David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Career Lingo: “Teaching Responsibilities Include”

Image: via Kheel Center, Cornell University

Anyone who has ever written chemical formulas, legal documents, or love letters knows that slight changes of wording can wholly change meaning. The same is true of faculty job ads in higher education.

In this Career Lingo series on the meaning of common words and phrases in job ads, I’ve already written about the term “ability to teach the following.” When you see ads with the “ability to teach” phrase, the department is usually saying: “We have a specific area of teaching in mind for this position. We will be expansive as to what counts, but we don’t want someone too off the mark.”

But a similar phrase — “teaching responsibilities include” — is found just as regularly in job ads. It doesn’t just mean “you might teaching the following.” It also can mean: “This is what you will teach. Period.” The “teaching responsibilities include” phrase tends to be far more restrictive. And it’s much more likely to show up in an ad for a department or an institution where teaching is the heavyweight in the standard troika of research, teaching, and service.

So, for example, an ad with the “teaching responsibilities include” clause might list specific courses that need to be taught — “Video Production I,” “American History: Colonial Era to Civil War,” or “Quantitative Methods in Finance and Risk Management.” The imperative is clear: The department is looking for someone to teach those specific courses — not related or analog ones. And you as the applicant must make a strong, unequivocal case that you can.

What do I mean by strong and unequivocal?

  • Strong. Puffery like “I’ve always been interested in teaching this course” won’t do. You need evidence. Have you actually taught (or TA’d for) the course? Can you make the case that a slightly different course you taught (or TA’d for) enables you to teach this one? Or, stretching the limits of plausibility, do you have some expertise — such as in your research — that might lead a generously minded committee (already interested in hiring you for other reasons) to think, “She hasn’t taught it exactly, but by September I’m sure she would be ready to do it.”
  • Unequivocal. State confidently that you can do it. Most scholars can, with enough preparation, teach an intro or survey course in their field. I am surprised, however, at how many job applicants get mealy-mouthed about their own skill sets, especially when talking about teaching survey or intro classes. Of course you shouldn’t lie, but if you believe you can pull it off, say so. And don’t include modifiers like, “I’m not really sure” or “I will give it my best shot.”

Keep in mind: If the department hires you to teach a narrow list of courses, they may be all it ever wants you to teach — for years. You may happily state, “I really love teaching composition,” but what if that’s all you get to teach, semester after semester, for the next decade? Go into the job interview with eyes wide open — aware that “include” may denote a tight slot for someone who must teach certain classes year after year. Consider the ramifications not just for your first year of teaching but for your fifth and your tenth.

Of course where it gets tricky for candidates is that some job ads may use the same phrase — “teaching responsibilities include” — but have broader intentions for whom they will hire. The courses and topics listed in the ad may not be all that the department wants or even what it most wants in the long term.

You might face that situation ina small department at a liberal-arts college or a community college. The teaching load is heavy and faculty members teach an array of classes, including large service courses for nonmajors. The job ad may list specific courses but the college will also need you to teach other ones, too. Your CV may attract the search committee’s interest if your teaching experience is broad enough. In this scenario, when the ad says “teaching responsibilities include,” the word “include” is more likely to mean “for example” than “only these.”

So how can you tell the department’s intentions?

When you’re doing a little digging on the college web site, don’t just look at the courses mentioned in the job ad. Look at the ones the department offers in related areas. Can you teach in those areas, too?

Also, scan the college’s web site for examples of student course plans, so you can get a sense of which courses follow the ones you would be hired to teach. You will be more impressive if you can teach sequences of courses rather than just individual ones.

Finally, try to gain some intel from informants in the department, or pick up some hints at a conference interview about whether the list of teaching responsibilities should be interpreted narrowly or broadly.

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