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Author Topic: From R1 to SLAC  (Read 4178 times)
marylandfarmer
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« on: September 23, 2011, 3:53:51 PM »

Colleagues:

I am interested in making a switch from a middling research university to a small, liberal arts college.  I am in my fifth year in a tenure-track position and have done well with my research and teaching and promotion/tenure will not be an issue.  I am, however, concerned that my university is becoming (if it is not already) a diploma mill with more and more students, lower standards, and larger classes.  I did my undergraduate work at an excellent liberal arts college and increasingly find myself wanting to teaching in such a setting.  My question is: How do I finesse my cover letter and c.v. to make me appealing to a small teaching institution?  Will search committees view me as "damaged goods" because I have spent most of my career teaching large lecture classes?  I would be interested in people who have made this kind of change in their careers.  Thanks. 
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caesura
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« Reply #1 on: September 23, 2011, 10:18:55 PM »

I did not make such a change, so I can't speak to that.  But I did teach at such a school, and I noticed that they really liked to hire people who had been students at similar schools (even, in a couple of cases, their own alumni).  I think that fact that you went to a school of the kind you want to teach at would work in your favor; you know what you'd be getting into and can articulate why you want it.

Plus, most of the better slacs want you to have an active research life as well, which you obviously must have.  I think you'd be a good candidate.

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sagit
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« Reply #2 on: September 24, 2011, 8:01:47 AM »

Can you explain how undergraduates will be able to work on your research?  That would be helpful.
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tuxedo_cat
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« Reply #3 on: September 24, 2011, 11:40:34 AM »

Have not made the switch but taught at a SLAC for about 3 years.  Be aware that there are a lot of "trends" in SLAC curricula and campus culture that have probably transformed this experience since you were a student at such a school.

Here are some items that I think probably distinguish SLAC teaching culture from larger universities:

(1) creative approaches to integrating your research with undergrad education.  This obviously includes what happens in your own classes, but ideally they want students to have the opportunity to conduct research in the discipline, or have some kind of hands-on experience with what more advanced scholars do.  Many schools fund summer programs for which faculty are expected to supervise students on independent research projects and/or work very closely with faculty on their own research.

(2) experience with travel / teaching abroad:  another experience that many SLACs often promote as an important part of the undergraduate experience.  Some have January term courses focused on travel, many are interested in opportunities to travel and learn outside of European / English-speaking countries.  Very time-consuming stuff, and lots of potential exasperation.  But it is a great experience for the students.

(3) student-centered learning:  sounds like you already have some sense of that important difference between a big university and a small college.  Aside from pedagogical issues, this may extended into your willingness to participate in other student activities on campus through advising student groups, etc.  At some places (Kenyon?) some faculty actually live with the student population in some fashion.  It may not be that over-the-top at many schools, but the general idea that faculty should be much more accessible to students outside of the classroom is probably more true.

(4) Interdisciplinary / team-teaching, esp. for FYE programs:  that's "First-Year Experience" programs, which can vary quite a bit from one campus to the next, but they are seen as a very important retention tool for colleges that really do rely on all those tuition dollars from a limited student population.  And teaching collaborations across depts. can be a bit unconventional (Physics and Music, e.g.)

(5) Service learning:  this is a trend at schools more generally, but also particularly important at these smaller places, perhaps part of efforts to connect the school with the surrounding community in cooperative ways.

Whatever schools you apply to, have a look at the campus website beyond the department pages -- you may find it especially valuable to look at how they market the school to prospective parents and incoming students: "All our students travel abroad for at least one semester! . . . Our students have the opportunity to conduct original research with mentorship from top faculty!"  . . . that sort of thing.
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ruralguy
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« Reply #4 on: September 24, 2011, 12:44:38 PM »

As a SLAC'er myself, I should warn that most SLACs are quite mediocre, and most students there are at best mediocre.

I know it sounds cynical, but I wouldn't want you to think that just because a lot of SLACs have the same "language" as Williams and Pomona, that somehow that translates to having similar students, resources, etc.

Some of things you feared at your current R1 are happening at PLENTY of SLACs.
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tuxedo_cat
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« Reply #5 on: September 24, 2011, 4:45:03 PM »

As a SLAC'er myself, I should warn that most SLACs are quite mediocre, and most students there are at best mediocre.

