Talking about Teaching as a Job Candidate
James Lang | March 2008
You don’t have to be a brilliant teacher to get a faculty job this year—you don’t need to have taught dozens of courses, or won teaching awards, or sent students on to win literary prizes and competitions. Even if you have done these things, and you are the most brilliant teacher ever to have danced through the groves of academe, that still won’t guarantee you a job.
To get a teaching position in higher education, you need something much simpler: you need to know how to talk about teaching.
This might seem unjust, but it can’t be helped. Evaluating the effectiveness of a teacher requires lots of information, time, and thought—none of which, in the crush of the semester, a search committee has to expend on your application. They will not see how you can inspire students over the course of a fifteen-week semester, or the brilliant lesson plans you designed in order to inspire students to heights of literary brilliance, or even your easy and caring mannerisms in the classroom.
If you get lucky and land a campus interview, they might see how you conduct a 45-minute class in a teaching demonstration. But even in this situation they will be perfectly aware, as I always am, that the teaching demonstration is a highly artificial construction, one in which we can only learn a limited amount of information about how you teach. Primarily, we learn how well you handle yourself under pressure—certainly a skill that faculty members need, as you’ll find out when a Dean stops you on campus during your first year and asks you to serve on some ghastly, time-intensive committee, like the one recently formed at my college to overhaul our general education requirements. The pressure to come up with a legitimate excuse at such moments can be intense.
Instead, what search committees will see (and hear), and will mostly use to make judgments about you as a teacher, is how you talk about teaching—how you talk about it in your cover letter, how you describe it in your statement of teaching philosophy, and how you discuss it in interviews.
I’ve served on a half-dozen search committees in my eight years on the faculty, and in doing so have encountered every kind of talk about teaching you can imagine, from generic, throwaway comments about loving the classroom to fascinating accounts of pedagogical experiments that worked or went awry. These days, when I read job applications for future colleagues of mine (as I’m doing at the moment), or as I listen to them at the MLA convention or during their campus interviews, I’ve learned to watch for and listen to candidates who know how to write and talk about teaching in four essential ways.
Harness the Power of Narrative
I shouldn’t have to convince any reader of this job list that, in just about every area of life, stories beat exposition. In the cover letter and even the statement of teaching philosophy (which many colleges require for interviews), job candidates have only the briefest space in which to describe their teaching philosophy and practices. Far too many candidates throw up their hands at these space limitations, and settle for generic statements that every teacher in the world would endorse—“I am passionate about the classroom;” “I treat my students with respect;” “I set high standards and help student to meet them;” and “I love teaching!”
All great, and ideally true, but all are also statements that do nothing to separate you from the fifty other candidates that wrote the same into their cover letters. Don’t be generic, and don’t limit yourself to these kinds of abstract statements about teaching or students.
Be specific. Tell me a story. Describe for me the brilliant idea you have about how to teach students to revise, or the metaphor you use to help students see their writing in a new way, or the experiment you’re trying this semester to push yourself and your students in new directions. When I am reading your cover letter, or your statement of teaching philosophy, I want to know what you’re doing in the classroom, as well as how you see yourself as a teacher. I want to see you in there being passionate, experimenting, mixing it up, rather than just hearing you tell me that you’re passionate.
In the single paragraph you might devote to teaching in a cover letter, you might have to limit your story to the space of a few sentences. Of course, the story won’t be enough; you still need a few words about how you see yourself as a teacher, and those will necessarily tend toward abstraction. That’s fine. But connect those abstractions to your story—describe for me how your story highlights what makes you stand out as a teacher. What does it tell me about you and your classroom?
In the more expansive space of a statement of teaching philosophy or an interview, you have more room for your stories. Tell me what your classroom looks like—don’t tell me that you use innovative assignments, or that you teach by discussion. Describe an assignment; walk me through the steps you take to set up and conduct a great discussion, and tell me about the best discussion you have ever conducted. Why did it work? How have you tried to replicate it?
You can even tell me about a technique you tried that didn’t work; believe me, we all try techniques that don’t work. I would rather hear a story of failure, and your reflections on it, than one more meaningless statement about your total dedication to your students.
