A Guide for Applying to Jobs at SLACs

A Guide for Applying to Jobs at SLACs


You received your PhD from a major research university. Your advisors work at a major research university. Your placement director works at a major research university. But if you are on the job market, you are likely applying to some jobs that are not at major research universities. Among the various other institutions of higher learning you might be applying for jobs at are SLACs: Selective Liberal Arts Colleges.

Of course, you and your advisors and your placement director may be familiar with SLACs, but still, it could be useful for you to hear—directly from the people working and doing the hiring at SLACs—what they are looking for in job candidates.

So, what follows is a guide for applying to jobs at SLACs, written by philosophers currently employed at SLACs (first tip: don’t call them “SLACkers”). The idea was prompted by last month’s guide to applying to jobs in the UK.

The original version of this document was drafted by Barry Lam (Vassar). It then was modified and supplemented with extensive commentary from Nathaniel Goldberg (Washington and Lee), Daniel Groll (Carleton), Amy Kind (Claremont McKenna), Mary Kate McGowan (Wellesley), Nishi Shah (Amherst), J. Aaron Simmons (Furman), Susan Stark (Bates), and Erik Wielenberg (DePauw). A big thank you to all of them for contributing to this guide.

Others employed at SLACs are encouraged to contribute their thoughts in the comments below.

SLACs are only one of the various kinds of non-major-research-university. Look for similar guides for other kinds of institutions of higher learning over the next couple of months.


 A Guide for Applying to Jobs at Selective Liberal Arts Colleges

1. Research Matters: Research is important at SLACs, but perhaps in different ways than at research universities. SLACs expect that successful job applicants and candidates for tenure have a strong research program where they attend conferences every year, present papers regularly, and publish articles in strong journals or books with excellent publishers. While the research requirements at SLACs are less intense than they are at top research universities, at the same time, there is the expectation (and support for) scholars to be highly engaged with their research program, to have their teaching informed by their research program, and to be engaged with other experts in their field. Emphasis on research tends to vary inversely with respect to teaching load – the higher the load, the less emphasis on research.

Generally, SLACs are not worried about people being from schools that are “too good,” fearing that they will leave. SLACS don’t count it against someone that they are from a “top” school. Nor are they generally  scared away by publications in tippy top journals. SLACs consider themselves philosophically worthy of the best and brightest research-wise. Having said that, they are on the lookout for signs that someone really wants to be at a research university or doesn’t get that teaching is really the top priority at a SLAC (who doesn’t get that? You would be surprised!).

Consequently, beware of subtle or not-so subtle signaling about the relative importance to you of teaching versus research. While we are looking for a colleague that does serious research and wants to be professionally active, we also want someone who does not see teaching as a (major) obstacle to achieving research goals. So, red flags go up when (real life example) the first question a candidate asks in the “Do you have any questions?” portion of the interview is, “How easy is it to miss classes to go to conferences?” or when a candidate expresses, however jokingly, disdain for teaching introductory level classes.

It is also important for you to be able to show that your research is philosophically valuable and accessible to others. You should be able to show how you can make your research comprehensible to your students, usually through advanced seminars. You should be able to convey to your potential colleagues, who are likely not experts in your area, the value of your project and its value in the research tradition in which you are working. Most importantly, however, is that you are able to speak about, motivate, and understand your research with respect to philosophy generally and to non-experts (including colleagues in other fields at the institution). In other words, if you are too caught up thinking about every last counterexample or response to a response to a response, you will seem narrow even if your research is very important internal to the literature in which you are an expert.

It is a good idea to learn about the specialties of your potential colleagues in the hiring department, at the very least, to prepare yourself for the kinds of questions you might get at your talk and in conversations during your interviews. If possible, it may help to focus your job talk on philosophical questions or problems, rather than solely on particular figures, as this helps to avoid the appearance of insularity that can be off-putting not only to other faculty members, but especially to students, who at many SLACs attend the job-talks and give feedback on them to the department faculty. Your job-talk will likely be read as reflective of how you would be as a teacher and so making complicated things understandable, without making them seem too easy, is another important skill to display.

2. Teaching Matters: Quality teaching is a high priority for these jobs. As an applicant, you will be required to show evidence of teaching effectiveness, experience, and enthusiasm. These may include numerical evaluations, narrative evaluations and observations, sample syllabi, and teaching awards. In your interviews, job talks, and conversations over lunch and dinner, the interviewing committee will seek evidence of a commitment to teaching; of thoughtfulness and creativity in constructing courses, assignments, grading and evaluation; of your interest in the development of more general student skills, such as writing and research; and of quality of interaction with students such as ability to explain basic ideas clearly and effectively.

Stories  describing your effective interaction with students, or your learning from your teaching missteps, are important for showing your qualities as a teacher—they are more memorable than mere numbers, and they can show you are able to engage meaningfully with your students, developing with them the kind of relationships often stressed at SLACs.

SLACs also highly value thesis and other independent-study supervision. So be prepared for non-classroom teaching to matter, whether you are asked about it or not. In fact you might score points by asking about it yourself.

Additionally, many SLACs will include a teaching demonstration/mock class as an important part of the on-campus interview process. Hiring departments at SLACs will be looking for an outstanding teaching performance, as well as a demonstration of your ability to elicit student interest and lead discussion effectively.

Pay special attention to the nature of the tasks you’re asked to perform on campus visits. Have you been asked to discuss your research with the faculty as well as to give a job talk? If so, then the job talk may not be geared toward professional philosophers but rather (smart) undergraduates. That means that that killer paper you would give as a job talk at a major research university will not make for a great SLAC job talk because your audience will be lost. When in doubt ask who the audience for the job talk is, and then change things up accordingly.

