Saturday, March 22, 2014

Competing for the middle-class job

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.)


Susan said...

Even at my R-1, I worry a lot about experience with the bread and butter course in a field. When we look at applicants, I want to know that they could teach whatever survey courses we think are part of the relevant field. Because if you won't teach the second semester of World History, who will?

I'm also astonished at how often people fail to do what strikes me as basic research on the institution and the people there. If you're in a skype or conference interview, you should at least have looked at the website for the hiring unit.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Because the market is so competitive, my own school has upped the ante for tenure, making publication a unspoken, unwritten requirement. When you're teaching a 4/4, I think that it's unfair to pretend that your professors are at a more "middle class" position, such as you describe. (I wonder, what would you call a position like mine?) We have a terrible library. Almost every book I look at is through ILL. I do research, but I was told when I was hired that it wasn't necessary for tenure. A change in department chair changed the rules of the game -- he said, "Of course publication is required." I asked if it had been required for him. He said, "No, but things have changed in academia in the last ten years. Young scholars are expected to be doing these things."

I am going to be fighting hard to get a proportional course load in light of research requirements. It probably won't work. I'll probably be left embittered and resentful. But I've got a back-up plan, and if I don't try, I will still be bitter and resentful. So might as well try.

So what WOULD you call the 4/4 teaching-heavy university, not of the high caliber SLAC variety? Is that the equivalent of janitor work in academia?

Flavia said...


Yes, I think a lot of this is applicable to (at least some) R1s as well. As I note in my linked post, it's really hard to pretend that all institutions, even with the same profile or teaching load, are the same or looking for the same things!


I'm sorry that you're at an institution with outsized research expectations relative to the support it gives--and I'm especially sorry that you're being subject to creeping research expectations. That's shitty.

However, I'm not going to propose a label for the kind of institution that you're at, because the point of this post, and of my using the term "middle class," was simply to contrast such jobs with "elite" or "research" jobs--NOT to establish a detailed hierarchy or to suggest that anything that doesn't meet my loose criteria is in some objective way a bad job--any job at which one can build a personally satisfying life is a fantastic job!

But again, I'm sorry that that isn't the case where you are.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

(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.)

Are you referring to Socratic dialogue? It's neither a seminar discussion nor a lecture. Otherwise, I'm not sure what you mean.

Flavia said...


That could be one model, I suppose. I'm talking about a class that's still discussion-based, but is too big to be a seminar (so, anywhere from 25 to maybe 40 students, depending on the place, the level of the course, etc.).

When I teach a class like this, I arrange the desks in a semi-circle (or two rings of semi-circles, if it's on the bigger side). Sometimes the course is one that involves mostly full-class discussions, where I do more guiding and shaping than I would in a seminar, but I don't lecture except for maybe a few minutes here & there, as the topic requires. In other classes, it might involve an even mix of full-class discussion and lots of group/pair work.

Miss Self-Important said...

This is really useful for me. Thanks for this. I don't think that most people (among grad students, that is) are going on the job market with the expectation that their elite PhD and recs will land them anything. Some faculty might still assume this, but among us plebs, two articles by the time of graduation is the assumed requirement...for a good postdoc. Teaching experience remains a problem for the reasons you outline.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I think for job-seekers from less-elite PhD institutions, the emphasis of Flavia's advice gets turned around.

You still need to be able to talk intelligently and persuasively about your teaching. (If you've taught a lot of classes but can't talk about them, that is not good.) But you also need to remember that even middle-class schools have serious research expectations.

If the students at Top 20 programs are being told to go out with 2 articles, you really have to meet that standard, too. They get the benefit of the doubt on their scholarly "potential" because of their fancy diploma. You will never get credit for potential. You can only get credit for actual achievement, which means pointing to publications.

Flavia said...

Thanks, MSI. I'm glad to hear it's useful.

