Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Skype Teaching Demo

An anonymous Smoker writes with a question about an interview where one of the activities is a teaching demo that will be conducted over Skype. This Smoker wants to know if we've ever heard of this, and if we have any advice. Is this person dead in the water, compared with candidates who will be interviewing in person? 

My two cents: I have never heard of this. I don't know if you're dead in the water, exactly, but I have to think you're at a definite and substantial disadvantage. I find it hard to imagine doing anything over Skype that would deserve to be called a "teaching demonstration." That said, if it were me, I think it would help me to prepare more effectively if I had some more details about how the thing is going to go. Are they going to beam my presentation onto a projection screen at the front of a classroom? Or am I just going to be performing for the search committee in isolation? If I'm performing for a class, is it going to be feasible/permitted for the students to stop me and ask questions, they way they would in an actual classroom? Is it going to be feasible for me to stop and ask them questions, the way I would in an actual classroom? 

Secondly, if they're reading, and if I may, I'd like to address the search committee directly: this isn't a good idea. I understand why you want to try it--I understand how these things often work (at least, I think I do). You want to put everyone through the same process, which is good, and you might even have an HR rep who has required/demanded this. But please don't think that you're going to get any usable information about this person's teaching capabilities from this exercise. It's just too weird and awkward. It has no actual connection to the activity of real teaching, and the superficial similarities are only going to emphasize in this candidate's mind--and everyone else who is watching--how much what he or she is doing is not real teaching. If I were doing this, I would feel like I was in the Twilight Zone, and I'd be extremely surprised if I could manage to perform at anything close to my best. This procedure is not going to reveal whether the candidate can teach. 

Lastly, I've been thinking about it more as I've been proofreading, and think I have some real, practical advice for the candidate. This might be stupid, but here goes. Do the demo in a real classroom. Get some people to help you, if you can--it'll be easier and will go more smoothly if you have help. Set up a webcam on a tripod near the front row of seats with the lens approximately at eye level for someone sitting at one of the desks. Make sure the camera can see the blackboard. Don't use powerpoint--it won't look good on video. Then, set up a projector and a screen in the center of the seating area, near the camera, and project their video feed onto the screen. My hope is that this might create the sense, however artificial, that the search committee is in the room with you. But! Know that when you look at the screen, the search committee will experience it as you looking at something mysterious off-camera that they can't see. If they're normal human beings, then they won't like it, so try not to do it very much. And when you look at the camera, the search committee will experience it as you making eye contact with them, so do that a lot. Make sure you have your "blocking" down--you want to know exactly where you can go and still be in the frame. Maybe put some masking tape down on the floor. You might also want to put actual people in the room to act as students--not sure. That might make it feel less crazy, but it might make it worse. Especially if they were to make noise or heckle you. On second thought, don't have other people in the room with you. That was a dumb idea. 

Anyways, that's what I would do. If I were organized and could get the equipment. Good luck. 

What say you, Smokers? 

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to know if this interview was for a position with a large component of online teaching. If this were the case, it might make sense to have a skype teaching demo.

Anonymous said...

This is probably the dumbest interview practice I've ever heard of. A teaching demo via skype? Does anyone think this is a good idea?

I'm sorry to be unhelpful, but God Damn.

Anonymous said...

Go slower on calling this a bad idea. It might be a case like the following: candidate gets invited out for a campus visit, just like the rest of the short listed andidates. But, for health, family, etc., reasons, candidates cannot make the visit. Let's say she's pregnant and past the time at which she is allowed to fly (36 weeks, for most airlines). The choice then is either to do it all via skype, or not do it at all. The search committee thinks, well, she has to do the teaching demo, because even though we don't take them too seriously (as long as the candidate passes very basic muster, they are fine), we are required to have all candidates complete the same elements of the visit process.

In a scenario like that, no one thinks its a good idea. But it may be the only way the candidate even gets to participate. So, yeah, not a great situation, but there really are places where teaching demos are required but are not the deciding factor between candidates. They are used to make sure you can speak in complete sentences and not just mumble incoherently into the board in front of students.

This really might be a case where the committee recognizes that this puts the candidate at a apparent disadvantage, but they really want the candidate to do it because s/he is a top choice otherwise and unless s/he totally muffs it, is in line for the job.

so - go rock that skype interview. Weirder things have been done and led to job offers.

Anonymous said...

I haven't heard of a skype teaching demo before but I have heard of (and saw) several job ads this season (not in philosophy) that wanted DVDS of teaching included as part of the application.

In those cases, and this one as well, I think there is something incredibly fishy and problematic going on in terms of creating conditions that are ripe for biases (either gendered, racial, etc). It also seems like what should be irrelevant concerns (the quality of your videographer, lighting, your ability to convince people to fake being amazing students for the purposes of a mock job, etc) will put candidates at a competitive disadvantage.

Anonymous said...

I know that this isn't what the OP asked, but I'm going to address it anyway: I'm worried that the OP might succeed.

