It’s the Teaching, Stupid!

Most job advertisements in the humanities and social sciences make the bad mistake of positioning tenure-track search committees to learn much more about applicants’ research than their teaching. In order to make the hiring process better-reflect their needs, many departments should consider taking a teaching-centered approach to their next job search.

November 14, 2014
 
 

Most job advertisements in the humanities and social sciences make the bad mistake of positioning tenure-track search committees to learn much more about applicants’ research than their teaching. In order to make the hiring process better-reflect their needs, many departments should consider taking a teaching-centered approach to their next job search.

I understand why elite private and Research I institutions might pursue research-centered profiles of their candidates. Professors there can expect to receive significant and frequent paid leave time and research grants. It makes sense for these schools to find out as much as possible about their applicants’ research agendas.

Professors at most colleges and universities, however, don’t get such opportunities, and in fact they focus most of their time and energy on teaching. It puzzles me why search committees time and again, especially on the tenure-track level, take so little action to measure candidates on what they will ultimately spend most of their time doing as professors.

A teaching-centered approach to the process means that job advertisements and searches focus specifically on gathering information about candidates’ teaching abilities, interests, accomplishments, experiences, approaches, and skills. Search committees should require candidates to submit the university-generated statistical summaries of the student evaluations for all of their courses/TA sections as well as sample syllabuses and a statement of teaching philosophy. The cover letter should also address teaching, and at least one of the candidates’ letters of recommendation should do so as well. The position description should also be tailored to these perspectives, not at the expense of learning about candidates’ research, but primarily by doing so through its ties to their teaching.

There have to be tradeoffs to compensate for this increased attention on candidates’ teaching, as searches are onerous enough already for both applicants and committees, and they should come from the research profile.

Search committees, except perhaps at the above-described elite schools, need to understand that an applicant’s C.V. and two-page-max cover letter should tell them almost everything they need to know about her research. The goal is to get as complete a portrait as possible of the applicants as classroom teachers, because classroom teaching is the most reliable measure of how they will perform as members of the university community and of how well they will do their jobs as college professors. Information-gathering about a candidate’s research should fit into this paradigm.

Writing samples (what, you can’t get from your own library services a copy of the one or two candidate articles you will read out of hundreds that you won’t?), dissertation summaries, statements of future research agendas (how many of these kinds of claims pan out, anyway?), and any other candidate exposition about research need not enter the picture. Transcripts, too, are unnecessary. If you think a candidate looks like a great teacher, fine, investigate their research. If not, then why bother?

At the end of the day, most departments in the worst-case scenario would rather have someone who teaches well but doesn’t publish than someone who publishes but teaches poorly and reluctantly. Good early-career teaching also more reliably predicts future success than good early-career research. Dissertation-based productivity is one thing, but how will a professor sustain such momentum once they begin teaching full-time? He well may, he well may not, but almost certainly you will not see a dramatic drop-off of his teaching skills as he assumes a new position. Go ahead and do a complete research scan on your short list, but that’s it.

In case the above has not been clear, do not be the department that makes people do a whole bunch of unnecessary stuff when few of them have much chance of being shortlisted. But if material is easy to include, doesn’t cost anything to provide, and will give your search committee evidence at a glance as to how someone might go about their teaching, then ask for it. You will learn a lot about your applicants.

Phone and campus interviews should operate around the same principles — but in a behavioral and improvisational context you can try to figure out if your candidate’s teaching profile will fit well into the institutional culture of your department and university.

I suggest that search committees ask candidates to do not one, but at least two teaching demonstrations, preferably for real classes. Somewhere among all the meetings with administrators and lunches and canned research talks, departments should carve out the time to dig into how candidates handle various classroom situations. It would even be appropriate to talk afterward with candidates about their teaching demonstrations, discussing the choices they made and how those choices reflected their approaches to teaching.

These kinds of efforts to get to know candidates as teachers, while evident in some cases, are not the industry standard, even though they can yield important information about an applicant’s potential for success.

Unfortunately, by the time most search committees start seriously considering their candidates’ skills in the classroom, they have narrowed their pool down to three. By then it is too late. If you bring three candidates to town with the attitude that you are now going to see which ones will be good teachers, you have already acted very much against your best interests. You have probably blown the search already.

How many times has it happened, when two or even all three finalists disappoint the search committee with their on-campus classroom presentations? Then what? Cancel the search? Hire a fair-to-middling teacher and hope he improves? A teaching-centered focus, or even merely a teaching-conscious one, would most likely prevent these somewhat frequent disasters from occurring.

Research and publication are important, of course, but teaching forms the core duties of the vast majority of college professing jobs. That the job search process systematically shortchanges it is bewildering. In most situations, if you want to know whether someone will succeed in your department for years to come, begin by focusing on their teaching.

Bio

Michael Ezra is a professor of American multicultural studies at Sonoma State University and editor of the Journal of Civil and Human Rights.

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