Thursday, January 7, 2010

Teaching Demonstrations

I'm a little late to the party, but here's a thread on teaching demonstrations. The discussion has already been going on in comments starting here, and Michael Cholbi tackles the topic at In Socrates' Wake here.

I've never done a teaching demo, but I've witnessed a few. My sense is that sending a reading may not hurt you, but conducting your demo in a manner that presupposes that they have done the reading will definitely hurt you, and not sending a reading will definitely not hurt you. So I think the safe play is not to send one. It's okay to base your demo around a particular reading; just don't base your demo on the premise that the students have read it.

It also seems to me that it would be a profound mistake to devote 12 minutes of your demo to a discussion in small-groups. What would such a discussion demonstrate? That you can effectively break students into small groups and let them discuss the material on your own? It will demonstrate that you were not prepared to give a teaching demonstration. Am I wrong?

The best teaching demo I have witnessed was on a historical topic, which was to be the candidate's primary upper-division teaching responsibility. The candidate had a particular issue to discuss, set out the issue in a clear way, explained how the relevant historical figures solved the problem, and explained the difficulties associated with these proposed solutions. He solicited student participation (one of the main difficulties was proposed by a student), made us feel comfortable, and was funny and engaging. In the final section of the demo, he connected the historical topic to a closely-related current debate. This candidate got the job.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

I suggested small groups because getting students to discuss productively in small groups is a difficult thing to do and, if one can do it (and then make use of it in a large group discussion), it's excellent teaching. Of course, if the small groups are being productive then end them.

But the big BIG caveat is to make sure this sort of thing is valued at the particular institution. If the folks there think that small groups are what you fall back on when you aren't prepared, then don't do it.

But the point is well-taken that doing what's typical (lecture while eliciting student participation) is a relatively risk free approach.

Perhaps, asking what sort of teaching style the students are used to might be a worthwhile question to ask prior to going to the on-campus interview. This way one wouldn't inadvertently do that which is viewed as poor teaching despite being perfectly capable of doing what they view as being excellent teaching.

Anonymous said...

Having been involved in a few TT hires in one department, I can say that if a candidate divided students into discussion groups, that would be a deal-breaker for me. That said, I once taught at a place where I was judged a very poor teacher (in a peer review) for not using small discussion groups. Yet, other members of that department found the peer reviewer's comments biased. The idea that a candidate could figure out what the preferred teaching style of a department happens to be is ludicrous, given that there might be disagreement over pedagogy. The general rule here is, as with other aspects of interviewing, BE YOURSELF. Granted that right now you would rather be hired even if you have to bullshit yourself into a position, ask yourself whether you would rather be rejected for being yourself or for wrongly guessing what a SC or department is "looking for" (when they were actually looking for someone who teaches just as you REALLY prefer to teach).

Anonymous said...

Saith the fat man to the cannibal: "Just be yourself!"

Anonymous said...

One of the joys of my previous job was that I was not hired on the TT but applied for TT jobs the department advertised on a few occasions. The department chair made us attend the day that there were candidates teaching our sections so we could introduce the candidate. It was a complete farce. I saw one good teaching demonstration. Actually, it was a great teaching demonstration. I was really, really into the lecture. As soon as the candidate left, the queen of the sorority girls pronounced that she was not cute at all. The department decided to offer the position to those who offered objectively the worst teaching demonstrations. My advice is to be first on the secret list prior to the fly out, blow off the teaching demonstration entirely, and turn down the offer for something better.

Oh, and watch out for questions from members of the committee in class. I got hit with one of those. Try not to make the member of the committee look dumb, which is hard because they are asking you questions during your teaching demonstration.

Anonymous said...

A close friend of mine starts his discussion on animal rights/welfare by confessing to his students that he fucks a lot of sheep. They are shocked. He then reminds them that he only fucks the sheep, they eat them. Teaching demonstration gold!

Anonymous said...

I think breaking the students into small groups during the teaching demonstration is a horrible idea. If this is something that you sometimes do go ahead and mention that this is something you sometimes do. I think we all sometimes lecture and the committee most likely wants to see what it is like when that happens.

Anonymous said...

I agree with JMc that facilitating small group discussion is an excellent skill -- but it seems very risky to try for an extended discussion during a teaching demo. The committee might be impressed, but even a teaching-focused committee might think that that's not a good use of your demo time. Give the committee 12 minutes to think about other things and they probably will.