One of the biggest problems facing university education is the move to technology. Yes, technology can do wonderful things, but it is also being used to to slowly increase workload and move away from student-teacher interaction. Let's assume the skype teaching demo succeeds. Maybe this person gets the job. And maybe somebody decides that this is actually a pretty good model. Hey, someone asks, can't we use this for academic outreach? Can't we get tuition dollars from students who aren't on campus? Money!

Whether it's academically successful or not is irrelevant. If it makes money, it's an administrative success. How long from that moment until someone decides that we don't need faculty once they have committed their content to podcasts or webinars?

This is a bad idea. As has been noted, it's a terrible substitute for a traditional demo (which, I admit, has limited value at best anyway). Its failure does nothing, but its success could allow administration to lean on technology in ways that could help increase the distance between faculties and students, which in my view is a very dangerous move.

I like skype to talk to people outside of the country. It's been a great thing in my personal life. But if it in any way promotes the move toward absentee education, we need to cut it, and quick.

zombie said...

Actually, I like the idea of having other people in the room. In fact, it might be useful to actually teach a class, if one could find a cooperative, comparable class. The part of the Skype TD that would discombobulate me would be teaching to the void -- not really having anyone to interact with.

I wonder if the SC would accept a teaching demo in which the candidate simply videotaped him/herself teaching an actual class? (Maybe someone could verify for them that it was truly a real class and not a staged performance.)

I also wonder if this is a first-round interview + teaching demo, or if they skipping the flyout. I'm not sure I'd take a job where they skipped the flyout, unless it was at Super U in Super City, USA

Anonymous said...

I did a Skype teaching demo and it wasn't a horrible experience. The committee knew it wasn't the most ecologically valid circumstance and they tried to be helpful and participatory. There's no reason you shouldn't act as if the committee are your students (and they'll play along--this also isn't that uncommon in person at least). Totally wasn't a bit deal. Fwiw, other disciplines often require taped teaching demonstrations with one's dossier (and often they are to empty rooms).

Anonymous said...

I think Zombie has the right idea. Just record one of your own classes. Or, if you're a TA, record some kind of review session. I've had to video tape a class before, and it's definitely not a big deal. I'm not sure if the skype teaching demo would be that much different.

Anonymous said...

I've done a short teaching demo as part of a Skype interview. I wasn't at a disadvantage relative to other candidates, as all of the interviews were conducted via Skype.

It was somewhat awkward, but really not that bad. And I could see why it would be useful to the SC: While it doesn't clearly show how you would be as a teacher, it does show whether or not you can lay out a philosophical issue in clear, concise, and entertaining manner.

And, for what it is worth, I think it is a bad idea to tape a class instead. This depends somewhat on the exact situation, but I think you should generally do what the SC asks. In my situation at least, I think it would have been very strange if instead of giving a short intro lecture as they asked, I had sent them a video. Maybe this could be sold as "going above and beyond," though. But if you go that route, I would recommend sending the video as something additional.

(For what it is worth, I got offered the job.)

Anonymous said...

What concerns me most about this post and these comments is the question of whether the candidate will be disadvantaged by having this aspect of his interview process discussed and criticized on this site, while a job is still hanging in the balance.
The practice of skype teaching interviews seems rare enough that the search committee/hiring department might be able to infer (or assume) that *they* are the department being discussed here. I'm worried they might be negatively disposed to the candidate for submitting them to this rather harsh criticism (especially since we don't know the details behind how the decision to do the teaching demo by skype came about). I certainly hope the candidate indicated he/she was willing to have a post dedicated to his/her interview situation at this stage. If he/she did, I'm not sure how smart that was. If he/she didn't, I feel very bad for her/him.

Anonymous said...

Conducting an interview or teaching *demonstration* via skype (especially if special circumstances determined this decision) is in no way committing to the idea that teaching could just as well be done by Skype. The suggestion that this person getting a job this way threatens the end of our commitment to teacher/student interaction in education is a dubious slippery slope argument if I've ever heard one...

Anonymous said...

I have a at least tangentially related question. When, if ever, is it appropriate to send thank you emails after an interview. I just had a first-round phone interview and someone in my dept. asked me if I had sent a thank you email to the committee. I didn't know I was supposed to do that after the first round. Frankly, I have never done it for any kind of interview. Is this sort of stuff expected? I also thought it looked a bit cheesy myself. But, at this point I'm willing to follow the norm if there is one.

Mr. Zero said...

Hi 7:29,

Yeah, I worried about that, and I considered not doing the post for just that reason. But ultimately it seemed to me that two things outweighed that worry. First, it really is an unusual interview situation and it seems to me that the request for advice was legitimate and appropriate. Second, this person would have to have known that there was some chance that the search committee might be able to identify him/her and was willing to accept the risk--otherwise, s/he would have asked me to do it.

So, instead of not doing the post, I attempted to mask the person a little by witholding some details from the description of the job, and trying to make the question as vague as possible without fundamentally changing it

. I also tried to be as sympathetic to the search committee and the pressures they likely face as I could. As several commenters have pointed out, and as I acknowledge in the original post, it's likely that the SC is trying to put all the candidates through the same interview process, which is what they should be doing, and it's also possible that HR is making them do it this way and they don't have any say in the matter.