3. Curriculum Matters: Whether you are a person who fits the teaching needs and desires of the department, as well as the overall college curriculum, matters much more at SLACs than at research institutions. A department at a SLAC typically seeks someone to teach a certain profile of courses and may prioritize people without too much overlap with existing members of the department in terms of teaching expertise. You should be conversant with the interests of others while adding new interests into the mix. Additionally, you might be asked to teach a wider range of courses within your area than you would at a research institution, since you might be the only faculty member working in an area. At the same time, SLACs also often assume that, eventually, you might be ready, willing, and able to teach courses outside your area. In short, coverage of what the department deems to be essential to the curriculum is a very high priority: in this manner, both actual fit and potential flexibility matter.

4. Interactions with Students Matter: Some of these places have undergraduate students come to job talks and/or teaching demonstrations, or have a student-interview process, or may even elicit a report from students on their evaluation of a job candidate. How much such evaluations are rated depends on the institution, but some institutions take them very seriously.

Do not talk down to students are act as if their opinions do not matter. Their teachers will generally take very seriously reports that someone is patronizing to, dismissive of, or ignoring their concerns.  If you meet with students, you should try to get them talking about what they want out of the position to which you’re applying. Then, you can try to incorporate their interests and hopes for the new position into your own narrative of what you would bring to the table. This way, you are responsive to the students as important voices in the departmental community.

5. Contributing to Departmental Life and the School Matters: Showing (genuine!) enthusiasm for bringing something extra-curricular to the department can be particularly helpful for your interviews with SLACs. Convincing your interviewers that you would like to start a philosophy club or plan a speaker series, etc., makes you an attractive candidate. Providing evidence, if you can, that you’ve done this kind of thing already helps even more. More generally, hiring committees at SLACs may be more interested than those at major research universities  in ways in which you can be of service to the department and the college, particularly in regard to student activities (e.g., as an advisor to student clubs).

6. Extra-Departmental Considerations Matter: At research universities, your colleagues would be largely, if not entirely, philosophers. At SLACs, some might be in cognate and perhaps even non-cognate departments. This means at least three things for interviewing. First, if the hiring department is small, there may be non-philosophy faculty on the search committee. Second, regardless of the hiring committee, there may be non-philosophy faculty at your teaching demonstration and job talk. Third, you might be asked about how your teaching would contribute to interdisciplinary programs; while research universities could ask this also, SLACs really mean it. Keep all this in mind during the interview.

7. Career Stages Matter: There is little to almost no hiring of senior people at SLACs, save for the very well-endowed schools. Such places almost exclusively hire junior candidates as they are cheaper and thought to be more adaptable to their teaching environment, and there is considerably less priority for senior research distinction than at major research institutions.

8. Tenure Matters: Such places WANT to hire someone whom they expect to tenure. They do not generally envisage the tenure-track as a performance test for candidates with the greatest promise. With that in mind, it is important to find out about research expectations for tenure. Ask about how teaching quality is evaluated within the college and within the department. These are things that are in the back of the mind of those hiring at such institution. Also ask about the tenure procedure generally. The department vote might be secondary to the college vote. Moreover smaller departments might have non-philosophers, or philosophers from other colleges, on the “department” tenure committee.

You are unlikely to change an institutional culture and so “fit” should run in both directions. Are you willing to have teaching elevated over research in the institutional narrative, as it is as many SLACs? Are you willing to see an incredible amount of service as simply part of what it means to be a good member of the community? Are you comfortable with the relational dimension of the SLAC culture being something that might expect you to be available to students in ways that don’t fit neatly into scheduled office hours? SLACs are absolutely amazing places to spend one’s career and live one’s life, but they are different sorts of institutions than where most folks will have gone to graduate school and so demonstrating to the faculty at the SLAC that you understand and are invested in that distinctive culture is important.

 

Some possible interview questions for positions at SLACs:

  • Tell us about your research program.
  • What is your approach to teaching introduction to philosophy?
  • How would you aim to get students who might have no background in philosophy interested in the discipline?
  • What text have you used in a previous course that did not work well?
  • What is the one text that you think you would nearly always want to include in an intro course?
  • How do you understand the role of advisor?
  • How does your research inform your teaching, and vice-versa?
  • What ideas do you have for generating excitement about philosophy across campus?
  • What do you think are the primary characteristics of an excellent undergraduate philosophy program?
  • If you could teach anything, what is your dream course?
  • What is the benefit of studying philosophy even if a student decides to major in something else?

 

 

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Unknown Philosopher
6 years ago

I’m a tenured Associate Professor at a (public) SLAC; I’ve chaired hiring committees here. All of the advice above fits with my experiences. I’d add only that many Philosophy departments at SLACs require that faculty teach courses within the College’s General Education program; this includes both first-year writing courses and intermediate-level courses that are, sometimes, interdisciplinary in nature. Candidates should familiarize themselves with the basic structure of the College’s General Education program prior to the campus interview (and sometimes even prior to the first interview) and should be prepared to speak to the kinds of courses they would be willing to contribute to the program. Potential questions to anticipate include: what text/topic would you use in a course that is designed to develop skills in critical reading and writing? how would you incorporate literature in a course that is focused on ethical/political issues?Report

