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The Interview — Part 2

30 May 2011

To read Part 1 of “The Interview,” click here.

The movie screen receded and the lights came on. Did I have any questions about the Academy?

I cleared my throat to see if my voice was still there. “No, but, ah, I was not aware that I would be giving a lecture.”

The room suddenly came to life as the six uniforms leaned across the table with various expressions ranging from surprise to disbelief to annoyance. Sympathy, however, was no where to be found.

Commander Roald Fredriksen was the first to speak. “I explained this in the email I sent you.”

My first line of defense was to construe this as a cross-cultural misunderstanding, an argument that at least maintained the last wisps of illusion any of us had about my competence for this job. In the U.S., I explained, universities hold interviews with a number of candidates and then narrow that group down to two or three who will be invited for a campus visit and lecture. I expected that the interview today was only the first phase.

“But the email – I said that there would be a lecture.”

Yes, well . . . but before I could attempt the “I intend to learn more Norwegian” defense I was interrupted.

“Do you think you can give us a lecture today?”

Do I think I could give a lecture today. Now that was the million dollar question.

At the time I thought myself incredibly lucky to have just given a guest lecture at the University of Bergen the month before. I was sure I could remember enough of it to talk my way through twenty minutes.

Of course hind sight is always genius and I sometimes like to imagine that what I really said was: “I’m sorry but I am not prepared to do that.” Then I thank them for their time and gracefully walk out of the room.

In real life, however, I sealed my fate with the words, “Yes. I can do that.”

They gave the Norwegian head nod (a quick, single bounce that indicates a firm desire to move on … which, incidentally, is also how Norwegians respond when I say “Hei!”).

Next on the agenda was the interview, an interrogation designed to determine my lack of fitness for the Naval Academy. It consisted of a barrage of questions that my Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt guide had not prepared me for. In the days before the interview I had come close to memorizing the thirteen pages Dr. Kathryn Hume devoted in her book to “Questions They May Ask,” searching my soul for answers to the over one hundred sample questions she listed.

I could recall humorous yet meaningful vignettes for “What was your most embarrassing classroom moment?” and “What particular kind of student do you find most challenging?” Having just read The Bourne Ultimatum, I was especially looking forward to “What texts would you most like to teach?”

The question my interviewers opened with? “What would you do if America went to war with Norway?”

(Come on, now. Isn’t our army spread a little thin already? But I checked myself before responding. Norway does have lots and lots of oil.)

“If one of your students were killed in active duty, how would you proceed in the classroom?”

(Gulp.)

“What is your position on war?”

“My position on war? As in …?”

“As in, do you support war?”

At the time of the interview the second George Bush was in office, so I was able to give quite a lengthy and non-committal response to this question.

The questions had come in rapid fire and my troops had a taken a beating. I made a planned retreat to the bathroom at the lunch break to collect my thoughts and catch my breath, but the sole woman among the interviewers cornered me on my way. Under cover of a large plant just outside the bathroom door, she offered me a plan of counterattack.

“Take the lunch break to compose the lecture. Do anything you can to stand up there and teach us something.” It was clear she was used to giving commands.

“Okay,” I whispered. (Or should that have been, “Yes, captain”?)

I turned the bathroom into my staging area and thanked God that the Navy used paper towels instead of hand dryers. I grabbed a pen from my purse and wrote down everything I remembered from my last lecture on thin sheet after thin sheet. Taking care to keep them dry, I arranged the sheets into a sort of outline on the sink’s countertop and then transferred them to a final single sheet of “notes” that would later accompany me up to the white board.

No one remarked on my fifteen-minute toilet break and if the lunch in the mess hall was eventful I don’t remember it. My every thought was on the upcoming lecture.

I feel it should be said the brilliance of the guest lecture I gave at the University of Bergen was undeniable. The students were rapt, the question period ran overtime, and the department chair asked if I would be interested in teaching a course in the fall. It was a  display of the finest research and enthusiastic teaching.