I'd try something simpler: plan for a few very short discussions (1-2 minutes) between neighbors or in very small groups. During your interview, you can always tell the committee about how you normally use more extended discussions in class, etc.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I tend to agree that small group discussions are a bad idea-- the shorter "think-pair-share" model is much better -- if only because you aren't taking a risk by using so much time with students who many not be good in small groups. I know, at my CC, I've had to train classes in the small group process -- they don't seem to get it on their own. A teaching demo isn't the right place to do that.

Also, the small group thing can come off as lazy / non-rigorous..

Having been on a few hiring committees myself, my best advice is to make sure you tackle a topic that fits the time frame you have available. If you need to spend a few minutes at the beginning explaining the context or the gist of the reading, then fine -- but make sure the demo fits the time frame.

Anonymous said...

Also, see Ralston, "An Outline for a Brief Teaching Demonstration: On the Distinction between Morality and Ethics," Teaching Philosophy, forthcoming (March 2010). A few months ago, a link was posted to an earlier version of this paper.

Anonymous said...

Can I ask for advice for fly-outs at good/top research schools? I'm not from the US, and don't even have the faintest idea what's involved. Is it usually one day, or several? Who attends the job talk - faculty, grads, undergrads? Is there usually any teaching component? Sorry to be so ignorant...

Anonymous said...

Blame it on the cold temperatures.

I'm the one who foolishly suggested group work. Mea culpa. I'm convinced it's a thoroughly bad idea (and if I'd thought about it for a bit, I'd have realized this on my own) for a teaching demo insofar as devoting as much time during a teaching demo as one might during an actual class is not a good idea. It might work well at some places, but is probably to more likely not go over well. Again, mea culpa.

I do think that doing *something* interactive (e.g., quick 'talk to your neighbor') would be good.

I do think you can, at least sometimes, get a sense of what kind of teaching is typical in a department by asking or by thinking about the sorts of questions you were asked about teaching.

Again, the most important thing is to engage the students as best you can. For us, we take student feedback very seriously; so the more the students are engaged, want to talk more with the candidate, the better.

So, again, I suggest finding out what else the students are taking so that you can connect what's happening in their others classes to your teaching demo.

Asstro said...

I am _so_ using the sheep-fucker case the next time I teach animal welfare.

Xenophon said...

I find Anon 12:30's anecdotes quite disturbing. I use small groups in my teaching, when it's called for, but expecting candidates to do this (particularly if they aren't told that's expected) is bizarre. Small groups are excellent for some purposes, and lousy for others. To think they should always be used is simply naive pedagogy. If "deal breaker" means he would reject any candidate who used this method, that's also disturbing, for just the same reason.

For what it's worth, I learn nothing when someone just lectures during a teaching demo. You've got to get students involved, as far as I'm concerned, but how that's done is almost irrelevant. How you do it depends on your goals, and on the nature of the material and the intended audience. Here's why: lecturing is performing, not teaching, but all teaching necessarily includes performances of various types.

"Give the committee 12 minutes to think about other things and they probably will." (Anon 3:41) If you use small groups during your demo, you've got to get the committee to form their own group(s) and treat them the same as the students. Don't just let them watch students talk to each other.

Anonymous said...

I'm Anonymous 12:30. In reply to Xenophon's being disturbed by my anecdotes, let me say: Yes, it would be a deal breaker for me if a candidate divided students into groups during a demo. This is because I would be afraid that anyone who did this during a demo would have a very strong bias towards this particular method and against other methods. My judgment on this is informed by a former chair who tried to "standardize" philosophy courses by imposing this single method department-wide. I don't have the luxury of guessing whether candidate X who uses it during a demo is more moderate about the issue. There are simply too many good candidates for me to risk it. One take-away lesson from my disturbing anecdotes might be that, usually unknown to the candidate, departmental history can sometimes be a strong factor in hiring decisions.

Xenophon said...

I don't want to get into a flame war with Anon 12:30/10:54, honest, but shit, man. Are you going to blackball any candidate with a blue shirt because some chick you were sweet on in high school went to the prom with a guy in a blue shirt?

If the moral is that some people are unprofessional *#%%^&*s, and if you inadvertently cross them, you'll never get a job in their department, yeah, you've illustrated the point.

If you want to know whether a candidate uses one method all the time, why don't you ask him?

a-158 said...

Can I ask for advice for fly-outs at good/top research schools? I'm not from the US, and don't even have the faintest idea what's involved. Is it usually one day, or several? Who attends the job talk - faculty, grads, undergrads? Is there usually any teaching component? Sorry to be so ignorant...