Alexandra Bradner
Alexandra Bradner
6 years ago

This is an excellent guide. I have eight years of liberal arts college teaching experience and would emphasize the importance of “3. Curriculum Matters.” Because of the tight market, every candidate will be smart, well credentialed, and collegial. Candidates must show that they have creative and relevant ideas for special topics philosophy seminars, first-year writing courses, service-learning courses, interdisciplinary courses, and additions to the standing curriculum. In a five-person department, coverage is a central hiring concern. Strong teaching is not just a matter of connecting with your student population and conveying complicated material clearly, but knowing enough about philosophy, very broadly speaking, to come up with original, compelling, and useful courses. The best liberal arts college professors have breadth *and* depth. For some assistance with your teaching demo, please consider attending the 2016 Eastern APA session “Advice for job Candidates: The Teaching Demo,” organized by the APA Committee on the Teaching of Philosophy.Report

Erin Tarver
Erin Tarver
6 years ago

All of this is correct, in my experience. Also, just to add to the point of the last line–“demonstrating to the faculty at the SLAC that you understand and are invested in that distinctive culture is important”–I think it’s helpful to recognize that most SLACs think of themselves as existing in order to offer a specific kind of educational experience. That educational experience is different from the one that undergraduates would expect at a research university, to be sure, but it is also often specific to *that particular SLAC.* Thus, things like the Mission Statement matter (and may have been co-written by faculty who are very much invested in it). The specifics of the general education program matter. It is incredibly important to have a good sense of *this* SLAC’s institutional identity, and to be able to speak to how you fit into that in substantive ways, both in the cover letter, and in subsequent interviews (and in my experience, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the cover letter in even getting to a first interview). So, I would add to this list of interview questions, “Why do you want to teach at X College?” You need a good answer for this that conveys genuine interest in that school, and not just interest in a job, period.Report

Kate Norlock
Kate Norlock
6 years ago

“…teaching is really the top priority at a SLAC (who doesn’t get that? You would be surprised!).” Yes, this! Yes! I’ve been on many searches at my previous SLAC and my current undergrad university, and the applications that get short-listed offer more than just a cover letter about research and a page of numbers from course evaluations at the back. Talk about teaching. Include sample syllabi, or reflections on what works and what doesn’t, or evidence of learning about teaching; even graduate students who have never taught or been TAs could seek out some education on the scholarship of teaching and learning. I sympathize if you went to a grad program that didn’t provide much, but SLACs demand attention to undergraduate student teaching, and demonstrating awareness of that commitment is necessary.Report

(Just dreaming?) grad student
(Just dreaming?) grad student
6 years ago

I love the idea of teaching at a SLAC (it’s by far my most daydreamed-about kind of academic job), but my partner is also a philosopher, and I imagine it might be harder for a smaller department to swing a partner hire (not that that would be easy anywhere). I’d really appreciate hearing any thoughts or experiences people have with this!Report

Anon SLACker Prof
Anon SLACker Prof
6 years ago

I wonder what other SLACker profs think of this bit of advice: Should you be offered a job, think carefully about requesting a reduced course load for a year or an early leave. Such requests might be routine for research schools (indeed, if my experience is any guide, grad school advisers or placement directors may encourage you to ask for this or at least include it on a list of things you might negotiate for), but they will rankle (at least some of) your new colleagues at a SLAC and may plant doubts — both in your department but also in the Dean’s office — about whether you get that you’re at a place that values teaching above all else.

This is true at my institution, but perhaps it is not generally true.Report

Daniel Groll
Daniel Groll
6 years ago

At Carleton, at least, there is no way that another tenure track line would be offered to our department to make a partner hire right away (i.e. along with the initial job offer). It is also highly unlikely that a new tenure line would be generated for the purposes of hiring a partner (the following year say). Having said that, you could be lucky enough to get us at a time when we’re planning to do another hire the following year anyway. If your partner works in the area we’re looking for, the stars might align. (If you work in the same area, then it becomes far harder to picture a situation where you could both be here on the TT).

Having said all that, if you’re not dead set on you both getting *TT* jobs in the same department, then there are other ways things might work out. Almost every year, we have someone going on leave, and so we hire visitors. I could imagine a situation where the partner of a colleague became the person who picked up whatever courses needed to be covered while someone is on leave or where something like a permanent lectureship was created.Report

Jason Aleksander
Jason Aleksander
6 years ago

In addition to speaking to the specifics of SLACs, this is all good advice for small to mid-sized Master’s universities (though not necessarily for those that grant MAs in Philosophy). The research expectations will vary considerably from school to school within this classification, but the advice above is nevertheless correct about how research tends to be understood in tenure evaluations. In short, at both SLACs and Master’s universities, what is prized in faculty is the ability to integrate teaching and scholarship (the lingo is often “teacher-scholar”) and offer significant or innovative contributions in university service (when possible, these service contributions should also grow out of a faculty member’s scholarship).

Also comments from #1 and #3 [hi, Erin!] about institutional culture and General Education are well worth bearing in mind for Master’s universities, especially private colleges and universities in which General Education is strongly associated with a brand or mission identity (e.g., most Catholic colleges and universities as well non-affiliated SLACs and mid-sized private universities). It will be hard for those interviewing at these kinds of places to understand the ins and outs of these curricula, but do your research on the structure of the General Education program and try to ascertain the role of the hiring Department in that program. At a minimum, asking intelligent questions about these matters should signal interest in playing a role in these programs.

Most important: keep in mind that in your total teaching load you are likely to have only a few classes directly oriented to philosophy majors. General Education requirements are generally the lifeblood of Philosophy at SLACs and Masters universities. If the school even has a BA curriculum in Philosophy, it might have only two or three Philosophy requirements that run in regular rotation for a small number of active majors. Even in universities that have large philosophy programs relative to undergraduate populations (e.g., most Catholic colleges and universities have healthy programs in Philosophy), most of your teaching will be to non-majors. You can do exciting work in these situations, but in your interviews, you should be able to show that you are excited about teaching philosophy to students who are not philosophy majors.

