Surviving the Teaching Demonstration
James M. Lang | January 2006
When Mike Land earned his PhD in English with an emphasis in creative writing from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1999, he went on eight on-campus job interviews over the course of two job-hunting seasons. He knew, from his graduate training and from the interviews he had observed for positions in the department at Missouri, that he would be expected to have a job talk to impress his potential future colleagues at on-campus interviews, one that presented either his literary research or his creative work.
He gave versions of that talk at only two of his eight on-campus interviews. Instead, on his interviews with mostly small liberal arts colleges, Land found himself preparing for a different task, one that called on completely different skills, and produced a much higher level of anxiety than the standard campus-interview job talk: the teaching demonstration.
Asking potential candidates to give brief demonstrations of their teaching practices, either by having them teach a session of an existing class or by asking them to prepare a sample lesson plan for a "class" of volunteer students and faculty, has become a routine part of many on-campus job interviews at colleges and universities-especially at liberal arts colleges and comprehensive universities that place a high priority on keeping tenure-track and tenured faculty in the classroom.
And while job seekers may feel stress at the thought of having to present their research or writing to a room full of professional thinkers and experts in their field, those stress levels can rise even further at the thought of having to teach students whom they know nothing about, may never see again, and yet who may help make or break their interview experience-and their job candidacy.
The range of situations that Mike Land faced in his teaching demonstrations helps explain why they can produce such anxiety, and indicates how important forethought and careful preparation for this aspect of the on-campus job interview can be.
At a mid-sized college in Ohio, Land spoke to faculty about how he would respond to a group of student poems he had been given. In Georgia he taught a session of a fiction writing course, workshopping a student’s story. In Pennsylvania he was told he would be assigned the task of teaching Kate Chopin’s "The Story of an Hour," a two-page work of fiction. He prepared for the task, but then arrived to find that he would be teaching a class of students who had already spent two class sessions discussing the story.
When he came to Assumption College, in central Massachusetts, where he had been given the opportunity to choose a text he would teach to a group of faculty and volunteer students from the English department, he arrived in a snowstorm which had wreaked havoc with the campus mail system. Shortly after he arrived he discovered that the advanced reading he had sent along for his "class" had been deposited by the FedEx man in the campus maintenance shed.
So he winged it. He winged it very well, apparently, since he ended up with a job offer-and two other job offers, beside the one he took at Assumption. But at Assumption, as at most of the campuses where he did teaching interviews, Land expressed his main anxiety as stemming from uncertainty about what his potential colleagues really wanted to see.
"Were departments completely serious," he wondered, "when they said the students were the only audience, meaning that I should focus on a simple pedagogical goal that was easily attained and showed off my ability to interact with students, at the risk of appearing intellectually slight?
"Or was the real audience the professors, who were going to hold it against me if I didn’t pander to them by trying to unpack something extremely complex, even if there was a higher risk of not connecting with the students?"
In most cases, Land erred on the side of teaching plans that fostered interaction with students, figuring that institutions that asked for teaching demonstrations wanted teachers who could interact effectively with students, rather than simply deliver lectures.
James Barilla, who graduated from UC Davis in 2004 with a PhD in English literature, made the same gamble in his teaching demonstration. Barilla went on the market in the fall of 2004 while he was in a one-year postdoctoral position at Davis. His wife was expecting their first child, though, at around the time of the MLA convention in late December, so he was uncertain whether he should commit to any convention interviews.
Fortunately, Lake Forest College, just north of Chicago, was running an early search for a position that sought specialties in both a literary field and in creative nonfiction writing, with campus interviews to be held in late November. Barilla had written a dissertation about nature writing among Native Americans, and had also been working on a book-length piece of creative nonfiction, so he applied.
The English department at Lake Forest liked what they saw in Barilla, and invited him for a campus interview, where he would be required to conduct two separate teaching demonstrations: one in a class in which he would teach a piece of literature he had selected, and one in a creative writing class.
To make matters more complicated, he would be teaching on the last day of the course in both cases-one of which, the literature course, had seen a series of guests take over the course in the final weeks after the regular professor went on maternity leave.
"Obviously," Barilla says, "the final day of class is not the best moment for the students; they’re tearing out their hair because exams are coming in two days."
Fortunately for Barilla, the department had made it clear to him in the initial interview that they were looking for a candidate who could move outside conventional teaching strategies, and bring a pedagogical spark to their creative writing courses.
So he went interactive. In his creative writing demo, he gave the students a short nonfiction essay and introduced them to the mosaic approach towards composing a nonfiction essay-approaching a topic in a non-linear fashion, with separate sections offering multiple perspectives and linked narratives. He then put the students in pairs, gave each pair an extra essay and some scissors, and asked them to cut up the essay and recompose it as a mosaic, seeing what new possibilities they could find through experimenting with the structure.
His experiment worked, both psychologically and professionally.
