Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Job Search - The Teaching Demo

We tend to ask candidates on campus visits to do either a teaching demo, some sort of research talk, or sometimes both.  Today, I'd like to talk a bit about the teaching demo. 

We're a "teaching institution," so maybe it makes sense to ask candidates to do some sort of teaching demo, but I'm never quite clear on what we're looking for.  Usually only the search committee and the instructor for whatever class the demo is in are at the teaching demo, so it's not like the whole department is watching.

What's the point, then?

I suspect we want to see if the candidate will outright abuse the students or freeze up or something?  I can't really imagine either happening, so I'm not sure what we learn. 

When we do observations of colleagues, we're pretty careful to follow a process of asking the colleague what they're trying to accomplish in the class session, and how they plan to do whatever it is, what potential issues they're having, and so on.  And then we talk after the observation, and give the colleague a chance to say that they changed their plans, thought this worked or that didn't, and so on, and then give them what should be constructive, developmental feedback.

But the teaching demo doesn't have that level of process, and certainly not feedback.

When I interviewed here, I guest taught a Shakespeare class on Macbeth.  If I recall correctly, it was the first day the class was working on the play, so I started at the beginning.  That makes me think that there's some information a candidate should ask for or be given before the demonstration.


What's the course, level, experience, and how long has the course been meeting?  If it's the first day of class, then you're going to expect different things than if it's the middle of the semester; students, for example, are likely to be more at ease speaking with each other later in the semester, but may also have developed relationships, good or bad, that might make things work or not.

How does this day fit in the course calendar and syllabus, and what is the instructor hoping gets done that day.  So, for me, first day of Macbeth, it would also have helped to know how many hours the instructor was planning to spend on the play.  If I'm supposed to do the whole play in an hour, I'll take a very different approach than if I'm planning to spend six hours on the play.  It's a world apart.

Are there specific readings or whatever.  Macbeth is pretty specific, of course, but also the edition might matter, or assigned critical readings, what's been done before, and so on.  I'll teach Macbeth differently in the context of a witchcraft course than in a hit the genres Shakespeare course, and differently again in an intro to literature course.

Size matters.  If the class has 15 students, you can do things you can't do in a class of 60, especially as a visitor.

How long is your teaching supposed to last?  Is it a three hour class and you get the first half hour?  Or is it an hour, and you should take the whole thing?

As I'm thinking about it, I guess as a committee member, I want to see that the candidate has some sense of how to run a classroom, and can engage students.  I want to see that the candidate seems purposeful and aimed at getting somewhere.  And I want the candidate to be able to talk (if we're chatting later) about what they were after.

How about you folks?  Do you do teaching demos?  And what, if anything, do you want to learn about your candidates?

And for candidates, do you have thoughts on teaching demos that you're willing to share?  Are there things your hosts can do to make these work better as a way to show us how good you are?


  1. Anonymous10:33 AM

    I learned a lot about the students when doing teaching demos.

    At one institution, the class of sophomores couldn't tell me what happened in 1776. Not that they thought the question was dumb and they didn't want to answer-- they tried and gave wrong answers, sometimes off by a century. One of them eventually guessed the constitution and I said, "CLOSE!" And finally got them to say something that had happened in 1776. (The most important thing that year being, of course, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. Unless, of course, you're an illuminati conspiracy theorist.)

    I like to tell myself that the professors there were too embarrassed to offer me the job.

  2. My teaching demo was Romeo and Juliet on February 14th. I was a little embarrassed, actually, because it felt all-too cliche. Anyway... I spent my 1 hour and 15 minutes on the first half of the play, up until Mercutio is killed. Later, when I was talking to the nun I was replacing, she said that the other person they interviewed spent his entire 1 hour and 15 minutes lecturing on the opening scene of the frame narrative of Taming of the Shrew. You know, the Sly part that no one but Shakespeareans even remember about Shrew. She said it was "brilliant." They ended up offering him the job, and he declined, so the school ended up with me. Huzzah. :-/

    My point is that we were both given the same context -- the students were going to spend 2 class periods on each play. I took that as a sign that I should spent my class looking at the first half of the play. The other guy took it to mean he'd spend his class on one tiny bit of the play. There's no telling what people will take out of the context you give them. I have a feeling he just taught something he researched. I, on the other hand, hadn't worked with R&J for about a decade.

