Sunday, April 24, 2011

Additional Thoughts on the On-campus Interview

As I continue my death-march through the prep-school interview season, I have been amazed by a number of things. First, how badly I have botched my first few interviews. (For ugly details see this post.) Second, how generous the people who have interviewed me have been in offering advice.

I recently found out I am 0-for-3 in on-campus interviews (bad), but got some additional feedback on my interview (good), which I'll share here.

The good news is that I appear to have avoided the rookie mistakes of my first interview. Nobody at the third school came away thinking that I was so desperate to leave my current Uni that I would take any job offered. The bad news is that I did not do a particularly good job articulating why I wanted to teach at that particular school. When the school's head asked me "What kind of school are you looking for?" my answer was about Independent Schools as a whole, not about PP. (In part this is becaurse I felt profoundly ambivalent about PP. I had to swallow my initial answer, which had to do with teaching in a progressive school, which PP ain't.)

In any event, to the advice I received. In a nutshell, Do your research. When I had campus interviews for nationally-known colleges and universities, search committees never wondered why you wanted that particular job. In their thinking, who in their right mind wouldn't want to teach at University of Chicago.

Prep schools are not so full of themselves as this. They wonder why you would want to make this move, not just to independent school teaching but to their school in particular. To do this, be as specific as possible. What is it about the mission statement that speaks to you? Why do you love their approach to education? Why do you want to be a part of that specific community? As one person put it, "They want to hear about themselves."

There are two good ways to make the case for a particular school. Most obviously is in your answers to their questions. When they ask you why you want to get into independent school teaching, don't answer! Tell them why you want to teach at that particular school.

You can also do this by asking school-specific questions. Don't ask generic questions about the curriculum, ask about specific aspects of the department's curriculum. When you meet with senior administrators, refer to the mission statement or strategic plan. They want to know that you know them and that you are taking them seriously.

So as this season winds down, I feel pretty stupid in making so many basic mistakes. I hope I'll do better next time, and I hope that you will too.

Good luck us.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Letting go of the dream

As I sit, staring at the phone, wondering if I will receive The Call from a prep school I visited recenlty, I've had to wrestle (again!) with the prospect of giving up on my dreams. It is not my dream to teach in a prep school, and it never has been. But at the same time, it is not (and has never been) my dream to teach at a third-tier public uni, with a low salary and no money for research.

Now I know that very few people in the world have their dream jobs. As a group, lawyers are an unhappy crowd, and Lord knows my mother never said to herself, "I want to spend twenty-five years administering unincorporated areas of Tuscon!" And my wife has no earthly idea what she wants to do. The problem is that I am lucky enough to know what I want (to teach at a small college), but unlucky enough not to be able to do it.

I think that the hardest part about taking an offer is that as soon as I do, that dream - one which I have held on to for a quarter of my life - is gone.

I also worry that my reluctance to let go of the dream could warp my ability to see prep school jobs for what they are. Am I foolish enough to turn down a good position ("It's not the right fit.") in order to avoid letting go of the dream? That, it seems to me, would be the height of folly.

So let me ask you - how do you balance your lofty dreams and the crushing reality of the academic market?

Thursday, April 07, 2011

What exactly am I getting myself into?

While I do a lot of whining on this blog, I have to admit that I've got it pretty good. I teach a 3-3 load with two preps. I have been teaching my survey long enough that lectures take about ten minutes to prepare. This semester I started spending two mornings per week on a project unrelated to my job; while I'm a bit more harried, nothing bad has happened. Think about that - I reduced my working hours by 20% and I barely noticed. My career is a scam. I could spend hours every week pouring over the most recent Shakespeare scholarship, but in class we spend our time figuring out what the words mean, so there's not a lot of pay-off. (I imagine I will be taken to task for this admission. For the record, I'm not proud of this - depressed, actually.)

The point of this digression is that when I jump to a prep school, I'm going to have to do a LOT more work. But what kind of work? And how much? I had no idea. To answer this question, I did a number of informational interviews, and in this process I ran into two kinds of teachers. The first of these was "Mary." She's a biology teacher at a prep school in California. She said that she works hard, but it's a job like many others, just with a weird schedule. She attends school plays, athletic events, and meets after school with the student paper editors.

Then I talked to "Steve" the head of a prep school in the midwest. He painted a radically different picture of teaching. A "real" teacher works 70-hour weeks (including weekly tutoring all day on Saturday), has the skill of a surgeon, the patience of a saint, and the dedication of a martyr. His unspoken assumption was that because I took the time to get a PhD, I am fundamentally unfit for teaching. (I suppose that if I really cared, I wouldn't have bothered. (Bear in mind that Steve's description fits many boarding schools, but he wasn't at one.)

Obviously these visions of prep school teaching don't have much in common, and the disconnect gave (gives) me the heebie jeebies. I think of myself as hard-working and dedicated to my students, but I have no interest in working 70-hours per week for $55k per year, even if I do have summers off. So I dropped a note to a friend who recently began teaching at a prep school and asked him if Steve was right. Here's what he had to say:

Well, it's about half BS and about half true.

1. As far as I can tell, there is a cohort among teachers who believe that we are saints from on high who must dedicate ourselves totally to our spouse: teaching. We must never, ever say anything critical, do anything grumpy, or fail to work ourselves into little nubbins. We should be proud to be paid so little, because it proves we're doing it for love.