The lecture – on infinite storytelling – included several fascinating! and impressive! PowerPoint slides. Here is one of them.

Look at any true Persian carpet and you will find a central motif in the middle surrounded by a border. See how the diamond of the central motif has its points cut off? They go beyond the carpet’s main border. The floral pattern is also cut off, hinting that the pattern continues beyond what we can see. The idea is that this central motif is infinite, but we can only see a part of it. Persian carpets were originally used as prayer rugs and their designs were meant to help the faithful contemplate the infinite (God) through the finite (the present world). (Isn’t that interesting?)

Stories can also be like this carpet, told inside the main borders that are the book’s covers. While they are not actually infinite, they can hint that they continue forever. (I have many examples of this that I will not bore you with now.)

The point is that I was so convinced of the inventiveness of this lecture that I failed to allow myself to believe that it would not translate well from a literature classroom to the white board of the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy board room. (And probably not into this page either.)

In a frenzy of enthusiasm I stood in front of six already skeptical uniforms and strung together Persian carpets, never-ending stories like The 1001 Nights, the idea that different cultures might tell stories differently, and the possibilities this presented for cross-cultural discussions of texts in the classroom, and I did it all with a just one single sheet of paper towel and a hand-drawn, whiteboard reproduction of the central PowerPoint slide pictured above:

There was no doubt about it. I had stunned them. For the first time that day, I saw one of them smile – the young blond officer, who, in any other circumstance might have even been described as friendly.

“I’m not so good at drawing,” I offered, as a way to break the silence, although it clearly signaled my white flag of unconditional surrender. “Are there any questions?”

I looked around at the other faces in that room, still frozen into scrunched-up scrutiny or raised-eyebrow bewilderment. All was quiet on the Western Front.

“Thank you very much, Jena,” the young blond finally said. “That was a very interesting lecture.”

“I think we are finished for the day,” concluded Commander Roald Fredriksen. “Captain Endal will be pleased to walk you back to the front gates.”

Once outside the room Captain Endal, my female comrade, congratulated me on my efforts, which, though heroic, did not merit a “Mission Accomplished” banner. After a quick word with the guard to open the gate she turned to me and said, “Good luck in the future.”

I love Norwegians for always saying exactly what they mean. “Good luck in the future” – a phrase that says so much more than, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” while still retaining a tone of politeness. I silently congratulated Captain Endal on her decorum.

As I walked through those gates a smile widened on my face. I reached into my bag for my cell phone and called Aidan, already laughing as I said: “Well, I blew that one!”

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. Anita Habegger permalink
    31 May 2011 01:44

    This was my worst nightmare! When I have a bad dream, it is always about not being prepared for a test. I can’t even begin to comprehend how you got through this. You are totally amazing. Again I’m so proud of you. Mom

    • jenaconti permalink
      31 May 2011 20:03

      Once I saw the words “lecture” it was no longer about whether or not I might get the job. I just had to get through the hours. 🙂

  2. 31 May 2011 08:26

    Brilliant! You are a great storyteller and I had been looking forward to ‘part 2’.
    It is important that we foreigners understand that the Norwegian way of doing things is often very different to what we are accustomed to in our homelands. That doesn’t make it wrong, just different.
    I believe many of the systems and ‘rituals’ we are familiar with are the result of a dynamic culture that is often more common in the ‘new world’. Countries like the U.S, Australia, New Zealand, etc are not as steeped in tradition and have achieved their current wealth and cultural ideologies after a long and tough struggle that I believe is character building for a nation. Norway has not ha to endure this struggle and has essentially won the lottery, with a radical change in just the last generation. This can make for some interesting situations and an abruptness that we are just not comfortable with.
    For what it is worth, it sounds like whoever is fortunate enough to recognise the contribution that you could make to their endeavours will be lucky to have you.
    If we as foreigners can find a way to demonstrate what we can offer and allay Norwegians sense of fear of change, disarm the perception of the threat we allegedly pose to their culture I imagine that many of the business’s in the land would benefit and the tabloid press and FRP would need to find another ‘bogeyman’ to whip people into a frenzy about.

