Category Archives: Department Politics

“Is That Your Final Answer” Or, Why Students Ramble

Students tend to ramble.  And the further into their graduate studies they get, the more likely they are to do it.  The question that must be asked is: why?

I was working with a Ph.D. student last week on  interview responses for an upcoming fellowship interview, and for the first time, I understood the answer to this question.

Students ramble because you are afraid to stop talking. Because if you stop talking, then your answer is finished. And if your answer is finished, then you have to commit to it. And it has to sit there, and either be right, or wrong. One way or another, you sink or swim on that answer.

And nobody wants to do that. Nobody wants to be pinned down as having answered a question in one particular way, because what if that way is the wrong way? What if that isn’t what they “want to hear”? So, you say to yourself, somewhere—probably unconsciously– “if I just keep talking, maybe I’ll suss out what they really want to hear, and then I can say that! Because, whatever they want to hear, I’ll say! If I just knew what it was!”

(This is the close cousin to the related problem that students often jump in before the questioner has finished talking. Why? Because you want to look like you “already thought about that,” and “didn’t really need to be asked,” and “really, should and would have said it already if you’d had a chance, but in any case will definitely tell you everything you could possibly want to know about it right now.” Because you’re afraid to look stupid. And if for some reason you left something OUT of your answer, then you have failed to tell them what they “want to hear.” So the slightest peep from the interviewer has to be met with an avalanche of new talking, talking which will surely cover everything they could possibly “want to hear” on the subject.)

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Guess what? If you want to have a career in academia, you have to commit to your final answer. You actually have to speak in declarative sentences with a strong falling tone at the end that signals, aurally, the period.

You have to stop, and then wait. Wait while your interlocutor processes what you said, reflects on it, and then responds with thoughts of her own.

And guess what? She might disagree with you. Yeah, she might. And you still have to respond in declarative sentences.

Here’s how this looks, in a sample dialogue drawn from a typical interview scenario for a tenure-track position at a university:

Interviewer: What text would you use for the introductory course?

You: I would use Martindale.

Interviewer: Oh….? Why?

You: Because I think Martindale does the best job of bridging social and political economic viewpoints. He’s not the strongest on contemporary developments, of course, but that can be augmented with other readings. For the basic textbook, I think he gives the best and most thorough overview.

Interviewer: I used Martindale last year and I thought it was terrible. The students hated it. It was disappointing because I’d heard such good things about that textbook.

You: Really? That’s interesting. What happened, do you think? What did the students dislike?

Interviewer: They found his writing too hard to follow, and the format was confusing.

You: Interesting. When I’ve used that textbook students have given it positive feedback. But that may be because I make them study guides of each chapter, and walk them through the chapter the first day we cover it in class, alerting them to the parts to focus on for the lectures and exams.

Interviewer: Ohhhh, what a good idea! I’ll bet that would help. We should talk more! I’m ordering my books for the next term this week, and I’d like to talk with you more about the options.

You: Perhaps over dinner after my talk today? I’ll look forward to it.

OK, what happened here? What happened here is that the interviewee stuck to his guns. He had a position, he stated it clearly, and he defended it. He did not panic and fall down when the interviewer took an opposing viewpoint. And what happened as a result? He had a meaty, substantive exchange with the interviewer that resulted in him coming across as a credible, authoritative and effective teacher. It resulted in a deeply satisfying dialogue. It also ended with the interviewer wanting to know more.

And that, dear readers, is where you want your interviewers to be. You want them eager to know more, and ready to ask for it.

Now, here’s how that usually goes, for the ramblers among you:

Interviewer: What text would you use for the introductory course?

You: I would probably use Martindale, although, you know, there are a lot of good options out there and I’ve heard good things about Nelson, and Richardson, and you know of course, NO textbook really covers everything so you always have to augment, but I’m sure you already know that….!

Interviewer: Ok, ok!  So, anyway, why would you use Martindale?

You: Because I think Martindale is pretty good on social and political economic viewpoints, although, you know, a lot of people say that he’s not that great on contemporary developments, but that isn’t always the main thing, because sometimes I assign other readings for that, like the Patrick piece from the Annual Review, and this great article I found on current theory that was in this one reader out of Routledge, and even though sometimes those are too hard for undergraduates it’s pretty important that they get a sense of the field….so, um, yeah, what was the question?

Interviewer: I used Martindale last year and I thought it was terrible. The students hated it. It was disappointing because I’d heard such good things about that textbook.

You: Oh, wow, really? Oh gosh, I never even thought of that. I wonder if my students thought that? You know, a few of them DID say to me that it was kind of hard to follow and I noticed that their quiz scores were really low in the beginning, so I was trying to figure out what to do, and I thought of maybe making study guides that would help them, so I made some and it seemed to help, but you know, it’s hard to say, and I should really look at some other textbooks, like maybe Nelson, which is what my advisor used when he taught that class and I was his TA, so yeah, I hope maybe I can ask you what has worked for you because you know I’d definitely do whatever was expected for the way the department teaches that class……. you know?

Interviewer: Ummmm, ok. So moving on to the next question….

Here’s what happened in this case. In this case, in the candidate’s abject eagerness to “please” the interviewer and say whatever it is that he thinks she “wants to hear,” he ended up doing several things:

  • overwhelming his interviewer in several panicked, inarticulate monologues.
  • squelching all opportunity for collegial dialogue.
  • undermining his own authority and credibility as a teacher.
  • reinforcing an outdated subordinate identity as a graduate student TA.
  • burying the effective teaching method that he devised to deal with the text, which was creating chapter study guides.
  • boring and alienating the interviewer, who drops the subject and irritatedly moves on to another question.

In short, the panicked, rambly effort to just keep talking until some kind of magic “right answer” will present itself…… that effort is precisely the behavior that bombs the interview and disqualifies the candidate as an effective teacher, a confident professional, and most of all, an appealing colleague.

The fact is, there are not that many “right answers” in an academic setting. Sure, there are sometimes strong ideological orthodoxies that some departments adhere to, and it’s important to keep all of your antennae alert to those. But you can discover many of those by thorough research ahead of time.

The fact is, there are fewer orthodoxies per se, then there are opinions. Because academics specialize in having opinions. And in order for you to make an impression as a credible academic, you too must have opinions, strong opinions, that you’re prepared to state clearly, and defend.

That doesn’t mean being a jerk. The best speaker and scholar is the one who is open-minded and pleasant. But not one who is a doormat, and who is so afraid of offending someone that he literally won’t stop talking because his“final answer” might be wrong.

No, ramblers, that has to stop. Ask yourself, “is this my final answer?” And be ready to say, “yes.”

[This post is adapted from one originally published at Karen Kelsky’s other blog, The Professor Is In.  The opinions expressed on that other blog are those of Karen Kelsky personally and do not necessarily reflect the position of the University of Oregon McNair Scholars program.]

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