Get Smart

The Professor is IN: Interviewing for Acadamia

Maybe it’s something in the water (or lack of since we’re in the middle of a drought), but there has been some major turnover at my college lately. Most of it is due to retirements, although a few have been people who can’t handle our isolated location. Be it the water or the isolation, we’re hiring in a big way. As an assistant to the alpha (also known as Chief, my rock star dean), I am on the hiring committee for several different disciplines. A few weeks ago I gave some tips for job interviews. Interviewing for a teaching position, at least at the college level, is slightly different. So for those would be professors hitting the interview circuit, here are a few pointers to help you on your way.

Before You Go

  1. Know what you believe. One of the questions you will most likely be asked will be about your teaching philosophy. Some schools even ask for a statement in writing. Even if they don’t, take the time write one out, if only for yourself. What do you value? What do you see as your actual role as an instructor? What do you want your students to take away from your classroom besides facts? Cheesy as it might sound, a teaching philosophy represents the core of who you are as an instructor. Face it, you don’t do this for the money. So why do you do it? Avoid the cliches if possible, but be honest and reflect who you really are.
  2. Know the school. Colleges usually have thoroughly developed websites. Look at their mission statement, history, and anything else to give you a sense of who they are and, more importantly, who they serve. Look at the schedule. What courses are offered? In Texas you can even view the CV information for the current faculty. Review these not only to get a feel for who they have, but who they don’t. If the entire department is specialized in American Lit, your background in British Lit is worth mentioning during the interview because it will bring diversity and new opportunities for their students. Knowing what the school actually is will not only help you in the interview, it will help you if you get the job to have realistic expectations. As a community college, we have a number of people interview with us who have only taught as grad students at the university. Likewise, we have public school teachers who want to move into higher education. In both cases, often the applicant has unrealistic expectations about the role of the community college, thinking it will be the same as the university. Spending time on the school’s website can help you understand its specific needs.
  3. Have a plan. Many colleges ask that you teach a sample lesson (about 15 minutes), either to real students or to the hiring committee. This is not the time to ‘wing it.’ When scheduling your interview, if they want you to teach a lesson, ask some questions about what they want: How long should it last? Will there be technology available? How many people will be there (figure out who, if possible)? If you are teaching to actual students, what topic will be covered? The answers to these questions lead us to . . .

Your Lesson

  1. Teach to the college. Your goal when you teach a sample lesson is to allow the hiring committee to picture you in their college’s classroom. Many of the people, if not all, will be teachers themselves and they will be envisioning their own students responding to your lesson. Since you’ve taken the time to look at the course schedule, you know what classes are offered at the college. Teaching something in one of these areas will make it much easier for the committee to see you in their classrooms than if you teach something way too advanced or way too simple.
  2. Teach to the non-majors. Unless you know for a fact the position you are interviewing for is all upper-level courses, don’t teach a lesson designed for majors. Teach instead to those students who would be the least interested and engaged in your class. Our committees are always made up for mixed disciplines (for the Government hiring we’ve been doing, we had Biology, Chemistry, History/Government, and History/English). In a perfect world you would only teach to passionate, like-minded individuals who adore your subject. In the real world, they are few and far between. So how will you teach the rest?
  3. Give a a trailer for your classroom. When you plan the lesson you will teach, think about what your ideal class would look like condensed into a movie trailer. What would be the highlights? Don’t just plan on giving a lecture you happen to know. Use technology* (if available) prudently and with purpose. Engage the hiring committee in discussion or a brief activity that still showcases your teaching skills. Talk to the actual people in the room. (I once sat in on an interview where the applicant talked to imaginary students during the lesson, as opposed to us. It was strange and unnerving.) You are on an audition. Be yourself, but be your best self.

*Anytime you use technology, have a backup plan. Bring your jump drive, email it to yourself, print it out, and, if all else fails, be prepared to pick up a piece of chalk and go low tech. If you plan to bring handouts, make sure you bring extras so that everyone can have one.

