Behind The Scenes of a Job Search: Just How Important is Your Teaching? (Guest Post)

This is a Guest Post by a reader who shall remain anonymous.  He teaches at a regional state institution.  It’s the kind of place of which people say, “teaching is what counts.”  He is here to tell us what just happened, this past fall, in a job search, when the rubber hit the road on the question of:  just how important is teaching in ranking the candidates?  Short answer:  not very.  Adjuncts:  read this and learn.  Your teaching will not get you a tenure-track job.


I am a tenure-track assistant professor in the humanities. I work at the sort of school that most of us, when we entered graduate school, thought we would only consider working at if we couldn’t get a job anywhere else. The teaching load is heavy. The location is not ideal for most academics. The institutional culture can, at times, seem more like the DMV than an institution of higher learning.

This year I was on a search committee, which recently concluded its work with a successful hire. We got a lot of applications. We had meetings to figure out how to sort through these applications, how to rank them against each other in relatively objective ways that would also allow us to process the many candidates. This is when a very interesting thing happened.

There was a major conflict over how to rank candidates, and the conflict spilled out beyond the confines of the committee and the department itself.  It was only resolved when administration delivered a verdict.

I mentioned that we have a heavy teaching load.  Some junior faculty—not the most junior, but those hired before 2009— thought that this meant we should mainly prioritize teaching experience, statements of teaching philosophy, teaching portfolios, course evaluations, and so on in our rankings. They thought that because we have a heavy teaching load, our school has a mainly teaching mission, and candidates should be judged on their teaching.

This reflected their own vision of their job. They were relatively content to come here, settle in, teach a few courses, publish the minimum amount needed for tenure, and then lead the comfortable life of the tenured professor. This was an entirely reasonable set of expectations when they were hired, and it is what most tenured faculty at the school have indeed done. Some are good teachers, some are bad, very few are known in their field. By and large, it’s not a bad life and most of them are pretty content. It does, however, lend the place the aforementioned DMV-like atmosphere at times.

There was another school of thought.  The really junior faculty—the ones hired after 2009—wanted colleagues more like them.  They have significant research profiles, publish, win money for research, and do extra service, while being fine teachers.  Their line of argument went, “none of us were great teachers when hired, but we learned to teach perfectly well, so let’s prioritize hiring someone who is an active scholar, publishes a lot, and who won’t just phone it in in terms of service.”

Although some of these post-2009 hires are actively seeking new positions, others have sunk roots in the locale. All realize that, given the state of the job market, they could be here a long time and want to make the best of the situation.   They are dedicated to raising the research ranking and developing the research culture of the institution, and see themselves as contributing to its transformation.

A stalemate ensued. No agreement could be reached.

Would it be “teaching-first?” In that case, the many multi-year adjuncts would have a distinct rankings advantage, despite no real signs of research or non-teaching accomplishments.

Or would serious research potential win out?  In that case, we’d focus on someone with exciting ideas and a dynamic research agenda.  We had a great pool of freshly-minted PhDs to choose from who had a little bit of teaching experience but already had several publications.

At one point the “teaching first” crowd invoked a moral argument. How could we look at all these multi-year adjuncts and not give one of them a job? They had dedicated themselves to their students and been super-exploited by various schools in order to barely scrape by as adjunct professors. Certainly, it made us all sad to see people teaching eight or nine classes a semester for half our salary and no benefits. Frankly, I think I cried looking at a couple of their c.v.s (and only in part because of how poorly written they were). But, you don’t hire people out of pity, and even the “teaching first” crowd realized the absurdity of this line of argument after a little while.

In the end we hit a stalemate between these two diametrically opposed visions of the institution, a stalemate that was only resolved when Administration weighed in.

And, eyes always on the bottom line, the administration spoke:  Research Wins.

The administration did not waste time wringing its hands and piously invoking our teaching mission. “Teaching mission?”  Please.  That’s for the public.  As they told the department in no uncertain terms, active scholars make the best teachers.  Indeed, they promptly took the opportunity to chastise the “teaching first” crowd, publicly, that their tenure cases would be at risk if they didn’t step it up and publish more themselves.

