Image: Men reading the want advertisements for jobs, Melinda Street, Toronto, Canada, 1919, by William James (City of Toronto Archives)
Academic job ads are not Rubik’s cubes. They often don’t yield enough information for you to “solve” them -- that is, to know exactly what the hiring department means or wants. It helps, however, to be aware of how common jargon found in those ads can vary in meaning.
Hence this series on career lingo. So far we’ve talked about the meaning of: “degree completed by,” “in a related field,” “required” versus “preferred” qualifications, “we will begin reviewing applications by,” and “the search committee.” Now let’s turn to a specific request that, as always, contains more nuance than you would imagine upon initial reading. Here are some factors to consider when responding to an ad that asks about your “ability to teach.”
One of the lessons you learn on the job market — whether as a candidate, on a search committee, or as an administrator — is that there is no cap on how many times you can be asked the same question. (Frustratingly, a peremptory “Dolt! I’ve already answered that question 10 times” will not advance your candidacy.) But some questions matter more than others and this one — on your “ability to teach” various courses in a department — is of especially wide concern. You will have to talk about that not only in your cover letter but perhaps a dozen times more across various conference, phone, and campus interviews for the same position.
The department chair is worried about who will teach those courses in the new academic year. Some faculty might be thinking, “if we don’t hire the right person to teach those classes, I might get stuck doing it.” Alternately, the courses might be among those that many faculty members consider vital, such as introductory courses that feed ones taught by these professors. So while the “ability to teach” issue may be pro forma for some, it is crucial to others. It is never mentioned without purpose.
That phrase, when you see it in a job ad, may include the expectation that you can teach:
- Specific classes (e.g., “Introduction to Nutrition Research”).
- Courses in wider disciplinary or subdisciplinary areas (e.g., “19th Century British Literature”).
- Types or levels of coursework (e.g., “introductory skills classes” or “advanced theory classes”).
- Multiple kinds of courses in more than one area of specialization (e.g., “both American History pre-1860 and modern Russian history.”) That is more likely to be the case in small departments that need to cover lots of service courses.
Conversely, the courses you would be expected to teach may not yet exist at the institution. One of my doctoral advisees started a new position where he was the first person teaching in an area into which his department wanted to expand. One of the expectations for the position was that he would create new classes (that is, “We seek an innovator who can help us build a sequence in engineering finance by designing basic classes”).
You can show departments the range of courses you would be able to cover by various means and evidence.
It’s not enough to merely state — in a cover letter or at a conference interview — that you can teach a particular course or area. When I first served on a search committee as an assistant professor I saw a senior professor urge candidates to “show and tell” their teaching background for the position. He basically wanted to know exactly what someone had done to qualify them to teach in a particular subject area. More than two decades later, I have heard a range of answers from candidates. I offer them here in descending order of strength:
- “I have taught that course several times as a teacher of record in my grad program.” In that case, “show” your skill sets by: (a) providing the syllabus and any other supporting materials (like student evaluation reports), and (b) making sure your department chair is a reference on your success in teaching the course.
- “I have served as TA in that course.” Here you want to emphasize that you were (one hopes) not just taking roll and making copies. Explain what active roles you took as TA, such as designing classroom materials, grading, and teaching guest lectures. Your supervisor, the course’s faculty teacher, should be able to chime in on how “invaluable” you were to the course’s success and how you are “ready to teach it.” You want to show that you are now prepared to “step up” to be teacher of record.
- “I am very familiar with the course.” Well, it’s a long shot but not necessarily a desperate ploy to state, “I have not actually taught or helped teach that class but it is within my area of expertise, broadly defined.” So you can argue that your area of research or previous experience fits the course and you can certainly prep to teach it. Or maybe you have taught or been a TA for other classes that are not far off the mark from the ones the hiring department has in mind. Here, as well, you want a reference to corroborate your potential.
- “I am willing to learn.” Maybe you really have nothing to show any connection to what the department wants. But you have strengths for other parts of the job hiring profile, perhaps in research. You then have one strike against you but have not necessarily struck out. Maybe the search committee found you so terrific in your other areas that it will strive to justify ignoring your teaching deficit. Extend a reassurance: “I have not taught that before, but I can when you need me to.” Sometimes the ad will throw you a lifeline by stating some variation of looking for someone who “shows an interest in teaching" a particular part of the curriculum.
Of course, documentary or testimonial evidence that you have the ability to teach a particular course is never enough in itself. The hiring department wants to see you in action. You will be asked to conduct a teaching demonstration for one (or more) of the selected courses. Even if you have taught a similar course before, prepare for the teaching demo anyway. You probably won’t have to teach the entire course but rather as little as 45 minutes or so of a class session. Be at your best.
Finally, keep in mind that personal impressions about you count as much as your CV in the hiring game. No one expects you, as a rookie teacher, to be at the top of your form immediately. But your enthusiasm and excitement for the task can matter a great deal. If a hiring department’s faculty have determined that a particular course is important enough to be listed in the job ad, they want to know by your tone, body language, and words that you care about it just as much as they do.