Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Talking the teaching talk, walking the teaching walk

UPDATE: I posted this a few years back, but thought that it would be timely to re-post it now, as on-campus interviews are in full swing. Any other ideas on how approach a teaching demo are very welcome in the comments!

Hiring season is on in the world of academic philosophy, and I thought a post on a common feature of the interviewing process might be welcome: the on-campus teaching presentation.

Many hiring institutions ask candidates to do a teaching presentation as a part of their on-campus interviews. This is especially true for institutions with a strong teaching focus. To my knowledge, the teaching presentation tends to come in one of two varieties:

A teaching demonstration is when you are asked to teach. Often, you are put in a class meeting for an existing course. Institutions vary in how much latitude they then provide you. In some cases, you may be given a syllabus and a description of the aims or objectives of the class meeting. In that case, you're sort of like a substitute teacher, covering the material the instructor would have regularly covered. In other cases, you are put in a course and given broader latitude to teach the material that interests you or seems appropriate. For example, the teaching demo I did for my present position took place in a philosophy of religion course in which the students had been studying the problem of evil. I do ethics rather than philosophy of religion, so I decided to focus the discussion on how various moral theories might explain why evil takes place (utilitarianism: lack of sympathy, virtue theory: poor moral development, Kantianism: wanting to exempt oneself from moral principles, Hobbesianism: failing to realize the cooperative benefits of being good, etc.). This seemed to work nicely, since it gave the students a fresh perspective on the problem of evil but still related to something they knew a little about.

Some small variations on this demonstration format:
You give a mock class to a random group of undergrads or an undergraduate philosophy club. You have more latitude here, since there's not a course to put bounds on the content.
You give a mock class to a group of faculty. This is very stupid and I wish institutions wouldn't do it. The faculty tend to do a terrible job pretending they are students, and the result tends to be, as you might expect, a philosophical conversation among the faculty.

My advice for teaching demonstrations:
1. Be enthusiastic. Obvious, but if you don't seem like a person who the hiring committee can imagine will enjoy teaching at their institution for, oh, four decades, they're not going to be enthusiastic about your candidacy.
2. Build in discussion, group activities, etc. -- don't make it a straight lecture. Show that you're at least open to something more/other than the 'sage on the stage' approach to teaching.
3. Stoke curiosity instead of settling controversies. I've seen candidates set up their demo by outlining a philosophical problem, describing solutions to the problem that they reject, and then offering their own solution (usually one thoroughly defended in their dissertation!). That's too graduate seminar-y. You're talking to undergrads here, and your main aim is to keep and retain their interest — better yet, to have them leave wishing you would come back. So end with questions, puzzles, etc., instead of with solutions.
4. It's not a research presentation. Don't make your own philosophical thinking the star of the show. You're teaching here, and your job is to facilitate learning.

The other sort of teaching presentation we'll call the teaching talk. Here you're not actually teaching. Instead, you're giving a presentation about some aspect of your teaching philosophy, approaches, or techniques. Here the audience will be faculty members, and often, faculty members from other disciplines or even administrators. With a teaching talk, the institution is looking less at how you teach, but how you think about how you teach. So the hope here is to appear conscientious, thoughtful, careful, and willing to learn more about teaching.

My advice on the teaching talk:
1. Be problem-oriented. Big picture stuff — your "teaching philosophy," your thoughts about the role of education in a democratic society — is nice, but doesn't tell people much about you as a teacher. Instead, pick a problem you encountered in your teaching, describe a solution that you found effective, and explain how and why it worked. The problem could be something like: Students had trouble with historical texts, students asked to revise their papers did so superficially, there wasn't much discussion in my classes, etc.
2. Show that you can learn how to teach. If you're interviewing for your first tenure track job, the hiring committee doesn't expect you to be a seasoned expert. But they'll want to know that you can reflect on your shortcomings and identify how to solve them and improve. So adopt a humble persona and end your talk, South Park-like, with a "here's what I learned about teaching from this experience".
3. Involve your audience. Leave time for questions and discussions at the end, and try to involve your audience in some way during the talk. Ask them to brainstorm ideas for solving the problem you wanted to tackle, or if you're more daring, do a role play with one of you in the student role and one in the instructor role.
4. Again, be enthusiastic. Show that teaching is something you find rewarding and care enough about that you will be happy you chose it as your career.

I'd be interested to hear stories about teaching presentations and how others have approached them, as well as advice for those who will be facing this task soon.


  1. Michael,

    Thanks for the summary and ideas. I've never heard of anyone who has had to give a teaching talk as opposed to a teaching demonstration. Is this more prevalent at mixed research/teaching schools (liberal arts schools with low loads) or some other kind of institution?

  2. Adam, I don't know aside from my own experience. I was asked to do one at an non-Leiter ranked R1 and at a branch campus of a Midwestern state university.

  3. I think this is good advice. In my experience in the SLAC world, the "teaching talk" is really the phone interview, and the "teaching demonstration" is the on campus interview.

    I've listened to many a candidate on a phone interview blather through the "teaching talk" component of a phone interview doing a horrible job of all the things Michael points out.

    The important part of the "teaching talk" - and I hate to put this so bluntly -- is to skip the BS. Everyone on that committee knows what the BS responses are - we went to graduate school too, and we know the "typical script". You have to appear to actually have thought about teaching in an meaningful way, not in a "here I'm reading off my crusty and lifeless teaching philosophy statement right now" kind of way.

    Unfortunately, it's hard to BS that sort of stuff, and if you try, you'll likely be sniffed out quickly. My advice is to think ahead - for years before your interview, you should be thinking about what makes for good teaching. If you do that, your phone interview (and likely your teaching demonstration) will take care of themselves.

    It's mostly those who have not really given it much thought that have the problem here.

  4. Excellent post and comments! This all fits well with my own experience, except that I had a very good interview once in which I had to do a teaching demonstration to a group of philosophy faculty. It went well, I think, because the faculty were all dedicated teachers, and they did a good job acting like students instead of faculty. But that's probably not the norm.

    I also wanted to add, somewhat off topic, that there are also institutions that don't ask much at all about your teaching, where you don't have to do any sort of teaching demonstration. Personally, I find that problematic, as it suggests that either they don't care if you can teach well (unlikely, but possible), or it is just assumed that if you are a good researcher you are a good teacher, or they think your teaching can be evaluated on paper only (from teaching philosophy statements and teaching evaluation results, e.g.). I find this worrying, as even in "research" institutions one needs to teach, and it would be best for the students if teaching were at least a significant part of the interview process.

  5. I was asked to do one at an non-Leiter ranked R1 and at a branch campus of a Midwestern state university


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