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

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Job Market Bums Me Out

... in a big way, and not just because of the way that it always kicks my ass. It's bad for the discipline. It's bad for philosophy.

I've been here for a few years now, and in that time I've seen a lot of undergraduate students come through our major program. I've had the opportunity to watch a number of them over their entire undergraduate careers: I see them in their first, introductory-level philosophy classes, and then their second or third, then in upper-division classes that are required for the major, and in department functions and extracurricular activities. I get to know them and their work. I see their ideas get more sophisticated. I see them develop an enthusiasm--a "passion," I guess, even though it sounds corny--for philosophy. Finally, they graduate, and sometimes they ask me to serve as an employment reference or write them a letter of recommendation for law school or something. Usually they let me know where they end up going, and sometimes we keep in touch after that. It's a nice thing to see, and it's one of my favorite parts of this job.

A lot of them are really sharp, clever people who really love philosophy. They tend to be good readers and writers. They tend to be clear-thinkers who have been well-served by the philosophical education they got here. Some of them would, at least potentially, make good philosophers. It's hard to say, obviously, how they'd handle grad school, or whether they'd finish the dissertation, or how they'd fare at writing for a professional audience rather than their professors. I can't see the future. But I've had at least two students whose grad-school recommendation letters would basically write themselves, and maybe two or three more who I could see being highly successful in the program I come from. I don't know if that's a "good number" or whatever; I'm really just thinking about the particular people, not the numbers. But it's about one a year, give or take.

But none of these students, however enthusiastic, have indicated to me a substantial interest in a philosophical career, and I don't try to talk them into it. Once in a while someone will express a casual, not intense, interest, and I give the same "don't do it if you can think of anything else" speech my undergraduate professors gave me, and it's always dissuasive. If we've sent anybody to philosophy grad school in the time I've been here, I didn't hear about it. They all go into other fields, which I can't imagine are remotely as interesting as philosophy.

The thing that bums me out is, I want to feel like that's a mistake. I want to feel like they've cheated themselves. I want to feel like they've blown the chance to pursue an incredibly interesting, and fulfilling, and fucking amazingly fun way to make a living, in exchange for a career that has no chance of being close to as good or rewarding or whatever. But that's not how I feel. I feel like not going into philosophy probably wasn't a bad idea. I feel like they're probably better off where they are.

This does not reflect how I feel about my own choices. I love my job and I can't believe I'm able to make a living this way. It's incredible to me that I can spend the day doing the things my job consists of and call it a solid day's work. I almost feel like I'm getting away with something.

But I don't feel like I can recommend this career to my students, even if I think they'd be good at it; even if I think they'd be deserving of success; even if I think that, if they found success, they'd be happier with this career than the thing I wrote them a recommendation for. I wish I could encourage them to continue their studies--to try to make a life out of doing philosophy. Like I did. And philosophy is missing out on their contributions. I wish that the prospects for a career in this discipline were such that I could recommend it in good conscience to my students. But they're not, and I can't. And that bums me out.

--Mr. Zero

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Plan B?

In comments, we have a request for a thread on Plan Bs (plans B? what is the plural of 'plan B'?)

Could we maybe get an alternative plan/Plan B SUCCESS/ADVICE thread going? I'm not as interested in what current philosophers think people could do for work, but rather what people who left grad programs are ACTUALLY doing for work and how they found it, why they left, etc. I do realize that those people likely would not frequent the Smoker blog, but maybe people who still keep in touch with friends who left their program could chime in.
I feel like we run "Plan B" threads every so often, but none stood out to me as I was looking through the archives. It would be nice to be able to find them. Therefore, new tag: Plan B.

What say you, Smokers?