But I think it would be pretty uncool for the search committee to hold it against this candidate that s/he asked us for help. And I think it would be, like, super terrible for them to hold against him/her something that an anonymous commenter on a blog said in response to that request for help. Very uncool.

Anonymous said...

At a lot of big, well-funded universities, lecture halls are equipped with technology for webcasting lectures, which can include webcasting the projector screen, if desired. If you can get a setup like that, it might be a lot better than Skype, since you've got a real classroom and the equipment is set up for the visibility and acoustics of that particular room. (I would do some kind of practice in advance to get all the kinks worked out.)

On the flip side, what this means is that if Skype teaching demos become common, this will add one more to the already considerable list of advantages had by students from top, well-funded departments.

Anonymous said...

7:29 here.
Yes, Mr Zero, I see what you are saying. I also understand that this person wrote to you asking for advice, thereby submitting this issue for discussion on the blog. And yes, I agree that the search committee *shouldn't* take the act of asking for advice as criticism, and shouldn't blame the candidate for criticism by others.

Anonymous said...

"this will add one more to the already considerable list of advantages had by students from top, well-funded departments"

Just out of curiosity, what are the benefits to attending lesser, poorly-funded departments?

zombie said...

Everbody roots for the underdog?

Anonymous said...

"Just out of curiosity, what are the benefits to attending lesser, poorly-funded departments?"

Because we don't consider them lesser, poorly-funded departments. I came from one, and I'll put up my accomplishments up against any Leiterific department graduate.

Some of these (many?) have very good resources and faculty who go the extra mile for their students, since they know the students are at an *unfair* disadvantage on the job market.

I'm the philosopher I am because I went to one of these departments, and I have no idea if I'd be as good if I went to a Leiterific school. It's typically privileged thinking that thinks that one's advantages are obtained through skill, not luck -- that they're deserved, not undeserved. There are lots of reasons why one wouldn't and, indeed, *couldn't* choose an Leiterific school -- most of which *NOT* having to do with a lack of ability.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the reply. But note that I didn't ask why people don't go to Leiterific departments. I asked about "lesser, poorly-funded departments." Not the same thing.

There are no benefits to earning a degree from a program that offers poor funding. None. Any grad program that can't compete in terms of funding should get out of the game. Because they are not doing any of their students any favors.

I kept "lesser" vague, because I recognize that there are many factors in what makes a department strong. My own PhD program barely made the top 50 in terms of ranking. What it did, however, was provide an outstanding funding package and a very aggressive and informative placement program. (Despite our comparatively low ranking, 90% of my class earned tenure-track jobs within 3 years of graduation.) But I also attended the program I did because there was someone in particular I wanted to work with, and I wouldn't trade that for anything.

What my question asks, in other words, is this: what are the advantages to attending programs that you know are weak, especially in the areas (funding being a chief area) that will assist you in getting a job?

I'm not bashing non-Leiterific programs; I'm a proud graduate of one. Rather, I'm asking people to consider what they need to best prepare themselves for a run on the market, and to make their choices accordingly. The people who attend programs that they know will disadvantage them (lack of resources, bad placement rate, lack of strong faculty in the applicant's AOS, etc.) are doing themselves a disservice.

I tell my undergraduates that there are many reasons to attend graduate school, but before they commit they need to know two things: the funding and the placement rate. I tell my students not to bother applying to schools that don't offer competitive funding, and don't have a high placement rate. It's not worth the gamble.

Anonymous said...

To 9:30 AM,

You said your program barely cracked the top 50. Would you mind sharing what sort of job you ended up at? Teaching-heavy, location, etc., would be nice to know.

Anonymous said...

Suggestion for new--or probably, old--topic: the two-body problem.

When is it appropriate to ask a potential employer if accomodations can be made for a significant other?

And, if one's significant other has a campus visit in the vicinity of one's own campus visit, should both partners make this known during the in-person interview as a way of indicating their respective interest in the jobs?

Anonymous said...


I landed a TT job at a teaching-heavy (read: 4/4) state university, my first year on the market. The school is focused on the arts and humanities. I offer courses for majors and for the university general education program.

The location is considered by many to be undesirable, as it is not in a major city. It's pretty rural here. However, it's a 2-3 hour drive to 3 different major cities, so it's certainly not in the middle of nowhere. Personally, I love it (lower cost of living, quiet life, farming community that I enjoy being a part of), but I recognize it's not for everybody. (When I was on my campus interview, the chair gave me the hard sell on the area, trying to play up all that it did offer, knowing that it may appear undesirable to people with a more...urban background.)

However, perhaps the most important information is this: the hiring committee (and the hiring committees for the other jobs for which I was a finalist) all noted that my varied teaching experience and strong publication record were what grabbed their attention. My program gave me the opportunity to teach more kinds of courses than many of my friends at other school were able to teach. The ability to walk in with multiple courses already prepped and previously executed was important to a school asking me to teach a 4/4 load (which almost always means 3 different preps every semester). I also defended my dissertation before my conference interviews, which played a *huge* part in getting me to the short list. I was done, and they knew I was done. Being finished is very, very desirable.