This is what I'm envisioning doing, but I wanted to make sure that that's appropriate, and that you're not looking for X instead. Am I correct about that?"

Best wishes!

Tiruncula said...

I fourth the above advice, and just want to add: if anybody finds out what "give a grad seminar" means, will you let me know? I "gave" one last week, and basically gave a talk from notes, sitting down at a seminar table, with some space built in to ask the students to discuss some questions. I've watched a few other colleagues give seminars in this series to try to tell whether there's an accepted form and haven't been able to discover any common understanding. To me, "seminar" means students talk, I talk as little as possible, which clearly isn't what's wanted in these circumstances.

I've had two "give a seminar" job interviews in the past. In one, long ago, the seminar was the job talk, and I did pretty much what you're describing: set the context (including a bit of intellectual/autobiographical backstory on how I got into the topic) and then discussed a particular example of my methodology, basically using a paper I had given at a student colloquium but treating it as notes rather than a read-verbatim thing. The other was for my current job, where after preparing my formal job talk, I was asked at the last minute to talk to the grad students in their ongoing seminar series. For that (after panicking), I brought in copies of a manuscript I was working on and talked through some of the problems I was trying to solve about it. I guess I passed that test, but it doesn't give me any broader principles to pass on.

Anyway, sorry life continues to be shitty, but good luck on the interview!

Hilaire said...

Thanks for the advice - it's nice to hear that I'm on the right track. NK and Tiruncula - when I was actually talking to the person on the phone about my itinerary, she called it a "research presentation", I think - and said she would need an abstract from me so she could post it around campus - yuck. (So the idea is that this is a talk open to anyone, Flavia - though I'm told that there aren't meany people behind the hiring committee and multiple deans (!!) who end up attending.) So it pretty much just seems to be a run-of-the-mill job talk. I got "research seminar" from the actual written itinerary that I was emailed, but I *think* it just means research presentation...she said I'd talk for 40-50 minutes and then be followed by 40-50 minutes for questions - yuck.

muse said...

I'd go with contained argument. A number of my friends from grad school (myself included) took a chapter from the diss, cut it down and rewrote it for a job talk. Think roughly 18-20 pages, which should yield 35 minutes. You'll want to spend the first 10 minutes telling people about your diss, what your current work is, and how this talk fits in to both. Then deliver a focused talk as if you were giving a conference paper, though admitedly that's why it's good to rewrite most sections of it (for a more general audience). It's much better to do a set piece because then people can see what your strengths are. Use handouts and/or visual images. Show them how brilliant you are at close reading. Give them an argument that's solid, not hard to follow, but that offers 1 or 2 surprising insights. Don't try out something new, don't try to be controversial.

Good luck!

loren said...

Yup, what they all said! I'd go with a short, self-contained argument that is accessible to interested nonspecialists, and that provides opportunities for brief summaries of your dissertation research and future projects. Avoid bitter controversies, however tempting it is to weigh in with a civil and balanced take of your own. I'd try to walk tenderly and respectfully in and around even those constructive and civil debates that your project speaks to, especially if audience members may have a clear stake on one or the other side! New Kid's and Muse's organization (short diss summary, self-contained argument, implications and planned research agenda) seems sounds to me. I guess the things I'd always want to have in the back of my mind, ready for rapid deployment, are clear answers to any conceivable variation of the "how could this possibly matter?" question! Not sure how often that comes up in your field, but I'm a theorist in a social science discipline with some big methodological fault lines, both within the discipline at large and among the fractious bunch who call themselves "theorists". Variations of this question are regular fare at political science job talks (although thankfully not at my department, which is, thankfully, a very collegial place ... and no, they don't make me add that disclaimer!).

Hilaire said...

Thanks, Muse and Loren. I think I will end up sort of "doing both", according to the outline I plotted out yesterday. Quite a broad overview, but also a fairly lengthy argument/example so that I can show my strengths, as you say, Muse. I think I should also check in with my ex-Supervisor, who knows the work.

And - I will try not to be controversial, definitely. Although I research a topic that is deemed by some in the field as unworthy of *any* sustained theoretical attention, and that makes the whole thing controversial by its very nature. Nothing I can do about that, though. I research what I research.

negativecapability said...

