Classy Claude frets about his job talk strategy

grantbringingupbabyFrom 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? 

Dear Historiann,

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?

0 thoughts on “Classy Claude frets about his job talk strategy

  1. one of the most sweetly-phrased pieces of advice I got when going on the job market, from an old school old guy, was “aim low — they’re riding Shetlands”. At the time, I took it in smarty-pants fashion to mean “oh, almost everywhere else is less pointy-headed than Our Ultra Clever Grad School”. But over the years I think I get it more in the way that he meant it — when you are listening to a talk on a topic that is not your immediate field of competence, you are pretty much always on a Shetland.

    It’s weird how much grad school prepares people to write a lot, hopefully well, and how little to speak publicly. If you include teaching, the latter is probably what we do more often, and is critically important at key junctures: job talks, of course, but also conferences where you have an easy opportunity to shine just by not reading an incomprehensible text in a monotone & looking surprised when you get the “time up” note and you’ve only made the second of your 9 central points.

    Oh! but advice. Get a book on public speaking. the advice contained therein will probably be pretty cornball but nevertheless super useful. As far as first vs. second project — no one will care which one you talk about if you give a great talk, and that’s the truth.


  2. The writing sample should be published work — if you have an article that pulls together multiple themes, that is great. Or the favorite chapter. While I several times gave talks that were asked to be “give us an overview of the book”, I don’t think they work well because you necessarily sound shallow. I think what works best is a focused talk based on a chapter. But what Claude could do is show how one chapter in the book creates a set of questions that are guiding his new research. But I would make the balance 40 minutes existing stuff, 5 minutes new directions. In fact once I had an interview where the instructions were “40 minutes current project, 10 minutes next project”.


  3. This is an interesting question, and unfortunately the answer probably varies a bit from search to search and department to department.

    If the project really isn’t fully baked (or the batter isn’t fully mixed, or if you’ve only got some of the ingredients together, or are still flipping through cookbooks for ideas about what you can make with whatever you have in the pantry [I think my second project is somewhere between those last two at this point]) you should probably avoid making it a significant part of the talk — but you should spend some time thinking about it and coming up with a good description of the project’s framework and significance and maybe a couple of good examples from the research you’ve done so far, because someone is going to ask you about it, and doing a good job with that answer can be something that can help the department decide between strong candidates who are otherwise equally attractive.

    For searches that are focused on more senior candidates (i.e. where they are specifically associate or advanced assistant rather than beginning assistant jobs), all the candidates will have a book out or in press, so it might be a good idea to have the second project be at least a minor part of the talk itself, since that dimension will be more prominent in distinguishing between candidates. In that case, I’d recommend spending some time between now and interview season getting things in as coherent shape as you can. You need to be able to talk compellingly and with a reasonable degree of specificity about why the topic is interesting and important and how and why your approach to it will say something particularly interesting or push it new directions.

    In these kinds of cases, one technique that can make this work more seamlessly is to approach the talk as not simply a presentation of your book or your new research, but as a discussion of the big themes of your scholarship in general, and to highlight the ways in which the new project grows out of, extends, represents a new take on, etc… the themes in the earlier project. Our searches tend to ask for talks like that rather than just a conference paper style presentation of a particular piece of research, but having at least a few sections that get more specific as demonstrations of your research and specific interpretations is important as well. Getting a sense of just what the department expects is important.

    (And I now realize that I’ve basically just repeated a lot of Historann’s advice, so the shorter version of this would be “what she said.”)

    Oh, and one other thing — one of the things I sometimes see candidates neglect is the fact that you’re often selling not simply your project but your topic or field more broadly, especially in searches that may be chronologically or geographically but not topically defined. The audience often has the unspoken or even unconscious question, why is someone who does labor, or gender and sexuality, or religion, or food, or New Deal policy a good person to fill this job in 20th century U.S. history? Talks shouldn’t address this directly, I don’t think, because that would seem weird and pushy, but it can come through in the way you talk about the larger ramifications and intersections of your work. It’s an opportunity to show your enthusiasm for your field and your command of big-picture issues. Particularly for non-specialists in the audience, this dimension of the talk (which often comes through in tone and intellectual flexibility and other kind of abstract things) is often really important.