Here’s where things get a bit dicey… hiring departments will be composed of individuals who have different–sometimes inconsistent–priorities in their preferences for candidates. Candidates can’t neglect any part of their CVs and need to be well-versed on topics that may turn out to be irrelevant in some contexts. For instance, as important as I think teaching is, I think teaching statements are a waste of time (it seems that 95% of them say something about Socratic method and care for texts, blah, blah, blah–I’m not going to trust a person to be a good teacher unless I actually see them teach); but I doubt that my view is the one held by the majority of my colleagues.

I mention this example in order to frame this next point: it would be a good idea for those applying to SLACs and Masters universities with strong General Education programs to learn a bit about various practices in “outcome assessment.” There will be scenarios in which expressing enthusiasm for outcome assessment processes would be imprudent since many faculty (especially philosophy faculty, perhaps) detest these processes. But knowing a bit about it could come in handy in the right sorts of contexts in an interview. It will almost certainly be valuable information if you end up teaching in a SLAC or Master’s university.

Here are some resources that might be worth a look:
the AAC&U’s website: http://www.aacu.org/publications/free-web
Several works by James O. Nicholas and Karen W. Nichols from Agathon Press, including:
General Education Assessment for Improvement of Student Academic Achievement and
The Departmental Guide and Record Book for Student Outcomes Assessment and Institutional EffectivenessReport

AnonGradStudent
AnonGradStudent
6 years ago

I would love to get a job at a SLAC, in part because I went to a small liberal arts college for undergrad and am a huge fan of the small liberal arts approach. However, for financial reasons, it was a decently respected regional liberal arts college, but not a national, uber-selective schools, and so I am wondering whether my background is even worth mentioning (or whether it might even hinder me–e.g., if SLACs would look at my undergrad school and think I don’t really know what a selective liberal arts school is like).Report

Barry Lam
Barry Lam
6 years ago

Anon SLACker Prof: It is true that teaching loads are a lot less flexible at SLACs. Here at Vassar, reduced teaching loads almost exclusively result from large research grants where courses are then covered through external funding, or are due to extenuating circumstances like medical or family emergencies, and even then, they are not at full pay/benefits. Since coverage of the curriculum matters, a course you are not teaching is a course that must be covered. Thus, asking for course reductions is asking for someone else to cover your courses.Report

Nathaniel Goldberg
Nathaniel Goldberg
6 years ago

To AnonGradStudent (#9) — I would mention it. It would definitely help at my SLAC and I’d be surprised if it didn’t help elsewhere (though check with others to be sure). All job candidates, by definition, did their PhD work at R1 universities. Knowing that a candidate herself went to a liberal-arts college helps her standout.Report

Daniel Groll
Daniel Groll
6 years ago

Mentioning it definitely will not hinder you! Indeed, it could well help you (just a little). When I see that a candidate went to a liberal arts college, it tends to remove any worries I might have that they don’t get what SLACs are about.Report

Greg
Greg
6 years ago

My partner and I are both in the philosophy department at the same SLAC. We managed to get 2 TT jobs in the same year (even though the dept was only advertising one line that year) by each taking a partial line, i.e. a reduced teaching load and correspondingly reduced salary. In our case, we each got 80% of a line — so taught 4 classes/year instead of the usual 5/year at our school; so the school had to come up with 1.6 “lines” instead of 1. That said, our department was surprised that the administration OKed their proposal to add the extra 0.6 of a line.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
6 years ago

There’s a simple game-theoretical issue lurking behind all public advice about how to apply to this or that kind of institution and convince the search committee to hire you. It’s so obvious that I can hardly believe anyone is missing it. But since it always seems to be ignored, I guess I’ll be the one to say the words.

Everyone on the market these days is playing a very difficult, very competitive game. If you think someone deserves the prize of a secure position, or if you want to help one of the competitors for some other reason, then offering strategic or tactical guidance on how to win could help your favored candidate gain an advantage. But if you give out this advice in a very public forum like, say, the Daily Nous comments section, then you’re giving an advantage to everyone equally. In a zero sum game like this one, where increasing the skill of the players will not affect the number or value of prizes, an equally distributed advantage is really no advantage at all. It helps no one, but it changes the way the game is played.

Specifically, giving out inside tips on popular blogs like this one trains everyone to be better at saying the right things to search committees, whether or not those things are true. Since practically everyone on the market is desperate enough to want any job, however inappropriate, just to stay in the game, this in essence means that dispensing this advice in public will aid people who are not suited for a SLAC environment in their efforts to fool search committees into giving them TT positions.

When there’s so much deception in the system, search committee members have to employ more devious but time-consuming tricks to figure out who would be the best fit. But then these tricks, and ways of overcoming them, will be exposed in the next round of publicly accessible job hunt advice. And so on.

