Saturday, May 11, 2013

Advice for Teaching Schools

Some job market advice from a search committee member at a teaching-oriented school, on what they are looking for, how to prepare your materials, and how to conduct yourself on the campus visit. 

Applying to a Teaching School

Note: This information is from my experience on a search committee at a 4/4 teaching-oriented school with a small philosophy department of 5-7 full time philosophers and several part-time instructors. Obviously, experiences may vary!

The Process
Since my department is small, the set of tenure-track faculty is identical to the search committee.  Every faculty member looked at every file, and together, we came to a consensus at each step.

1. Initial screening
At the first stage, each faculty member, independently, gave the file an initial reading, determined the applicant’s AOS/AOC, and made some brief comments.  Although the idea was not to eliminate candidates, that was the result – in the initial screening, probably about 150 of the 250+ candidates were eliminated.
2. Second look
At the second stage, we met and discussed the initial screening.  We converged on about 40 candidates that we all thought deserved serious consideration.
3. Choosing people to interview
At the third stage, we carefully went through the 40 or so files that were left, looking for both qualifiers and disqualifiers.  From this, we selected 12 people for first-round interviews.
4. The first interview
As a result of interviews, approximately half of the candidates interviewed were left as our best candidates.
5. The on campus
We invited three people to campus. Any of them would have been great colleagues – very small differences influenced the final decision.

What we looked for...
A. Stages 1-3: The Application and Dossier

1. Cover Letter
The cover letter generally will not hurt an applicant, but it can help.  At a minimum, the cover letter should tell us what you have taught, what you’d like to teach, and what sort of research you do.  Some applicants received interviews without a tailored cover letter, but all things equal, an application with a tailored cover letter was more likely to make the initial cut – at least into the top 100, if not the top 40.

What kinds of tailoring helped?  Here were a few that made applications stand out. (1) Positive interest in or connection to the geographic region.  (2) Evidence that the applicant has looked at the departmental website.  (3) Evidence that the applicant has some idea about the courses we teach and where his or her teaching interests would fit.

Most applicants were able to write a successful cover letter in 1-2 pages.  Longer cover letters tended to get boring.  Overly braggy cover letters – seemingly  more common among male ABDS vs. females, or male PhDs, are a turn-off and raise questions of “fit”.  So do cover letters that downplay the applicant’s abilities (seemingly more common among female applicants).  Other turn-offs in cover letters included mistakes that could have been corrected with proofreading, such as claiming to be excited about working at a school that is not ours, or working with our PhD students (we do not have a PhD program).

2. The CV
The CV is probably the single most important piece of information that we will get.  It should be clear, complete, and should convey information about education, teaching, and research.  It should have important information in easily accessible locations, and should be believable.

a. Education/experience/AOS/AOC
There were two main problems in this section: (i) candidates failing to mention AOS/AOC, and (ii) candidates with unbelievable AOCs.  Several ABD candidates listed every graduate seminar they had taken as an AOC – which, without further support, is not believable, and also leads to some really bizarre AOCs.

What counts as an AOC at a teaching school?  It may include (i) secondary research interests, verified by lots of coursework with known philosophers, publications/conference presentations, research/editorial experience, and (ii) courses that the candidate has actually taught as the primary instructor.  Other teaching interests are just that – teaching interests – and the candidate would do well to discuss those in his teaching portfolio, rather than making up an unbelievable AOC.

b. Publications
Many candidates had loads of publications, though some candidates advanced through the screening without them.