    • jenaconti permalink
      31 May 2011 20:02

      Thanks, Auswegian! And now I can check out your blog!

  3. Cecilie permalink
    31 May 2011 19:44

    og dette er bonusen av å finne en blogg seint: jeg slipper vente på fortsettelsen. Hysterisk!
    Forøvrig skriver jeg på norsk under antagelsen av at det er en ok utfordring, eller ta du har google til hjelp, siden min engelsk til tider inneholder pinlige skrivefeil, særlig på denne tiden av døgnet.

  4. jenaconti permalink
    31 May 2011 20:00

    Hei igjen Cecilie! Jeg også snakker norsk, så det går helt fint. Bare at jeg også skrivet på min morsmål pga tiden. 🙂 også fordi jeg gjøre mange feil på norsk. Men fint å høre at du synest at bloggen min var så morsom!

  5. 31 May 2011 20:04

    What would you do if America was at war with Norway? How were you able to not laugh out loud? Oh my. . . I’m sure living through the above experience was hell on earth, but it sure made for a hell of a good story!

    • jenaconti permalink
      31 May 2011 20:46

      Oh I certainly had to bite my cheeks so I wouldn’t smile! but as I said, Norway has oil (world’s third largest producer!) so you never know … 😉

  6. 1 June 2011 00:48

    (Well, I’ll risk typing in English, if there is any major missspelling just ignore them) You sure know how to tell stories! Thank you for sharing and for the info on the carpet.

    EWian

  7. Hege permalink
    1 June 2011 09:52

    Hello Jena
    I was there at your interview – maybe you remember me as a blonde officer – I am actually a brunette and civilian, but never mind. We were thrilled that a native speaker with a PhD had applied for the job, and I am sorry that you had such a nerve-wracking experience. If it is any consolation, you never came across as bewildered or nervous, just completely uninterested in the job. Since working at a naval academy means training young people who ultimately may have to fight in wars, the questions you were asked seem perfectly normal to us working within the system, but apparently not to someone from the “outside”.
    Hope you got a better job more suitable for your qualifications!

  8. jenaconti permalink
    1 June 2011 10:13

    Hello Hege! I really wondered if someone from that room would ever come across this blog. I did intentionally change names and identities! 🙂 And I am absolutely certain that the questions you asked were the right ones for the job — I wasn’t joking when I wrote that the questions were to determine how UNQUALIFIED I was for that position!

    Thanks for your comment and in all honestly, I am happy to have had the experience. I hope you found someone who was indeed the right person for the position.

  9. Vivian permalink
    3 June 2011 00:10

    Thanks for the conclusion, Jena. As I said earlier, you are a great storyteller.

    As for the question about the US and Norway at war; my mother was asked the same question the day she went for her interview to become an American Citizen during the 50s. She was sure she had blown her chances of naturalization when she answered that she would probably side with Norway because she loved her homeland. The response she got when she apologetically gave her answer is one she has never forgotten. “There is no need to apologize, maam. Your answer was honest and the kind of answer we appreciate. It’s citizens like you we welcome, because if you love your own country and still want to become an American then you will also love this country.

    I guess the question of loyalties is a valid one – even when the answer isn’t always an easy one.

    • jenaconti permalink
      3 June 2011 09:50

      Hi Vivian! Really interesting comment. I wonder if you mother would have the same experience these days in the U.S. with so much paranoia surrounding terrorism. Thanks for reading and for the compliment. 🙂

  10. justine permalink
    31 August 2011 14:31

    Oh Jena, that was a hoot! Such a beautiful display of the discrepancy between your original lecture and your hey-presto reperformance. I am awful at interviews, its comforting to know that even professionals like you can come away with warstories.
    – Justine

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