October 16th, 2008

Job Talks as Proxies for Teaching Potential

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A recently published study in the Journal of Higher Education offers some encouraging evidence about the role of teaching ability in the hiring process. More than 90 percent of the survey respondents rated candidates’ teaching ability as important or very important. Despite that stated importance, a bit less than 17 percent ask for a teaching philosophy statement as part of the credentials packet, less then 8 percent request student rating data, 4 percent ask for syllabi from courses taught previously and less than 1 percent require a teaching portfolio.

This means judgments of potential teaching ability are based on what references say, what the candidate says and on the “job talk”—that lecture, usually on topics related to the candidate’s research interests. Use of the job talk as a proxy for teaching potential was commonly reported by respondents.

It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize that job talks and classroom teaching aren’t all that similar. These researchers highlight a number of dissimilarities. The audience is expert—potential colleagues, most of whom do not respond like undergraduate students. Future colleagues think like the academics they are; undergraduate students think like the novices they are. Candidates are talking about research interests—that’s hardly the venue to demonstrate pedagogical prowess. Search committees can get a glimpse of how well a candidate might be able to lecture, but that doesn’t convey whether the candidate has a larger repertoire of pedagogical strategies.

Candidates should be asked to do a presentation to students—the kind they will be teaching and the students should have the opportunity to offer feedback on that teaching sample. There are alternatives if the idea of teaching is too hard a sell. Candidates could be given some classroom scenarios and asked to respond. They could be asked to devote part of their job talk to a discussion of their philosophy of teaching.

Those of us devoted to teaching and interested in having our institution hire candidates with pedagogical potential need to question how teaching ability is assessed during the hiring process, and we need to be advocating for activities that authentically demonstrate how a candidate will handle teaching tasks.

Reference: Meizlish, D., and Kaplan, M. (2008). Valuing and evaluating teaching in academic hiring: A multidisciplinary and cross institutional study. Journal of Higher Education, 79 (5), 489-512.

—Maryellen Weimer