Monday, April 14, 2008

You're Fading Out, Can't Hear What You Say

Okay, it looks like I'm coming a little late to the discussion, but the big kids are talking about how sell yourself to teaching oriented schools. This was a total fucking gong show in my department last year, since the placement committee, the dynamic duo of the Old World Septuagenarian and Evil Columbo, seemed to have only the vaguest inkling that those schools even existed. What goes in a good teaching portfolio? What questions do teaching schools ask in interviews that research schools don't? For me and my office mates, these were inscrutable mysteries.*

The thing is, it turns out it's actually really hard to answer these questions. Let me try to explain why. Check out this advice from Ken, a commentor in Leiter's thread:
Candidates should show some understanding of what the teaching-emphasis job is like, an interest in doing it, and the ability to do it. I don't have stock questions I ask to probe for this, so I don't have stock answers or “things to say” to get through this.
Right. What I want to do is show understanding and enthusiasm for a teaching job. I can do enthusiasm no problem. The problem is, I have no understanding of teaching jobs, and neither do any of the senior profs in my department. Ask senior faculty about this stuff and, as Sisyphus once put it, you get that confused puppy, head cocked to one side "Aroo?" look. They're as in the dark as I am. So how are we supposed to figure out what to convey in my application package? How are we supposed to figure out how to prep for an interview?

I don't mean this as a knock at Ken. Like he says, there are no stock answers here, so what can you do? But that just means we're sort of fucked trying to figure this shit out.


*Actually, the teaching portfolio question is still an inscrutable mystery. I'm giving myself another two weeks to figure it out before I go all Colin McGinn on your asses and declare the puny human mind too feeble to understand what goes in a good teaching portfolio.


Anonymous said...

For those of us who did our undergrad at teaching institutions: think back to how professors then differed from your professors now. Some of the differences won't help--e.g. they probably weren't as smart--but some might.

Anonymous said...

well, part of why Ken et al. don't have a snappy answer, is because they would like to be able to distinguish good undergraduate teachers from not so good undergraduate teachers.

but the ability to memorize a snappy answer is pretty evenly shared by all philosophy grad students, both those who have some talent for teaching, and those who should never be allowed in the same room with a non-philosopher.

so if there was a snappy answer, and Ken revealed it, then all of us would memorize it. and then next year, ken would hear that snappy answer repeated by some good teachers and a lot of bad teachers, and his job of trying to tell the two apart would be that much harder.

to some extent this has already happened with teaching evals. their diagnostic value has gone down as applicants have learned how to rig and distort the outcomes. so then the Kens of the world will have to search for new markers of teaching quality.

i wish i could say: the best way to seem like the right person is to be the right person.
but i'm not sure it's true.
or any truer than it's opposite, which is that the crucial thing is sincerity, and once you can fake that you've got it made.

Anonymous said...

There's the old adage one hear's often regarding such things as teaching portfolios: "Don't give them anything they didn't ask for. If they wanted to see it, they'd ask for it."

When applying for jobs, I did take this adage seriously. So when it was asked to demonstrate "teaching excellence" or some such, I normally included a brief sample of comments from my teaching evaluations (one page, max), a letter from the "Teaching Mentor" in our department, and a Statement of Teaching Philosophy. It worked for me. I've been hired at a teaching-oriented university, and I'm not from the Leiter-elite.

Should one also send sample syllabi? In line with the above anecdote, I did not. However, if you've a syllabus that really demonstrates initiative, creativity, etc., on your part in the realm of teaching, I'd say to go ahead and send it.

One other note: never hurts to emphasize your interest in getting undergrads excited about philosophy in your cover letter, either. Might warrant a second look by the SC.

Anonymous said...

Here's an alternative for the Kens out there: if you've got one TT position to fill, hire five PhDs and over the summer have them prepare syllabi for all their fall courses, and class outlines the first two weeks of the semester; then have them teach that two weeks of material to all the standing faculty during the third week of August. Select the person you like best and let the other four go. Works in the NFL, and it can't be any more demeaning or explotative than the shit we go through now.

Anonymous said...

As someone who took a break from academics to work before entering grad school, and have since landed a tt job with a PhD from a mid-tier school, I have to say that one reason people find it difficult to get a job is that they expect to be told what to do and their hand held through the entire process and when there is no road map they freak. Some out-of-academic experience is beneficial in this respect. Where you learn that you are responsible for you as no one else is concerned for your professional well-being. Just use some common sense and get through it. I assume that being a philosopher one knows how to read people and situations. If you do not have that ability then the job market is a cold place.

