Sunday, May 15, 2005

Interview News

After a discussion on Sunday afternoon with my postdoc advisor about an upcoming job interview, and after responding to this article, Good for Doug Bjerregaard!, written by another blog pal, PZ Myers, it is safe to say that my rant-producing neurons are fully engaged and firing at maximal efficiency, despite the fact that I am still sick. But my rant will have to wait for a day because I promised to tell you about my interview this weekend.

As some of you recall, I had a job interview for a summer Adjunct position this past Friday afternoon. When I mentioned this upcoming interview to my fellow Adjuncts the evening before, they promptly informed me that the college I would be interviewing with is one of the best in its level in the region. I later gained a more precise appreciation for how much better it truly is -- particularly the school’s Anatomy and Physiology (A&P) courses, which are in stark contrast to the college where I currently teach A&P.

But before I continue with my tale, I want to say that after thinking about it during the past day and a half, I realize that my interview went terribly. I didn’t deserve to be treated as a serious candidate for that position, even though it is only an Adjunct position for autumn semester (instead of summer term, as I was certain they had told me earlier over the phone).

It turns out that the person (and her assistant) who was interviewing me designed and administers the curricula for this school’s A&P courses. Of course, my interviewer wanted to know the details about how I am currently teaching my A&P course, so I told her. She was clearly appalled by what I was doing. Although I appeared to be calm, I immediately became flustered and upset because, according to this potential future employer, I was doing everything wrong (but I already knew this and have agonized privately over this very thing every single day for the past four months), and worse, I felt I was being forced into the untenable position of having to defend something that I have been repeatedly frustrated by, and certainly have no control over.

In a panic, I worried that these people will tell my current employer (who they know personally) that I am a crappy teacher and then I will be fired and will never find another job of any sort again as long as I live!

I tried to remind myself that I am doing my best under the circumstances (but it was to no avail), that I, as an invisible part-time temp, cannot possibly change my current employer’s way of doing things, that their inadequacies are not my fault and I have nothing to feel guilty or defensive about. Then I realized with a sinking feeling that my inability and unwillingness to defend my current employer’s system for doing things indicates that I am a professional liability, that I am not a team player, which make me an unattractive prospective employee.

Then, to make matters worse, I stupidly misnamed a muscle during the interview. I corrected myself. Too late.

In the meantime, the person I was interviewing with handed me the syllabi for both semesters of the course and wanted to know what I thought about them and how they compared to my current syllabus. I nervously responded by asking lots of questions, grateful to have something written to distract me from my worries.

I managed to calm my shaking hands by the time my interviewer showed me the A&P labs while a class was in session. In short, these labs are everything my students should have and nothing like what they currently do have. I was astonished. As I looked around the lab, I initially felt a thrill of terror: I can’t teach this! I’m a molecular evolutionary biologist, not a surgeon! I thought, even though I am teaching this very subject, albeit poorly, to my own students right now.

Months of intense disillusionment with higher education melted away as I admired the skeletons (both real and plastic, articulated and disarticulated), as I brushed my fingertips over the wonderfully realistic plastic human muscle and organ systems models, gazed upon the students’ cat dissections that showed obvious care and surgical precision and peered at the trays full of pre-prepared microscope slides of tissues and organs. The labs also had a collection of the newest computer and electronic equipment and beautiful, new microscopes that are nearly as good as those at my alma mater -- all present in each and every lab!

Just looking at these labs, at the wealth of resources and equipment, made me desire this position with an absolute certainty that I had not felt about anything since I was awarded my postdoctoral fellowship nearly three years ago.

This school is a big contrast to my current situation: on my first day at my current job, I had to beg for a piece of chalk so I could write on the chalkboard. My department has only one (aging) PowerPoint setup shared between a dozen tenured faculty members and 80 Adjuncts. Six (or so) weeks ago, I gave up fighting the faculty for transparencies of anatomic diagrams and pictures and instead settled on providing my students with photocopied pictures as “handouts” or drawing quick diagrams and pictures on the chalkboard during lecture.

Then I met and spoke with some of the students. These students were so different from mine; they were eagerly learning the material and actively engaged in helping each other review the information, so unlike my own students. None of these students were whining about the difficulty of the material -- material that was advanced far beyond what I expect from my own students. I immediately felt guilty for being an integral part of delivering a substandard education to my own students.

I am part of the problem, I told myself.

I also wondered why my own students are so unmotivated to do anything at all. In fact, nearly all of them refused the only dissection they were offered all semester; the sheep eye that I had excitedly talked about since the first day of class. Shouldn’t all nursing students be excited to dissect tissues, organs and dead bodies? Shouldn't they want to investigate for themselves the structure and function of these things? What had I done to destroy their desire to learn? A wave of despair washed over me.