I was a grad student at a once-ranked research university. It had a ph.d. program, w/ about 50 grad students, and a fairly robust undergraduate major. Around 15 tt/tenured profs, and lots of adjuncts, and some more-or-less permanent "senior lecturers" (i.e., s.o.'s of faculty members w/ ph.d.'s in phil). We had several searches. In each case, the job was a 2/2, primarily a research position. Profs usually taught 1-2 grad courses a year, and 2-3 undergrad courses.

Campus visits. Two days of stuff, spread over two or three days, depending on how it's organized (i.e., could start late on Monday, go through Tuesday, and end early Wed.).

(a) Someone picks you up at the airport, and the visit starts. Don't think what you say on the ride to the hotel doesn't count. It will be repeated, if it's deemed stupid or scandalous enough.

(b) Lots of meetings; some w/ individual profs, some w/ groups of profs; one w/ dean; one w/ vp; some prof may drive you around town, talking about property values; sprinkled throughout visit.

(c) Lunch meeting with grad students. Usually ask you how you feel about grad classes (duh!). Dismissing them makes them mad, but profs didn't generally care. Nevertheless, what you say to grad students does get back to profs. Can color their perception of you when you start teaching them.

(d) Give a 1-hour presentation on current research, followed by 1-hour discussion.

(e) Teach one meeting of some grad student's Intro to Phil or something similar. Several profs sit in on session. Usually up to you what you talk about in my dept.

(f) dinner at some prof's house, w/ several other profs and their s.o.'s.

(g) breakfast/lunch w/ someone, often a grad student, who'd drive candidate to airport for flight home.

The research talk audience consists of all phil profs, lots of grad students, some undergrads, interested non-phil profs (depends on your aos). Crowd would number anywhere from 40-65, depending on your reputation among our faculty (which determined how much they hyped your visit outside of Phi Dept).

I don't know if this is typical, though I suspect it goes something like this everywhere. Anyway, one person's observation, based on several dept searches. (We had a bunch while I was a grad student there.)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 12:30 again. I'm just trying to be helpful in giving some information about what faculty care about. Unlike blue shirts, pedagogical methods are clearly relevant to hiring decisions. That's one reason for the teaching demo (and teaching statement, etc.) It's not unprofessional to care about the makeup of your department, and, like it or not, TT hires are often battles for the soul of a department. That's why some departments will never in a million years hire a continental philosopher (and some never an analytic one). I agree that it is unfortunate that there are some faculty members out there who will rule you out for irrelevant reasons.

Anonymous said...

Anon 341 here - @Xenophon, I don't think there's a big prejudice against small group discussions in general -- I use them all the time. It's the use of them in a teaching demo I'd advise against.

And sure, you'd want to involve the committee members in your groups - but that's very tough to pull off. Trust me, we might be interested in you as a candidate, but we're not there to participate in your class - if I end up in a group with other committee members, we'll just talk about your (lack of) performance, and if I end up in a group with students, I'll wonder why I'm explaining animal ethics to your demo class.

Another general point: in a teaching demo, you'll be teaching someone else's class. Treat that person with respect: it's their class your interrupting and, in my experience, hiring committees typically consult with them about your performance. It's unlikely that their input would be decisive, but you need all the help you can get.

Anonymous said...

Xenophon, I typically find your comments very sensible. I say this because your remark at 1:48 seems uncharacteristically unfair and extreme. I think it might be excessive for a certain pedagogical style to be a deal-breaker, but nevertheless Anon 12:30/10:54's general point is, I believe, a sound one: The inner make-up of the department--something mostly invisible to an interviewing candidate--goes a LONG way towards determining the outcome of the hiring process. With that in mind, sticking to a more standard teaching approach might be in order.

Xenophon said...

For what it's worth, I wouldn't use small group work in a teaching demo, for precisely the reasons that Inside the Philosophy Factory mentioned: it takes practice for students to perform well in such a class, and you can't teach that in one day. So doing that in a teaching demo may illustrate a lack of understanding of the method on the part of the candidate -- unless you're specifically told students can handle it, or you're really good and can pull it off anyway. I can also envision limited circumstances, like a business ethics class, where it would be a sensible approach.

I just find the prejudice against this method unfortunate, especially given all of the people who seem to equate teaching with lecturing. Last I'll say on the topic. . . .

Anonymous said...

