• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


How Should Teaching Demonstrations Be Staged?

An important step in faculty hiring.


August 17, 2017

Christine Nowik, from Harrisburg Area Community College, asked another great question on Twitter this week. It’s one of those questions that immediately leads to several more.

Many colleges require teaching demonstrations of candidates for faculty jobs. The idea is that if people are being hired to teach, it’s fair to see first if they’re any good at it. There’s a certain surface validity to that.

How do you stage teaching demonstrations? Alternately, for candidates, how do you think they should be staged?

Dean Nowik asked specifically about the members of the search committee who are watching the demonstration. Should they try to act like students, should they be themselves, or should they do their impressions of potted plants and just watch?  

I had to think about this one. Although every college at which I’ve worked has required teaching demonstrations of candidates, I don’t recall any of them specifically answering this question. They had traditions, but I don’t recall ever either being told of, or developing, a policy on it.

In my current role, I don’t see the demonstrations. But in some earlier roles I did.  

I remember treating them like class observations of incumbent faculty, meaning, I sat quietly and observed unless specifically called upon, or if the instructor/candidate did a group activity from which it would have been awkward to abstain. But in my case, that’s also a reasonable approximation of my default behavior as an undergraduate, so it doesn’t really answer the question.

Based on observation of faculty who’ve tried to approximate students, I’ll just say that some people are better actors than others. If your attempts at acting tend to make other peoples’ shoes suddenly much more interesting, you’re probably better off in the quiet observer role.

A job audition, which is what a teaching demo is, is stressful enough without introducing the uncanniness factor of poor impersonation.

My favorite solution to the question of acting like students is to have lots of actual students there. If you do that, you probably should adopt the quiet observer role, and let the students be themselves. That method makes the roles clearer, and gives you a chance to see how students respond to the candidate and vice versa.  If a slick lecturer bristles at being interrupted by a question, you’ve learned something.

But that method isn’t always practical, just for logistical reasons. And students often need to be coached beforehand not to be too over-the-top. That said, one of the most effective teaching demos I’ve ever seen was at DeVry, when some students were being particularly obstreperous and the candidate shut it down gracefully without being unlikeable or losing the thread. She got the offer.

Length can vary, too. Do you ask someone to fill an entire class period, a large subset of it, or just fifteen minutes?  My own preference is for brevity, though that’s really just personal taste.  I have no dispute with those who like longer samples, other than a general plea for mercy towards the candidates themselves. Admittedly, there may be some variation by discipline.

So, with a hat-tip to Dean Nowik, how do you think teaching demonstrations should be staged?

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Matt Reed

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