May 23, 2013, 2:40 pm
The first time I wrote a statement of teaching philosophy, I had just entered a doctoral program and was participating in a mandatory professional-development workshop. We read a handful of model statements by faculty members in the department and then set out to write our own. The form was clear and straightforward: Lead with general but enthusiastic statements about the teaching mission, introduce some of the complicating pedagogical issues specific to the field, find one or two opportunities to describe specific classroom successes, and conclude with a summary expression of how exciting it is to see students achieve under your direction.
Additionally, it seemed, one should note that this was a philosophy in progress. Every statement we saw included that point, and, after all, some in the workshop were teaching their first courses even as we attempted to define our practice. I’m…
May 9, 2013, 2:49 pm
On a recent campus interview a friend of mine quickly got the sense that something slightly strange was going on in the department. More than once the mention of “Bill” triggered a series of knowing smiles. My friend knew Bill, or thought he did, from the department’s Web site, which included faculty photos and biographical notes. In fact, he was looking forward to their meeting since it seemed they shared certain specialties, but those smiles scared him away from questions. Toward the end of his visit, though, my friend and his host bumped into Bill in a hallway, and he finally got the joke.
This was not the trim, black-suited Bill from the Web site. This man wore dreadlocks past his shoulders and dressed in shorts and sandals. A cannabis leaf was painted on each of his big toenails. Their research did overlap (or had at some point), but, as my friend discovered, he was interviewing …
April 16, 2013, 11:49 am
One of the things I appreciate most about my current university is the purposeful community building I see taking place on this campus, the attempt to engage students outside the classroom in ways that challenge their hearts in addition to their minds. Here I’m thinking of the performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor that brought master musicians to our campus last month or the freshman debates I’ll be attending tonight. That sense of community beyond the classroom is particularly strong in the honors college where I teach, but last night I saw it on a larger scale in the form of a prayer vigil held for the victims of the Boston bombings. The image of hundreds of students, faculty, and administrators coming together in response to this tragedy has been much in my mind this morning as I prepare for class.
In a few hours I’ll be teaching a room of freshmen, all of them 18 or 19 years old, …
March 12, 2013, 2:23 pm
This past weekend I sold a year’s subscription to a poetry journal to a woman who introduced herself by saying she didn’t care for poetry. We were at the 2013 Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ conference, the nation’s largest such gathering, and she had stopped at my booth in the book fair because the journal’s covers caught her eye. Talking her into a subscription to something she initially thought she disliked marked a highlight of the conference, but to be honest, I think a lot of this year’s sales began in conversations with men and women who had no prior intention of buying.
The more I think about it, the more that particular sales dynamic reminds me of my work in the classroom, especially in introductory courses where many of my students are tourists in the field, some of them studying literature against their will. At times they seem to feel, like the Eskimos in the …
February 27, 2013, 12:29 pm
This afternoon a friend of mine will be giving a job talk as part of an on-campus interview. She has done this several times before, but since she’s tackling a new topic, she gathered a group of colleagues last week for a trial run. My friend is an exceptionally talented scholar—that was abundantly clear in her talk—but, as specialists in criticism, our little focus group came up with a number of notes to improve her already compelling presentation. Several of those “advanced” job-talk ideas were fresh to me, and I thought I’d share a few of the more interesting pointers here.
1. Prepare off-the-cuff remarks to warm up the audience. Some of the most important aspects of the presentation are outside the scholarship itself. Instead of diving immediately into your notes, take a moment to speak directly to your audience in a more candid way.
This can begin with a simple thanks…
February 12, 2013, 2:31 pm
By now many of you have read Kenneth Bernstein’s “Warning to College Profs From a High School Teacher” over at The Answer Sheet, an education blog at The Washington Post. Since it went viral this past weekend, the essay has garnered a couple of thousand comments.
For those who have not yet come across it, paraphrasing Bernstein does a certain injustice to the passion underlying his argument, but the crux of his case is that ballooning class sizes and the increased importance placed on standardized testing have created a generation of students singularly ill-prepared for the critical thinking college professors rightfully expect.
While he aims most of his criticism at the policies of No Child Left Behind and an Advanced Placement testing system that effectively penalizes the framing and synthesis of arguments, he also tries to get at the culpability of teachers and administrators…
February 1, 2013, 3:22 pm
Last weekend I participated in a small conference of writers at a nearby university. My panel wasn’t scheduled until late in the afternoon, but I arrived early and sat in on a workshop led by a young poet who has recently published his first book. There were maybe 40 people attending the session, only a few of them academics. As everyone settled in, I introduced myself to the woman across the aisle and learned that she edits a popular book series. In the row in front of us I recognized the retiree and aspiring author I’d just met in the lobby. By the time the facilitator made his way to the podium, it had struck me that this was perhaps a uniquely challenging group to speak to. Some members of the audience were trying creative writing for the first time, others were pursuing undergraduate degrees in the subject, and a few were professional wordsmiths.
Of course, job candidates face so…
January 22, 2013, 11:21 am
“When she was young, Mary saw a brilliant and original man lose his job because he had expressed ideas that were offensive to the trustees of the college where they both taught. She shared his views but did not sign the protest petition.”
So begins Tobias Wolff’s short story, “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.” Mary, a historian, recognizes that she too is always on trial in one sense or another, and in response she perfects a kind of unimpeachable blandness, carefully scripting her lectures with the arguments and words of approved writers “so she would not by chance say something scandalous.” She’s not quite apolitical (even that might draw negative attention), but politically correct, and she favors causes too harmless and eccentric to concern anyone else. Tellingly, her book begins, “It is generally believed that … .”
When I first read the story, several years ago, …
January 10, 2013, 11:02 am
This semester I’ll be teaching a class that I’m absolutely thrilled about, an upper-level special-topics course that’s rather unlike anything I’ve done before. This is also the first time I’ve really designed a syllabus from scratch, as opposed to modeling it on something I took as a student or have seen others teach.
I pitched the idea to my department chair this fall, then I took the syllabus to the universitywide general-education committee and had it approved to fulfill the diversity requirement all students need for graduation. Other professors kept telling me how they wished they could take the course. I gave it a catchy title, wrote a course description that highlighted the topic’s inherent interest, and even spoke about it in a talk I gave to the department’s honor society. I even scheduled it at a reasonable time for undergraduates: 12:55 p.m. Everything seemed on track….
December 18, 2012, 1:41 pm
A few weeks back I wrote about the experience of knowing someone in a department that was hiring in my field. I was interested in thinking through how one might make ethical use of inside information, but in the comments section the conversation widened to include all sorts of hiring conspiracies: token candidates, sham searches, etc.
Even though my own experience contradicts some of those theories (that phone interviews are never serious, for one), I can’t help but shiver at the sheer volume of corruption anecdotes I hear. After all, when you are on the job market, it is easy to feel that everything plots against you.
This is especially true when the person advancing the conspiracy theory is not a fellow job seeker (who may be tempted to use it as an excuse) but a senior professor or administrator, men and women on the other side of the ads, presumably those in the know.