Comfort Among Strangers: The On-Campus Teaching Demonstration
Chauna Craig | September 2001
Evaluation is a necessary part of any profession. As writers, our work is evaluated every time we send it out, and as teachers, our work is evaluated primarily by our students. Of course, we rarely witness an editor in the process of responding to our stories and poems, and few of us could teach if we thought only of the end-of-semester evaluations. So for many writers in the academic job market, the most stressful evaluation is the teaching demonstration on an on-campus interview, that performance we often believe must be stellar in order to land the job.
Such demonstrations are stressful for obvious reasons. A variety of faculty members, most likely all strangers with a variety of approaches and unspoken expectations, study your every move and compare it to their own pedagogy. Some may nod and listen, others may seem bored or even hostile in their responses, but all of them are basing their impressions of your teaching on a single class session manufactured for the very purpose of evaluation. You don’t have the comfort of familiar students on whom you know you can depend when discussion falters. You don’t even yet know who these students are or how to best reach them.
Establishing a teaching identity in a largely unknown environment with strangers is no easy task, but there are ways to minimize stress and set up a comfort zone from which to demonstrate your true ability.
Don’t Act, Inter-act
Although all educators have their pet ideas about teaching, there are common things smart committees look for. First, any school that requires a teaching demonstration during the interview is definitely serious about their teaching mission. Some schools requested samples of my fiction when I was on the market, but none asked me to "perform" my fiction on the interview. It was my teaching they wanted to experience. And although the demonstration can feel very much like an act, the spotlight doesn’t have to remain on you. Whether your teaching demonstration lasts 20 minutes or an hour, whether you’re lecturing about poetic form or leading students in writing exercises, some degree of involvement with students is a must. Most universities now support a mission of student-centered, active learning, and if you teach an actual class, those students’ feedback may play into the hiring decision. In fact, Judith Slater, creative writing professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says that "the graduate students’ opinions of the candidates weigh very heavily in our decision-making process," a statement that may surprise candidates who concentrate only on impressing the faculty with publications or believe that teaching is somehow less important at research universities.
At any college, the student is the focus, so your lesson should reflect that. Individual writing exercises, group activities, handouts, and prepared discussion questions can get students involved in your lesson, and they have the added advantage of taking the focus off you while giving you the opportunity to observe what type of students you can expect at that institution. Even if you’re teaching to only hiring committee members, they want a sense of what students might experience in your classroom and will usually willingly play the part of the attentive student.
Judith Slater confirms that demonstrating a true willingness to work with students is the key to establishing yourself as a good teacher on any level and at any kind of institution. Though publications will certainly help a candidate make the short list for a creative writing opening at a research institution like UNL, Slater cautions that no one wants a star writer who will publish "at the expense of their teaching." She says her department is impressed by candidates "who talk specifically about ways in which they bring their own writing into the classroom. Do they show students drafts of their work? Do they do assignments and exercises along with their students? Do they talk about problems they’re having with their writing? Not that the answer to any of these questions needs to be "yes" necessarily- (We’re) just looking for evidence that candidates are able successfully to integrate their writing and teaching lives, and that they care passionately about both."
Interactions then, between professor and student, and even between your own dual roles of writer and teacher, are key components to others’ perceptions of your teaching. Though the University of Nebraska, like many research universities, has candidates speak informally about their teaching instead of leading a class, these talking points can easily be applied in practice. Do writing exercises along with the students or committee members, be the first to share, and speak openly about how you might change or develop that exercise into a poem or story, whatever you would expect your students to do next in a real classroom setting.
Maximize Your Comfort Level
It’s very important that you feel as comfortable as possible when demonstrating your teaching, so make as many of your own decisions as possible. Though it’s not always in your control, you can ask that the teaching demonstration be scheduled at a time when you work best. One of my teaching demonstrations came at the end of a day full of tours and interviews, when I was exhausted and still had to show myself as someone with passion and energy. And although I’m not normally alert at 8 a.m., it was an enormous relief on one interview to have that teaching demonstration behind me for the rest of the day. If possible, teach early in the interview schedule since tours require little more than small talk, and interviews with top administrators are often formalities.
Where you have the most control should be in your lesson plan. When choosing activities, keep in mind that you want to seem comfortable with your lesson, especially because the committee understands the artificiality of the demonstration and will be very impressed if you can still seem at home, as if you already belong at that institution. Be sure to choose activities that you like, that you’ve used before, and that you know are easily adaptable to a variety of teaching situations. Also, make sure you’re completely comfortable with any technology you choose to employ in your demonstration. While many schools are advertising for tech-savvy professors, you’ll undercut your presentation if you spend more time fumbling with Power Point than teaching. Always go with your strengths.
At one university, I was asked to take over an hour-long class and given a choice between a grammar-based class and a research writing class. These selections aren’t necessarily unusual since the scheduled days of your visit may not allow you to teach a class in your area of specialty, and, especially important to remember, most small schools will expect you to teach composition and to do it as well as your specialty. I stayed away from the grammar class since I hadn’t taught such a course before, but I was still worried about how to teach someone else’s research writing class when I didn’t know the teacher’s philosophy or style. So I took away as much of the unknown as I could. I e-mailed my contact before the on-campus visit, asking for a syllabus. The class had just finished reading Frankenstein and was preparing to write a research paper on the book, so I asked for a copy of the writing assignment. Though I worried at first that I would seem pushy or over-eager, the teacher was happy to share her class with me. I felt more comfortable with the class, and the teacher got a sense of my collegiality, an important and often overlooked aspect of why people are hired.
