Keep Calm and Hire On (If You Get the Chance)

Full vitae may5 hiring

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By Bryan A. Banks, Stacey Blersch, Patty Chappel, Amanda Rees, and Eric Spears 

With much of academe facing financial losses, hiring freezes, and fall-semester uncertainties, it’s unclear how much faculty hiring will actually be done in the months ahead. But if your department does get an opportunity to fill a critical hire, or if — like us — your search was approved just before Covid-19 disrupted the world, you will have to rethink almost every aspect of the hiring process to fit the new norms of social distancing and remote work.

Once we got the go-ahead from the administration, the five of us were involved in the search to fill an opening for an assistant professor of geography (with an emphasis on GIS and community geography) here at Columbus State University, in Georgia. We had already conducted the initial interviews by Skype before social distancing became our national mantra. Little did we know that remote communication would become the primary medium for our entire search process.

Unlike some faculty searches that were suspended in the wake of Covid-19, ours was allowed to proceed. We wanted to make our virtual hiring process as inclusive and connected to our students and colleagues as technology would allow. The makeover involved jettisoning some parts of the traditional on-campus interview and adapting other elements to abide by the new social-distancing rules governing all of our lives.

Over spring break, and in the following week (with the university closed for our transition to remote learning), we redesigned the on-campus interview. The result was a successful search with our new hire starting in the fall. Here are the five lessons we learned that may be of use if your department is lucky enough to run a faculty search in the coming months.

Record a video tour of your campus. An on-campus interview is about a candidate and a department assessing how well they fit one another, but it’s also about allowing candidates to assess the campus itself and the surrounding area. We certainly couldn’t bring in all three finalists for the usual tour.

In any search, it can be hard to pin down how big a factor location is to candidates. Our campus is in Columbus, Ga. — a city that, while it has a lot to offer, is not a place that most applicants know much about. Columbus is not New York City. Some candidates are interested in our area before they arrive in town, and others need to be convinced.

Since we couldn’t do that in person this time, we offered our finalists a virtual tour of those spaces most often traversed by the university’s faculty. A member of the search committee drove around — with a phone attached to the dashboard — filming campus buildings and neighborhoods where most faculty members reside. Our virtual tour hit new and old homes, apartment buildings, local businesses, and parks. We aimed to give candidates a sense of the pathways, both personal and professional, they would travel if hired.

That said, we didn’t want to create a false impression of the place. Conscious that what we were creating was, in effect, an advertisement for a very selective vision of our city, we added commentary. We had a historian on the search committee, so we covered the city’s long history and tried to anticipate the candidates’ questions. White flight and suburbanization shaped the urban geography of this city, and, given the community-geography focus of the position, we wanted to make sure that the candidates got an accurate sense of the place where they would be working.

Include a mix of people in your "on-campus" interviews. During most campus visits, job candidates get a chance to meet a variety of students, staff members, and faculty members over the course of two days. A Zoom interview with the search committee does not allow for such a breadth of representation, so you need to find new ways to give candidates a broad sense of the institution and the department they would be joining.

To that end, our department’s administrative assistant organized and hosted a digital lunch with the candidates and students in our program. We gave students copies of each candidate’s CVs, letters of interest, and teaching philosophies (with personal information excised), and asked them to draft questions ahead of time. Through round-robin-style Q&A sessions, students and candidates sized each other up, had frank conversations about teaching, and learned more about the candidates’ research interests and hobbies.

We also scheduled remote chats for candidates to talk with upper-level administrators, the department chair, and HR officers.

What about the teaching demo and the research talk? Both of those are important to different degrees at different types of institutions, and they still are possible in a virtual search. Just recognize their limitations when delivered via Zoom, and talk through those challenges with the candidates.

Remote teaching is not the same as online teaching. That’s one of the many lessons the Covid-19 crisis already has made clear. If the job you are hiring for is for a face-to-face educator, help the candidates to create that experience remotely as much as possible. But be realistic: Don’t expect a problem-free demo of their in-person teaching style. A lot is lost in translation over the interwebs, especially body language. Or, as was the case in our search, candidates had to demonstrate how they teach GIS without the benefit of being in a computer lab with students.

Make sure the candidates know, in advance, what remote platform you’ll be using. Give them a chance to run through their teaching demo or research talk on that platform before the actual interview. Have them practice sharing their screen. Have them check their microphones. Have them locate the chat box and any other important features that will help them perform to the best of their ability.

Likewise, prepare your audience. Help them become familiar with these platforms and warn them about the limitations of virtual talks so that candidates aren’t judged unfairly. Make sure the technology remains a minimal barrier to entry for all involved.

We actually found that more faculty members and students attended the virtual teaching demos and research talks in this search than would usually show up for the in-person kind.

Find virtual ways to get to know the candidate. During an on-campus interview, dinner with the candidate is one of the most important avenues for discovering "fit" — a notoriously difficult and problematic category of assessment for a candidate, but one that is largely unavoidable. It’s when we answer the candidate’s informal questions about the culture of the department, the university, and the city. It’s when the search chair and committee members step back and give the candidate and other departmental colleagues room to converse. And it’s also when we further plumb a candidate’s research, teaching, service, and outside interests to gauge how they might overlap with our own.

How did you manage all of that with remote hiring? Have a digital dinner and invite people who would regularly interact with the new hire. That’s what we did. You don’t have to eat on camera if that makes you uncomfortable. If you have the funds in the department budget, perhaps pay for the candidate to have a meal delivered before the dinner. Not everyone is a foodie, but a lot of candidates shape their feelings of a city through their stomachs, and you can talk about the local restaurant scene as you eat.

Consider the timing of your virtual dinner, too. We hosted ours after the research and teaching demos so there would be something immediately in common for everyone to talk about.

Build in time to breathe (for yourself and for the candidate). Don’t try to compress a finalist interview into a single day. Much like an in-person interview on campus, the virtual version is best conducted over the course of two days, if possible.

That’s because Zoom meetings can be tiring, especially one right after the other. Design regular breaks for both the candidates and the committee members. Most likely, you have other commitments to balance with the job-search process and so will the candidates.

Keep calm and hire on — that was our mantra as we pushed through the various logistical and technical challenges of remote interviewing. We plan to continue providing support to help our new hire start on the campus in the fall. The only way we will get through this pandemic is together. And the only way we got through this search was together.

Bryan A. Banks is an assistant professor of history, Stacey Blersch is an assistant professor of hydrology, Patty Chappel is an administrative assistant to the history and geography department, Amanda Rees is a professor of geography, and Eric Spears is an associate professor of geography — all at Columbus State University, in Georgia.

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