Wednesday, September 24, 2008


This is what I have to say in response to having to develop sample syllabi just to even apply for a job! Bleh, bleh, bleh!

On a more serious note, I'm curious to hear a somewhat thorough discussion of what purpose the sample syllabi serve at this point in a job search. Are sample syllabi going to be considered in decisions about first cuts? If not, why don't search committees wait and ask for them once they've made initial cuts?


Anonymous said...

Wow... we've never asked for samply syllabi, but sometimes candidates show up with a teaching portfolio that includes them. I know that two of our basic questions are: "How would you structure a survey course in your field" (with the expectation of hearing a philosophical approach to the survey, rather than just a list of authors or texts), and "How would you teach a specialized course in your field?" (with the expectation that it will not simply retread the dissertation topic but will expand upon a general area or approach that is related to your specialty).

Hope that is clearer than it sounds! New faculty teach surveys and sometimes get put into 300-level "special topics" or period courses. I teach Brit Lit II and Modernism (plus Modern British and Irish and Contemporary British and Irish lit), so if I were on the market, I'd expect questions that dealt with how I'd think about those courses and how I'd arrange them to meet specific content and skill goals (sample texts but also sample assignments and even sample grading rubrics are a good thing to include in the portfolio).

Keep your chin up! You'll do fine!

AcadeMama said...

lisawv: What you said is quite clear and extremely helpful - thank you! While I've been putting this syllabus together, I've been conscious of how I'm grouping texts and writers and what historical, social, and literary shifts, themes, or moments I'm trying to highlight. Is this what you mean when you refer to a "philosophical approach to the survey?" If not, I'd be interested to hear more if you have the time.

My other issue/question is whether or not a search committee is actually going to consider sample syllabi in their decisions at this stage? I've never heard of this being a factor so early in the game.

Jennie said...

AcadeMama, I am in a R1 department where--when push comes to shove--teaching is not that important...for tenure. You just have to not suck. And you can suck if your research is superb and abundant. That said, we look at EVERYTHING during the hiring process (from CV all the way down to personality). The more competitive the applicant pool for any one position, the more important those syllabi are going to be. In my particular department (I have never been on a search committee in another department and, for what it's worth, my field is not English), I can tell you that course syllabi are considered seriously when deciding who to interview (translation: at the first committee meeting), as a way of weeding out people who might not be a good fit (because you just can't interview everyone). They help a committee understand how you're going to mesh with and complement the philosophies and orientation/approaches of the department and how precisely you might fulfill their teaching/research needs, in comparison to other qualified candidates. Now, exceptional syllabi aren't going to get you on the short list (or even on the long short list) if you're lacking in other areas: relevant research, publications, teaching experience, etc. Nevertheless, you can have all of that and still not get so much as a phone/major conference interview if the syllabi aren't a good fit with the department. Or even when somebody else's syllabi are just a better fit. As an example, the subjects/topics of your research/teaching may be very relevant to a particular department, but the way you approach or conceptualize those topics may not be. This is something that can be difficult to ascertain through cover letters alone, but it may be clarified and exposed more deeply through course syllabi. Showing how you understand, structure and break down broad areas of study within your field, who you cite as authorities, how your teaching philosophies are implemented through assignments, etc. is very helpful in finding the right match. Try to look at this as a good thing for you. For one, it is actually interview prep to be thinking about these things on your own time and in your own environment. And two, you really don't want to end up at a place (much less try to get tenure at a place) that does not fundamentally value your approaches to teaching and research.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that's basically what I meant about the philosophical approach. I'm at a research-intensive, flagship state university, and I have to argue strenuously that we DO look at teaching, and it is counted just a little below research when it comes to tenure decisions. Real, substantial teaching experience is a huge plus in a candidate when we're hiring, and I was on one committee that scoffed at a guy I ended up calling "Yale Boy" because he announced (with a great deal of arrogance) that his advisors had told him that teaching would come later, just focus on his dissertation. Ha! His connections and the Ivy allure got him as far as MLA, but he did not get a campus interview.

The only thing that doesn't really "count" toward tenure here is service, and yet we're all sucked into varying levels of committee hell nonetheless. I think the importance of teaching vs. research varies a lot school by school. We are a 40/40/20 school, with our time and efforts (and evaluations) aimed at 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service, for most regular assistant, tenure-track professors. All raises are merit-based, based on annual evaluations only of research and teaching, but both equally.

Jennie is right on the money about it being a "whole package" thing -- you have to have the pubs in place, the conference presentations, the stuff under review, as well as the teaching materials and experience. The best candidates in a saturated field are going to be exceptional in all areas. In the end, though, I would say that the letters and the writing sample are much more important that the sample syllabi could ever be. Polish them until they gleam.

We also look for energy. The campus visit presentations are huge. It clues us into your passion for your research, but it is also insight into how you teach. You need to perfect the coctail party chat version of your work -- the 20 second, 2 sentence, "here's what I do" speech, as well as the formal talk. I'm always shocked by how unprepared people are to perform their job talk. You have to sell it. You can't be Sarah Palin in a room of Charlie Gibsons, squirming in your interview suit. It's a performance. I'm always surprised by how people deliver their talks, and how little energy they have. I know it's a long day of meetings, one giant interview over at least two days, and the candidates are exhausted, but the trick is not to let us know you are exhausted. Power Bars and a hotpot in your luggage so you can sneak some instant oatmeal or a cup of tea at the hotel after those "dinners" where you barely eat were a lifesaver for me (I had five campus visits in six weeks, which involved 2 back to back trips to the Dayton, OH airport in one week. Bizarre).

I was also advised to pee whenever possible while on a campus visit, because you'll be hustled in and out of a dozen different offices during the day and the person assigned to shepherd you around campus might not think to give you a break between meetings (feel free to ask for one! And ask whoever is doing the schedule ahead of time to give you at least a 15-30 minute break and a calm, quiet room just before your talk, if at all possible. They might not think of it, but most schools are going to be ok with you asking for it). It's like going on an around-the-world trip, all packed into a couple of days. I remember how awful it was because I was nursing and would desperately need to pump and dump by the end of those days. I always wondered if anyone noticed how much bigger my breasts were at the end of the day than at the beginning... fortunately, I don't think anyone was paying that kind of attention. I'm just glad I never leaked. It all felt very surreal.

We never get the sample syllabi/teaching portfolio stuff until MLA at the earliest, or even at the campus visit, but we're always aware of how your reviewers write about your teaching in the letters. The "teaching letter" is an essential part of the packet.

Ah, memories... hope this helps you! I think it is an enormously intimidating process. It has to be better now than 8 years ago, though, right? I have witnessed the shrinking of so many Ph.D. programs over the past decade, I would think we were getting closer to having jobs for those who finish well. I believe the numbers were 1 in 4 finding a tenure line job within 2 years of graduating when I was on the market, which were not good odds. I do think it must be substantially better now, with less competition at this end of the process. The real competition is getting into a decent Ph.D. program in English, now that so many programs have cut themselves in halves and quarters.