Meanwhile, if nobody published these things, candidates would tend to be less prepared and hence more transparent to search committees, who could thereby make better decisions. Wouldn’t that be preferable?Report

Sacco
Sacco
6 years ago

A follow up on Justin Kalef’s comment:

I’ve been under the impression that, at least for the past few years, search committees really do enjoy an embarrassment of riches as far as excellent job candidates. Would someone who has been on a few recent search committees mind sharing whether this is true of their experience? If this is indeed the case, would someone then also mind shedding some light on how final decisions from shorts lists are being made? Are we at a point where search committees can, and perhaps often do, simply pick names from a hat of 10-50(?) perfect candidates for any given job search?Report

anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

I’m not sure what I think about this, but I’m inclined to agree with Justin Kalef at least about some of this advice. I’m grateful for the authors of it to have taken their time to give it, but *so much of it* sounds like things that you want the candidate to do because they actually believe/care about these things, not because they’ve trained themselves “this is how I’m going to present myself to SLACs, this is how I’m going to present myself to R1s”, etc. I’m a grad student in a very good department with very good placement (though I would guess disproportionately less SLAC placement than a lot of other departments). When I think about which of my grad student colleagues would actually fit in well at a SLAC, it’s all people who would naturally be inclined to value the kinds of things that are suggested in this post. But I can think of a lot *more* grad student colleagues who are very good at playing a game–very very good–and don’t care about any of this stuff at all. So, I have mixed feelings about offering advice like this. (One part of why my feelings are mixed, just to sort of echo Justin: part of the advice here seems to me to be about what candidates for SLAC should *care* about. And something seems odd about that. I suppose I would prefer to see the advice couched as something like: “are you right for a SLAC? Only if these are *actually* your priorities” vs. “here’s the ways you should present yourself in your interview/application”. All that said, again, I do really appreciate that people took the time to write this. And I’m generally in favor of equal access to information about the job market. But this seems like a sort of weird case.Report

Asst Prof
Asst Prof
6 years ago

“Such places almost exclusively hire junior candidates as they are cheaper and thought to be more adaptable to their teaching environment, and there is considerably less priority for senior research distinction than at major research institutions.”

What is meant exactly by ‘junior candidates’? How junior?

Does this mean that, other things being equal, a candidate who is ABD or just received their PhD is preferable to one who is not yet tenured and in year 3, 4, or 5 of a tenure-track position at a non-SLAC looking to move a SLAC?Report

Erik Wielenberg
Erik Wielenberg
6 years ago

Justin Kalef raises some important points. I take it that one worry is that the SLAC Job Guide (SJG) will promote deceptiveness (with respect to certain things) on the part of job candidates, thereby making it harder for SLAC search committees to make good hiring decisions. I have three thoughts about this worry. The first is that the worry seems to apply at most to some but not all of the advice in the SJG. For example, some of the advice concerns what sorts of questions to ask or avoid asking; that advice is perhaps easily followed by any candidate regardless of his or her genuine fit with the relevant SLAC and so is subject to the deception worry. But consider, for example, the fourth paragraph in the “Teaching Matters” section of the SJG:

“Additionally, many SLACs will include a teaching demonstration/mock class as an important part of the on-campus interview process. Hiring departments at SLACs will be looking for an outstanding teaching performance, as well as a demonstration of your ability to elicit student interest and lead discussion effectively.”

The advice to deliver an outstanding teaching performance, elicit student interest, and lead discussion effectively cannot be easily followed by every candidate and so the deception worry seems not to apply here. What could happen is that future job candidates could read this advice and put a lot of effort into honing various teaching-related skills. Such candidates might become more effective teachers – but that seems to be a good thing, both for such candidates and for SLACs looking to hire. I think that enough of the advice in the SJG is of the difficult-to-fake variety to make the Guide’s dissemination an overall good thing.

My second thought relates to this remark from anonymous’s follow-up to Kalef’s post: “part of the advice here seems to me to be about what candidates for SLAC should *care* about. And something seems odd about that. I suppose I would prefer to see the advice couched as something like: ‘are you right for a SLAC?’” I think that, despite the way the advice in the SJG is couched, the SJG can in fact help job candidates figure out whether they’d be happy at a SLAC. And I think that is also a good thing, even taking into account the fact that there are plenty of candidates who may try to fake it even if SLAC-life sounds hellish to them and they just want to stay in the game long enough to get to a research position.

My third thought is that people are often uncertain or have false beliefs about how happy they’d be at a SLAC. And so I think it’s plausible that some graduate students will try to follow the SJG’s advice (perhaps initially with little or no enthusiasm) and discover that they find a lot of the teaching-related stuff enjoyable and rewarding. So another benefit of the SJG may be to lead people to sample the SLAC-lifestyle and find out that they like it, thereby generating more good candidates for SLAC positions.

So, while I agree that the SJG provides a certain amount of aid to the posers, it seems to me that the benefits of disseminating a guide like this outweigh that drawback.Report

Greg
Greg
6 years ago

I think I’m with Erik W on this: everyone who has their PhD knows (to some degree, not perfectly) what is expected of an R1 professor, and what is valued by R1 institution. But many people in PhD programs don’t know what SLACs value, and what sort of candidate SLACs are looking for. So, because there’s this asymmetry between candidates’ knowledge of R1s and SLACs, I don’t really think this is secret insider information; it’s more like basic information that your PhD-granting teachers might not know, because they have lived their whole academic life in the R1 environment. And candidates might even get *bad* advice from their R1 teachers, who mistakenly over-generalized from the R1 case to the SLAC case (there are lots of similarities, after all). I think this guide lets candidates better see the range of different expectations and values out there.Report

Barry Lam
Barry Lam
6 years ago

Asst Prof 17 &1:49: Since I wrote the passage, I’ll speak for myself in that “junior” means “untenured” and by that I mean someone hired into a position as tenure-track untenured. My impression is that, within the category of untenured folk, preferences for career stages are rather idiosyncratic to individuals within institutions, not to the institution nor the category of SLACs. But I can let the other contributors speak for their institution.