Your Interview

  1. Review these Seven. In addition:
  2. Be specific. Questions at an academic interview can be all over the place–discipline, assessment, academic dishonesty, student engagement–these are integral elements of teaching that might come up in various forms during the interview. Essentially, the committee wants to know how you will function as an instructor. So begin by answering those questions for yourself. How will you/do you grade? How do you engage students? How do you handle discipline problems* in the classroom? How do you handle cheating? When answering these questions, be specific. Give examples of real instances and how you have dealt with them. If you don’t have a ton of experience, talk about how you think you would, or an instance you’ve observed as a student where you think the professor handled it well. When I got my current job, my teaching experience was tiny. But I had a plan for how I would run my classroom and discussed the lessons I had learned from  my own professors.
  3.  Be confident and passionate, but keep the ego in check. Students can smell weakness and they will exploit it. Likewise, on an interview, if you are uncertain or intentionally evasive, the committee will know. It is one thing to be nervous, it’s another to be vague or wishy-washy. But be careful as you tread the line between confident and egotistical. Even the best teachers still have something to learn. You may have been teaching for twenty years, but if you move to a new school, they will expect you to fit into their community. They don’t just want a good teacher; they want a good teacher who will work well within their system. Being demanding about things like offices, schedules, and titles (in general, but particularly in an interview) makes you appear high maintenance and difficult to work with. Having integrity doesn’t mean being inflexible. On several occasions I’ve seen applicants say they wouldn’t want to use our online system because they already have things set up their own way or that they won’t teach a certain type of class because they don’t like it, or even one asking why we couldn’t supply every student with a laptop so the instructor could keep teaching the way she liked. To me this is getting lost in your own ego and not considering what is best for the school or students. It will also raise red flags as to what other things you’ll be demanding about in the future.

*In one of the best answers to this question and the academic dishonesty policy, the applicant explained how he tried to handle discipline problems and preempt cheating, but then noted that as for consequences, he would begin by following school policy. The answer was great because it showed a proactive approach and a willingness to comply with campus policy.

There are many other things to consider on an academic interview, but this is a good starting point.



PS. Have questions? Post in the comments or email me at amberkellyanderson[at]gmail[dot]com.

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Professor Porn: Dan Brown

So you call yourself well-read? That’s okay. I do, too. Then I talk to people who write or work in academia or pretty much anyone, and I realize that I am not even close to well-read, despite the fact that I read all the time. I am a glimmer of well-read.

Part of writing is not just reading, but what you read. Books you’ve never heard of are being buzzed about in the literary journals and websites. Never mind that you can’t buy them anywhere in your West Texas town (but you can buy every celebrity book known to man). And so you track down those books online, trying to purchase them from independent book sellers so as not to feed to corporate machine. They arrive. They are wondrous. You journal about them. You makes notes. You write an entire story inspired by a single sentence.

When I follow this process, I find the reward of reading to be exceptional. Words like craft, voice, and style resonate.

That being said, sometimes I just want to a one-night stand, junk food pig-out reading experience. One that, when I reach the end, I am fine that I’m done and fine that I read it, but not much more. There is a fix for this type of craving. And his name is Dan Brown.

Yes, folks, I read Dan Brown. Or, to be more precise, I read Robert Langdon.

Whatever controversies Brown’s work may cause, whatever backlash he may get from the literary community, Dan Brown knows how to throw down his story. Sure, his characters are so flat that Flat Stanley looks well-developed, and fact-checking things about works of art and buildings isn’t always his strong point. But his pacing and ability suck the reader in to the conflicting worlds of science and religion through the lens of art is impressive. Having just finished Inferno, I can’t say that the story was my favorite (Angels and Demons still holds that honor), but it was fine and it gave me the fix I needed. See, it’s not the conspiracy theories and secret societies I come for: it’s the professor as hero fantasy of Robert Langdon.

Robert Langdon, my friends, is not just A professor. He is THE professor in an epic sense of the word. A lecturer from Harvard who famously wears tweed and loafers, he’s like a casting notice for a Harvard-set movie. He writes books on obscure topics yet still manages to have fans. His renown is, in fact, so great that not only do museum curators metaphorically drop their panties when he turns up, showering him with VIP tours and private access, freaking governments call him up because the world will end if someone doesn’t look at this painting.

If Fifty Shades of Grey is mommy porn, then Dan Brown is professor porn.