Publications are kind of a crapshoot at a school like mine.  Some people are publication snobs, and would prefer a couple solid publications or none at all over a bunch of articles in bad journals.  Others might look down on candidates that have several solid publications, for issues of “retention”.  Generally, publications in unknown journals are not helpful or harmful; one or two solid publications are helpful; lots of solid publications indicate that the candidate belongs at a research school.

c. Conference presentations
Teaching schools tend to count peer-reviewed presentations as research, so having a few of these can be helpful.  Presentations at well-respected professional conferences (APA and known specialty conferences) will help a candidate more than presentations at student conferences or conferences we’ve never heard of. 

d. Fellowships/awards
A teaching award can be bonus.

e. Teaching
The candidate should include a list of courses taught as the primary instructor and, if he/she does not have a lot of teaching experience, a list of courses TA-ed.  Really, we are most interested in the courses that one has taught independently.  Candidates that had VAP experience or taught a variety of courses as graduate instructors had a clear advantage.

f. Coursework
A list of graduate coursework, along with instructors, can be used to support an AOC – particularly for ABD/freshly minted candidates that might not have a ton of teaching experience.  (To follow up on a discussion on the Smoker blog, I think that audited courses can help to verify an AOC – but this is controversial.)  For more experienced candidates, coursework is less relevant.  Coursework in X is neither necessary nor sufficient for a believable AOC in X.

3. Research statement/dissertation summary
For a teaching school, research is important – but it’s not nearly as important as the teaching component.  Basically, we want positive answers to the following questions: (1) Can we talk to this person about philosophy? (2) Is this person’s research kind of interesting, given our own interests? (3) Can this person explain his or her research to undergraduates and non-specialists?

Everybody on the committee had a different list of candidates that yielded a positive answer to (2), but there was agreement on (1) and (3).  The research statement should be accessible – it’s fine to have esoteric interests in a niche field that only a dozen other people understand, but one should be able to explain why this field is interesting to other intelligent people.

(2) is where luck begins to play a role: all things equal, a committee will prefer somebody with overlapping but non-identical research interests.  Some candidates had well-explained research interests that nobody on the committee thought were interesting; other candidates overlapped too much with existing faculty, which can be problematic in a small department.

4. Teaching portfolio
The standard seems to be a teaching portfolio, with several main components:

a. Teaching philosophy
This should basically explain some of the methods that are used in the classroom.

b. Student evaluations
This was a source of disagreement among committee members.

Some of us thought it was fine to just have a table listing basic information – course, semester, overall score for the course.  Others wanted to see the *actual* evaluations, including each and every comment that a student ever made about a course.  Personally, I thought that the table was fine – couldn’t we just e-mail the person if we wanted to see the last 1000 student comments?  Others thought that by not including this information, the candidate was trying to hide something. 

The best solution I’ve heard is this: include the basic table in the dossier, and provide a link to actual, complete evaluations somewhere online (Dropbox, Google docs, etc.)

In some cases, teaching evaluations hurt applicants – especially in the final pre-interview stage.  Several applicants with otherwise strong files appeared to have low teaching scores (3/5, 4/6, etc.) – and at a school where teaching matters for tenure, those candidates did not make the final cut.  Of course, nobody expects candidates to have perfect teaching scores – but a pattern of low scores (rather than an anomaly) that does not improve over time signals, to us, that the applicant may have trouble getting tenure and/or needs to gain more experience.

c. Sample syllabi
Sample syllabi should include information about what is taught in the course, as well as evidence that the candidate will do something more than just lecture and give a few exams.  It is popular to give undergraduates lots of smaller assignments throughout the semester.

We expect to see sample syllabi for the candidate’s AOS/AOCs that fit with the job description.  If a candidate really wants a particular job that asks for an AOC outside his or her actual AOC, it can be good to include a sample syllabus for that course, and mention this syllabus in the cover letter.

Some real go-getters had sample syllabi for every course we listed in the AOC.  All things equal, this is probably not worth the candidate’s time – better to finish the dissertation, publish, etc. 

5. Writing sample
For a teaching school, the writing sample should be interesting and accessible – as well as a good piece of writing in the claimed AOS.  Chances are good that not everybody on the committee will read the entire writing sample for every candidate: they will stop when they get bored.

6. Letters
In a few cases, candidates were harmed by bad letters.  *All* letters, it seems, are positive, but some seemed to indicate that the candidate was not especially smart or motivated.