Anonymous said...

My own experience, at least, is that it's a mistake to think of it in terms of a "snappy answer."

I'm currently in my 4th year on the TT at a SLAC (3/2 load, typical class maybe 18-22 students, generally smart and interesting undergrads). During grad school, I knew I wanted to be at a place like this, so I went out of my way to do the kinds of things that would make me marketable to these kinds of places. I sought out the opportunity to teach as many different classes as possible (4 total, as instructor of record) rather than hanging on as a TA for as long as possible and then trying to repeat the same class over and over again. I tried to take advantage of seminars, workshops, and other developmental stuff at the university. I tried to organize discussion sessions with other grad students about teaching. This all gave me stuff to talk about when I was writing cover letters for targeted SLACs, putting together a teaching portfolio, etc.

So, yes, at interviews at the APA and on campus, I could talk with sincerity about all of those hokey things in a classroom that make teaching so much fun. And I suppose that part of the snappy answer can in principle be faked, if you can fake sincerity. But I'm not sure you get to that stage of the process by faking sincerity. Somewhere in your record, there's got to be some meat.

And yes, what this means is that there is indeed a dark side to grad programs with lots of money who can shelter you from teaching your own classes (through RAs, fellowships, promises to keep you as a TA the whole way through, etc.). But if you go through a program like that, knowing you want to market yourself to a teaching college down the road, and get to the end not ever giving much thought to how marketable you'll be once the defense is done and you're out on your own... well, look, at that point, the adjunct path ought to be seen as an opportunity to rectify your own short-sightedness.

And maybe our programs all ought to do a better job, somewhere early in year 3, of forcing us to think about this. Maybe they ought to say: look, there's different types of jobs out there, and the choices you make now will impact how you look to them down the road. But we all know the faculty at our grad schools by and large never did that themselves, because the research path was always a given.

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:33,

The problem isn't wanting someone to hold our hands, to tell us what to include in our applications. The problem is that there are so many contrary opinions about what should be included, opinions that are held with near dogmatism. For example: "Well, yes, that cover letter should be well-developed and speak specifically to our department, etc, etc, or I'll throw that fucker out" VS. "No, I don't read the cover letters." (I know it doesn't hurt then to write all long cover letters, but it's time consuming if most SCs don't want it.) Same goes for the topic at hand: none, some, all student comments. Include all of them (bad with the good), then you risk looking mediocre to those SC members who wonder why the fuck you put negative comments about yourself. Include only the good ones, then you risk SC members who think you're selecting only the good ones so you must have something to hide. Include none, then you risk not providing "evidence of teaching excellence"

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:33 here in reference to 9:14. That's my point. If you are being led astray by something by people and keep going back to the same type of sources rather than learning on your own, you are looking for hand holding. My other inclination is that if you have to ask how to "pitch yourself" then you obviously aren't going to fit in there. Like first date advice, be yourself! If that doesn't work, then perhaps you don't fit there. In general terms, if they ask for it include it, if they don't then don't. Common sense. If you think they want more but are being coy, then include more and see how that works out for you. If you are uncertain, then call the department you are applying for. There, that's as good as my hand holding gets. Sooner or later we all have to strike (it) out on our own.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:09,

Anon 9:14 here. It's not that I don't have a fair sense of how to put myself out there without hand holding. But in this case, the "sources" are the whims of the SC members. Going in to the process, I thought there were fairly standard protoccols of what to include & not include in an application. (This is a facet of every job market, in and out of academia. There are minimal expectations of what is involved.) I thought these were uniform across departments. When departments wanted more (or less, like no writing sample), this was noted in the ad. Now it turns out that for at least a few SC members, what was *intended* in a request for certain kinds of material varied. Evidence of "teaching excellence" means different things to different people. It turns out that the "it" an ad is asking for is not clear from the ad. They may not explicitly ask for "it" but assume that you'd send it anyway because *they* take it for granted that any applicant for assume that it was a given. Well, sending ALL my student written comments (not bubbled evaluation sheets) is not something I took for granted. Now someone says they look for that. Maybe your point is to say, "Well, screw them, they should've asked explicitly". But it's my loss, not theirs, supply and demand and all that.

I don't need any hand holding. I'm not worried about trying to "pitch" myself to a department. I simply want to know what they want me to include. That's not hand holding. They want item X, but don't say because they assume you take it as the norm, when, in fact, it's not.The SC members *are* the source. It's called communication.

