Image: Mark Twain, c. 1890
Here is the latest column in our series of Job-Market Diaries, in which Mark Tonelli, himself an assistant professor, interviews new faculty members about how they found their full-time teaching job. This month he talks with a historian who has joined both a history department and an interdisciplinary team of scholars.
- Name: Bart Elmore
- Institution: Ohio State University
- Position: assistant professor of history
- Responsibilities: teaches in a history program and is a member of Ohio State’s Sustainable and Resilient Economy Discovery Group, an interdisciplinary team committed to making discoveries that drive ecologically and economically sustainable innovation.
- Start date: August 2016
Describe your background.
Elmore: In my first year of graduate school in Charlottesville, Va., a faculty mentor asked me whether I might have “completion issues.” I believe that was the phrasing. I was not being bullied — the advising historian was simply making an observation based on empirical evidence from my recent past:
- About a year prior, I had left a job at a law firm after nine months of unsatisfying work that left me seeking a bigger purpose in life.
- From there, I set out to paddle down the Flint River, starting in Atlanta, and ending in the Gulf of Mexico. I made it just a few dozen miles.
- Then, after a brief stint teaching at a public school in Savannah, Ga., I had another brilliant idea: a cross-country bike trip. Starting in Georgia, I made it to Mississippi. I was over 2,000 miles short of my Pacific Ocean destination.
Considering that track record, I must admit, I wasn’t sure I had the staying power to get through a Ph.D. program. I liked a lot of different things, and I knew that I could get easily distracted by new opportunities, new ideas. In the end, I think naïveté was my greatest asset. I simply did not know what I was getting myself into, and if I had known what lay in store — I mean, really known — I might have balked and maybe planned a trek to the top of Everest instead.
But I didn’t. I finished graduate school, specializing in global-environmental history, and was fortunate to secure two jobs — first at the University of Alabama and then at Ohio State University, where I currently teach. It was a long and arduous process both times, and the final steps toward getting the job were particularly tough.
In my first go-round on the job hunt, I actually landed in the hospital more than once complaining of chest pains. The anxiety I felt was no doubt exacerbated by the horror stories I heard from friends and colleagues. One anxiety-producing tale, whether fiction or fact, involved a graduate student who was forced to face a hiring committee with the rising sun in the background casting blinding rays toward the candidate’s eyes. And then there were the accounts of combative exchanges that left interviewees wide-eyed and bewildered.
I’m going to offer advice (below) to candidates who are about to go on the job market, but before I do, let me just make one appeal to all the hiring committees out there that will be sitting on the other side of the interview table: Be kind to your candidates. Close the blinds and offer a cup of coffee. I’m thankful that I had colleagues who did just that at Alabama and Ohio State, and modeled how one could ask tough questions while offering compassion and kindness. My hiring committees met me at a very vulnerable state in my life, and they helped nurture me through that awkward transition from graduate school to the real world. I am grateful to them and hopeful that others get the same kind treatment I was fortunate to receive.
What types of things did you do to prepare to teach full-time in academia?
Elmore: My preparation for teaching started before I got to graduate school. I taught English at Groves High School in Savannah, and I cannot stress enough how instrumental it was in shaping my professional career. In that one year of public-school teaching, I learned so much about how to organize curriculum for an entire semester, how to craft and deliver lectures that are engaging and that keep the attention of young minds, and how to deal with the complex emotional states of young people figuring out who they are. If you have an opportunity to teach at a secondary school early or late in your career, I’d highly recommend you jump at the opportunity.
In graduate school, I was a TA. But beyond that, I also accepted a fellowship position in my final two years of graduate study that allowed me to develop my own courses from scratch. That, too, was invaluable training — it allowed me to speak with confidence in job interviews about which courses I might teach and why I thought those courses would generate large enrollments. After all, I had the syllabus and the evaluations to prove it.
In my mind, there is no substitute to teaching your own class prior to going on the job market. Yes, it’s important to guard your time as a graduate student so that you can finish your dissertation. But having been on both sides of the hiring process at this point, it is clear to me that institutions are particularly eager to find candidates who already know how to organize and execute their own courses.
What would you have done differently to prepare?
Elmore: I’m not sure I would have prepared differently. I had great mentoring at Virginia, which gave me confidence when it came to talking about teaching and research in an interview setting. That was especially true in the case of the great environmental historian, Edmund P. Russell, who worked tirelessly with his students on professional development.
And here’s another good piece of advice: Seek out a faculty member who values teaching and who works with graduate students on their pedagogy. Sit in on that person’s classes and set up time to meet with them to talk about the craft of being a historian. In the case of Professor Russell, I was very fortunate. He included teaching and lecturing exercises in his seminars, requiring all participants to give in-class presentations that were critiqued and evaluated by peers. He created a supportive atmosphere in which everyone felt comfortable trying out techniques that might fail on the first go-around.
I can remember him talking about the little stuff of teaching — how we used our hands, how we used or didn’t use corners of the room. No detail was too small, and he created scenarios that felt real. We walked through typical problems that might happen in a lecture hall: What if the computer doesn’t turn on? What if the room isn’t arranged the way you want it to be?
In short, I felt prepared to talk about teaching in part because Professor Russell had always stressed the importance of preparing for the unexpected. We had been thrown curveballs (intentionally) in preparatory simulations so that when we got to the real thing, we were less likely to be shaken. So, if you’re looking to beef up your skills before an interview, find a mentor like Professor Russell.
What do you think helped you get your current job?
Elmore: Staying loose in the moments before the interview was really essential for me. Again, having now served on a hiring committee, I can safely say that the vast majority of the finalists for a history job are really stellar scholars.
That can obviously be scary when you’re competing for jobs, but I think the key is to think of the interview itself as a huge success. The institution that has invited you there thinks your stuff rocks, and that should be celebrated. Sadly, people don’t always feel this way, and it shows. Self-sabotage is real, and sometimes you can be your worst enemy.
I really tried to be aware of that reality when I was in the interview room. I didn’t believe I was going to land a job the first time I was on the market, and that might have been my greatest strength. When I went to the annual AHA meeting, I kind of felt like, “Well, here we go. It’s a long shot, so let’s see what shakes.” ... Knowing that I had already worked to troubleshoot potential problem questions helped me calm my nerves. That calmness — which, let’s be honest, was fleeting at times — definitely helped me deliver a passionate pitch in support of my candidacy.
What advice do you have for academic job candidate?
Elmore: The best advice I have is actually quite simple: Come prepared. Make sure to set up a mock interview with a mix of folks that includes friends as well as pesky colleagues who will really challenge you by asking tough questions. If you’re harder on yourself in the preparatory phase, the real thing will feel like a breeze. Make your mock interviews as realistic as possible. Wear what you’re going to wear the day of the interview and practice knocking on the door and having someone greet you.
For the job talk, do the same thing. Figure out what you’d do if the projector doesn’t work. Talk through how you’d like to structure the room where you’ll be giving your talk. If there is a podium, do you want to move it? And work hard on that talk. The more you practice, the more you can speak freely without having your eyes glued to a piece of paper. Definitely try not to read your talk. This is your chance to engage with your audience and show them how you would connect with twenty-somethings in the classroom. (Some schools don’t have a teaching demonstration, and even for the ones that do, this may be your only chance to show some of the faculty members who might have missed your demonstration what you’re like when you lecture.) Think about all of this stuff in advance and work out a game plan.
And then go execute. The rest is out of your hands, so don’t stress about things you cannot control. You’ve done a great job just getting to the interview. Your work is first-rate and you should be proud of everything you have on the table.