There are some differences of opinion here, but some SC members were worried about letters claiming that a candidate is e.g. the next Kripke.  While good for a research school, these letters raised some issues about...“retention”.

B. Stage 4: The first interview
Each of the 12 semi-finalists was interviewed for approximately 45-50 minutes.  The interview broke down into several parts:

1. Research
We asked the candidate to talk about his/her research.  Usually, the candidate talked for a few minutes, then we asked questions.  The goal of the exercise was to determine if (a) the candidate knew his/her stuff, and (b) we would be able to talk about philosophy with the candidate.  Many (though not all) of the ABDs failed miserably on (a) – there’s a special confidence that comes from completing a dissertation.  There is little that a candidate can do to succeed on (b), though some candidates that we were really excited about turned out to be pretty boring.

2. Teaching
We asked the candidate a series of questions related to teaching.  Some of these were easy (what would you like to teach?), and others were more difficult (the worst course you ever taught and what you learned).  Teaching schools tend to have creative questions, so it’s good to be in the zone and on your toes.  Successful candidates were able to talk about a variety of pedagogical techniques as well as their obvious expertise in the areas that we need taught.

3. Service etc.
We also asked the candidate some questions related to service.  These included questions about activities with students and growing the major.  As a mission-oriented school, we asked questions meant to determine if the candidate had read/cared about our mission.

At this stage, we eliminated candidates that bombed one or more sections of the interview – leaving 6 of the original 12.  Candidates that came to campus won out because of their research was of interest to everybody, their teaching interests exactly matched what we needed, and they had really great ideas about how to teach and build the major.

C. Stage 5: On Campus
In my experience, an on-campus interview at a teaching school is FAR WORSE than one at a research school.  Ours included the following:

1. Teaching sample: We assigned a topic in an existing course and had the candidate teach an actual, normal class of students.  This is super difficult: it’s the middle of the semester, you don’t know the students, and you’re teaching a topic in front of somebody that – in all likelihood – would have taught it differently.

2. Research talk: Our research talk was short and laid back (compared to an R1 job talk), and was attended by the department, some of the philosophy majors, and stray faculty from other departments that were interested. 

3. Committee interview: This was sort of an advanced rehash of the first round interview, with some more specific questions.

4. Interview with the Provost: The Provost grills candidates on the mission.

Other: Breakfast with faculty, lunch with students, dinner with faculty, meeting with division chair, hanging out around the department, HR, Town Tour, Campus Tour.

At this stage, all of the candidates were great – so little things can make a big difference.  One of the candidates pissed off a secretary; another offended a staff member by smelling like cigarettes.  These were not deciding factors, but stuck out on the Final List. 

It’s not clear what it takes to be successful in an on-campus, but something like the following seems to help: a) be SUPER ENERGETIC during all public speaking events, such as the teaching sample and research talk; b) don’t be weird/offensive/negative/cranky; c) be prepared – and have plans in case of lost items or technology failure; d) be professional at all times – even if we say you’re not being interviewed, you are still on the interview. 
At a teaching school, though, it’s okay to talk about baseball and groceries at dinner.

D. Stage 6: Who got the job?
The person that got the job had:
       a great dossier with evidence of expertise in needed areas (top 40)
       teaching experience in needed areas, positive evaluations, prima facie interesting research, and good letters (top 12)
       the ability to clearly discuss his/her research, knowledge of good course design and pedagogical techniques, and the ability to explain how he/she would teach all the courses we need (top 6)
       the ability to convince us that we should be interested in his/her research, enthusiasm about our courses and our school (top 3)
       perfect teaching breadth and professional attitude during interview (top 2)
       lots of energy (top 1).

Six Ways You're Acting Like a Grad Student

A useful post here on how to sound more like a future colleague, and less like a grad student, in your cover letters and interviews:

See especially:

1. You drone on and on about your dissertation

6. You’re submissive