Campus Visit – Highs and Lows

(Originally published here on Inside Higher Ed.)

February and March seem to be popular months for campus visits. The semester is back in full-swing after a timeout for the holiday break and search committees are back on task, finding the new hire who will show up to their department Aug. 1.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about campus visits (I’ve had a handful, but I include the anecdotal evidence of others in my data points), it’s that they are unpredictable. It’s hard to set specific expectations or draw conclusions. That said, candidates can do a few things to be prepared for the unexpected. And search committees can do a few things to help candidates mitigate the instability of the visit.

For Job Seekers

Bring more clothing than you think you’ll need. This advice might sound odd, especially in a world where you have to pay for carry-ons on most air carriers. But I consistently find myself on campus visits wishing I could change my clothing. Let me paint a picture for you on my last visit….

Campus visits require a lot of preparation, and part of that is making choices about wardrobe and packing. On interview day, dressing for interviews entails putting on uncomfortable, leather dress shoes. Because I don’t usually wear this kind of shoe, I inevitably started getting blisters part way through day one.

I gave a job talk and the Q&A following in a room that was at least 80 degrees. The combination of temperature and stress produced an uncomfortable amount of sweat. The lining of my “dry-clean only” blazer was blue, and I was wearing a white dress shirt. At the end of everything, when I went to the bathroom to take a few deep breaths, I noticed that I now had blue pit-stains on my white dress shirt….Thank you, blazer lining. No matter how uncomfortable I was, I could now no longer even think of taking off my blazer.

My hosts took me back to my hotel for an hour to rest before dinner. I would have given anything to swap out both my shirt and shoes. Instead, I spent 30 minutes trying unsuccessfully to figure out how to get the blue out of my shirt.

This sort of mishap might feel outside the realm of possibility for you. But don’t be so sure, because when tired and stressed, I think we’re all more likely to spill coffee on our best tie or step in a puddle and wish we had clean socks. What you wear might feel low stakes, but it’s instrumental to confidence. No one wants to be left wondering if they blew the chance of a lifetime because of blue pit-stains. I haven’t heard yet whether or not I got this job because I just finished the visit. Hopefully my wardrobe didn’t sink my chances.

Solution: I’ve learned the hard way to always pack extra clothing and carry a tide pen in my bag. Better to have it and not need it than the reverse. If the schedule seems to allow downtime before dinner, maybe you should also strongly consider packing some business casual attire to put on after the day’s more formal component.

Plan a low-tech teaching demo. This one probably feels painfully obvious. I wouldn’t advise you to plan a “safe” teaching demo; that’s different. Read up on some teaching best practices, like breaking up lectures with groupwork or student-centered learning. (Also consider reading Harry Brighouse’s article, “What Students Say Is Good Teaching” to get some ideas from the students themselves.) But then, don’t make the mistake I made of counting on the technology in the room.

I organized my lesson using a Prezi. My strategy was to use the presentation to introduce myself to the group of students for whom I was guest lecturing. My introduction included biographical information, a word about my training, a personal aside to increase rapport with them, and a warm-up activity for them. Then, I was going to switch to the “meat and potatoes” work of the class, using a visual I had created for students to walk them through the process. The visual was going to make the tasks that I had planned for them more readily comprehensible. At the end, we were going to go back to the Prezi for concluding remarks and my contact information.

Seemed simple enough. I’ve done it before and felt comfortable with the technology. I verified that the room had a projector. I brought my AV adapter. I sent myself the link in my email. Sounds fool-proof, right? Wrong.

When I went into the classroom, the class’s permanent instructor accompanied me. I had just finished an interview, and part of my mind was still in the meeting. Unfortunately, we didn’t have access to the classroom until eight or so minutes before the class began. The course instructor and I worked to get the technology up and running, and we simply couldn’t figure out what was going wrong. He called over one of the search committee members to help. Still, no one could figure it out.

Next thing I knew, the entire search committee was circulating around the tech podium trying to get my Prezi on the screen. I was sweating profusely (and confident this contributed to the blue pit-stains later). Five minutes after the hour, when the class was supposed to have started, we still had had no success. I finally had to call everyone off, ask them to please not worry about it, and start teaching without the Prezi. The students were getting restless, and no one had thought to get IT.