Focus on Learning, Not Teaching
Although some teachers hate to acknowledge this, teaching will always carry some elements of performance to it. Some teachers rely exclusively on performance, lecturing from start to finish; most of us spend less time up on stage, hoping to give our students some of the time in the spotlight, whether we do that through discussions, group work, or some other pedagogical strategy. But no matter how much we like to de-center our classrooms, we still manage the stage, and we are ultimately responsible for what happens there.
With that said, too much focus on the teacher, in your talk about teaching, tells me that you haven’t thought about what teachers do: we help students learn. So what we do, in the end, matters far less than what the students do—or don’t do, as the case may be. Your task, when you talk to me about teaching, should be to convince me that you inspire students to great heights of learning.
Practically, this might translate into a few talking strategies. First, don’t start every sentence with “I,” focusing on your role in the process: “I lead students to new places in their writing;” “I focus on revision,” etc. Start with your students: “Students in my course revise their work multiple times before it receives a grade;” “Students leave my seminars with a greater awareness of the interplay between traditional poetic forms and modern verse.” Tell me what they do as well as what you do.
Second, my experience, admittedly limited, has suggested to me that applicants who seem more grounded in the literature on teaching and learning in higher education put greater emphasis on learning than teaching. When an applicant demonstrates familiarity with either the classic texts in the field of teaching or learning, or with more specific writing on the teaching of literature and creative writing, I take notice of that.
Become familiar with some of the literature on pedagogy in your area, and let us know that you take an interest in what other teachers are thinking and writing about the teaching-learning transaction. I don’t care if you refer to Peter Elbow’s classic texts on the teaching of writing, or if you cite a recent article from College English. I want to know that you see the teaching and learning process as one worth thinking about, worth studying in more depth than you might get from discussing it with your office mates after a bad class.
You don’t have to pass yourself off as an educational expert; the literature and research on teaching and learning in higher education is vast and growing, and it is impossible to stay ahead of it these days. Just show me that you’re informed and interested.
For general books on teaching and learning, you can’t go wrong with texts like Wilbert McKeachie’s Teaching Tips or Ken Bain’s What the Best Teachers Do. Both are excellent, and very readable—you won’t need a degree in educational theory to understand them. For the teaching of writing, start with Elbow, if you haven’t encountered him already. Writing without Teachers, a classic in the field of teaching writing, deserves its status, and should engage you enough in the topic to encourage you into further reading.
A simpler and less time-intensive way to stay informed on new developments in teaching is to subscribe to the Tomorrow’s Professor listserv, which e-mails its subscribers two postings a week on recent developments in teaching, learning, and surviving higher education. Visit http://ctl.stanford.edu/Tomprof/index.shtml to subscribe and to read any of the previous postings (close to 1,000 of them, indexed by subject).
Link Teaching and Writing
When we are reviewing cover letters and CVs for a new position, one of the first questions we ask about each applicant is whether we think they really want to teach. Some applicants, after all, mostly want to write; teaching is a necessary evil that they will endure in order to provide them income while they toil away at their verse epic about the invention of the sandwich. We can usually spot those applicants, and we usually drop their material right in the reject pile, no matter how brilliant their writing may be, or how shiny their credentials are.
If you count yourself in that category of applicant, we are not passing judgment on you. After all, without you, those of us who teach literature courses wouldn’t have anything to teach. But we know, perhaps more clearly than you do, how much of your time and energy teaching will take—whether you are teaching four or two classes per semester. If you will become one of those teachers who resent those expenditures of time and energy, we don’t want you. Either you’ll be constantly in search of greener pastures, looking for lower teaching responsibilities, or you’ll do your job poorly, in which case the tenure process will send you in search of greener pastures against your will.
At the same time, even at institutions like mine, where faculty teach seven courses per year, we want to know that you are committed to your writing. You have to write and publish here to get tenure, and I believe, as I know many of my colleagues do, that teachers of writing should write. I know that the semesters when I am working on a book project, and teaching my creative nonfiction seminar, are better ones than when I am not working on anything new—better for me as a writer, and better for me as a teacher.
So how do you portray yourself as both a writer and a teacher? Bind the roles together. Demonstrate to us that your writing and teaching are intertwined, that your writing projects inform your teaching philosophy and practices, or that your teaching inspires you to write. If we can see that both teaching and writing shape your professional aspirations, it will at least ensure that you get past the first screen we use to filter out applicants who don’t seem like a good fit for us.