I can’t speak for people who work on the academic side of science or math, but I would guess that they have this life-saving feeling. They are experts on subjects that directly impact life. For us English folks, passionate as we are, there isn’t much of a chance the government is going to pull us in for a top secret think tank on “The Wasteland,” (we wouldn’t be able to agree on anything anyway). Robert Langdon is the fantasy that being an expert in a humanities/fine arts topic can be important in life or death situations.

Let’s look at his strengths, shall we? He’s a master on symbols in religion, history, and literature. He can recall details without notes or outlines. Most important, due to his swimming I would guess, he has the impressive ability to impart his vast array of knowledge while running for his life (or it least walking at a brisk pace). These are not super powers. No, no. These are super PROFESSOR powers. Good professors can quote without books, be specific with few notes. They can prowl the classroom or even answer in depth questions while walking to class.

Robert Langdon is our Superman.

And his weakness? Claustrophobia from a childhood accident similar to the one that left Bruce Wayne with a fear of bats. Granted, usually there is some sort of scientific thing involved in Langdon’s race to decode, but most of the time there is an attractive woman or convenient expert nearby to explain.

The fantasy of his type of knowledge saving the world is tempting. Who knows? Perhaps someday I will get a call that begins,

“Is this Professor Amber Kelly-Anderson? The president needs you to explain Beowulf using a video game boss fight analogy. But you must hurry! The fate of the world is in your hands!”



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Cowboys and Elephants

Today marks the publication of the sixth and final post on Literary Cowboys for Ploughshares . I talk Star Wars, Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, and much more.

“The Myth of the Literary Cowboy, Part 6: Save a Horse, Write a (Space) Cowboy”

In the coming months I’ll continue to write for Ploughshares on all things lovely and literary.



Also out this week is the summer 2013 issue of Brain, Child featuring my essay, “The Elephant Maker.” It’s available on some news stands and online here.




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Five Things that Rocked May 19-25

  1. I’ve been looking a great deal at blog design for inspiration and come across a number of fab destinations. My current obsession is with A Beautiful MessSo many fantastic ideas.
  2. Lucky me was published twice on Cinefilles this week. Check out my review of Star Trek Into Darkness and my retrospective on Cleopatra.
  3. Next week, aside from basking the glory of Margaret Atwood, I’m getting my second tattoo. While looking for the perfect font, I found this fantastic piece about why a mother got a tattoo with her daughter.
  4. It was also my week on The Baraza where I share my favorite graduation themed pop culture moments.
  5. On The Review Review, this article on Twitter Fiction had me thinking and working on my brevity.



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Five Things that Rocked May 12-18

1. I wrote this post about The Blind Assassin. I got this tweet in reply. Swoon.

2. My Wromance (writing romance) A.J. Kandathil wrote about the Five Pillars of Place using Park and Rec on Ploughshares. ‘Cause that’s how she rolls ( awesome, that’s how she rolls).

3. While you are on the  Ploughshares blog, take a gander at the piece I wrote about Cowboy Poetry. You should read it. It’s okay, you can click now. This list will wait.

4. The Office aired its final episode. I cried. I’ll write about it next week. In the meantime, rewatch The Office or watch it for the first time. Either way, win-win-win. In the meantime, enjoy this:

5. Two of my favorite shows growing up were Designing Women and The Golden Girls. This article reminds me why I loved Dorothy and may be like her in about thirty years.



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A Guide to Cowboy Poetry

The fifth part in my series on Literary Cowboys is live on Ploughshares today. Mosey on over and give it a look-see.

“The Myth of the Literary Cowboy, Part 5: Cowboy Poetry”

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The Last One on the List

Last Friday marked the end of another year for me. Although I have a summer of online teaching, reading and writing, and program review ahead of me, for now the tide of never ending responsibility is ebbing. Since my kids are still in school, today I have the pleasure of time to myself. In taking stock, I realize I have let myself sink to the bottom of my list of important things. My professional life, while certainly an important part of me, has overrun the rest. What has suffered is my mental and physical health. Bottom line? I’m burnt out.

Beauty may be only skin deep, but health and well-being manifest in the physical in addition to the mental. Case in point, my high levels of stress and poor eating habits have caused my face to break out. My muscles ache and my digestive system feels off. I need to reboot. Therefore, the first order of business is to return to the eating habits my body needs–simple, unprocessed foods, water, actually sitting down to put things in my mouth. Physically I crave walking, which has always been a reprieve for my body and mind. And mentally, well, the best cure for me is reading.