Dr. Cleveland:

Yes, this is a useful reminder. Or put another way: students from big public universities, who have done a lot (and often greatly varied kinds) of teaching have one kind of advantage. Students from the most elite programs have another (both the name on their degree, but also, in many cases, more focused and aggressive mentoring when it comes to publishing, esp. in top venues).

Their respective strengths make each group of job applicants appealing to some kinds of jobs--but many middle-class jobs *want it all.* And it's harder than ever for an applicant to have it all without a year or two, after the PhD, either to get full-time teaching experience or to publish or both.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Definitely helpful. I think my institution (an aspiring R1, so maybe wannabe-elite in its own mind, if not in fact) is a shade, but only a shade, different*: a research track record, and a clear research program, are essential, and so is a teaching track record, but maybe it could be a bit less extensive than you describe. In practice, though, as you point out above, most people the department hires (and I see this half from the inside, half from the outside -- I can see finalists' c.v.s and attend their talks, but can't participate in hiring discussions) are, in fact, quite experienced teachers, if only because that's how they've been supporting themselves while amassing the requisite publication record. On the other hand, if the department is not thinking about candidates' teaching experience, they should be; classes are getting bigger and bigger, and, even though the department tries to protect junior faculty from the worst of that, it's not entirely possible to do so (and will probably become less so).

*Despite perhaps aspiring to a self-image slightly above the "middle class job," my university has the downside of being located in a very high cost of living area, which means that entry-level professors earn wages that barely allow them to live a middle-class lifestyle. For instance, even with savings for, or family help with, a downpayment, no one's going to buy a house on an assistant professor's salary alone around here.

And I saw the pattern Fie describes a bit back when I was interviewing -- for instance, one department with several tenured faculty members, including the chair, who were M.A.s (A.B.D.s) with few or no publications made it clear that they'd want a book from me, even though there was no one in the department who could provide any mentorship for the publication process. I do think that kind of job might be one to avoid, or at least think very seriously before taking (what one does when a department changes requirements in midstream, I don't know). I approached the situation by being quite open about the noncanonical nature of my research interests, got some questions in response to my presentation that made it clear they weren't comfortable with that, and didn't get the job, which was probably just as well. Obviously, that's the sort of thing one can figure out by studying the department web site (or the college catalog, in my day). What you describe is quite different -- presumably a bit of research would pretty clearly reveal that recently-tenured faculty have active research programs.

Anonymous said...

I teach at a middle-class SLAC. At least I think it's middle class: the faculty handbook makes it clear that teaching is most important, but scholarship does matter. My department doesn't require publications to hire someone, but we need candidates to be able to articulate their scholarly agenda. We need to know that they have plans and that their plan makes sense for us and for them.

But how they talk about teaching is the most important. I think your point about being able to explain how one would teach a course is critical. The what is important, and I like it when people teach me about new/different texts, when they come up with reading lists I wouldn't myself just sitting around a table. But what is still less important than the how. Most academics aren't naturally good at this, in my experience. They have to learn and practice. A good friend of mine has said that all discussions of teaching should center on this construction: because I believe in ___, I do ___. I like that.

The other bit of advice I'd add is that grad students should try to get as much teaching experience as they can while they're in grad school. I know. Everyone wants fellowships, for obvious reasons. But you'd be shocked (I am shocked) by how little teaching experience many grad students (in the humanities) have. Some candidates have taught only one or two classes on their own before going on the market. At a school like mine, where we really do care about excellent teaching, unless that candidate is ridiculously gifted as a teacher, that's probably not going to cut it. You need teaching experience to learn about teaching (from the inside), to improve teaching, and to talk about teaching. The reality of the job market is that most positions are at teaching schools. I get over-the-top angry at how some grad schools do not prepare their students for this reality. If the program or advisors aren't going to help candidates with this preparation, grad students should seek it out themselves. Maybe instead of being on fellowship six out of seven years, be on fellowship four or five.

Anonymous said...