I am in the wrong profession, I thought wearily.

The students were genuinely friendly with my interviewer and engaged her in brief, personal conversations. She was obviously very involved in the curricula, with her teachers and with her students. This made me feel confident that I would be able to learn a lot from her about important things such as curricula design, teaching, and especially about anatomy and physiology, if only I could somehow earn that opportunity.

We watched the lab technicians set up the final lab exam next door for a few minutes. My interviewer said that their students are expected to know every muscle and bone in the body -- unlike my students! The lab technicians briefly explained the examination routine to me; 50 questions from “wet” lab specimens with one minute at each station to answer each question. They asked me to explain my lab exam protocol and I was ashamed to admit that I was only allowed into my own lab ten minutes before class started, that the lab technicians do not set up lab exams, and so I was completely unable to set up or administer a proper lab exam for my students. I instead spend countless tedious hours grading mountains of barely legible home works and lab papers to assign my students the lab portion of their scores.

After viewing the labs, we toured the dedicated A&P study lab, which was similarly equipped as the wet labs, before returning to my interviewer’s office. She introduced me as ‘a potential autumn A&P instructor’ to her colleague across the hall who administers the microbiology and general biology courses. Her colleague was immediately was interested to know if I could teach microbiology. I told her truthfully that even though I do have my microbiology degree and I worked in a hospital microbiology lab as a technician, I had never taught a micro course (but was interested to do so).

Before I left, my original interviewer and I chatted excitedly about birds and about designing an urban wildlife course. Then she reminded me about an as-yet unadvertized tenure-track position that will open up in a few months, and said she wanted me to apply for it. Needless to say, this was the most positive news I’ve heard in months.

But throughout the interview, I was, and still am, confused by the mixed signals I received. On one hand, I feel I am unworthy to teach there, but on the other hand, I could learn a tremendous amount about quality teaching from them before I am ruined for life by teaching at a subpar and unsupportive institution. Further, they clearly want me to apply for an upcoming tenure-track position that is not yet advertised, so I guess I impressed them at some level, despite misnaming a muscle (argh!).

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

6 Peer Reviews:

Blogger Miranda said...

Gosh, I would *love* to study at an institution similiar to the one you interviewed at. Supposedly my school is a major nursing institution and we don't/didn't dissect anything and the labs facilities were positively pre-historic. Some of the muscle models we had were complete chipped away, exposing the hollow insides.

I'm not suprised that your students were less than enthusiastic. While I'm sure sub-par facilities factored into it, I think many pre-nursing students don't really think this stuff is very important. Our instructor was continually exhorting the lazier students to pay attention since no one was going to help them figure out anatomy on the job!

I'm debating finishing my anatomy series this fall. I would complete my anatomy and lab requirement but I feel like taking the course at transfer institution, which also contains a medical school, would yield more insight. Plus the department is moving from the temp facilities they occupy into the brand new labs they have been building which means an abridged lab schedule. But I miss my biology classes and there just that aren't that many to take at my current school.

8:45 PM  
Blogger James said...

"I tried to remind myself that I am doing my best under the circumstances but it is to no avail, that I, as an invisible part-time temp, cannot possibly change my current employer’s way of doing things, that their inadequacies are not my fault and I have nothing to feel guilty or defensive about. Then I realized with a sinking feeling that my inability and unwillingness to defend my current employer’s system for doing things indicates that I am a professional liability, that I am not a team player, which make me an unattractive prospective employee."

Whoooooooooa ... you need to work a LOT harder over NOT feeling guilty for an employer that doesn't provide you the support, the equipment, and the standards necessary to facilitate providing a quality course of instruction. You're not a team player because you couldn't defend a team that's not doing its job? Is there some reason for it not providing what's required here, or is this simply a deliberate decision on the part of the institution to not provide the resources necessary to do a good job? I mean if there's something in all of this that you're responsible for then you SHOULD feel guilty, but where in all this are you responsible? I don't see it, get it, or in anyway appreciate it. Would you be doing a bang up job if you had the facilities you were visiting? I'd certainly like to think so, but you can't produce Harvard quality when you're not even given overhead slides --- what you're describing to me is an institution that does not deserve its accreditation and if it were seriously evaluated by the Middle States Association would very likely lose its accreditation, and Ms. Temp Adjunct Professor did not create that situation and nor should in anyway be expected to fix it, ESPECIALLY on what they pay you.

So, your feeling that you have nothing to feel guilty and defensive about is totally on target; you most certainly do not have anything to feel guilty or defensive about, in fact it is INCUMBENT upon you to make sure that you make the case that you understand that what you're a part of is NOT acceptable and that you're not happy with it as it's a good guess that the people you're talking to have a fairly good idea of what the quality of the institution you're temping for in fact is. An employer such as the one you're working for is what it is, and when recounting your time there your only ethical obligation to the place is to honestly and accurately describe what it was like working there, and if makes that institution look like a dung hole then that's what THEY created, not you.