I hate that I let myself get to this point, that I become so consumed with work and stress that I can’t stop and help myself. Perhaps because of the nature of the academic year, I feel like I need to ride out the semester and pick up the pieces later. What a triumph it would be to balance my personal needs with all of the other elements of my life. Here’s hoping one day I figure it out. Until then, I’ll take my summer reboots.

Excuse my brevity; I have a border collie in need of a walk and a book that won’t read itself.



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Five Things that Rocked May 5-11

  1. A blog I’ve just discovered, interesting literature, wrote a thoughtful post on Fitzgerald and the underrated This Side of Paradise. Aside from a brief outline of the writer, it is full of fun tidbits, like he was the first person to use wicked with a positive connotation. Learn something new every day, right?
  2. Ashley Wells is doing a fantastic series on women and horses. Topics have included warrior women, Betty Draper and horses, and an interview with the author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.
  3. Aaron Gilbreath launched a Kickstarter campaign for his upcoming book, Crowded, about life in confined spaces. It’s worth checking out just for the insightful reading material he provides. Find the link to the campaign the blog post linked above.
  4. On The Baraza, Katie Shaw gave some songs to motivate students through those long hours of studying for finals. I provided a companion piece for professors to sustain them through the long hours of grading.
  5. Finally, in honor of Mother’s Day, take a gander at Book Riot’s “Fictional Mother Whose Parenting Books Would Rock.” I’d preorder all three. What about you?



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The Great Gatsby Illusion

When I list books that changed my life, The Great Gatsby tops the list. By the time I read it in high school, I already knew I wanted to be a writer and had since third grade when I tried to write my first novel (it was about horses because my best friend drew crazy good horses). But I remember the exact line in Fitzgerald’s novel when I fell in love with words in a different way:

“The late afternoon sky bloomed in the window for a moment like the blue honey of the Mediterranean.”

It’s a simple sentence, yet so much happens: simile and metaphor, color symbolism, and his implied time element (isn’t the story, after all, about what can happen for just a moment?). It’s a glorious piece of writing.

And so it is with great trepidation that I anticipate Baz Luhrmann’s anachronistic adaptation. I admit I have not seen the movie and I am trying to refrain from judging before I do; that being said, I have a feeling they picked the wrong guy to bring this once more to the screen.

A few years ago I was reading an interview with Jack Nicholson where they asked him what role he missed out on that he regretted. His answer was losing out on Jay Gatsby to Robert Redford. Just reading the sentence, I cringed. Nicholson as Gatsby? Granted this was before he became a caricature of himself, back when he was doing Reds and China Town. Still–Nicholson? Then I read his reasoning. He explained that the problem with Redford was that he was Jay Gatsby, but he was not James Gatz. Robert Redford represented the illusion of what Jay Gatsby should be without being the man James Gatz actually was. He saw himself as James Gatz.

I’d never thought about it that way, but for some reason the idea resonated with me. The book is about illusion, deceit, and identity. Based on the previews, Luhrmann has taken the illusion part of the story to eleven. My concern is that as a director he is one who favors style over substance. His movies explode visually in a chaos of color and sound; however, he seems to fear silence and stillness. Flappers swirling on trapezes, a Jay-Z soundtrack, fireworks–this is the illusion of Gatsby. Does Luhrmann have the self-control and temperance to tell the story behind the illusion without making the film about the very things Fitzgerald attempted to critique? I’m not sure.

On one hand I’m excited for the visual escapism of it; on the other, I have a feeling that I should not view the film as a representation of the spirit of the book lest I be disappointed. But isn’t that usually the rule with adaptations?



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Write on Wednesday: Shooting Fish with a Slingshot in the Dark–The Wisdom of Margaret Atwood

My deep love of Margaret Atwood is no secret; Generation Cake could probably be subtitled “In Praise of Margaret Atwood.” In roughly two and a half weeks, I will be in her presence. To honor that momentous event, the next few Write on Wedensdays will be Atwood themed.  This lovely list is reprinted from The Guardian. Note how she couples her savvy advice with wit.

Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.

5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ¬essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

10. Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visualization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

How lovely is the image of her sitting on an airplane, whittling a pencil with a nail file, scribbling madly on a piece oak that just happened to be handy?



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