I'm the poster who asked for the research fly-out advice - Thank you to a-158 - that's extremely helpful, if utterly terrifying!

Anonymous said...

Dear Schools: If you want me to fill out your affirmative action crap, at least send it to me before you send the PFO letter.

Anonymous said...

And the job market reaches a new low. Can't get a TT job? I bet you can get this one!

Anonymous said...

BTW, I've had three flyouts at SLACs. At each place, I didn't get to choose the topic for my teaching demonstration. I taught real classes populated by paying students and was told what to teach. There wasn't any choice to be made, by me. In all three cases, I was given an introductory philosophy class. Maybe this is the difference between research institutions and slacs, but I thought it bore mentioning that, in my experience, I didn't get to choose what to teach or have the option of sending readings ahead. There's only one right answer to 'Can you teach the Meditations for your teaching demonstration?'

a-158 said...

@utterly terrified:

True! But keep in mind that schools generally do two things during these visits: evaluate you and court you. By the time on campus visits came around, we had set aside many, many applications. So when someone got an on campus invite, it meant the dept liked them a lot already. So, while they were trying to evaluate the candidate, they were also trying to convince her to take a job with them (if offered). Since we were hiring for a research position, the dept almost always suspected and worried that the candidate would have other opportunities too. (If they were good enough for our school, they were deemed good enough for others.) So, in most cases, all of the profs were on their best behavior. Doesn't mean they didn't challenge candidates, especially philosophically, but it did mean they tried to make candidates feel welcome.

Again, this just reflects my experience at one once-ranked research U. But I'd guess it's not a whole lot different elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Anon wrote, "And the job market reaches a new low. Can't get a TT job? I bet you can get this one! "

Sadly, I bet you cannot. From the ad:

Essential Job Specifications
- MA or PhD from an accredited institution of higher education in the discipline for which you are applying.
- At least three years of teaching experience at the postsecondary level.
- Professional/industry experience related to the preferred discipline.
- Fluency in spoken and written English is a must.
- Proven ability to teach across two or more of the disciplines above preferred.

Yes, that's how bad it is. Even jobs where you have a non-negligible chance of being decapitated or killed by a car bomb know that in this market they don't have to settle for those of us who lack teaching experience and cannot be counted on to teach both in philosophy and some other discipline (e.g., English Language and Composition, Comparative Religion, Art History and Music Appreciation.).

Fucked much?

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:45--

In defense of the assigned topic, my experience on SCs is that this makes it much easier to compare performances. Putting everyone in the same boat provides a better sense of who rows best. But it does put one onus on the SC--be damned sure that the topic is a good and fair one. I have seen SCs pick very poor topics--usually way too general or too narrow.

And good luck on your search for a position.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone have a link to the Marymount job ad that was posted on the wiki? I can't find it on the JFP, or the Chronicle. Thanks in advance.

Anonymous said...


Ha! That made my day. My grim, depressing, other-career-contemplating day.

P.S.--Philosophy Smoker staff, how about a new post?

Anonymous said...

Check out #306 on the APA web adds. I think a few years on the market should easily qualify one for a positon in counseling. Lord knows I've given myself copious amounts.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I just realized this was an old ad. For some reason, the status got changed on the Wiki and I thought it was a new position that had just gotten advertised.

Will Philosophize For Food said...

"Check out #306 on the APA web adds."

Yeah, every year one or two of these jobs pop up. Wrong APA, people!!

Anonymous said...

How should one dress for a campus interview?

More casual than for the APA? (For guys, slacks and a nice shirt instead of a suit? Jacket but no tie?) Does this change if you know that you will be meeting with people from the dean's office?

Any advice is much appreciated!

Anonymous said...

re: campus interview attire.

It's unlikely that your choice in clothes is going to hurt your chances directly - though it's conceivable that a poor choice could leave you feeling overly self-conscious and that (could) hurt.

APA-attire would be fine: you're never going to look overdressed (well, unless you wore a tux or a gown to the APA, I suppose). Most male candidates I've seen have worn jackets, if not ties, for their visits -- female candidates have dressed similarly (either skirts or pant-suits, or that sort of thing). But I'm sure I've seen candidates dress more casually, too. And one candidate I saw had to borrow a full set of clothes -- everything had been lost by the airline. (The candidate told us this. We would never have noticed otherwise -- after all, we're philosophers.)

Apparently, some institutions discourage faculty from wearing jeans (?), so you might want to play it safe there and avoid jeans. But I'm pretty sure that most places wouldn't care either way.