    One thing that I learned in a teaching demo for someone we hired, though, was that charisma made a HUGE difference. One person just came off as more charismatic and interesting than the other person. Mr. Charisma ultimately got the job. I'm not even sure he's the better person for the job. We just all liked him better. So whether or not he was the better candidate seemed moot at that point, since we all thought he was more interesting, and therefore might be able to engage students better.

  3. I really hated doing those teaching demos b/c it just seems so hard to really grab the context of the institution from afar (even if all the info you describe is provided)-and as a chair, I've been loathe to have teaching demos b/c it seems disrespectful, in a way, of the ongoing class. But all that said, in our search, we asked people to do a workshop for writing teachers (since mentoring grad students is part of our job description here). That has been kind of interesting--we've gotten to see how the candidates plan a workshop, how much they engage participants, how much they display the theory behind the practice, how engaging are the ideas they put out there and how much can we all run with them. The charisma factor is tricky--seems like really outgoing people have an advantage there and I don't know that it's entirely fair.

  4. I've only once had to do a teaching demo, and I HATED it. As (other)susan suggests, it's really hard to come into a class culture and show anything about how you would shape a culture. And I came into a class that was (I thought) poorly designed and organized with terrible readings.

    What I prefer to do is to tell people that the job talk is our way of trying to see how well someone can communicate difficult ideas to a varied audience... as in most classes, some people know a lot, others, not so much!

  5. Anonymous9:13 PM

    Teaching demonstrations are a big deal at my institution - I had 2 in one day when I interviewed. We try to give good context for the place of the class material in the context of the course, and make clear what we expect to be "covered" for that class period. The candidate also has the contact information for the course instructor and can (and some do) ask for more clarification or background. Students who attend are asked to give detailed feedback (so for an hour class the visiting candidate would teach 30 minutes or so) which the committee uses in its deliberations. Generally department members who are available come to the demonstration, as do some of our majors who are not in the class in question.

    As a candidate, I thought that the teaching demonstrations allowed me to show that I am, in fact, an excellent teacher who fits well in the ethos of my institution. They also let me get a feel for the students (which I think is one of our selling points as an institution). As a committee member, I look for the way that you can see the teaching philosophy in action in a class, and the way that the students interact with the instructor. Most of our evaluation process is based on teaching so it's important that we hire someone who will be able to learn and eventually excel in that area.

  6. I've been thinking about this post overnight--one advantage of the teaching demo is that it gives more time for candidates to show off their approach to engaging with material and with people. In our dept, people who only saw the candidates' research presentations are extrapolating from that about how they might be in the classroom--those of us who have seen both workshop and research talk have a much broader set of knowledge. So in that sense, yes, it's a good thing.

    I just love this series of posts, Bardiac--so useful to think these things through in smart and generous company. (And did I remember to say thanks for your postcard? What a happy surprise that was!)

  7. We do both a teaching demo and a job talk at my institution. Last year was the first year that I tried to go to all the teaching demos (we had a LOT of candidates in, for two positions), and it was astonishing how much we learned.

    Usually, we give the candidate 45-50 minutes of a 75 min class, and we try to give them a class relevant to their specialty (if there isn't one, we give them a section of our Intro to Literary Analysis course, which is primarily a course in close-reading).

    Unless the course is in a subject/on texts they're really comfortable with and interested in teaching--like a Shakespeare play or a Jane Austen novel--we let them teach an entire short text or two, of their choosing (say, a short story, a trio of related poems, a historical document that opens up new ways of talking about the class's primary texts, etc.), which the class gets a few days in advance.

    The idea is to let the candidate do something he or she has total control over, and that lets him or her show off the techniques, approaches, and to some degree the material that he or she is most comfortable with. We also prime the class, letting the students know that although we're interviewing the candidate, we're also being interviewed ourselves--and so we'd like the candidate to have a good impression of what our students are capable of.

    Still, it's astonishing what one sees. One candidate basically riffed/lectured the whole time and barely engaged with the students at all (and really pissed them off, since they'd been eager to "perform" themselves). One candidate tried to take the class through a close-reading of a poem, and dramatically mis-scanned it and gave out incorrect information about poetic terminology. Most of them, though, did a decent job--and I learned some new strategies for engaging students myself.

    (Our teaching demos, btw, are open to any TT faculty who want to attend. So sometimes there are as many as 8 or 9 of us in the room.)