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The Teaching Demonstration: What Search Committees should Do

February 9, 2014

I am currently involved in three faculty searches in my department so I have the academic job search on my mind…in spades.

At a liberal arts college, there is a lot of stress placed on teaching and this is notoriously one of the weakest portions of everyone’s interview (at our college).

Part of the reason is that the “teaching demonstration” is a contrived exercise that search committees, including almost every one I have been on, have been terrible at making more realistic. You are “teaching” a group of students and faculty a topic that may or may not have been chosen arbitrarily and you have no previous experience with your “class”. You have no idea what their experience is or what may have come before in the “course” that this teaching demonstration is supposed to simulate. So, once again, we have set an unreasonably impossible task before the job candidate and she must simply deal with it. So…what does a prospective faculty member do?

Generally, you lecture…the teaching default to which all of us return when we don’t know what else to do even though that is exactly what we should not be doing (see an interesting essay about the teaching demonstration based on what members of faculty search committees say they are looking for). You should be demonstrating what are viewed to be the best teaching methods implemented in an effective fashion. But getting away from the lecture model is risky in a new and unknown situation where a lot is riding on your performance. So, what is a job candidate supposed to do? Guess and hope you got it right.

What would be great would be for search committees to do a better job of communicating what they are expecting so I have put together some ideas for search committees to consider.

1. Try to create as realistic an experience as possible. In our most recent search, I sent out detailed instructions about the teaching demonstration. It included the fact that we would be holding the teaching demonstration in an actual class with students at the level they would be expected to be teaching. I even sent a copy of a portion of a courses syllabus schedule showing the day that the prospective faculty member would be teaching as well as the topics covered before that topic and after. In that way, the prospective faculty member knew what the students should be expected to know and what you were teaching towards, just like you would in a real class.

2. Give the prospective faculty member a reasonable teaching task and an appropriate amount of time to get the task accomplished. In the past, at my institution we have given prospective faculty members impossible teaching tasks and small amounts of time (30 minutes) in which to accomplish the task. Our normal classes are 65 minutes. Why would we give someone less time to do the job we are asking them to audition for? Because we did not really think through what we were doing or why we were doing it, which I suspect is true of a lot of search committees.

3. Give the faculty member accurate information about the setting in which they will be teaching and the number of students you can expect to have in the class (note that I have stopped calling it a teaching demonstration). What is the arrangement of the class? What technology are available? Are the desks moveable? Is it a class of 9, 30 or 400 students? The class size can really affect the type of activities that are possible. The prospective faculty member might also be able to adapt something he used for a smaller class to a larger setting (or vice versa) if he knows he needs to. I realize that the teaching demonstration is a test of sorts, but if we can provide a little preparation we can set up people to be successful rather than setting people up for failure. If they then fail (and many will regardless of how well you prepare them), then you know to avoid them.

4. Tell the prospective faculty member who will be doing the evaluation. At our college, faculty and students evaluate the class. We created a customized form for the event. We also let the prospective faculty member how they should treat faculty during the class. Are we part of the class or merely observers? Should we be included or excluded from the activities? This will vary depending on the culture of the college or university.

5. Tell the prospective faculty member what the pedagogical vision for your department is (if you have one). If the prospective faculty member does not share your vision, she will probably not be able to pull off a class that you, your students or your promotion and tenure committee (6 years later) will approve of. If she does share your vision, you have just given her permission to teach the way she normally would anyway rather than having her think she needs to go to a lot of trouble to alter her teaching in a way that is inappropriate to your department.

Note, these are all things the faculty search committee should give to the prospective candidate. Above is a link to an article that tells job candidates how to use this information and prospective faculty members would be wise to consult resources such as that as well as the excellent posts over at Smallpondscience. This site has excellent advice on all aspects of the job search from the prospective faculty member’s perspective.

Some people might think this is a lot of work for a search committee to do for a prospective faculty member. But I am at what I consider to be mid-career and I still envision myself working with this person for the next 20 years. I would rather assess someones ability to perform the job of educating our undergraduates than their ability to guess what we are looking for because this assessment is important at primarily undergraduate institutions and I am hoping we are not going to go through this process again in the next 5-6 years. So it behooves a search committee to do a little extra work (and it isn’t that much) on the front end to make their decision-making the most realistic and most informed that it can be. Of course, it requires that the search committee can answer certain questions about their own expectations but that is a good thing to do in the long term anyway. Using a job search to revisit your department’s pedagogical vision, your future direction in terms of teaching and research, etc. is not a bad thing.

Does what I described above work? We just concluded one of our searches and made an offer and that person accepted (which is why I can write this now). One of my colleagues said to me the other day, “She really nailed the teaching demonstration.” Part of that was that I think the person is a good, well-trained educator as well as a good researcher and I think she will be an asset to our department. But part of that is that we gave her a realistic teaching task, accomplishable in the time we gave her to teach, we placed that teaching task in the context of an actual course, we gave her a real class of students to work with and told her all this before she got to our campus. She might have failed even with all this information but she didn’t. One down and two more to go.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 11, 2014 11:56 am

    Havkng read this I thought it was really informative. I appreciate you spendihg some time and energy to put this information together.
    I once again fjnd myself spending way too much time both reading and
    leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it!

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