So, obviously, this is a load of poo. This is self-righteous justifying by people who enjoy looking down their noses. The best example is that YouTube video about "What Teachers Make" where the dude rants along (enjoyably) and eventually gets to "I make a difference." Yes, but that doesn't make you any better than anybody else.

2. The true part. Students want to know that you care about them. And they exist in a psychological environment in which they are convinced that the entire world centers on them. So they can be easily hurt, or offended, and you must be careful. Also, they are deeply touched when you exhibit some interest in their successes. It's helpful in the classroom when they know you care about them outside of the classroom.

You cannot just teach your classes and go home. Maybe after 10 years. Being a part of the school community is part of the job. But it's - honestly - not that big a deal. I advise a student club, and two or three times per semester I go to something. A football game, a play, a debate tournament, whatever. I try to go once to games for a team on which my students play. But it's fun, too. They give out ice cream and I see my colleagues and relax a bit. This is my community so I socialize with them.

And yes, people want you to demonstrate your interest in the school by "supporting" things. You might go to a game but you will also be expected to wear red and give a dollar and clap enthusiastically and all that stuff. High school students are very earnest. Fine. It's easy.

If all that sounds terrible, you should factor that into your decision. You said that the dream job was working at a liberal arts college, though. And such schools expect *exactly* the same kinds of appearances. At [small college] I went to debate tournaments, lectures, plays, performances, and art shows. It was about the same level of commitment.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Crunching the numbers, or taking the emotion out of career decisions

Among my favorite non-academic activities is playing poker. I'm not great by any stretch, but I'm better than most people who play in person or on-line. I've also done a bit of reading on the subject (there's an entire literature, complete with the Fundamental Theorem of Poker, and ever-increasinly complex mathematical models). It is no coincidence that many of the top players in the world come out of finance, engineering, or other math-heavy disciplines.

One of the issues that all authors agree upon is that you should never make a decision based on emotion. Your gut might tell you something, but before you act, you need to crunch the numbers. When you bet, there are a limited number of outcomes possible, and a limited number of hands your opponent could have. One guy I play with, Lighter Mike, only raises with the very best hands - he bluffs 0% ofthe time. So when he bets, I know how often I am winning or losing.

So what if we apply this approach to the job search? You can modify this process based on your own situation.

If I stay in my current position forever there is a 0% chance I will be content.

If I stay in my current position for another year or two, there is a R% chance I will land a tenure-track position that I want. (R>0, but not by much.)

Okay, so what if I take the job I discussed in my most recent post? Here's where the math can help. The way if figure it, here's how the numbers break down:

X% chance that I like the school and the career, and stay forever.
Y% chance that I like the career but not the school, and I swap it out for a job I like
Z% chance that I hate the job and the career and forever regret leaving academia

Of these, the only clear loser in the long-term is Z.

There are two remaining challenges. First, of course is assigning numbers to these variables. If my own mind and the job marked were as easy to figure out as Lighter Mike is, we wouldn't have a problem. But we can try.

The second problem is that you have to factor in the long-term effects of these variables. We don't play Russian Rouletter very often because while the odds of losing are only 1 in 6, losing has a very steep downside.

And that, I think is the problem I'm having. The downside of Z is (or at least seems) so high, it makes me crazy with fear. I'm in my forties, and am thinking about leaving a career/job for life to do something I have never done. This is a young person's game. I can't stop wondering, What if I'm wrong?

You can't know, of course, you just have to shove your chips into the middle and see what happens.

Good luck, us.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Finding the right fit

When you go on the acadmeic market as a junior scholar, the issue of "fit" rarely comes up from the candidate's perspective. Search committees look for "fit", but nobody (sane) has ever said to a candidate, "Don't take a job if the fit doesn't feel right." We are told: "Take the job you get." "It's your first job, not your last." Or, "Take the job and then write your way to a better school."

This is lovely advice for those who live in the distant past, but not particularly helpful today. Depending on your field, unless you turn yourself into solid gold, your first job likely IS your last, and you are not going to write your way to a better school.

I bring up this digression, as I am currently wrestling with the issue of fit on the prep school market. I recently returned from an on-campus visit at Very Old Preparatory Academy - the kind of place that counts Presidents and Senators among its alumni. They have pretty amazing faciliites, more money than God...and lots of traditions and rules. It just didn't feel like a fit.

My dad taught social studies for many years at a progressive (and elite) school. I remember that his classroom was a riot of books, maps, and student projects. Not here. At VOPA, classrooms had a whiteboard and framed posters. They were like a doctor's examination room. I couldn't help wondering how they would react if I piled books around my classroom, or grew my hair down to my ass. (I would not do the last of these, but I still wonder what they would say.)

So what to do?

My dad actually gave me one excellent piece of advice.

I made reference to your uncle being an unhappy as a progressive teacher in a traditional school. I think some people can pull off that, and some schools will allow a measure of radical dissent and even welcome the diversity (perhaps safety valve) that such divergence affords.

If VOPA offers the job, ask them about their comfort with your differences.

So, where does this leave me? Probably nowhere until I get an offer, if I get one.

But then the question I have (for you) is which proposition is more insane:

1. To take a job in which the fit is not qutie right on the assumption that I can use it get a position that does fit. (There is also the possibility that I will love the position once I get there.)

2. To hold out for a job that is a good fit, even if it means staying in my current position/extending the job search another year.

Either of these is completely nuts in an academic search, but what about prep schools?

Good luck, us.