  4. The committee (and department) will be very interested in the second topic. This is always the case, but particularly so in instances when the book is already out. They want to make sure that the job prospect has an interesting intellectual profile – as we know, sometimes dissertation topics are handed out, and sometimes scholars have a great first book and then lots of trouble conceptualizing a second project. So the interviewing department will ask questions about the second project in the interview, people will bring up on campus, and it can be integrated into the job talk (at the end). That’s just to say, don’t worry, Candidate, about giving a job talk on project #1 – they know you’re not stuck there (they hope you’re not stuck there).

    I have to say, for my first job talk, I gave a standard talk – 40 minutes, part of the dissertation (though with a brief overview of the whole project at the beginning), tried to make it as clear and easy-to-follow as possible. It was a good talk, and I tend to do well with talks, because I have a clear, loud speaking voice. The second job talk, three years later, was still based on the same project, but at the time I was involved in book ms revisions, so I decided to give a different kind of talk and focused on some of the theoretical issues involved in my project. This was nerve-wracking because it wasn’t the usual approach, but it was also highly successful, because it was easier for listeners outside my field to do what they want to do anyway – relate my project to their own work/ field.

    Other advice: The Q&A is almost as important as the talk, sometimes even more important. Make sure you don’t run over 40 minutes (or whatever they give you as a time limit), and that you’re good at fielding rambling, confusing questions and aggressive, skeptical questions without being flustered or defensive. Don’t run on too long in answering questions, either. I consider defensiveness fatal in a job talk, because it makes me think that the candidate is not confident or mature and has the possibility to become a douche of a colleague.

    And just to reiterate Historiann’s comment – absolutely make sure you ask the chair directly about the format and expectations for the job talk. Do what they say.


  5. At the risk of going in a different direction, it seems to me that unless one has specific instructions (e.g., tell us about the book), the best choice for the job talk is the one that puts you in the best light. New or old doesn’t matter; if you have a project that makes you more interesting to your audience, rather than less, that’s the key. In that sense, a project that has hooks or intersections to work in other areas or periods may do a better job of generating interesting questions and discussions: whether or not it comes from the book or not. In that sense, the job talk really is what the rhetoric about conference papers always suggests: an opening and invitation for further conversation. While I think some of my work is really interesting (and maybe even important, on my more self-important days), I’d never give a talk about some of it as a job talk: I can see the eyes glazing over already. If you choose the talk that will let you shine the most in the Q&A, and (even better) at dinner that evening, that might be the best choice. The advice not to give a talk on half-baked research simply means don’t talk about it if you can’t shine about it.


  6. My first book got published in 2001, and I was on the market (after a postdoc) in 2003.

    I felt the pressure to talk about the new project, and so I had deliberately crafted a single chapter of the second book that was (a) biographical, and therefore accessible, (b) very tightly focused around an historiographical argument, so that its relevance was abundantly clear, and (c) the most performative piece of writing I’ve ever assembled.

    It became a standard job talk, allow me to talk – very hypothetically – about the stakes of the new work. It also allowed me to show the arc of my scholarship, which is important in a tight job market and also for institutions that might imagine themselves to be Research I (blah, blah blah).

    To me, as with Tom, I say that what matters is that you give your very best and tightest talk. And if your book has been out for a bit, you’ll just have to show evidence that you haven’t stopped thinking, writing, etc.


  7. this is interesting and useful advice to me, as a (potential) candidate a few years out. As a getting-to-be-slightly-more-advanced Assistant Professor, I feel a lot of pressure (maybe only internally, as it goes against what is said here) to talk about a new project to demonstrate that there is more to me than my dissertation.

