Interviews at Teaching Colleges
It's time to set your research aside and to think about the undergraduate classroom, writes John Fea.
This piece is about interviewing at colleges and universities that stress teaching over research. This, I might add, is the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities. It is important to remember that the phrase "teaching college" can be applied to a host of different kinds of institutions. Elite and not-so-elite liberal arts colleges, private comprehensive colleges, and non-flagship state universities, for example, would all find a comfortable home in the "teaching college" tent.
This may be stating the obvious, but it is still worth mentioning that committees from these colleges are looking for an excellent teacher. Some may want to hire a "teacher-scholar," or a person who sees their vocation in terms of blending traditional scholarship and teaching. Others may want someone who is a teacher first and a researcher/writer second. Still others may not give a lick about your research or how many books and articles you hope to churn out over the course of your career. Whatever the case, all of the colleges in this category want a person who not only works well with students, but actually has a desire to do so.
As you might imagine, your "research" is not going to be as important to the search committee at a teaching college as it might be if you were interviewing with a research university. This does not mean that the search committee will not care about your dissertation or book manuscript. In most cases committee members will ask you about your research and, in some cases, may find it quite interesting. You may even find that many of these colleges have incentives in place, such as summer research stipends or course reductions, to help you achieve your research and publication goals. But always remember that teaching comes first.
Do not expect that there will be someone sitting on the other side of the table who understands your subfield. When you explain your research, do it succinctly. Think about how you might explain your current project to a well-education historian, but not necessarily one who works in your area of expertise.
Whatever you do, DO NOT ramble on about your research or your long-term scholarly agenda. Don't talk about how you want to write a book every other year or win a Pulitzer Prize someday. This does not mean that you should abandon a scholarly agenda if you accept an offer from a teaching college. What it does mean is that you must be realistic about the kinds of things you can accomplish. Don't present yourself as Superman or Wonder Woman -- a (potential) teaching college professor who hopes to pursue a scholarly agenda fitting for a research university. Remember, at some of these colleges you may end up teaching four courses a semester!
Any blathering on about your research agenda will only draw chuckles (hopefully not to your face) from the seasoned professors who are interviewing you. If you wonder just how much research you can get done at such a college, it does not hurt to politely ask if scholarly work is possible in light of the teaching load and/or committee work. You will probably get an honest answer, and, hopefully, a sympathetic one.
There will be some interviews in which the members of a search committee do not even ask you about your research. Don't be offended by this or assume that it means that you will not be able to do scholarly work at this place. The search committee members probably looked at the description of your research in your cover letter and thought it was fine. They just want to use the 45 minutes of interview time to hear about what you will do for them in the classroom.
If you have not figured it out by now, you will be asked a lot of questions about teaching. The search committee is going to be very interested in learning about how you will plug in to both the department's AND the college's curriculum. In history, you may be asked if you feel prepared to teach general education courses in subjects such as Western Civilization or World Civilization (even if you are an American historian). You may be asked if you would be interested in teaching interdisciplinary courses in something like a first-year core curriculum. Think in advance about how you might respond to these questions. To get a sense of what the teaching load might look like for the average member of the history department, go to the college's website and see if you can access the course listings from recent semesters. See what each professor in the department is teaching. (You may want to surprise the committee and, at some point during the interview, say something like this: "Professor X, I see that you're teaching two sections of HIS 242 this coming semester. Is this a usual course load?" Impressive!)
When you suggest possible courses that you can teach, don't get cute. In other words, don't lead off with a proposal for a 400-level course on the subject of your dissertation. If the committee wants you to teach a course like this, they will present you with an opportunity to talk it about. (Perhaps they might ask you to think about a topic for a senior seminar or something similar).
What they really want to know is whether or not you can teach some of the courses that are already on the books. If you are in history and are an early Americanist, they want to know if you can teach a course in colonial America or the American Revolution. Be familiar with the department's curriculum. Make it clear that you can plug in where you are needed, but also be ready with something unique you might be able to offer, such as a course in American religious history or global women's history or Native American history or Ghandi's India. Suggesting these kinds of "general" upper-division courses is different from suggesting courses such as "Sexuality in Colonial New England" or "Sub-Altern Themes in South East Asia" or "Exploring the Working Class Experience in the Great Depression Through Film."
There is also a good chance that the committee will ask you about your teaching philosophy. (Do you have one?) More specifically, they may want to know how you handle a class. How often do you lecture? What about class discussions? Do you use primary sources? If so, which ones? What textbooks might you use for a survey course? Feel free to ask your own questions during this discussion. How large are the classes? What are the students like?
Remember, the people who are interviewing you have done a lot of teaching. It is unlikely that you will completely blow them away with your innovative classroom strategies. They are more interested to see if you will be a competent teacher (or slightly better than competent) who takes the practice very seriously.
Always remember that teaching college search committees will not only be listening to the content of your answers, but they will also be observing your personality, your style of speaking, and how you carry yourself. They will be imagining how you will come across to their students. If you are passionate and enthusiastic during the interview, they will probably conclude that you are also that way in the classroom. This is a good thing. If you are boring and dry during the interview, well....
Finally, in order to win over a search committee from a teaching college, you need to show them during the interview that you want to work at their institution. This is hard to fake. If they sense that you see this job as a stepping stone to a position at a research university, you can probably kiss the job goodbye. Also remember that the members of any search committee, but especially a committee at a small teaching college, are looking for a colleague. Have you considered that you just might spend the next 20 or 30 years working with some of these people? I guarantee that they have thought about it.
John Fea is chair and associate professor of history at Messiah College.
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