A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post in this series on how to stand out as a candidate for teaching jobs. Because I think this is an under-discussed issue, and because there was a good comment I neglected to respond to, I'd like to revisit the topic again.
In the comments section of my previous post, a reader ('Recent hire') wrote:
I think you're basically right, but the question is *how* precisely people can stand out in the ways you mentioned, especially people just finishing grad school.
At least among my friends on the market this year, *everyone* had excellent teaching statements, excellent student evals (at least since it's mostly up to you how you present it), and excellent letters. *Everyone* has had at least some publications, and mostly everyone had been on some committee / done some service at the department. Since at least in my grad school we weren't given the option to teach whatever we wanted, we had very similar teaching experiences, over which we had little control. (Yes, you could maybe adjunct in the summer -- I couldn't, because of visa status...)
I assume that a *lot of* finishing grad students have these very similar characteristics. I do think fit is a big factor especially for smaller schools where you'll hang out with the other few faculty a lot. And yes, probably the teaching demo gives some sort of estimate of how you would approach students. But how do you really distinguish *excellent* from *competent* teachers? As most people agree, student evals don't do it. I'd say teaching statements don't do it either. But then what?
As I will explain shortly, this comment raises a lot of really important issues in my eyes. But, before I get to that, I want to quote a second comment in the thread, this one by Stephen Bloch-Schulman:
Now that I reflect on it, I ask because of my experience on search committees at teaching schools... particularly, I see very few applicants that, to my mind, have spent sufficient time and energy on their teaching. I understand the context in which graduate students work (around research-oriented faculty) and the need for graduate students to focus on their own research (dissertation and publications to graduate and be market-ready). In the end, I fear that many don't see that a teaching job is, at most schools, a very different type of job in which time and work would look quite different than at research schools. Many of my colleagues, and even many of the most research-productive of my colleagues, do not do any research during teaching semesters because of the amount of time and effort they put towards teaching, mentoring, and service. And that, it seems to me, would be a life that many would love, and others would never choose for themselves.
As I wrote in a reply comment, my experiences on both sides of the market cohere with Stephen's remarks. I too think many/most applicants do not appear to spend sufficient time and energy on their teaching, and that this probably negatively affects their chances at institutions like mine. Allow me to explain why, and then how I think this addresses some of Recent hire's comments.
As 'Teaching School person' wrote in another comment here, hiring committees at many teaching schools are looking for truly excellent teachers. What does this mean? And how do search committees evaluate teaching excellence? To re-quote 'Recent hire', "how do you really distinguish *excellent* from *competent* teachers? As most people agree, student evals don't do it. I'd say teaching statements don't do it either. But then what?" The answer, of course, is that there are currently no settled standards of teaching excellence. What does stand out, however--when you are reading 200-300 applications as a search committee member--are candidates who clearly stand out from the crowd in terms of how deeply they appear to have thought about teaching, how innovative they seem in their methods, how professional their materials (e.g. syllabi, assignments, etc.) are, and so on. When you have 200 "chalk and talk" candidates who look like they all do the same thing, and then maybe 5 or 6 candidates who actually use the kinds of more innovative methods that people at institutions like mine actually use, the latter 5 or 6 candidates stand out.
Here's an illustration. When I finished graduate school, I was a simple "chalk and talk" teacher. I frankly hadn't thought much about teaching pedagogy or innovation, because as an undergraduate and grad student that is mostly what I saw: philosophy professors stand there and talk about stuff. The problem is, none of these experiences of mine--either as an undergrad or at an R1 graduate school--coheres at all with my experience actually working at a teaching institution. My experience, at institutions like mine, is that very few people teach this way. Teachers at my school appear to me to be wildly innovative, exploring all kinds of different teaching methods, including some of the methods I recounted here (and then some!). And my experience on the job-market cohered with this as well. When I first got out of graduate school, I hardly got any interviews at teaching institutions. However, the more I innovated--and the more well thought-out my pedagogy became--the more competitive I became, getting a lot more interviews.
Which brings me back to Recent hire's comment. Recent hire wrote, "At least among my friends on the market this year, *everyone* had excellent teaching statements, excellent student evals (at least since it's mostly up to you how you present it), and excellent letters." As someone who has read hundreds of teaching statements, I must confess that I am skeptical. In my experience, most teaching statements aren't very good--and for many different reasons. First, many teaching statements make a variety of very common errors. Secondly, however--and more to Stephen's point--many teaching statements suggest that candidates haven't put a lot of time and effort into their teaching, at least not when it comes to doing particularly interesting and unique things in the classroom that, again, stand out from the other 200-300 applicants you're competing against. A lot of candidates come out of graduate school looking like they think simple "chalk and talk" methods will make them stand out--and the problem is, it doesn't. Let me be clear: I don't mean to say that chalk and talk teaching can't be good. I have a few colleagues that are "old-school" teachers of this sort. What I do mean to say is that you're simply not going to stand out as a candidate that way...at least not if you can't show that you are an absolutely extraordinary teacher of that sort (which is difficult to do).
To make a long story short, I have no doubt that many candidates think they have great teaching statements, teaching dossiers, etc. The problem is, too many teaching statements and dossiers are alike--and alike in ways that aren't actually great, at least to those reading them on the hiring side of things. A truly great teaching statement--one that is likely to get you interviewed at a place like mine--takes two things: (1) Demonstration that you stand out as a teacher in some way (either by way of innovation, spectacular demonstrable successes, etc.), and (2) The right form and tone of presentation (which all too many candidates don't get right). As such, I would advise a few things to Recent hire's friends and others in a similar situation: if you want a job at a place like mine, prioritize teaching innovation, thinking through good pedagogical justifications for innovations, and make these things clear and concrete in your materials. Lots of candidates won't do these things (see below)--but if you do, you may stand out more and be more competitive.
This brings me to a final issue that I think Recent hire's comments raises, which is that I don't think that many grad programs do an excellent job of preparing candidates for jobs at places like mine (or Stephen's). In my experience, most PhD programs predictably prioritize research, including a research culture among graduate students that predictably leads many graduate students to neglect things like time and effort on teaching innovation. I think this is a big "missed opportunity" for programs and candidates--and indeed, I have a friend who came out of an unranked program with a very good placement-rate who swears the reason his program's candidates get jobs is because their program actually does prioritize teaching. If programs want to improve their candidates' placement rates at teaching schools, they not only need to give their grad students experience in teaching (particularly teaching courses independently, not just as TA's); they also need to develop their students as teachers, with things like teaching guilds and perhaps even a course in pedagogy--at least, if they want their candidates to stand out.