Teaching: Not When and Where but What and How

When discussing teaching in the teaching paragraph of your letter, one of the temptations is to tell a chronological tale of how you taught as an adjunct here and an adjunct there, and taught this class in Fall 2012 and this other class in Spring 2013, and will soon be teaching this other new class at the U of X in Fall of 2013.

Resist that temptation.

Search committees actually don’t want to read a chronological narrative of when and where you taught.

They want an ahistorical (so to speak) demonstration of what and how you teach.

Teaching paragraphs can be in the present tense (although this is not a hard and fast rule), and will ideally articulate courses you are prepared to teach, specific courses you have taught (without mention of where or when) or can teach, and most importantly HOW you teach them, using distinctive and memorable methods.

By the way, small group discussions and seminar papers are not distinctive and memorable methods.

Search committees need to be easily able to imagine you as a faculty member in their department.  Invoking the names of other universities and colleges is an obstacle to that. In addition, if the other colleges and universities are of lesser status, it has the effect of making you look less-than-qualified for the current tenure track position.

Finally, the chronological narrative also diminishes your status as candidate.  It is actually one of the more pitiful things to read in a job letter when a candidate inadvertently discloses his or her adjunct saga, in the same way that it is sad when a candidate is overly enmeshed in his or her graduate school past.  Remember that letters for tenure track jobs must never depict you as an adjunct (or a graduate student). Yes, you may have gained teaching experience as an adjunct, and the courses you’ve taught and methods you’ve mastered should be described, but the prior identity itself must be rejected in favor of a presentation of the tenure track faculty peer and colleague identity that is the goal of the application.

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Teaching: Not When and Where but What and How — 26 Comments

  1. This question may seem rather ignorant, but what teaching methods actually count as distinctive and memorable?

    Based on my experience both a student and a teacher, I don’t think there are magical shortcuts to teaching basic skills like research, writing, and public speaking. Good teachers demystify the process for their students and provide the solid feedback necessary for improvement; bad teachers let students wallow through the process alone and slap a final grade on at the end.

    Obviously, a search committee doesn’t want to hear teaching described in those terms, but how do you stand out without suggesting that you, as a grad student, single-handedly reinvented the wheel in your classroom? Is it a matter of providing more context and description of specific writing assignments, etc?

        • Sorry it took me so long to answer this! You definitely don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You just don’t want to announce proudly that you do lecture, powerpoints, and research papers/exams! (which some people do, for real). That is not memorable. That is not interesting. You really need to have some interesting approaches, types of questions for discussions, particular provocations, etc. This is where specificity helps. Mention a particular book, and a thematic it foregrounds, and then how you relate it to a piece of art, or something from Youtube, or a phenom out in the community…. in other words, show how you provoke students to engage beyond passively absorbing info from lecture and regurgitating on exams. Hope this helps… it’s hard to describe good teaching in the abstract! I can say that my clients by and large do a wonderufl job in their job docs, once they see what they’re being asked.

          • By far, the best advice I’ve seen. Very helpful and lots to think about as I’m working on applications for full time tenure track professor of drawing and painting.
            Thanks Karen, your blog is a great resource.

  2. I’m generally a big fan of the blog, but speaking as a tenured faculty member who’s been on a number of hiring committees, I can say that my fellow committee members and I always prefer letters that make clear where and when the candidate has taught, and that a history of adjuncting is in no way shameful or detrimental to one’s candidacy. In this market, I assume that even the very best candidates may need a couple of years to land the right position, and in fact adjuncting helps candidates to establish strong teaching experience and credentials.

  3. I’d like to say also, having hired everyone in my department, I’ve never seen us give short shrift to anyone with adjunct on their CV. We have seen people who had been going from job to job for years and for good reason, they were not great. But most people have at least an adjunct or two before they land the tenure track position. Actually the person we just hired had just that. I think the worst thing you can do is fudge your CV to hide things. This is just bad advice. There is no stigma against adjuncts.

    • I think there is misunderstanding of my advice. i’m not giving this advice as a means of fudging or hiding a shameful adjunct past. I don’t consider the adjunct past to be a shameful thing. But many clients get very absorbed in explaining the details of the teaching that they did at OTHER institutions, rather than in focusing on describing their teaching as translatable to the new institution. That is the point of my advice. The specifics of where and when you taught previously are of far less importance than the teaching competencies and skills that you have mastered which can be taken anywhere.

      I use the word “pitiful” here (and it was a mistake I think) to indicate the impression that so many job-seekers make when they send backward-looking, past-focused documents that are embedded in an identity that they are purportedly trying to leave behind (but remain enmeshed in unconsciously); in this regard, it is identical to the identity of grad student, which also must be banished in the quest to become a tt asst prof, as I explain in the post, The Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student. Any identity that you consciously or unconsciously communicate in a job doc that is NOT the identity of a potential tt asst prof colleague is a self-defeating, self-sabotaging identity, and to me that is the ultimate in pitiful.

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  5. I’ve heard that a teaching statement should show development — how have you improved over time. If so, how can I show development and be ahistorical?

    • I’m no expert, but can’t help chiming in here, if you are trying to sell yourself, why not sell yourself at your best? I can’t help making a banana analogy. When you find a nice ripe banana, you of course know that it started out green and hard, but why would you describe it as a “perfectly ripe now but used to be green recently banana”, it doesn’t sound as appetising. Showing improvement means showing that you were bad, and from what I am gathering by reading this blog, you just need to present your very best qualities. Also, space might be an issue in your application and I would stay away from filling it with anything that could be construed as negative.

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  7. My question pertains to advice you give in another post about how to improve the cover letter. There you mention that teaching experience should be articulated in terms of how it ties in with one’s research. The courses I taught for the past three years as an adjunct have all been outside my primary research areas (cultural studies, mainly, and a few women’s/feminist studies). I’m a comparative literature scholar applying primarily to jobs in English, and I fear that I no longer look like a literature scholar (the only lit class I’ve taught in the past four year was also outside my area of expertise, and the lit courses I taught as a graduate student now date back six years). How can I turn this into a positive (I have teaching experience that exceeds my specialization) without appearing desperate (I’ve taught any and all courses that came my way!) or dilettantish?

    • You want to make sure that 1-2 courses you describe are lit courses, and how you COULD/WOULD/WILL teach them; then just another 1-2 courses reflecting this breadth–which is an attraction, if handled deftly and carefully.

  8. Hi I am applying for assistant professor in biotechnology department and here i am interesting to know how to write the plan of teaching for the above said post.

  9. Thank you – I’m glad I came across this post.
    I recently had to revise my teaching statement for a tenure/retention review committee, and I gave the statement to a colleague at a previous institution where I had been a VAP. The colleague seemed offended that I hadn’t mentioned this former institution, or the “pedagogical training and expertise” I had received while working there. This was the only feedback I received. Your blog posts have been very helpful, and I appreciate the more constructive guidance.

  10. When applying for your second tenure-track job, shouldn’t the cover letter mention something along the lines of “after I graduated I was hired by University of Wherever?” Just to establish where you are career-wise?

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  13. Hi, just saw an ad that asked for a teaching statement and a teaching portfolio. I am not a native-speaker, but from what I can tell on your blog they basically both indicate the same thing, right? What is it that distinguishes the two?

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