What with being on a hiring committee last year, being a candidate this year, and hearing the war stories of a bunch of friends who've just served on search committees, I've been thinking a lot about the kind of preparation I didn't get, in grad school, for interviewing at the kind of school at which I now teach.
My current institution and my future institution are what Cosimo likes to call "middle-class jobs": places that aren't glamorous, but where research and teaching are both valued and where it's still possible to have a serious scholarly agenda and be a player in one's field. I'm not interested in delineating the exact boundaries of "middle class," in part because every individual has her own sense of which jobs are congenial or unbearable. But here's what a middle-class job is not: it is not a place that, simply by employing you, enhances your scholarly reputation. That means, obviously, that it's not an Ivy--but it's also not a state flagship or any institution where you're teaching doctoral students. Nor is it an elite, teaching-oriented undergraduate institution, like Williams. It's the other kind of teaching institution: a public or private B.A. or M.A.-granting institution or an R2, a place with a wide range of student backgrounds and ability levels, but a place that still hires specialists rather than generalists, where the teaching isn't primarily service, and where there are real research expectations for tenure and enough time and resources to meet those expectations.
Getting one is the equivalent, I guess, of being a "working actor": someone who can support herself and get respect doing what she loves--even if she isn't known outside the profession and lives in a tiny apartment in farthest Queens.
These are not the jobs that the advisors and mentors of doctoral candidates at elite programs were excited for them to get, 10 or 15 years ago, but they're now looking more and more appealing as the job market continues to contract and as the mid-career faculty at those institutions look more and more impressive. When everyone at Local State College has a top-20 degree and a book or two, the teaching load doesn't scare off the candidates it used to. (And as I've mentioned before, teaching load is a pretty inexact measure of how burdensome or how rewarding a job will be.)
But although my department gives MLA interviews to a lot of candidates from top programs--serious researchers who may be seriously interested in teaching--many don't make that cut and a lot get knocked out at MLA for reasons that are ultimately fixable. From chatting with my friends at similar institutions, certain misunderstandings about our jobs seem common.
Here are the first two things that every applicant should know about middle-class jobs:
1. You actually do need a real scholarly track record.
Your fancy degree and glowing letters of reference alone will not get you an interview, but neither will your years of experience teaching at a comparable institution. (I've seen people on social media saying things like, "Teaching School X obviously doesn't care about teaching, since they don't even interview people like me. They always hire some Ivy League Ph.D.!" In some cases I know these people and think they're tremendously talented. . . but they have nothing in print. Or forthcoming. Or accepted.)
If a "teaching school" expects four or five articles or a book for tenure, you'd better believe they aren't hiring someone without publications. Indeed, a middle-class job may be more concerned to hire someone with a proven track record, since the teaching load is higher and there may not be opportunities for course releases or a pre-tenure leave. They also want to be able to tenure everyone they hire. There are legitimate reasons to worry that someone who hasn't yet published might not be able to meet that standard.
2. You also need real teaching experience. Ideally, you will have taught self-designed versions of all the bread-and-butter classes in your field.
The more elite your graduate program, the fewer opportunities you have to teach. This is a selling point when you get your acceptance letters, but a problem when you're on the market. When I was in grad school, we were told that we needed to teach at least one self-designed class, and that it was a good idea to have experience teaching comp. But it never occurred to me that in order to be in the running for many jobs I would need experience teaching my own Shakespeare class, or Brit Lit I. (For one thing. . . how would I do that? Those were not courses grad students in my program got to teach.)
The fact that you've written a dissertation on Shakespeare is actually not proof that you can teach a course on Shakespeare, especially to a mixed group of non-elite students. Again: a higher teaching load means we want someone who's ready to hit the ground running. We want to avoid having someone work up four (or more!) new preps in her first year of full-time teaching.
