Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rookie Mistakes and Baby Tiger Syndrome

I just wrapped up a really great conversation with the head of the history department that didn't hire me. (For the sake of pseudonymity, I'll keep the school to myself, but to whoever got the job: You got the gold ring, my friend.)

As the chair and I discussed my interview, it became pretty clear that my candidacy was doomed by two things: rookie mistakes and Baby Tiger Syndrome.

The rookie mistakes I made came in the teaching demo, and in conversations with administrators. My teaching mistake is that I came in to the class as if it were the middle of the semester rather than the first day. I'm a big, loud guy. I pace the classroom rather than stay at the podium, and when I get excited I exhibit mannerisms that look a bit like a minor seizure. By the end of the semester, my students are used to my shtick, and find it quirky and endearing. They also figure out that I raise my voice when they are right, not when they are wrong. But on Day One (and on the interview there is only Day One), it's weird and unsettling. Moral of the story: Don't unnerve the students. You're used to walking into a room full of strangers, they are not used to a stranger walking in and scaring them. If you are soft-spoken, or project warmth, no problem. If you project "tough" rather than "love", throttle back a bit.

My second mistake was in answering the question, "Why do you want to leave the tenure-track?" This is really important: They do not want to know why you want to leave the tenure track. They want to know why you are interested in teaching at their school. When they asked my why I wanted to leave Underfunded Third-Tier State University. I told them: The teaching environment sucks. My students can't/won't read. "Student Success" means not failing anyone. The humanities are treated as an inconvenience by studetns and administrators alike.

Big mistake. In my case this raised the question of whether I wanted to work at a prep school, of if I was just trying to get the hell out of Dodge. Moral of the story: "There are a lot of great things about my current job! I really like my colleagues and the department majors are wonderful. It's just not the right fit. Your school is." I'm not saying you should lie, but be aware that prep schools are unsure why anyone would want to leave the tenure track (ha!). If you don't make the case for the benefits you see in teaching at a prep school environment, you will crash and burn as I did.

This leads quite nicely to Baby Tiger Syndrome, which is defined over on Worst Professor's blog. As the Chair explained during our conversation, an administrator who is risk averse is not inclined to hire a PhD. There are going to be lots of very good candidates who can do the job, and will go twenty years without causing a problem. Simply by virtue of having a PhD, and even more if you are on the tenure-track, you do not fall into that "Safe" category. You could be a tremendous hire, to be sure, and they may say, "That's our next Head of the Upper School." But the chances are that for you to get a job, someone is going to have to take a chance. It is your job to minimize the perceived risk in hiring you. How you do that is up to you, but it's probably pretty closely linked to the rookie mistakes described above.

But what the hell do I know? I'm 0-for-Life on the prep school market.

Good luck, us!


Eliza said...

This is really useful stuff to know going forward. Thanks for sharing. BTW: How did you end up in a conversation with the chair? Did you call to find out where you went wrong?
If only more academic searches allowed us to learn from our mistakes. Instead, we tend to walk away from on-campus interviews having NO clue as to why we either did or did not land a particular TT job. I gave a seriously kick ass job talk at one interview and a pretty good, though not great, talk at another. Guess which talk landed me a job offer? You got it, the 2nd one. Being kick ass doesn't always cut the mustard if other factors are not on your side. These other factors, however, are rarely revealed to us; so we continue to wonder where we went wrong, assuming we did, long after the rejection.

Fiona said...


I'd say that #1 is a variable not a constant. I was a maniac in my teaching demo and it was fine. They liked the energy. The students were a little poleaxed, but that was a good thing, in context.

#2, though, that's some good, good advice. It's like you're on a date. No one wants to hear why you're *not* out with your ex. They want to hear what you like about *them*.

So nice that he gave you detailed feedback.

Benjamin said...

It was actually the chair's suggestion that we talk. It became pretty clear that I was higher on his list than I was on others'. But as he said, he spent six or eight hours with me all told, and everyone else had 30-40 minutes. So maybe he felt bad for me. Whatever the reason, he went way above and beyond.

Fiona: I agree that for #1 there are a lot of variables in play. I probably could have gotten away with this: if I were 5-2, 124 lbs, rather than 6-1, 190 lbs; if they had been seniors rather than freshpeeps; if their usual teacher had been someone else...if, if, if.

A few of the kids loved me. One hunted down the chair and said, "That's the guy!" Another went to her advisor and said, "He scares me."

Eliza Woolf said...

Again, I'd say this chair is pretty freakin awesome. Wish he was my boss. Do you think, Ben, that you'd have a good shot at landing a job there in future? Or has that ship sailed?

Anonymous said...

...and let's not forget that there are plenty of flat-out, amazing teachers out there on the job market. So often it's less about what you did or didn't do, and more about the teacher who read the room well and has dedicated a career to teaching adolescents and knows a thousand tricks that work with teenagers. It's not that prep schools can't fathom anyone leaving "the academy," but many have been burned before by PhD's who act like they are slumming by deigning to teach high school. Even if you are a fantastic person with genuine interest in the lives of adolescents, you are saddled with the baggage of the jerks who came before you. It's unfair, but the teachers who will be your colleagues do want to like you, but they may be gun shy.
If it's useful to anyone out there, the magic word that schools are looking to hear is "community." This is especially true for the 95% of schools that can't rely on name prestige alone. I used this word far more than I ever used the word "school" when I was interviewing. Also, every school wants to hear that their kids are really wonderful, and that you recognize the specialness of their community. In this case, compliments are never seen as sucking up; they are much appreciated. Keep Going Everyone!

WorstProfEver said...

Thanks for the link, though sorry to hear you're suffering from BTS. There was a study the Brazen Careerist recently posted that confirmed the tendency of employers to hire more people exactly like themselves. If only there were more people working who were willing to let themselves get spastically enthusiastic about teaching...maybe someday!

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