Justin Kalef: The concern is understandable. Erik Wielenberg already spoke a lot about how I view some of them. This kind of advice was already something I gave to friends who were placement directors, former students, or anyone else who has come up to me for advice. Isn’t it better that the advice is public? Perhaps I’m not cynical enough, or too cynical, but my concern wouldn’t be widespread deception, but adaptive preference (yes, this is an abusive use of this term).Report

Stephen Bloch-Schulman
Stephen Bloch-Schulman
6 years ago

I teach at a Liberal Art’s focused (more or less…) Master’s University, with no graduate program in philosophy, and agree with Jason Aleksander that this is advice that fits quite well for our context. And I think Jason is right that many of the teaching statements are surprisingly similar, treating anything beyond a lecture as “innovative pedagogy.” And I agree with him that his view is the only view about the value of teaching statements. Speaking both as a person who has read many teaching statements and has been involved with conversations about how to determine teaching excellence both within my department and through my involvement with the American Association of Philosophy Teachers, I can say that there are some (maybe many) who agree with Jason that the proof of quality teaching can only (or, more weakly, largely) be garnered through witnessing a person teach. But there are many others—myself included—who believe that there is pedagogic knowledge (this is Lee Shulman’s term) and that this is revealed in teaching statements. I can’t tell if a candidate is a jerk or is easy to relate to, etc., but I have a strong sense for her thinking as a pedagogue. I can tell, for example, how engaged students are, how much they read, how much they write, how much scaffolding is used, whether their activities are confined to the classroom or if they extend beyond the classroom (e.g., civic engagement or service learning). I can tell a lot (though not everything) about how learning-centered they are, and how well they think about integrating the various components of a class. Out another way to think about this: if there are so many strong candidates and most of those candidates write similar teaching statements, why not try to stand out by writing a better one? Even if some on the committee disregard it, it seems likely that some on the committee don’t. And let me add that one way to do that is by engaging with the literature about teaching and learning (in Teaching Philosophy, in College Teaching, in Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, etc.). Very few candidates refer to such sources, and doing so can therefore set one apart, speak powerfully that one views teaching as a scholarly activity.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
6 years ago

Perhaps a few people might become dedicated teachers in the process of considering what they would need to do to win job compositions at SLACs. Perhaps others would, on careful consideration, decide a career at a SLAC is not for them and apply only to R1 jobs with absolutely no backup plans in academia. But I have to say, that doesn’t sound like a whole lot of job seekers nowadays.

I think the psychology of the typical philosophy job seeker today is a little like this: stress and fatigue from years of terror and panic at the thought that after everything they’ve done and accomplished and all the energy, time and money they’ve sunk into the process; despair at the very real prospect that they will end up with absolutely nothing; and a willingness to do pretty well whatever it takes to keep the dream alive.

Many of these people, in programs around the world, will never stop dreaming of the R1 position they’ve seen their supervisors inhabit. Many others are in the process of discovering they suck as teachers but kind of hate it anyway so they don’t want to do much to fix it. Mixed in with all them are a handful of people who are great SLAC material. But the ones who aren’t still realize that the research positions they want are just too rare to bank on. So they’re on the lookout for anything that can keep them afloat in the profession while they publish their way out of a position that’s not really for them. And they’re so desperate, they’ll say anything and do anything to get their feet in the door somewhere, just anywhere. My suspicion is that the biggest challenge for SLAC SCs is detecting and eliminating these candidates and finding the few people who are for real and not just mouthing the words. But when everyone knows how to pass the test, it becomes much more difficult for the best candidates to be heard through the noise of the hundreds of people I always see at the APA: virtual clones of each other who have all had the same advice on how to act, what to say, and what to wear, and whose social interactions always seem to be part of a great big interview.

I’m not saying I blame these people. They often start out as sincere people, and their situation is very desperate for reasons that are in no measure their fault. I’m sure many of them will go on to live sincere lives again when they aren’t fighting for their careers. But that’s not where they seem to be now. If they read on a blog that their job prospects depend on their ability to impress an SC with a teaching demo that features X, Y and Z, and they have to pick between developing the teaching demo themselves or spending the same time working on another great paper and getting someone else to prep them on how to do a convincing X,Y,Z teaching demo that won’t take a lot of work, I suspect many will take option 2.

I’m sure most people who contribute to these discussions aren’t intending to help candidates defraud search committees. Probably all the comments on these topics are meant very kindly as helpful tips. I’m just not so sure that the results will be similarly auspicious.Report

Kate Norlock
Kate Norlock
6 years ago

Justin Kalef: “Meanwhile, if nobody published these things, candidates would tend to be less prepared and hence more transparent to search committees, who could thereby make better decisions. Wouldn’t that be preferable?” The hence clause doesn’t follow, so I’ll say no. Being less prepared doesn’t make one more transparent. It may just result in being the person who didn’t realize what different sorts of schools expect, which is surely no better in a desperate job market.

What Stephen Bloch-Schulman describes does not seem to yield clones; on the contrary, individual instructors and grad students I’ve met through the American Association of Philosophy Teachers have developed really distinctive teaching materials and insights. It’s not mere word-mouthing. If wider and deeper engagement with pedagogic knowledge on the part of applicants makes it hard for search committees to tell who really cares about pedagogy, great! I would be happy to suffer from the results of having too many graduate programs actually train and educate their PhD students in the main thing that most institutions are hiring instructors to do.Report

Junior SLACer
Junior SLACer
6 years ago

Sacco: I’ve served on a few SLAC search committees, and I would say there are definitely not 10-50 *perfect* candidates in every search. Note, this is not to say that there aren’t 10-50 *qualified* candidates: I don’t know how many there are, but I’m sure it’s quite a few. However, it’s important to remember the S in SLAC. The size of the departments and institution sets up a number of constraints on fit for the position that just are not repeated in an abundance of otherwise qualified candidates. Importantly, I don’t mean “fit” in the bias-y “do I want to hang out with you sense” that many object to: it’s a more objective sense of fit. Is there evidence that you can do an excellent job teaching the specific (and diverse) courses that we need? Is there evidence that your research has points of contact, but does not completely overlap, with what other faculty in the department are doing? Is there evidence that you can successfully engage with the kinds of students that we (in general) attract at our institution? The list goes on, and many of the factors are mentioned in the guide. When you add up all the relevant considerations for a particular job at a particular institution, in my admittedly limited experience, there are a small number of candidates that stand out to us. Again, this is not to say there aren’t a lot of great candidates, but only that relatively few will end up seeming like the right ones to us, given the number of considerations at play. Now, this unfortunately means that there is a lot of luck involved in the process, but not that committees are having a difficult time narrowing down the pool.