Oh! I'm anon at 4:25. Be able to tell us why (and probably how) you'd like to make your career at our school. We'll ask. We probably have a chip on our shoulder because we're a teaching school (or middle class), and we worry that people see as a temporary job until the score the "real" job at the R1. We're located in a geographically desirable part of the country (well, for some people). I think this is okay to acknowledge. Quality of life matters. A lot. But don't lead with it! Or don't start and end your answer there! Say something about our institution, about work. This requires knowing something about our institution and imagining your work there. A few months ago we had one candidate say that s/he wanted to come to our school to work with grad students. We don't have grad students. Another said s/he wanted liked the religious commitment, which we haven't had in a long time. A little homework goes a long way.

Flavia said...


Thanks for this. I definitely agree that grad students should be as strategic as their program (and lives) permit when it comes to seeking out useful and varied teaching opportunities. I'd also recommend spelling out anything that isn't obvious on a CVs. If you've taught the same course five times, but you redesigned it with a different topic every time, list them as separate classes, specifying the topic. If your university has weird names for its grad student teachers that aren't immediately translatable, specify such things as for which courses you were the sole instructor, or which ones you designed, or your exact duties as a TA or grader or section leader. Committees read CVs fast in their initial screening, and if you don't have a comfortably long list of different courses taught, it pays to foreground as clearly as you can what you HAVE done.

You and Cassandra and Susan have all mentioned the importance of perusing the website, and I heartily agree. The reality is that there's HUGE variation among schools even with the same teaching load and roughly similar student populations--and it's not unusual for a department with a heavier teaching load to have a more successful and impressive faculty, or a healthier community, than one with a somewhat lighter one. Some of this a candidate can only learn through the course of a campus visit, but a good sense can usually be gained by looking at the size of the department, the faculty profiles, and the curriculum.

And to your last comment: agreed as well. Candidates should have something to say--ideally without even being asked--that indicates their interest in the specific institution. One of the places to do this is in the famous "do you have any questions for us" final question. Candidates sometimes agonize over this, worrying about coming up with smart questions, but in reality, anything that shows your genuine interest in the institution, and you're golden. My standby question has always been, "What do YOU like best about teaching a X College?" (followed by lots of affirmations and head-nodding and comments that that's exactly what I'm looking for too.) Or "Where would you like to see your department/college in five or ten years?" (And it never hurts to preface a question with some subtle flattery: "I see that all your faculty have very active research profiles--are there opportunities to share or talk about works in progress?" Or "it looks like you have an exciting range of interdisciplinary courses--what are the opportunities to propose new courses?")

As with dating, so in an interview: being an interested and encouraging listener can often be a better way of selling yourself than talking or focusing solely on yourself--and you might learn more than you expect, too. (I've gotten two or three terrible answers to my softball, "what do YOU like best question" from hiring committees, who said exactly the kinds of things they'd pillory a candidate for saying. E.g., "well. . . the teaching load can't be beat!" or "it's great being so close to Boston!" Without a word about their students and sometimes no word about their colleagues.

Tenured Radical said...

I think one important intervention you make here in the current job market rage is: what makes a young scholar a successful graduate student, and post-doc applicant, and a prize winner - is not what gets you a job. There is more. I see so much on the web in which people point to their past accomplishments as the principle reason they ought to be employed in a t-t job now. And yet,having conducted many of those interviews, the vast majority of really accomplished graduate students and post-docs don't make the leap to being able to talk about the work that makes up 75-85% of our days as tenured and tenure-track people. Obviously they still wouldn't all have jobs, even if they all did this well, given the environment. But many seem mystified that the committee didn't just hire them on the spot on the strength of their cv's.

undine said...

Great post and comments (especially your questions above), Flavia. And yes, do look at the web site. I have seen advice around the web somewhere about "don't bother personalizing the letter--looking at the web site--etc.--because it makes you look desperate." No, it makes you look like a candidate who has a real interest in the job rather than someone who has papered the known world with applications.