"It was good to get in there and do something hands-on, and not have to speak the whole time," he says. "The students participated, and seemed to enjoy the experiment."
And, like Land, Barilla got the job.
Their experiences provide a couple of initial, basic pointers for any candidate who has been scheduled for a teaching demonstration.
First, expect the unexpected. Don’t rely on anyone having read the texts you sent in advance; don’t rely on the powerpoint to be functioning; don’t rely on the hope that you’ll catch students on a good day.
Plan on teaching a brief enough work of literature or writing-a poem, a one or two-page short story or essay, a single scene from a play-that students and faculty observers can read at the beginning of your session, without expending more than five minutes. Have copies of the text with you, and e-mail it to yourself as well, so you can pick it up at a computer on campus if you have to.
Second, find out as much as you can about the people whom you will be addressing, and about what they expect. Will it be both students and faculty? Will it be an actual class or a mock class composed of student volunteers? Will those volunteers be majors? Will the faculty be willing to perform a writing task or participate in a discussion, or will they simply want to observe? The more information you can glean from the chair, when you are invited for the interview, the better off you will be in the demonstration.
But the more substantial point that both their experiences convey stems from the fact that almost any department that asks for a teaching demonstration places a high value on teaching-and that you are more likely to be rewarded in such a departmental culture for interaction with the students than you are for presenting a perfectly constructed lecture.
As daunting and anxiety-ridden a challenge as it may seem, in other words, you should incorporate into your demonstration the opportunity for discussion, or argument, or group work, or writing, or any other form of student interaction with which you are comfortable. Planning such a component in a demonstration is daunting and anxiety-ridden for the same reason it is in the real classroom: you are giving up your control on the experience at that moment, and you won’t be able to predict how they’ll respond.
But-and here I want to turn to the perspective of the faculty members who are observing a candidate, including myself-at least we know you have tried.
When I joined Mike Land on the faculty at Assumption the fall after we both gave our teaching demonstrations in 2000, I was plunged immediately back into the job-hunting process as a search committee member for a position in 18th-century literature.
We asked our three job candidates for the position to offer teaching demonstrations, just as Mike and I had offered them the year before. I watched two of those demonstrations, and they were instrumental in determining which of the two excellent candidates would earn my vote.
Both candidates passed out a brief literary text to our volunteer students and to my colleagues, a text that they paired with a visual image from the 18th century. Both made good decisions there. Both also had made space for students to analyze those images in a brief discussion, in light of that written text-also good decisions.
But one candidate, instead of asking real questions, played "Guess what’s in my head?" with the students, asking questions which had right or wrong answers, and which-when the right answer had been given-advanced his lesson plan. The other asked real questions, responded to them on the spot, and allowed their responses to shape her lesson. It was a little messier, a little less well-constructed-and a lot more of what I thought an interactive experience with students ought to be.
So she got the job. It wasn’t the only reason, but it did contribute to my decision to vote for her.
Pam Johnston, an assistant professor of English at Texan Lutheran University, has also seen demonstrations that made or broke candidates. "In more than one instance," she notes of her experiences viewing demos and voting on candidates, "the teaching demo has been the deciding factor."
Johnston offers one point to the list of practical tips outlined thus far: don’t select texts for the demonstration that are likely to provoke controversy with faculty members, either due to quality or content. In one teaching demonstration she gave, when she was on the market a few years back, she taught a passage from a recently released work of nonfiction that had stirred up quite a bit of press-both positive and negative. Instead of talking to her about strategies in teaching the book, several faculty members quarreled with her about her choice of text.
"If I were doing a demo now," she says. "I’d probably make a more conservative choice, maybe with a more canonical author."
When you have the job, and are safely within the confines of the academic freedom that a faculty position offers, shake up the students and the institution with the radical and groundbreaking texts you will teach; in a teaching demonstration, stick with material that will allow you, and your potential colleagues, to focus on your teaching strategies, not your choice of texts.
So when you are first asked to give a teaching demonstration in a campus interview, remember the practical points first:
- Rely on nothing but what you carry in (and carry it with you in your carry-on luggage), and what you can provide to your audience in the first five minutes of your demonstration.
- Ask as many questions as you can about the format, the audience, and the teaching practices and expectations of the department.
- If your audience will include students, make space in your demonstration for them to contribute to the lesson in some way. If your audience will be faculty only, ask whether or not they will participate, or just want to observe.
- If you have the opportunity to select texts for the demonstration, choose canonical works that will keep the focus on your teaching strategy, not on the text.
But don’t neglect the most important lesson: be creative; be interactive; be willing to let the students’ contributions shape your lesson; be willing to do a little improvising, even if you ultimately know the place you want the lesson to finish. Let a little mess in.
In other words-the most important thing to do in your teaching demonstration?
Be a teacher.
James M. Lang is the author of Life on the Tenure Track: Lessons from the First Year (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), a memoir and advice book for new faculty. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.