Here is the third in our series, Job-Market Diaries, in which Mark Tonelli interviews new faculty members about how they found their full-time teaching job. This month he talks with a new lecturer who is a specialist in musical theater.
- Name: Elizabeth Gerbi
- Institution: The American University
- Position: Professorial Lecturer
- Start date: August 2016
Describe your background.
Elizabeth: I have a dual bachelor’s of music in vocal performance and music education from Ithaca College School of Music, a master’s of music education from Boston University, and I was enrolled in a doctoral program at Shenandoah Conservatory, studying voice pedagogy in contemporary styles. Along the route, I have directed the music of a few hundred theatrical productions in regional theaters and academic settings. I have also worked steadily as a voice educator, with students ranging from toddlers to octogenarians, in styles ranging from classical choral oratorios to R&B musicals.
Now I’m in a nine-month term appointment. The system is very new to me, so I don't quite feel prepared to comment on the efficacy of it yet; though I will say there are members of my department who have been here in such appointments for more than 15 years. Term appointments relieve us from scholarship and emphasize excellence in teaching, collegiality, and service.
What types of things did you do to prepare to teach full time in academia?
Elizabeth: I began teaching long before I knew that I would pursue a graduate degree in education, and worked as an adjunct professor for the duration of my master’s and doctoral work. I felt — and feel — that the most effective way to comprehend and implement new methodologies is to introduce them into familiar classroom situations. In other words, I would discover a new approach in a pedagogy seminar or in a master class, and the next day would be able to experiment and refine its use in the studio.
I sometimes feared for the longevity of my classmates who were taking the alternative approach and committing themselves to teaching careers straight out of undergraduate programs without having spent any time in the trenches. I have fairly strong feelings about what sort of individuals tend to make for exceptional teachers, and believe that you can only discover how suitable a life this might be for your talents by working actively in the field.
Sometimes graduate students feel unnecessary pressure to complete their degrees before they’ve had adequate time to establish their personal philosophy of teaching. I was fortunate to be working with diverse populations of students in a variety of contexts from my undergraduate years on.
What would you have done differently to prepare for the job?
Elizabeth: I ended up leaving a competitive doctoral program in order to assume my first full-time teaching position. To be a full-time professor was always my end goal, but I had the opportunity to achieve it earlier than expected. When a job offer came along, I asked my doctoral program for accommodations; unfortunately, it was unwilling or unable to guarantee when and how courses would be offered in upcoming semesters, so I accepted the job offer and dropped out of the program. ...
Clearly I took a gamble in choosing the job over degree completion. In my discipline, the terminal degree varies depending on the setting, with some programs expecting candidates to have a doctorate of musical arts and an increasing number requiring a master’s. … But once you have made the decision to step onto the reappointment hamster wheel, it’s virtually impossible to find the time to resume rigorous coursework in the arts in a meaningful way.
Did I make the right decision? It’s difficult to assess at the beginning of my career, although I have to admit that there would be some comfort in having my doctorate completed should the gold standard for my discipline change as more and more campuses are exploring how to include musical theater among their offerings. I do wish that I knew more about what was likely to be expected of me as a successful candidate 10 or 20 years from now.
What do you think helped you get the job?
Elizabeth: Some of my new colleagues were unusually candid in sharing how positively they felt about my two teaching demonstrations. One was a prepared lecture, and one was a master class where I was sight-reading at the piano and coaching an unfamiliar student. It might seem like obvious advice, but I worked tenaciously to craft and hone the prepared session, trying to create as nuanced, humorous, and relevant a lecture as possible to represent the best of my work. I “performed” this module for friends and colleagues, asking for their feedback. I created a full script for the session in the same way I would cement a conference presentation.
I was also as open as I could be in the interview process. I didn’t just answer questions safely and perfunctorily — I wanted to give the committee members a sense of what sitting in my office hours, hashing through a problem, might be like. I asked questions of the committee members, and inquired what they felt they could do better as a department. I received some interesting answers, which led me slightly off my intended agenda.
What advice do you have for academic job candidates?
Elizabeth: Be authentic. Don’t profess to have skills or experiences beyond your actual bio, but take the time and care to paint the most prolific portrait of your credentials as possible. Remember, this process is about matchmaking, not about you overselling your credentials; you want to find the right fit for your abilities.
I urge candidates to really allow their instincts to guide them and — regardless of how badly you might think you want a job — to consider everything they experience. Be mindful, as much as it is possible to be. As I’ve been told by numerous mentors, you really are interviewing the department members as much as they are interviewing you.
Also, have several pairs of eyes proofread your application materials — preferably someone who knows you very well (like a teacher or a mentor) and someone who doesn’t (like an online assistant or proofreading service). Between the two, you’ll have a strong idea of how well you are presenting your bevy of skills, as well as how effectively you have organized your materials so that a stranger can quickly assess your viability as a candidate.