So, I’m at a jobtalk, and the first question the candidate gets is “what were your sources?”

And the candidate listed some sources, and gently hinted that ze had already stated them, and stopped talking after a couple sentences. And I thought to myself “bad answer.”

I thought a post on why I thought “bad answer” that might be useful to someone out there.

First of all, think of your audience. The entire department is there, and most of them have little interest in your field. But all historians understand method, and most historians respect solid archival work even if they use different methods. So discussing your sources and method is a key moment when you can show off your skills to people outside your field. You should want to talk about sources as much as possible, especially if (as this person was) you are doing difficult work reconstructing full stories from fragments. Start by listing your sources, sure. But then tell a story about how the evidence led you to one of your conclusions, or about how you had to find and cross-reference some random information to prove something really interesting, or discuss some of the limitations of your sources.

Second, when you get a question you’ve already answered, don’t assume your audience wasn’t paying attention. If they ask about something you think you already said, then probably they want to hear more about that issue. In this case, sure, the audience member asked the wrong question. Instead of “what were your sources?”, ze should have said “tell me about your sources?” or “how did you use your sources to put together this story?” But sometimes the candidate needs to answer the question that isn’t being asked. Unsurprisingly, the sources issue came back up in later questions, in a different form.

In this particular case, I strongly suspect that the candidate was doing some pretty kick-ass archival work. But I can’t tell for sure, because ze didn’t show it off.