If the metaphor is sink or swim, the remainder of my teaching demo was neutrally buoyant. I think I managed to rescue the situation, but it certainly wasn’t the stellar impression I was hoping to leave the search committee with. Everyone was embarrassed that the tech hadn’t work. Everyone was apologizing. This could all have been avoided if I had projected a word doc or, better yet, simply written what I wanted to say on the board.

Solution: assume the technology in the classroom won’t work. I got lucky that the “meat and potatoes” portion was low-tech and didn’t rely on the Prezi. It didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped, but I was able to explain verbally what I wanted to the students to do. In the future, I won’t just have a back-up plan in the event the technology doesn’t work; instead, that will be plan A. Plan B will be to teach with cooperative tech and if it goes off without any issues, then I’ll use that plan.

Bring business cards and updated CVs. The topic of the updated CV is both a high and a low for me. I did, in fact, think to bring to the campus visit that I’ve been describing updated copies of my CV and a stack of business cards. My mistake was not bringing enough. My experiences and the anecdotal evidence I had gathered indicated that it was unlikely I’d need copies of the updated CV, so I brought five copies and thought to myself that even that was probably a waste of paper.

The first faculty meeting I had was with a group of four people. One of them announced, “I was unable to find your CV in my email.” I proudly reached into my bag and produced the updated CVs, noting that I could do everyone one better because this one was updated. The problem is that happened again and again. The dean asked if I had a copy. The librarian did, too. Other faculty members were also unable to find my CV in their email. Perhaps it never got circulated?

Solution: assume the people whom you will meet know nothing about you and will have no idea how to get in touch with you unless you equip them to do so. If it feels more natural to you to walk someone through your CV verbally, by all means do that. I tend to need materials to support me when I’m talking about myself, so next visit, I’ll bring a dozen updated CVs. Instead of assuming that the individuals at my meetings would have a sense of who I was, I will assume the opposite.

For Campus Hosts

Point out water and restrooms. So often, when you’re hosting a candidate, you only have 30 precious minutes to talk with them and determine whether or not their candidacy is “acceptable.” It is easy to forget that the candidate has been chaperoned from one event to the next and is trying to power through the day. Instead of waiting for a candidate to interrupt you and announce their biological needs, point out preemptively the location of water fountain and restrooms. In doing so, you’ve empowered your candidate to use them. I promise the conversation will flow better if your candidate is physically comfortable.

If at all possible, schedule a few minutes of downtime for your candidate — especially, pre/post high-stakes moments. If you are on the job market, the teaching demonstration and job talk can feel like the make-or-break moments in your candidacy. There are probably few more expedient ways to sink your candidacy than to mess up one of those performances.

And that’s exactly what they are: performances. Like any other form of performance, they are exhausting. As search committee members, you probably think I’m telling you something you already know, because at some point you went on the job market. The problem is, the schedule you drafted doesn’t reflect that you know it.

I didn’t realize there was any other way of doing things until I went on a particularly well-structured visit this year. The search committee scheduled a full 45 minutes of me sitting in a room by myself doing whatever I wanted to do before my job talk. If your candidate is extraverted, they can use that time to catch up on email, text their loved ones, or invite you to sit with them during that time. If it is the end of the day and your candidate is exhausted, they might like to go for a walk, find a cup of coffee, or stare at the ceiling for 40 minutes and then get a drink of water with the last five.

Solution: if empowered to design a visit for a candidate someday, I will put this kind of “flex time” in the schedule. That’s probably what I’ll call it, too, so that there’s no pressure surrounding how to use it. I believe that it will make for a more vibrant performance.

To return to my opening sentiment, campus visits are a strange beast. You can do very little to anticipate every strange scenario that could arise.

A candidate who once came to my graduate school campus fractured his ankle while taking the stairs to his teaching demonstration. The search committee suggested (and nearly insisted) that he drop everything to go to the ER, but he taught his class sitting down. Then he put on a great job talk and made a joke about how he wasn’t going to be able to Vanna White his slides the way he’d hoped. Everyone got the sense that his incident didn’t rattle him or his confidence at all and it allowed us to see the human behind the performance. He got the job.

No matter how much you plan, you can’t strategize for every unexpected thing that might possibly come up during the visit. But you can take some of the small changes I’ve suggested and rest assured that you’ll be slightly better prepared for it. If something outside of your control does come at you, try to stay unfazed. As much as possible, relax into it. And take solace in his fractured ankle and my blue pit-stains, because you’re not alone in whatever bizarre thing happens.

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