This is also relevant to Justin Kalef’s concerns: applicants are far less adept at being “deceptive” about providing evidence of success and fit among such a broad range of factors than you (or they) might think. The applicants in our pools do not appear as “virtual clones.”Report

Erik Wielenberg
Erik Wielenberg
6 years ago

Justin K., thanks for fleshing out the worry. I’d be interested in yours and others’ thoughts on the following:

Suppose SLAC positions were generally well-understood and most candidates wanted SLAC jobs but R1 positions were a bit murkier and generally seen as less desirable. And suppose that some R1 folks were to post on a blog advice along the following lines:

“Look, we want to hire the next Kant. So don’t ask questions like, ‘what’s the minimum number of articles I need to publish to get tenure here?’ It’s not enough to be good at explaining other people’s ideas; you need to have an innovative and ingenious research program, be lightning-fast when it comes to answering objections, and show that your work will change the field.”

Here’s a worry: posting such advice will just make it easier for all the desperate job candidates who really want SLAC positions to fool the R1 search committees; they’ll mouth all the right things, say how much they love research, and generally pretend they are the next Kant in order to stay in the game.

But of course merely pretending to be the next Kant won’t get you very far because R1 search committees with access to extensive dossiers will be able to do a reasonably good job of distinguishing mere pretenders from those with the relevant research skills and attributes in a 30-minute interview, and will be able to do a much better job of drawing that distinction via a multi-day on-campus interview.

So, in the actual situation, some SLAC folks have posted on a blog advice (very roughly) along the following lines:

“Look, we want to hire the next Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ o-captain-my-captain. So don’t ask questions like, ‘is it okay if I use multiple-choice assignments instead of essays to free up more time for writing?’ It’s not enough to have an innovative research program; you need to have a creative and carefully-thought-out approach to teaching, be able to explain complex ideas concisely in a way accessible and interesting to non-philosophers, be a master of generating productive discussion that gets everyone involved and talking (not just to you but to each other), and be capable of inspiring in Twitter-fied 18-year-olds a passion for philosophy.”

I’m inclined to the view that merely pretending to be the next captain-o-my-captain won’t get you very far because SLAC committees with access to extensive dossiers will be able to do a reasonably good job of distinguishing mere pretenders from those with the relevant pedagogical skills and attributes in a 30-minute interview, and will be able to do a much better job of drawing that distinction via a multi-day on-campus interview. I don’t claim that it is as easy to distinguish Robin Williams pretenders from genuine Robin Williams candidates as it is to distinguish Kant pretenders from genuine Kant candidates, but I am inclined toward the view that it is sufficiently easy to make the distinction that the pretender worry is not serious enough to make it the case that posting the SJG will make things worse for SLAC search committees overall. I don’t have systematic empirical research to support that view, but it is based on my experience on multiple search committees at DePauw (a middle-of-the-pack SLAC) and having examined probably at least a thousand dossiers and participated in dozens of first-round and on-campus interviews during my time at DePauw.

Hopefully one of the messages that can be disseminated via the SJG and subsequent discussion here is that there’s much more to being a strong SLAC candidate than appearing to have certain attitudes; to echo Junior SLACer (who makes a number of true and important claims), it’s harder to deceive SLAC search committees about the things that matter to them than it may seem.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
6 years ago

Hi, Kate.

Just to clarify: I’m all for grad students attending AAPT sessions, learning good pedagogy and working out how to implement it, developing really distinctive teaching materials and insights, gaining wider and deeper engagement with pedagogical knowledge, and there being way more graduate programs that actually train and educate their PhD students in the thing main thing that most institutions and instructors do. I’m intensely on the side of much better teaching and always have been. My concern, as I hope I made clear, is that the candidates who do all the things you and i both want them to do and who make great teaching a priority will not be detected as easily among many others who are faking it. The ‘prepared’ in the sentence you quote meant prepared for an interview, as opposed to prepared for the actual work. Sorry for not putting that better.

If there are people out there who don’t realize that SLACs differ from research institutions in generally preferring to hire teachers rather than researchers, I’m all for getting that message out. But some other things in these discussions? Not so much.

I think _your_ comment above is great, Kate. But here’s an example of what I wish weren’t out there, the OP advises interviewees at SLACs to avoid talking down to students or treating them as if their opinions don’t matter. Now, if I were on a SLAC search committee, I’d be looking for candidates who seem to be strong teachers on paper but don’t know how to relate to students. Actually, just hearing one condescending thing in a class lecture or mini lecture still makes me wriggle in discomfort the way it did when I used to take those courses in my college, high school and even elementary years. I’d want to catch those people right off the bat. And I don’t think any great teacher would ever walk into a classroom and treat students as if their ideas don’t matter. I don’t know you, Kate, but I’m guessing that neither of us ever had to be told these things. But how does it help if desperate job candidates who are so badly suited for teaching that they would give themselves away by doing that are warned about what a SLAC SC will be looking for as a tip-off that the candidate is just not that into teaching?

