The Job Talk

One of the more nebulous tasks of the last year of graduate school is the composition (and performance in practice) of a job talk. Tenure-stream jobs are fewer and farther between, so this is a bit of a dying art form. And yet it must nevertheless be mastered – even as the dissertation comes to a close.

Regardless of discipline, the “classic” job talk in the Humanities or Social Sciences has several conventions worth noting:

BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE: Ask your hosts via email or on the phone about the audience for this talk. Will there be students? Community members? Members of the administration? Also ask them about local traditions or expectations for a job talk. Small liberal arts colleges, Research 1 universities, and mid-sized state colleges and universities have different tradition, but so, too, does each department. These expectations are grooves in the landscape you need to know about and attend to.

1. At the start, you should, at the very start, graciously thank the staff, students, and faculty – in that order – who brought you to campus.

2. It should last no longer than 40-45 minutes. 40 minutes is better.

3. It can introduce the whole scope of your project up front, but it should more narrowly focus on a vivid case study or illustrative example.

4. It should include little wild-eyed extemporaneous musing and should be rehearsed and polished so that you don’t stumble while you read it.

5. It should clearly define the scholarly stakes of the whole project while also showing off your skills as a critic, a writer, and an interrogator of texts. And, as Leah VanWay and Dan Hirschman put it importantly, throughout the talk and Q & A you should “refer to your own work as scholarship, book project, articles in progress, etc., and not as ‘dissertation,’ because part of the trick is getting the listener to hear you as a colleague and not a student.”

6. In the Humanities, the “classic” form should use slides judiciously, and with little text on them. In the Social Sciences, of course, the use of slides can vary. To know these distinctions well, sharp graduate students attend all the job talks they can across all fields and disciplines.

7. It can repeat the material of a chapter submitted as a writing sample, but no talk should ever simply be a chapter read aloud. There should be many changes, because listening is not reading.

8. It should, in most disciplines, be theoretically sophisticated, sharp, and explicitly refer to the literature. Again, it is worth your while to attend talks across disciplines and interdisciplines to understand some important distinctions. In History, for instance, there might be extensive discussion of the literature but little explicit theorization.

9. It should not be shy. It should provoke a good Q & A. In baseball, this is the equivalent of a first pitch fastball right down the middle of the plate, because you are challenging the hitter to swing. You want the listener to ask questions. As another friend put it to me, quoting historian Gary Gerstle: “Always give your best material. In 40 minutes and no more.”

The virtue of the classic model is that everybody knows it when they see it. And they know how to evaluate it. They use words like “tight” to describe the performance. As in, “that was tight,” as if the person giving the talk had basically performed a classic ballet routine that was perfectly executed. You can rehearse the classic model, practice pauses, moments when you gather yourself, moments when you let the slide do the work while you narrate.

NOTE: Do not leave the creation of the slide show to the very end. A good, clean, well-designed slide presentation, Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska told me, “*does* make a difference, and shows that you think about how your ideas are packaged and presented. Avail yourself of Powerpoint’s easy-to-use image and slide formatting and editing functions. Images should be and clear, uniformly placed, color-corrected if necessary. Small captions should identify sources when appropriate. ” “It’s always a bummer,” she concludes, “to see an absolutely brilliant presentation accompanied by a blurry archive photo with someone’s hand in the corner!”

The performative part of it takes as much time to perfect as does the text itself. A friend reads her job market presentations aloud for a solid week before delivering them, and memorizes the first few and last pages. You don’t need to do the latter, but you do want to grow very comfortable with the talk’s ebbs and flows. When I’m preparing to give a long talk, I, too, take a week to prepare. 45 minutes is too long without this stuff – without, that is, an attention to the pitch and tone of your voice, the arc of the talk, and the moments when you need to hurry, smile, or look out.

This is because the talk is not merely a delivery mechanism for your research – it is also an allegory for your teaching, for how you will read to the public, for her intelligence, for a wide range of things.

10. You need faculty to hear it before you give it. Getting together a group of fellow graduate students won’t be helpful. Not everyone listens to me when I say this, but know that I honestly believe that it is profoundly true: you want to get faculty to sit and listen a couple of times – down the road, mind you – to hear it, to see the polished, performative version. And to ask you tough questions afterwards.

11. Because the Q & A is *just* as important.

Or, as my colleague Leah VanWay says, “The Q&A is *more* important.”

That 30-45 minutes that follow the formal talk is critical, Cara Kinnally told me. “It is often much more about how you answer the questions, not like a ‘test’ of whether you know the answers. Sometimes grad students get stuck in the qualifying exam mentality where they think that people are there to quiz them on the “correct” answers, even at job interviews and feel perplexed when a question arises that they were not expecting or that is way off from their area of expertise. While there are occasionally dick-ish people who are trying to stump interviewees, I think most people are more interested in how you respond to questions, how you think about the issue at hand, how you present or explain the material (for teaching, etc.), and how it relates to other areas that they also are familiar with.”

Kinnally’s distinction between *what* you say and *how* you say it is super important, I think. An audience might reasonably expect not merely to have answers to questions that are informative and interesting, but that are also delivered authoritatively and with some gentleness. You can always “push back” against “tough questions,” but you are being assessed as a future colleague, so collegiality matters, too.

12. And that Q & A (like the talk) needs to meet your audience where it is. There are some places where name-dropping, theory-heavy, intellectual showboating is the norm, and other places where that simply isn’t the case. “About half my department has an Ivy-league PhD,” Elaine Lewinnek of California State University-Fullerton tells me, “but that doesn’t mean that our students want to hear about it right off the bat, before you’ve established a rapport with our first-generation, majority-minority students. Show us that you care about our students and that will make us care about you.”

“That may not apply to R1 spaces,” she closes, “but maybe it does.” I would add that it certainly can apply here at Brown, or any place where teaching matters.