I can’t give you a formula for how to do this—but you’re a writer, right? Be creative. Stories might do the trick here as well. Describe for us, for example, an instance in which your writing inspired you to some new classroom technique, or detail how your teaching has improved your writing.
My own experiences in writing freelance essays for newspapers and magazines have taught me the precious value of each inch of column space you are given—and how quickly those inches can be taken away from you. This used to annoy me, until I discovered that those articles that had to be shortened up for space considerations often ended up as my strongest pieces of writing. So in my creative nonfiction seminar, I routinely ask students to cut 25, 50, or 100 words from their essays just before they turn them in, after they think they are done revising.
You may not even be conscious of them, but if you have had light-bulb moments like these about the writing process, and can think of how they informed both your writing and teaching, talk about them.
Gauge Your Audience
If you are applying for faculty positions at research universities, where you might find yourself teaching just a course or two per semester, how you talk about teaching will not carry the same weight as it will if you were applying to teach at an institution like mine—a liberal arts college which carries a teaching load of seven courses per year, three in one semester and four in the next. Depending upon the amount of teaching duties you would be asked to fulfill in a position for which you are applying, you might need to adjust the amount of time and energy you spend talking about teaching for each application you submit.
You can usually judge the emphasis that the institution will place on teaching by the course load they will assign to you, usually given in the form of two numbers, corresponding to the number of courses you would teach each semester in a two-semester year. I teach a 3/4 load; faculty at community colleges frequently will teach 5/5 loads; the lucky denizens of research universities will carry loads more like 2/2 or even 2/1.
Any institution that asks you to teach 3/4 or above will base its evaluation of your application, as well as your tenure and promotion cases, primarily on your teaching effectiveness. Institutions with course loads in the 3/3 or 3/2 range will base their evaluation of you more on the research side, but will still expect substantial dedication to your courses and your students. Loads of 2/2 or lower mean high expectations for scholarship or creative output, with teaching a secondary consideration—not unimportant, but secondary. No matter how brilliant a teacher you might be, you won’t get hired, much less tenured or promoted, at such institutions on the strength of your pedagogy.
In practical terms, your ability to gauge the audience of your search committee, based on the course load (and if it’s not posted, don’t hesitate to ask), should determine how you structure your letter of application. If you are applying to a teaching-focused institution, don’t spend the first three paragraphs of your application letter describing your dissertation or most recent novel. Start with your teaching paragraph, and work your way from there into your research.
Conversely, an application letter to an Ivy League University should reserve your paragraph on teaching for the latter half of the letter. Introduce yourself to the committee by describing the work the writing you have done and still plan to do, and only then address your teaching.
In interviews, of course, let the questioners direct you. If they want to talk about your teaching, let ‘em have it. If not, don’t throw it in their faces. The division of their questions, between those that focus on teaching and those that focus on research, will give you a clearer sense of how much teaching matters at their institution.
But whether talk about teaching will form the bulk of your application materials and interview time (as it would for a position at my institution), or will serve as second fiddle to talk about your writing or research (as it would at a research university), you still need to talk about teaching well.
If you can manage this, I can assure you that you will set yourself apart from your fellow applicants. At the time of this writing, I’m wading through dozens of applications for a position in our department. Their talk about teaching, so much of it generic and repetitive, blends together into an endless pastiche of statements about writing as a process, the importance of revision, and students finding their own voices while still learning the importance of understanding the conventions of written English.
I get it, I get it. You and the rest of the world.
Tell me a story. Give me some details. Do your research. Gauge your audience.
I know you do this stuff when you’re writing your stories, poems, plays, and essays. And if you’re like me, you hammer away at these same lessons with your students.
Remember them when you sit down to write your job application letter, or when you’re preparing for an interview, and talk about teaching in a way that will separate you from the students who haven’t been paying attention in class.
James M. Lang, an associate professor of English at Assumption College in Worcester, MA, is the author of Life on the Tenure Track: Lessons from the First Year (Johns Hopkins UP, 2005), as well as a monthly column on teaching for The Chronicle of Higher Education. His next book, On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching, will be published by Harvard University Press in April of 2008.