The message was very clear: anyone can teach, and the administration is tired of professors who come here, settle into teaching and then do a minimal level of research and service both.  The research-centric post-2009 hire, by contrast, are competitive with junior faculty at higher ranked schools with lower teaching burdens. Apparently, this boosts the campus’s standing with the state, which brings more money in, which makes administrators happy.

The lesson to be derived from all this? Once you can show that you have taught a couple classes successfully, teaching does not count very much toward getting hired even at teaching-heavy regional institutions like mine. Administrators correlate an emphasis on teaching with long-term lack of productivity and unwillingness to do time-consuming, necessary service post-tenure.

Meanwhile, junior faculty who have been hired in the past three years correlate a teaching emphasis with boring people they can’t talk to about cutting edge research, and who probably won’t even get the jokes we make.

We won’t even speak of the colleagues who can’t be bothered to do anything at all.

A caveat on teaching: Do not draw the conclusion from what I have written here that you should apply for a teaching-heavy position if you are totally averse to teaching. While teaching may not count too much in getting hired, you will do a lot of it once you are hired, and if you can’t learn to sometimes enjoy it (and other times not hate it too much), you will be miserable at a school with a heavy teaching-load. That kind of misery makes most people totally unproductive, and you will most likely not be able to publish your way out of the job. Your first semester with a heavy teaching load will be rough, and so you will want to be able to enjoy the challenge and manage the steep learning curve and get some satisfaction from watching yourself progress as a teacher and from teaching students in general.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Behind The Scenes of a Job Search: Just How Important is Your Teaching? (Guest Post) — 26 Comments

    • oh good god, no! The TD is the equivalent of the job talk, which is the MOST important element of a campus visit! I realize this must sound utterly contradictory and maddening. I am sympathetic. But the logic is: the TD is where you stand up and show “who you are” as a speaker, thinker, teacher, and potential colleague. You can’t bomb this element of the campus visit and still be hired. Whether it accurately reflects what you’ll do on a daily basis in the classroom is another story. But if it replaces the job talk on the visit, then it is a critical, perhaps the critical, element of your credibility as a potential tenure-track colleague.

      • Sorry! I had assumed that there would always be a teaching (erm, or classroom) demonstration AND a job talk! This has been my experience thus far.

        • Oh… I have not encountered that before myself or among clients. But the advice remains the same—I think you have to do very well indeed in the teaching demo. My guess is it’s equal to the job talk.

          • I work at a teaching-focused institution where we require both a job talk and a teaching demo. I would say they are equally important in our hiring process, though I think faculty scrutinize teaching presentations more (we are an interdisciplinary department, so not everyone can relate to job talk material, but everyone has something to say about teaching). For tenure, though, research definitely trumps teaching.

  1. This is a fascinating post. I wonder if there’s some intentional double-talk with “teaching” schools, though. The poster called it the “public” facade, but it seems that these schools claim they’re focused on teaching, but hire and promote (perhaps increasingly so) based in great part on research. As such, applicants should, I’d think, emphasize teaching in the cover letter, but back it up closely with research, and understand that research is silently valued more heavily than the public persona might suggest.

    I also wonder if we can draw a line between real SLACs and small universities, or R2s who would like to be R1s. A friend of mine teaches at Kenyon College, which is a brilliant SLAC, and states that teaching and mentoring is about 70% of the tenure profile.

    • There is absolutely intentional double-talk about the value of teaching. That’s one of the points I am trying to hammer home. They lie! In many cases they lie to persuade parents to fork over obscene levels of tuition.

      I encountered this first, back in my early years, when a close friend got a one year VAP at an elite Northeast SLAC. She believed all the blahdeddy-blah about teaching. When they proceeded to hire for the tenure-track, did they hire her–beloved of the students, teaching award, etc. etc? No, they hired a dude with no teaching experience at all but a bucket-load of publications.

      That first alerted me to the double-talk, and I’ve closely tracked it ever since.

  2. I’m not sure this is saying anything other than a “teaching school” isn’t necessarily hiring based on *years* of teaching experience. I can’t imagine they’re hiring folks with *no* teaching experience, so really it’s just that the shiny, bright, new PhDs and 1-2 year VAPs are more appealing than adjuncts who have been teaching but haven’t maintained an active research agenda. They’re assuming instead that sharp, engaged, and active researchers will be (or become) good teachers. Or am I missing something?