What else is there to go to? You say, strike out, use common sense. I'm afraid it's in short supply on all sides here. It's also not a matter of "learning" what to include or omit *as a general rule* because it's looking like there are quite a few idiosyncratic wishes out there. This isn't something I can "learn on my own" other than learning what each and every SC of each and every department posting an ad wants.

Your suggestion about contacting each department would solve that, but it's rather time consuming. Perhaps it's worth it for those positions one would really really like to get, but it's a waste. You'd have to email each SC member of each department, you see.

Anonymous said...

To Anon. 10:58,

I think we have been talking past each other. Your point as to SC not disclosing all the material they want to see in an ad. (and thus creating an unfair competitive advantage for those with an inside read on the search)is not what I was referring to. I apologize if you felt I was directly attacking you. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:03,

I didn't think you were attacking me. But I'm also not sure that we're talking past each other. In fact, I'm not all that sure I'm right about this. You're right about avoiding the hand-holding request for exact specification. I'm just mad, I guess, because I've thrown out all the negative comments (well, what few there were) from all my classes. Now the good ones, ones that do actually specify *reasons* for why I'm a good teacher (at least, have good aspects), are all that I have left. Of course, I always thought these were next-to-useless for SC members for the very reason being mentioned. But now I'm beginning to worry that they are positively detrimental to my overall application. I didn't have a good year on the job market despite having a good publication and PhD in hand. I've been looking for anything that I can change next time 'round. Excising the comments may be one thing. I was beginning to blame my stupid teaching statement, so maybe someone should suggest that as the next Leiter thread.

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem here is that we are all so trained in a "take whatever we can get" mentality, that we are unlikely to reflect on what sort of position we'd really want - which leads to the sort of desperation involved in the very asking of questions like "how to prepare for an interview at a teaching job". My advice is that people really take some time to think about what they'd want, and why they'd want that. I suspect if people actually undertook this thought process, many would find themselves actually drawn to a teaching job, and, moreover, this process itself is probably better preparation than trying to find any sort of stock answers to typical questions.

Anonymous said...

It's the arrogance behind remarks like anonymous' "they probably weren't as smart" that's going to ensure that most of those on the job market aren't going to find a position. Let's face it, everyone believes that they're "smart" enough for a position at a top research school. Irrespective of this sort of delusion, however, it takes more than being "smart" to get a job at a research school, regardless of its ranking. It takes being connected, it takes doing the "right" sort of philosophy in the right sort of way, it takes having people like Leiter on your side and so on and so on. Some have all of those things; some of those are deserving, some are not. But most don't have those things. And so they end up looking at "teaching institutions" and they do so with the smugness that underlies anonymous' remark. If people stopped being so breathtakingly arrogant about themselves, they might get somewhere and find out, perhaps, that these are jobs worth having. (For the record: I teach at a research school that, although not Leiterific, is at least Leiterable.)

Anonymous said...

It's the arrogance behind remarks like anonymous' "they probably weren't as smart" that's going to ensure that most of those on the job market aren't going to find a position.

Yes, brilliant. The number of people on the job market who would find a position would certainly go up if folks weren't so arrogant. Right now, lots of jobs are going to people who aren't on the job market. And decreasing arrogance would increase the number of jobs, too.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why someone who has literally "no understanding of teaching jobs" would think it appropriate to apply for such jobs. Could it be that you're exaggerating? Or maybe you think that it could just turn out that you're qualified, but you have no idea what the qualifications are? Or maybe you know you're qualified but you don't know what to say to them to let them know you're qualified? It's all a bit mysterious....

Anonymous said...

To anonymous April 17, 2008 4:54 AM:

Obviously that's exactly what I meant. Brilliant. Thank you so much for pointing out the error of my ways.

Regardless of the rather haphazard way I put it, though, my point still stands. My evidence? Perhaps anecdotal, but being on three search committees in two years gives you some sense of how things look.

KateNorlock said...

[Imagine roaring voice here:] Whaddaya mean, you're sorta fucked trying to figure this shit out? Didn't you read the comments in response to Leiter's original post? My comment was awesomely instructive, I mean I really kicked ASS! :-) Damn it, read the answers. Poop. I am SO underappreciated, she said with an eyeroll.

I am one of the SC members who has the information as to what to include in your applications, and the answers include GOOD sample syllabi, your best possible writing sample (rather than "the published one" or "the diss excerpt", per se), and awareness of the existence of undergraduates.

By the way, I adore the community college teacher who noted that job talkers from the most highly ranked programs frequently act like they're doing you a favor by applying there at all. Hoot!