Just about everyone who makes it to a convention interview has those first two things covered. But that doesn't mean they're prepared to answer interview questions that the committee considers straightforward. In retrospect, there were questions where I misunderstood what the committee was actually asking--perhaps because my job placement officers and the people doing my mock interviews also didn't understand that different institutions might expect different kinds of answers.
Here are a few:
1. How would you teach X class?
I was taught to answer this question by listing the texts I would teach (and/or the order in which I would teach them or their thematic groupings). That's a fine first sentence or two, but generally a hiring committee assumes that you know the canonical texts in your area and can select a reasonable eight or fifteen. What they actually want to know is, how would you teach this class? Is it a two-essays-plus-a-midterm-and-a-final class? A four-papers-each-with-a-revision class? Do you give quizzes? Homework assignments? Of what sort? How do you teach difficult concepts? What skills do you focus on? Do you prefer teaching fewer texts in greater depth? Going for a sampler-menu approach? And what's your rationale for those decisions?
The committee wants to see how you approach pedagogical issues and how you think as a teacher. Even if you've taught that course five times before, it might be taught differently at the institution that's interviewing you. If you don't remember (or didn't look at) their particular curriculum, ask questions! Are there any pre-reqs? what's the course cap? does this course attract non-majors as well as majors? at what level is this typically taught? And it's absolutely fine to say, "I've only taught this as a seminar, where I did Y and Z, but in your department, with 30 students and many non-majors, I'd adapt it by doing..."
2. How would you reach a diverse student population?
The correct answer to this question is not that you believe in meeting students where they are; that even at Harvard there are many ability levels in one classroom; that you'd hold extra office hours for students who are struggling. As with the above, this question is asking you for concrete pedagogical strategies. How would you teach an upper-division seminar where some students have done prior work in the field and some don't know even the basic terms? Have you thought about how to run a 30- or 40-person intro class that isn't a lecture? How do you weight your assignments to give credit to students who are succeeding in some areas but desperately weak in others?
Again, it's great to engage the committee in conversation about their experiences, expectations, or the challenges of their curriculum. Part of what you're showing is that you're open to trying new things, that you're eager to learn and adapt. Any new student population is going to require an adjustment, and the committee knows that. You just don't want to seem totally clueless or oblivious to the conditions at the hiring institution. (Personally, I was completely unaware that classes existed that weren't a) seminars, or b) lectures. What else was there?? Most of my teaching since then, as it turns out.)
3. How do you see yourself contributing to the department or college in terms of service?
Some schools will ask you a question about service. It's not really a fair question to ask of candidates straight from grad school (or who have held contingent jobs that don't require service), especially since you're not usually going to be able to glean much about departmental governance or organization from a webpage. But you should still be prepared with an answer. You're probably safe if you can say something about curriculum design or advisement, or about involvement in student-centered activities (working with First-Year Experience or study abroad, advising the film club or literary magazine, sponsoring the LGBT student group).
4. Tell us about your research
Questions about research, in my experience, don't present unusual problems, which is why I listed this one last even though it's likely to come first in an interview. Middle-class schools are more likely to ask you softball questions (tell us about your research; how does your work fit into recent trends in your discipline; where do you see your research going over the next five years) and are less likely to surprise you with a really complex or pointed follow-up. However, they will still ask questions and they will still expect you to bring the goods. Don't talk down to them, even if no one on the committee is in your subfield. A glossy, simplistic version will always sound like one.
Now, everything in this post falls into the category of "necessary but not sufficient": I am not implying that anyone who has had trouble finding a job must have been ignorant of the above points--or that mastering them will guarantee one; the market is broken and there are tremendously qualified candidates who know and do all of these things and who still come up empty-handed. But seeing otherwise great candidates muff these particular questions again and again has made me think it would be useful to outline some fixes for what appear to be routine misunderstandings or gaps in preparation.
Readers at teaching schools, what other mismatches of approach have you seen, and how do you think they can be addressed? (Please frame your comments in the spirit of helpfulness rather than candidate-bashing. It's tough out there and this is a sad time of year for many people.)