I agree with all of the above - your broader theoretical agenda will be more important (though muse's advice on giving a really insightful close reading as a part of that is also good), and including future plans with current work will show that your idea has leverage. In all the job talks I've witnessed, I've seen people get utterly picked apart if what they were doing was deemed too specific or dead-end. Also, if you "do both" with a focus on the foundation, that leaves room for you to pull from your arsenal of more detailed examples/material when you get the Q and A, where, at least in my dept., the candidate tends to really stand or fall. That is, along with the talk you prepare, I would also go back through and pile up other examples to have ready to pull out in defense of your overall model of interpretation.

Job talks in my dept. are kind of scary :) (for me, I mean, and I'm not even giving them!)

muse said...

Hi Hilaire,

I think you're right to do 'both,' but I do think the emphasis (about 70% of your talk) should be on the set piece. I hate to keep disagreeing here, but I really think you can't get too specific. Don't worry about controversiality if your research itself is controversial. They obviously want you because of that, otherwise they wouldn't have asked you to give a job talk.

I'm really not that experienced with a lot of different Canadian Institutions, but at the one Canadian institution I attended last year (with a postdoc) and all the US universities I know pretty well, I can say definitively that your job talk should be a detailed reworking of a chapter of your dissertation. Imagine you're an established expert and you've been invited by the school or an important conference to give a keynote lecture on your subject to doctoral students and the faculty. Would you dumb it down or turn it into a general overview then?

English departments want to see what you're researching and writing about and everyone pretty much wants to pretend that they know your field really well even if they specialize in something else. I realize that what I'm saying goes against what a lot of other people have said here, but I would argue *against* your talk being mostly a broad overview of your project and your research.

Every job talk I've attended (or given) that was successful (and I'm talking successful at both high power Ivy league Research Institions as well as smaller universities with liberal arts committments) was basically a deeply focused academic talk. Like a conference paper but longer, more solid, and more detailed. The best ones were polished, entertaining performances, but they were all quite dense, full of historical information and close readings, and they all put forth a strong argument about an object (or objects) of study. None of them were broad or generalist. You're being considered as an expert in your field. You *are* an expert in your field. Speak from that position. Before you give the formal talk, do spend about 10 minutes talking broadly and in general about your work and your approach, but don't spend any more time on it.

When you get into the details of your paper, you can look up now and then and elaborate/ translate any terms or theories that you think non-specialists might not get, but I would advise against giving a talk that is even 50% broad overview because your audience might think you're dipping.

I went to a pretty mediocre job talk last year (at a Canadian Research institution) that did just that. The speaker spent too much time trying to "translate" her (already rather simplistic) ideas for a generalist audience and it made her look and sound both stupid and patronizing. The writing and ideas were clear enough on their own!

I'm sorry to have to disagree so much with everyone else. But remember that I'm only talking from my own experience, about job talks at fairly high power institutions. Do indeed get in touch with your former supervisor and do what she or he says. No one should have to prepare a job talk on their own, no matter how long ago they received their doctorate. And every institution's different.

Hilaire said...

Thanks, make your case well. I think 70/30 sounds about right. I emailed with a carefully worded query, and got this back from the Chair of the hiring committee: "The expectation is of a research talk, that focuses on current research and shows promise of a sustained research agenda." Somehow that doesn't clarify anything for me, but I think I'm going to go with what you suggest here, Muse. I have an unuique argument that I can build as the "set piece".

Oso Raro said...

My advice: Practice! Practice! Practice! My girlfriend Prancilla had a mock job talk attended by me and other young academic types here in Cold City in anticipation of his fly back to Big Time U in Lake City, and I learned two things from that talk: a) That bitch is gonna get that job, and my best friend here is moving away, and b) Damn, why didn't I ever do a mock talk?

So, gather some folks, they don't have to be doublegoods, just smart. And do the talk for them, live and in person. You will only come out of it even more fabique!

Good luck!

Hilaire said...

Oso, thanks - you're so right - I'm *so* planning to practice a couple of times before I leave.

This'll give me the chance to learn how not to *fall* on the stand-or-fall of the questions, NegCap. I'm completely freaked out just thinking about the question period...