--Mr. Zero

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The annual fly-out thread

If you're prepping for your first fly-outs, you may have questions. Here's some logistical advice from last year:

The campus visit is a strange beast, a two-day (more or less) gauntlet of job interviews and social calls, with some harrowing, high pressure philosophy thrown in. You'll meet with various deans, and lots of faculty, and students. You'll be continuously shuttled from one thing to the next, with very little down time in between. You'll be dined (not often wined -- many university budgets don't permit putting alcohol on the tab) more often than you can bear. The worst of the meals is breakfast -- to my mind, if you want to know what kind of colleague someone might be, don't evaluate them before they've had caffeine. (Advice: if your hotel room has a coffee maker, use it, even if it makes lousy coffee, just for the medicinal benefits.) You might give a talk, you might be asked to do a teaching demo. Or both.
 The campus visit is also an opportunity to learn about the school. You can get a sense of the campus culture, and of the department. Don't think like someone who is desperate to get a job, any job, but rather like someone who might be sold on this particular job. Hopefully, the people you're interacting with are of a mind to sell you. Ask questions about the students, about campus life, about what it's like to live there. You will need to exhibit at least minimal chit-chat skills, because you'll be doing lots of it while people are walking you around campus, driving you to the airport or restaurants, etc. A five minute walk becomes much longer when filled with awkward silence. 
Take granola bars and portable snacks, especially if you have dietary restrictions. The days are really long, and being hungry makes you cranky. Have at least two pairs of good pants, especially if you're going to a wintry clime where the odds of getting mud/snow/salt on your pants are high. It's a short trip, so take a carry-on so nothing gets lost in transit. Be polite. Practice a firm but not crushing handshake -- you'll be shaking lots of hands. Be very nice to the department secretary/admin assistant. They know where the bodies are kept.
  • If you require accommodation for particular needs (a lactating mom might need time to go pump, or you might have dietary restrictions, or need time for religious observance, or whatever), you're better off saying something in advance than trying to sneak off secretively. You don't really want to do anything during your visit that will give someone a reason to think you're up to something suspicious. Better to have the awkward conversation ahead of time than to find yourself trying to compensate for unexplained behavior. Obviously, some departments will be more friendly/understanding about special needs than others, but it's worth remembering that if you're hired, you'll be working with these people for a long time, so maybe it's better to know in advance if they don't play well with others.
  • This never came up for me, but I know that some departments ask their candidates to pay for their flight and accommodations and seek reimbursement. I think this is an appalling practice, but if anyone has any suggestions about how to manage this, please jump in.
  • Take small bills so you can grab a drink or something from a vending machine.
  • Take copies of your dossier, including course syllabi, just in case. They might tell you in advance what courses you'd be expected to teach if hired, and you can think about those and work up spec syllabi if you have time.
  • Ask in advance for a detailed schedule of what you'll be doing, when, and with whom. Get as much info as you can about the teaching demo (will it be a class, an audience, will it be in a classroom, will there be tech available), the job talk, etc. 
  • When talking to deans and administrators and such, keep in mind that many of them are really academics, and would like you to know that. I found they often wanted to "talk shop" with me about philosophy, in addition to talking about the nuts and bolts of the school. Which is to say, speak to them as you would speak to potential colleagues.
 Anything else?


Friday, January 4, 2013

Thursday, January 3, 2013

How Was the Tenure-Track Market This Year?

My considered view is that the online JFP was largely a success. And I was particularly impressed with the APA's responsiveness to complaints and suggestions made here and elsewhere in the first few days after launch.

However, one thing I really don't like about it is the way that job ads disappear when they expire or are canceled. I thought for sure I'd seen an ad for a position at Northern Illinois, but when I started putting my application together I couldn't find the ad anywhere. I spent more time than I should have wondering if I'd hallucinated it before I thought to check the wiki and found that it had been called off. I liked the old way, where a canceled ad would be struck through, and wouldn't just evaporate into the air. So you'd know that there had been an ad, and that it had been canceled.

The other problem with the disappearing ads is that it makes it very difficult to compare this year's job-market situation with that of previous years. I take it that PhilJobs might be better for this sort of thing, but I'm not sure that you could do a straight, apples-to-apples comparison of this year's PhilJobs numbers with previous year's JFP numbers, because PhilJobs seems to have more ads for non-tenure-track positions and positions at a wider variety of institution-types. And the JFP's new numbering system isn't particularly transparent (though it seems to be better than the previous system in a variety of ways).

I suppose I could have kept track of the number of ads myself as the season progressed. But I didn't. And so I wonder if anybody out there did. Does anybody have a sense of how this year's tenure-track job market compared to previous years?

--Mr. Zero

P.S. I applied for a few more jobs this year than I have at any point since the economy turned to shit at the end of 2008, but I'm not at all convinced that it means anything.