Saturday, January 5, 2008

Evaluating teaching credentials (revisited)

We've talked in the past about how departments do (and should) evaluate the teaching credentials of prospective job candidates. I'm serving on a search committee right now and we just completed about a dozen phone interviews with candidates, in which questions about teaching constituted about half the questions. I thought I'd share some observations about that experience in the hope that it may be of use both to candidates and to those seeking to hire.

First off, here are the teaching-related questions we asked in our interviews:
  1. Describe for us the worst course you ever taught and why, and the best course you ever taught and why.
  2. How would you approach general education courses for non-majors?
  3. How do you approach teaching students with diverse cultural and educational backgrounds?
  4. Describe how you would teach courses in area A and/or area B (our requested AOS's).
  5. What are some specific methods or approaches that you use in your classes to enhance student learning?
  6. What are some of your long-term teaching goals (for example, topics you would like to teach, techniques you would like to try, areas where you'd like to improve, etc.)?

I won't comment on candidates' responses to each and every question but rather point to some themes that linked the responses that impressed us the most.

First, some candidates answered virtually every question in terms of (a) course content (
which topics, textbooks, etc they have taught or would teach), and or (b): evaluation (how many papers and exams they do). Obviously some discussion of content and evaluation is appropriate, but candidates whose answers fixated on content or evaluation did not impress, for the following reasons:
  • It can get awfully tedious to hear people talk this way. It's like they're reading a syllabus (a syllabus which we may already have in their application materials anyway!).
  • We sometimes were not in a position to know if the candidates' content was well-chosen. With respect to one of our requested AOS's, no one on the search committee had much background in the area, so we weren't really in a position to know if opting for this textbook over that one, for instance, is a good choice pedagogically or not.
  • Most importantly, those who fixated on content and evaluation seemed less reflective than those who could more thoughtfully talk about teaching goals, challenges, methods, etc. I.e., it just doesn't seem like rocket science to be able to select some topics and a general evaluative scheme for an Introduction to Philosophy course. I don't mean to trivialize the challenges presented by the choices we have to make about content or evaluation, but I suspect most any philosopher can make those choices competently. What separates competent instructors from the excellent ones are that the latter have a better understanding of how to enable students to learn said content and demonstrate their mastery of that content via different evaluation instruments.

Second, in addition to being able to talk about how to help students learn, the candidates that performed best had a sense of their self-development as teachers. Several of our questions (1 and 6 in particular) require candidates to refer, at least implicitly, to their development as teachers, and I have to say, a number of candidates were flummoxed by them. It was as if they possessed a very limited pedagogical vision of themselves — teachers with no past and no future.

Third, candor goes a long way. We fully expect candidates without a specialization in X to, say, "of course I'd be interested in teaching a course on X." But it made a favorable impression when a candidate said things like, "no, I've never taught X and know very little about X, but if the department needed someone to teach X, I'd be willing, even though I'd need some time to investigate X a bit."

Finally, be detailed. With respect to questions 1, 2, 3, and 5, some candidates struggled to get past generalities and pieties. The best candidates left us with something concrete that illuminated the core of their pedagogical philosophy.


  1. This topic has been on my mind too. I'm serving on a search committee too (one year after having been on the other side of the interview table), and we'll be doing phone interviews soon, also with a focus on teaching. So this is a useful and well-timed discussion for me.

    I like most of your questions, but I'm a bit wary of two of them.

    Speaking from the POV of a candidate (which, as I say, I was occupying just last year), I would find No. 1 difficult to answer because no course I've taught stands out as my 'worst'. That would leave me having to sound like an arrogant SOB, as if every course I've taught has been wonderful. Perhaps better to ask for the worst moment one has had when teaching, or the worst class session?

    No. 3 really bugs me, I'm afraid. The way I approach students with diverse backgrounds is not to treat them any differently than any other student. (And I'll note that my current institution has a question about this sort of thing in its eval's, and the students rated me excellently on that point.) If such a student has any specific problems in the class, then I'll help them out as seems appropriate to their case. But to ask for someone's general approach to such a vaguely-defined group of students seems to me rather unfair. I think the question needs to be more specific.

  2. Gazza,

    With respect to the questions: I can't in good conscience defend all of the questions, with their exact wording, etc. As for #1, I think most candidates answered it reasonably well. After all, we're in no position to know whether the course they say was their worst really is! I think most candidates did what I expected them to: talk about a teaching experience that was in some aspect negative, why things went awry, etc. In other words, it's kind of a question about their awareness of their teaching situation.

    As for #3, hmmm... let's just say that there's room for disagreement on that matter. (And I don't mean to say that I dismiss your approach out of hand either.) A more specific question might be better. Where I teach at least, you're seriously ill serving the students if you don't at least have some idea about how to address learning disabilities and ESL students -- just to give a couple of examples. (This is also the kind of stock question that administrators encourage.)

  3. Yes, No. 3 sure sounds like a 'stock question' that administrators would want asked. That's my issue with it really -- it sounds like a boilerplate question, and it's going to encourage boilerplate answers. (As a candidate, I wouldn't have even been too sure what that question was asking about. I'd be thinking, "Which students are we discussing? Minorities? First-gen. college?") If one wants to know how a candidate might deal with ESL students, for instance, why not just ask them that?

  4. Gazza, some reason(s) not to get more specific:

    1. Candidates have different 'diversity experiences', so to speak. Some will have dealt with ESL students, others with low income, others with learning disabilities, others with first-generation, etc. So you don't want to ask something specific enough that some candidates will have no response whatsoever. The question is wide enough that candidates can draw upon *whatever* diversity experiences they may have.

    2. I think of such questions as probing not just what candidates say but their level of awareness. In other words, we're interested in seeing that candidates are aware of these kinds of worries and can respond to them intelligently. So the particular kind of diversity is perhaps less important than the candidate responding in ways that indicate (s)he has thought about and dealt with such concerns in the past.

    I also wanted to mention: Certainly I wouldn't endorse treating students differently if that means adopting different standards of evaluation, etc., for student populations. Rather, the thrust of the question is how one can effectively teach students in light of the ways in which various dimensions of diversity complicate their ability (or willingness) to learn.

  5. If someone asked me to think of the worst possible teaching question one could ask, (1) might well be my choice.

  6. Toby, as I said to Gazza, I wouldn't defend all of these questions to the last, but I'd be interested to know why you dislike (1).

  7. Michael,

    Having served on committees before, I'd say most of your questions are, indeed, "stock." But I don't think that's an issue. As you said, rightly, from these questions you can usually very quickly distinguish the yawning banalities that are uttered by those candidates who probably haven't thought much about pedagogy, and those who have.

    Out of the ones you have, #1 and #4 seem to be particularly good at getting at that distinction.


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