Advice like this is not needed by people who are good SLAC material. Is only useful for people who want to put on a show.

I’m all for promoting discussions on how to _become_ a great teacher. It’s only discussions on how to _apply_ to these positions successfully, after the candidate has chosen to do little or nothing to work on pedagogy seriously, that seem unhelpful to me.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
6 years ago

Erik (and Junior SLACer), it’s good to hear you say that you think the late-stage fakery is easy to detect. But isn’t there much more early stage fakery to wade through this way?

Taking your example, Erik, let’s imagine that we are dying for a new colleague who’s just like Robin Williams in _Dead Poets Society_. I would think we’d be much better off _not_ revealing this. Maybe we should just say that we want a creative and dedicated teacher, and that we aren’t attached to traditionalism. Then the candidates would just feel freer to let us see what they’re really like, and we could see who does it right for us.

If we instead told everyone that we’re looking for Robin Williams in DPS, then I suspect we’d get piles of applications from people who aren’t at all like him but say, ‘I was delighted to hear you say you’re looking for Robin Williams: just the other day, one of my students told me I’m just like him. And that’s my all-time favorite movie!” If they got Skype interviews with us, they’d watch the show first to help prepare for the role, and they’d all get us to stand on tables during the on campus interview. OK, we’d catch many of them as bluffers as the interview process went on. But how soon? I don’t know about you, but I sure think I’d be fooled by at least a bunch of insincere application packages and would be apt to make some bad decisions, at least early on.

I think the same principles apply whenever you’re meeting people for the first time and want to screen them before taking things further. imagine that housands of people in a new town have mercenary reasons for becoming friends with Terry. Terry has just moved to town and would like to become good friends with someone genuine. But everyone in the town has access to a ‘How to Make a Good Impression on Terry’ guide. Item 436 is “Never express trust in a major political party. ” item 755 is “Terry doesn’t like dogs or dog people, but you’ll score points if you have a cat and can tell a funny story about it. In the process, make clear that you love animals. Avoid any comment that may suggest insensitivity to the interests of any animals, even dogs.” This guide is updated regularly on the basis of the latest Terry observations, Facebook updates, and Tweets. Thanks to this guide, Terry never knows at first who really loves listening to old Kraftwerk albums and who just read that somewhere and is trying to make a good impression.

Do you agree that it would be easier for Terry if the guide didn’t exist? And wouldn’t it be a little counterproductive for Terry to actively contribute to the guide by adding in “Any friend of Terry’s must love ice skating purely for its own sake”? That just seems to be inviting insincerity and noise into the process.Report

Erik Wielenberg
Erik Wielenberg
6 years ago

Justin, thanks, I think that your last two posts have greatly clarified for me where you are coming from.

In light of your points, if I were now on my own creating and presenting a guide like the one above, I would do things somewhat differently to try to eliminate the noise-inducing aspects, which I agree are present. But I do think that it is beneficial to try to publicize as much as possible the sorts of pedagogical skills that SLACs tend to value together with the message that for most people, acquiring those skills takes significant time and effort.

So, I’ll end with a final piece of advice for prospective SLAC job candidates: the most important thing you can do to make yourself a strong candidate for a SLAC position is to work hard at becoming a great teacher. That’s what SLACs value most and it’s harder to fake it than you might think. To the extent that the SJG suggests otherwise, it’s misleading.

(And please don’t make our students stand on their desks; that sort of shit is likely to end in a lawsuit).Report

Jason Aleksander
Jason Aleksander
6 years ago

I don’t disagree with any of this. I was mainly using my own idiosyncratic (how idiosyncratic I don’t know) views on teaching statements to make the point that no area of the CV or dossier can be neglected rather than to imply that others don’t find them to be valuable tools in evaluating candidates. One of the nice things about having different perspectives that come to bear in hiring situations is that different kinds of evidence get brought to the table in discussions about hiring. Just because I don’t read dossiers the same way as my colleagues doesn’t mean that I discount as irrelevant a conclusion that a colleague reaches by attending to a part of the dossier that I spent less time considering.

This isn’t to say that I feel as if my view has been misrepresented in Stephen’s comment. Quite to the contrary, I think Stephen’s point is entirely appropriate, and I don’t think it’s any kind of problem that we have different attitudes about teaching statements. Still, I thought I might offer the more refined version of my point about teaching statements for whatever it’s worth.

First, I do agree that teaching statements can reveal a knowledge of pedagogy. Sample syllabuses and direct conversation can do this, too. And I DO like to get a sense of the kind of pedagogical knowledge that candidates possess because that kind of pedagogical knowledge generally has some bearing on teaching abilities. Moreover, that kind of knowledge is important when it comes to working with colleagues to design and implement curricula (or to play the role of ambassador for the humanities in one’s institution), so I like to have a sense of whether this is a potential area of strength for a possible future colleague. But, at the same time, I think that teaching ability is a practical knowledge (techne rather than episteme, if you follow my meaning) that is honed in experiences of particular varieties. Teaching statements can reveal only what a person believes about pedagogy, and that is important. But what is far more important to me is evidence concerning how well a person practices the craft. I just don’t put much stock in the teaching statement where this is concerned, though I certainly would not go so far as to say that those who do put stock in them are misguided.

Finally, FWIW, I think that scholarship of teaching is an undervalued resource in the discipline of philosophy. I would not wish for my (probably idiosyncratic) views on teaching statements to be misread as a diatribe against pedagogical knowledge.Report