From the mailbag, again. Some of you may recall Classy Claude’s report from the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in New York in January. Well, Claude is a hyper-prepared, very exacting kind of a guy who is selectively on the market, so he’s already worrying about prospective job talks this winter. Like a Boy Scout, Claude wants to “Be Prepared.” Dear readers, can you help?
I’m on the market this year again, hoping to move to a more favorable geographic location. I think I’m in a good position as a newish Assistant Professor with a book out. A friend of mine told me that so long as I am an Assistant Professor, I should never consider talking about anything but my book, but that seems rather cautious. (And not to mention, really boring for me.) I’d like to talk about my next project, but I’ve only just started to research it, and my friend warned me against talking about such a new project.
What’s your advice? What would your readers suggest?
I too have heard this advice about job talks–at least, the part about how one shouldn’t ever give a job talk about a research project one hadn’t pretty much wrapped up and decorated with a bow. But, I feel your pain: you published that book already, so if anyone wants to see what you think about your book topic, they can just read your damn book, right?
But, no one reads anything any more, for any reason. (They’re all reading stupid blogs like this one! It’s so much easier and more immediately gratifying than work, isn’t it?) From what I’m hearing, and sadly, from what I myself have witnessed as a job candidate myself, search committees can barely bring themselves to read your C.V. and your application letter, let alone your articles and books. (Shockingly, even the writing sample the search committee themselves has requested will likely never be rifled by human hands). This is indeed disappointing, but it’s also liberating in a way: you’ll be a blank slate to them when you arrive on campus, free to tell them pretty much anything you want to about yourself, secure in the knowledge that few (if any) of them will bother to fact check your claims against your dossier or publications.
As for the job talk: your friend’s advice is the most prudent way to go, because until you’ve worked out your basic intellectual infrastructure for the next project, it’s probably not job talk material yet. The job talk is a peculiar genre of academic writing, and you’ll want it to be as glossy as it possibly can be so that you can be the unquestioned expert in the room on that topic. Presumably, you’ll be interviewing for other Assistant Professor positions, so there likely won’t be an expectation that you’ll already have a second project substantially underway, although you should be prepared to talk about what’s next for you. As someone with a book out already, you certainly can and should spend the last 5-10 minutes of your talk explaining your intellectual trajectory since completing the book, and give the crowd a short preview of your next project. You could certainly ask the search chair for hir advice, too–although bear in mind that once you’re invited for a campus interview, a search chair is just one vote among many you’ll be needing to get a job offer. (That’s good advice, even if you know what you want to talk about: be sure you have a clear time limit and other instructions from the search chair about the department’s expectations of a research talk on a job interview.)
Here’s something to consider, though: there may be a few people in the room who will actually read your writing sample, and for those few who have taken the time to get to know you through your work, it’s a bad move to pi$$ them off by delivering a job talk on the exact same material as your writing sample. This happened to me a few years ago–I diligently went off to the library and spent 70 minutes reading through a dissertation chapter and then walked across campus to hear the 40-minute summary thereof, and boy, was I chapped! So, depending on how the job is advertised and whether or not your second book project is related to your book, you might consider sending a writing sample from your newer work. But, you could also just send them your favorite book chapter, which would also be just fine, too.
Readers, what do you think? What tales of woe or of triumph can you share with Claude to help him think through this delicate problem? What errors in judgment do you consider fatal in a job talk?