    I wonder if this varies by field? (e.g., while I am writing a book, much of my field is article-based (and I have several articles, including one on the new research project)). We’ll see if I ever need this advice though. . .


  8. I would say that moving beyond the book, if it’s out, is a wise thing to do. You want to demonstrate that you’re doing colleague-worthy work still, while you have a book in hand. It might be a bridging talk that starts from your book and moves onto next topic or a micro-history that comes out of the current research around which you can hang an elegant frame of methodology and ambition.

    I’ve sat on many hiring committees and the one talk I hate the most is the summary of the book that bears a frightening resemblance to the summary of the book featured in the research statement. If you want to take the approach that builds a lot off of the book, do so with a framework that highlights the broader themes uniting your research over the years and across the projects.


  9. Like Lance my first book was out in 2001, but wanting to leave that horrid job I ended up doing a job talk a couple of years later. I decided to begin the talk by discussing a few themes/questions from the book that I planned to expand on in the new project (maybe 10 minutes). I had done just enough research on a piece of the new project to then present a lively and tightly focused talk (30 minutes). This allowed both for an overview of the book for those too lazy to read it, and a suggestion of new exciting things to come. A hybrid that landed me the job (although I was their second choice, and that second book isn’t quite out yet). I completely agree with those who suggest knowing how your work (both old and new) fits into the historiography is key. And big picture thinking will also allow that specialist in medieval Japan to connect to your study of 1970s sports stadiums… Good luck!


  10. Let me make suggest, following up on what a lot of people say here: be bold. I don’t mean that you should talk beyond your evidence or stray from what is verifiable. Only that if you’re offering a second project to the crowd, even briefly or hypothetically, your historical argument should be bold, big, impactful. The second project should be . . . well . . . more impressive than the first. The best job talks I’ve seen (using a second project) have walked a very narrow tightrope – though often preliminary, they have made strong (historical and historiographical) arguments about something important *and* they aren’t so speculative that they can’t be understood by an audience of generalists or non-specialists or explained to another knowledgeable mind in your specific field.

    Of course, the other half of getting the job is the paratext of the talk – the walking, talking kaffeklatching, etc. And if you’re overconfident (“I feel like I’m in a good position with a first book already out”) it will show there.


  11. In the natural sciences, the publicly advertised and accessible job talk is always about 3/4 to 4/5 presentation of the applicant’s published work and 1/5 to 1/4 discussion of where the applicant will be going scientifically in her career as a faculty member. There is also frequently a “chalk talk”, which is attended only by departmental faculty and is an informal–but extremely detailed–discussion and defense of the applicant’s future experimental plans.


  12. As I think about it, the thing that makes this so tricky is that each department has its own peculiar way of dealing with the job talk. I was once asked (at an R1) to do a talk about my research AS IF I were giving an undergraduate lecture. Yup. Think about it… So you can develop a perfect job talk, and then you’ll get instructions that lead you to wonder what to do…


  13. I’m in English, not history, but if Classy Claude’s advice is any indication, things sure are different in history. In six searches, my department has shot down two candidates who read published work as their job talks (one from her not-all-that-recently published book, the other from a three-year old article). Their choices made some of us wary that they would not be able to produce new scholarship if hired. Indeed, the advice my grad department’s placement office drilled into us was to send published work as a writing sample, but, if invited to campus, to read something unpublished but as close to brilliant as possible from the dissertation.

    Trouble for me, as for too many folks these days, was that it took me three years to land a tenure-track job. By that time my first book was in press and off limits as a job talk, which was instead a forthcoming article that is a now-unrecognizable part of the second book. In the two years since I had received my degree, I had already been presenting hunks of the second book at conferences, partly to take advantage of conference funds that were part of what employment I had, but also because being so tenuously employed made writing such a welcome distraction. Those were the days.


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