    I think there is a fair amount of evidence in the humanities that this link between research and teaching is often the case, although I think there are probably other factors aside from great research that would be better predictors of excellent teaching. [Indeed, as a side-note, I’d love to see some research that tracks tenure-track faculty at a variety of institutions and tries to suss out whether there are tangible pieces of information that could be gleaned from applications that correlate to good teaching — however defined — by, say, year 6. I’d also love some research that tracks graduate students from application to completion to see if there are common variables among the most successful — defined however the researcher deems best — that are clear from the apps. I’m quite curious as to whether certain faculty picks (based on set or unconscious criteria) are reasonably predictive of success or not.]

    • Yes, that’s what we’re saying. But this is not commonly understand among many Ph.D.s who somehow delude themselves or have allowed themselves to be reassured that a teaching record, minus an outstanding, first-rate, world-class publishing record, will get them a tenure track job.

  3. Since the writer’s evidence is a single anecdote, it seems fair to counter it with one anecdote. I teach in the humanities at a teaching-intensive private school where teaching genuinely does matter for tenure decisions. Publishing matters, too, though the publication threshold is fairly low. Nevertheless, some people do a fair bit of serious publishing. In hiring decisions, we tend to look not simply at amount of teaching experience (because someone can suck at teaching semester after semester but get hired back as an adjunct because it’s a pain to have to find someone else), but at the applicant’s evident enthusiasm for teaching, awareness of various student-centered approaches to teaching, and our best guess as to whether the person seems like they can improve as a teacher over the course of a career. (If this seems speculative, it’s no less speculative than guessing whether someone will be a great researcher in 20 years.) We spend a lot of time talking about teaching with each other, trying to figure out the best ways to teach our students. Readers of this site should bear in mind that institutional cultures vary greatly. Furthermore, anyone with a decent Ph.D. should be able to publish enough to get tenure at most schools–most schools being like mine or the writer’s. Though if the writer is so quickly bored by the lesser lights surrounding him, I’m grateful not to have him as a colleague.

    • It would be helpful to readers if you could tell us a bit more what you mean by “teaching intensive private school.” Exactly what kind of college are you talking about? That will help people be able to anticipate how to tailor their applications.

      Now, yes, there are absolutely colleges where teaching IS taken very seriously indeed. And applicants absolutely need to speak to that in that case.

      The reason I hammer the anti-teaching message so strongly is to try and effect a counter-weight to the vast misunderstanding among job candidates that in ALL or MOST applications, teaching is going to count heavily. The fact is, in most contexts, it won’t.

      Put another way, the schools in which teaching is really and truly the top priority are the exception, not the rule. And yet too many brand new Ph.D.s send out materials that excessively emphasize their teaching, without articulating a powerful research message. And thus a terrible and damaging mismatch occurs.

      In short, too many Ph.D.s naively believe that the lip-service that so many campuses pay to teaching is the truth. But by and large, it is only lip-service–a story created for the benefit of tuition-paying parents and state legislatures. There are exceptions, like your campus and certain liberal arts colleges. But I want job candidates to get WAY SAVVIER about distinguishing myth from reality.

      • What you say here is fair. I agree that the way schools present themselves and the reality are often disconnected. The administrators at the poster’s university clearly think of the institution aspirationally. For the faculty, what’s at issue is more their individual aspirations; these seem to differ within the poster’s department.

        My institution is a 2000-student 2nd/3rd tier comprehensive college with a 4/4 teaching load. (I know: it sounds like a death sentence. It did to me, too, at first.)

        My department is hiring right now, and there is no question that we’ve given a closer look to candidates who had relatively stronger publication records. But as a reader of CV’s, I was looking more for candidates who had passed some threshold of scholarly activity than for simply the ones with the most publications. Then I’m looking for the evidence of teaching ability I mentioned above. Someone who comes across as solely committed to research, no matter how interesting their research project is, won’t get a close look from people in my department or in other departments here. Neither we nor the applicant is going to be happy if we hire that person.

        Teaching experience also is a threshold issue: you need some to be considered a serious candidate, but beyond a certain point, more does not help any.

        BTW, what you said two weeks ago about the “inside hire” was right on and fit hiring scenarios I have seen. That post seems relevant to this one.