I hadn’t read Frankenstein recently, but I prepared a series of general writing prompts that asked questions like "What do you already know or think you know about the topic?" and "What do you still need to learn to make this a successful paper?" This started the students writing about their ideas in a meaningful context, allowed me to have them share what they were thinking, and, in a classroom where the faculty outnumbered the students, gave me an assignment that the faculty could apply to their own writing projects. One faculty member told me afterwards that she’d developed her ideas for an upcoming conference paper, and the college dean, who I didn’t realize was there, said she felt this assignment could be adapted for her biology students. I knew then that the lesson had been a success.
Because you might not be speaking to students or hiring committee members who share your passion for your own specialty, realize that the content of your lesson is much less important than you might expect. No one likes a show-off, but at the same time that’s what you’re being asked to do-to show off your teaching skills. Notice I specified skills and not knowledge. Your c.v. tells your areas of specialty, how long you’ve taught and which courses, but only your actual teaching shows how that experience translates in the classroom.
The general writing and revising prompts I used in sample classrooms were designed to demonstrate flexible application to many courses, so I made the point of describing how each activity could translate to reflective writing about a short story or a research paper, etc. You can’t rely on your activities to speak for you; you must show your audience what they’re to gain from it. This is especially true with creative activities where non-creative writing teachers may think the exercise is fun but wonder what the educational value is. I started each of my teaching demonstrations by stating what we were going to do and why. Then I’d remind the audience of what they were learning by pointing out how each step of the exercise illustrated or expanded on my lesson’s goals. I also called for volunteers to share their work, making sure to ask their names first as a subtle, but important, message that I wanted to know my students.
Actually demonstrating experience is in part intangible; sometimes it’s assumed by the confidence you bring to your classroom, but you can remind the students and faculty of your teaching experience by the way you talk with students. Liz Ahl, a poet interviewing during last year’s job market, explains of her own experience, "In one class, I tried something I’d never tried in this particular way before, and told the students this. It was something I had wanted to try with my students, and a variation on something I had done with them before, but after reading about the theme and content of this class I was visiting, it seemed an appropriate place to give this a spin." By explaining to the students that she was trying something new, Ahl managed to simultaneously show her flexibility and innovation and gain the students’ trust that she was open to working with them in many ways. Further, she demonstrated experience as a teacher by speaking of previous classes and showing that she was seasoned enough to take a risk. She was offered the job.
Prepare, But Keep Perspective
It’s never too early to start preparing to give your best possible teaching demonstration. Keep a file of successful interactive writing activities and ask colleagues who you know to be good teachers for more ideas. Then start experimenting with their suggestions in your own classroom. If you haven’t had much experience with evaluation of your teaching, ask a friend or current colleague to sit in your classes to give you feedback.
Simplistic as it seems, the old adage "be yourself" is a golden rule for the on-campus teaching demonstration. If you’re not the buttoned-collar type, don’t be overly formal, despite your dressy interview clothing. If you don’t immediately connect with the students, don’t worry. Bob Cowser, director of creative writing at St. Lawrence University, says, "We look at the candidate’s manner in dealing with students, certainly, taking into account that rapport doesn’t always come instantly. We like energy and ease, though we realize those can be simply matters of temperament." Good professors recognize and appreciate differences of temperament and approach. Those who don’t are not likely to be people with whom you want to spend the next 30 years.
Understand that the right "fit" matters most. Remember that an interview is a two-way process. The way committees respond to your discussions of teaching tells a lot about who they are, whether they’re open to new ideas, and how you fit into their department’s idea of itself.
Getting a particular job does not ride entirely on your teaching demonstration, and your sample classroom doesn’t stand for your whole teaching life. The year I interviewed at a variety of schools, the only university that didn’t make me an offer was the one where I felt the teaching demonstration was the best I’d done. The faculty members were interacting, laughing, and asking intelligent questions, and I was particularly "on" in my observations about their creative exercises. That night, driving to dinner, one of the committee members said earnestly and seriously, "I want you to know that whatever happens with this job, you gave an outstanding teaching demonstration. Everyone enjoyed it." I knew then that my own instincts about the afternoon had been right, but I also suspected that decisions had already been made that had nothing to do with me as a person or teacher. So I took the compliment, the experience, and the rejection letter in good spirit.
View your teaching demonstration then not as an evaluation, but as an opportunity to share your teaching. Bob Cowser affirms this from the point of view of someone who regularly hires writers: "We all come to the demonstration (and the room is usually full of faculty and students) hoping not only to decide on a new hire but also to learn something about teaching." Envision your audience as a group of interested students wanting to learn from you. There’s truth to thinking this way, and you’re likely to feel more confident and comfortable among those strangers who may, because of your attitude, want to become lifelong colleagues.
Chauna Craig is an assistant professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.