Hopefully something good comes out of this, but don't ever beat yourself up about the level of unprofessionalism and academic malfeasance associated with the place you're now working --- that's totally wasted energy.

10:19 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

Gosh, what a horrible experience. Still, I hope you've got a foot in the door at a better institution than the one you're currently at.

James is right. Don't beat yourself up about the things you can't control. Don't be ashamed of them either. Do focus on anything you can say might be a positive learning outcome from the experience. (Boy, X was a real surprise and I wished they'd Y'd, but at least I learned how to Z.)

If the search committees I've been on are a fair indication, I think an interviewer who is critical or a hardass often knows what they're doing, and it's not necessarily belittling you. They may be probing to see how you do when given the chance to criticize your current employer, for example, or see how you handle a challenge.

Sure, some people are just jerks. But usually, it seems the interviewer wants you to hit it out of the park, so we can pick you, stop the process, and go home. :-)

Good news on the encouragement on the tenture track position!

8:23 AM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Miranda .. yes, this was a classy place (to steal a term from the previous entry) and it reminded me a lot of my undergrad days (and nights) spent in A&P labs, studying specimens. This effort becomes a sort of a zen experience after awhile. By the way, are you studying to be a nurse? Almost all of my students are, although I do have a few who wish to become Physician's Assistants.

James .. After all the trouble I've had with finding a job, my self-esteem is quite shaky and my confidence in my abilities is, if possible, even worse. I am also probably more of an idealist than I like to admit, especially about education, so it takes me a little while to make peace with these experiences.

But to answer your question, I learned that there is a very good reason why this program is so superior to my own; the labs are provided with needed materials and personnel by a state vocational-technical (voc-tech) training grant. This grant supports their physical therapy program and the nursing and PA programs (which are degreed, not voc-tech certificate programs) also benefit.

My interviewer did not seem to know the intimate details of this grant, or was unwilling to talk about them, so I know nothing more than what I told you here. But the benefits of this grant are immediately apparent to anyone with eyes.

After seeing their facilities, resources and faculty/staff support, I wonder what sort of hubris compels my school to even think that they are qualified to offer A&P classes. Then I realize, with deep disgust, that my school is, as I always suspected, solely "in it for the money". This makes me feel so badly for my students because they are the real losers.

Thanks for your comments, Joe. I am actually not yet finished with this semester (finals week is one week away), so I am still thinking through my experiences and hoping that they are not as terrible as I make them sound here. But especially after this interview, I think my initial reactions were absolutely on-target. Those reactions will be part of my upcoming rant .. I have held my tongue/fingers for four months, but trying to deal with all this in my current solitude is depressing beyond belief. I am hoping that finally writing about this experience will free me from my disillusionment or at least help me to focus my thoughts on those things that I can change so I stop feeling responsible for those things that I cannot change.


10:06 AM  
Blogger James said...

"After all the trouble I've had with finding a job, my self-esteem is quite shaky and my confidence in my abilities is, if possible, even worse. I am also probably more of an idealist than I like to admit, especially about education, so it takes me a little while to make peace with these experiences."

This I do understand, and if there's anything to how I feel about what's happening here it's that it's NOT a reflection on you. Granted, how things have worked out for you have not been exactly the sort of material to instill ready self-assurance. It's therefore hard for you to not blame yourself, but in this case you're surely not the one responsible for a poor academic program and your constricted role in it.

As I said before, and you seem to say as well, the program you're talking about here doesn't seem that it should be certified. If they're in it for the money that certainly makes the case that you're not going to see the sort of support for a course of the kind you're trying to teach that you would otherwise reasonably expect and which was readily apparent in the place you interviewed at.

It's clearly easy for me to subjectively say this isn't you, you shouldn't lose confidence in yourself. Based on what I've seen in your blogs I believe you're very capable and hard working, and you deserve better than what you've been handed to this point. But don't allow rejection to color everything for you. Keep pushing, and don't think you're disloyal to your current employer if you're simply honest about what you had to work with, and certainly don't paint yourself with the same brush that any reasonable accreditation agency would paint your current employer --- you're not the problem here, and the worst thing you can do for yourself is to cause yourself to make YOU the problem. You're competing for good jobs with a LOT of other good people, and that makes things hard enough without your losing confidence in yourself. Keep plugging and believe in Devorah --- something good will eventually come out of all of this.

10:34 AM  
Anonymous Kristjan Wager said...

Job interviews is something you get better at as you go to more and more of them. Even if this one doesn't result in a job, it is good experience for the next one. Then you know what you should be careful about. Good luck.

5:38 PM  

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