        • Jon, Thanks for elaborating. The fine distinctions here are critical. No one who appears to be “solely committed to research” will get a close look. That’s absolutely true for teaching-oriented schools, and frankly at the R1s that I knew personally as well. Profs do have to teach and need to show they can do it and enjoy it to some degree!

          And, simultaneously, you’ve “given a closer look to candidates who have relatively stronger publication records.” That’s where the confusion seems to occur. Somehow cohort after cohort of Ph.D. seems to finish believing that they’ll get a “teaching” job based on their “teaching” record, without a correspondingly outstanding publication record. Sorry, folks. Not gonna happen.

          And the value of a teaching record does not grow after a certain point. 2-3 sole-taught classes pretty much establishes your record as a teacher, and beyond that, little is gained.

  4. I’ve just discovered your site and it’s wonderful. So first, thanks.

    Second, a question: a good friend of mine graduated several years ago from the top program in his field. It’s a small field, though, and the job openings have been scarce; he’s applied to less than a dozen openings, been short-listed for several, but has largely kept himself going with adjunct teaching on top of full-time work. He would have benefitted from many of your posts here since he basically got no advice from his graduate advisor (e.g., write journal articles, not chapters in conference proceedings), but that’s water under the bridge: the question is, how does one counter what I assume will be implicit (or explicit) bias against an application from someone who’s been adjuncting several years?

    • There isn’t a bias against people with adjuncting experience per se; there’s a bias against people with adjuncting experience who do not have a significant publishing record, along with all the other elements of a first-class scholarly record (major conferences, well-known recommenders from outside the Ph.D. institution, a compelling scholarly trajectory) and of course superbly-written application materials. I do realize that when you’re adjuncting some of these things become extraordinarily difficult to accomplish. But with them, the candidate is competitive, period. You’re not penalized for several years of adjuncting, in today’s economy.

        • Interesting post! I am tenured at a research-intensive university in the UK and completely agree that teaching is actually pretty worthless when it comes down to assessing your academic worth. It’s on everyone’s mouths and comprehensively addressed on all institutional agendas and promotional materials here and there (hell, my institution has even had committees devoted to shaping the teaching mission, vision and strategy) but it is utterly meaningless for any practical purpose of career advancement, credibility or anything else –even colleagues doing research on teaching and learning are looked down upon!

          Your comment about adjuncting is also interesting because it my view it highlights significant differerences from the way things are in the UK. Adjuncting here is like a death sentence if you do it for too long (too long being very broadly defined but I recently heard that “more than a year, and it raises questions to panels”). Having been on panels at my institution, there are many (unfair and unjustified) assumptions made about adjuncts that put them in a serious disadvantaged position in relation to other candidates (recently awarded PhDs, for instance) and actually makes it very unlikely that they will be hired because they are simply not seen as tenure material.

          • that is good to know, Kate. Another little known academic culture gap between the US and UK. I imagine that things might have been similar in the US at one time, but the conditions of the job market have made adjuncting a fairly common stage of the academic career.

  5. Of course, the fact that these teaching-intensive schools can be picky about research says more about the competitive nature of the job market than anything else, right?

    • Just wanted to second much of what the writer argues. I am t-t at a regional university which requires excellence in teaching for tenure and promotes itself, primarily, as a research institution. But research expectations continue to rise, driven in part by the new generation of junior faculty who have come in with significant research experience. In hiring, teaching experience is expected, and CV’s will not get another look without having some demonstration of teaching on your CV — but research is what gets you an interview and what ultimately gets you tenure.

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  9. So, given that I have devoted myself to teaching for the last 6 years, this means that I should kill myself, correct?
    Nice to see that everyone has their little detailed questions to ask, but seriously – for those of us who have adjuncted for the last 6 years without publishing, I guess we are done, right?

  10. This is years late, but isn’t this a terrible institutional strategy, for SLACs to let second-rate researchers who couldn’t make it into R1 institutions try to turn them into pseudo-R1-wannabes? SLACs are well-known and successful based on what they do well, not based on what R1s do well. Why try to compete with R1s on their turf, when the individuals pushing for it were themselves not good enough to compete with the individuals actually at R1s? It’s not like any of those junior faculty are going to elevate a SLAC sufficiently to compete: they’re either not good enough or they’ll leave anyways.

    I am utterly baffled and disappointed as someone currently interested in a position at a SLAC.

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