At the school where I taught, the faculty who felt this way about the students at our school were usually lousy, disinterested teachers -- many with PhDs from Ivy League institutions who felt they were destined for greater things.  They were one of the few negative dimensions of my experiences teaching at a small college.  YMMV, of course.
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voxprincipalis
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« Reply #6 on: September 24, 2011, 5:05:49 PM »

As a SLAC'er myself, I should warn that most SLACs are quite mediocre, and most students there are at best mediocre.

At the school where I taught, the faculty who felt this way about the students at our school were usually lousy, disinterested teachers -- many with PhDs from Ivy League institutions who felt they were destined for greater things.  They were one of the few negative dimensions of my experiences teaching at a small college.  YMMV, of course.

I am with tuxedo_cat on this one. OP, I almost invariably disagree with whatever ruralguy has to say about SLACs and what goes on there, only because my experiences have been nothing at all like his. So while what he reports may be true in his universe, in other parts of the space-time continuum there are lots of good SLACs that have innovative, creative professors who are deeply invested in good pedagogy, student involvement in research and creative activity, and all of the other things that interest you. I would encourage you not to be put off by that.

In fact, I almost put your original post in the "Hall of Fame" just because I was so tickled that someone was worried that SLACs would look at someone who had taught at an R1 as "damaged goods." It was such a refreshing change from the usual around here. More power to you, I say. (And, by the way, I did in fact move from an R1 to a SLAC, but my field is music, so it is probably less unusual for me than it would be in some other fields.)

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lightningstrike
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« Reply #7 on: September 24, 2011, 5:14:59 PM »

The grass is always greener on the other side, isn't it?  If you are at a true R1, the larger classes and lower admissions standards should not matter. Many R1s still subscribe to a sink-or-swim policy for their students (a luxury afforded to them by the multiple revenue streams that go into such institutions). Just let the filler wash out and focus on the students who want to make college worth their time and money. Now, quit whining about students, keep chasing grants, don't make enemies, and win tenure. You will find that teaching becomes easier after you are tenured and you find that you can enforce academic standards without fear of losing your job.
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quasihumanist
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« Reply #8 on: September 24, 2011, 7:11:20 PM »

As a SLAC'er myself, I should warn that most SLACs are quite mediocre, and most students there are at best mediocre.

At the school where I taught, the faculty who felt this way about the students at our school were usually lousy, disinterested teachers -- many with PhDs from Ivy League institutions who felt they were destined for greater things.  They were one of the few negative dimensions of my experiences teaching at a small college.  YMMV, of course.

A few years ago I had a phone interview with a 100th-or-so-ranked SLAC.  (The funding for the position disappeared shortly thereafter.)  Among other things we ended up talking about the senior honors thesis of one student, which the professors thought was excellent.  I was interested in the subject, so I asked for and got a copy about 6 months later.  I have to say I was rather disappointed; I would've considered the thesis no more than a very good final project for a class.  It would have been no more than that at the elite SLAC I went to as an undergraduate.  At the 50th-or-so-ranked SLAC at which I was recently a VAP, it might have been considered an acceptable but rather mediocre honors thesis.

It is true that as one goes down the scale, one has to adjust ones expectations.  Naturally, one does ones best given the background and intelligence the students have, and, at SLACs, the students do almost universally work hard and try their best.  However, students with 1500 SATs are generally (but not without many exceptions) more intelligent and better prepared for college than students with 1100 SATs.

One of the features of SLACs which I quite appreciate is that, generally speaking, the professors aim to teach all of their students and not only the best students.  At research universities, frequently the attitude is that one should try to aim ones teaching at the best students as much as one can without making the weaker students angry.  I find this approach at research universities rather dishonest.

I have to say that, especially knowing that students at 100-th-ranked SLACs are still more intelligent and prepared than average, this makes me rather despondent about the future of humankind and my ability to make a difference as an educator.  Frankly, I think the graduates most schools turn out are just neither good enough to be contributing citizens in a complex world nor good enough to be useful workers in an increasingly automated economy.  Simply put, they still can't beat my computer, even if they are much smarter than they were when they entered college.  I might decide in a few years that I should just buy an acre, learn to grow potatoes and raise a cow, and let the Lord take me if the potato blight hits or I get sick.
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brixton
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« Reply #9 on: September 24, 2011, 9:18:31 PM »

MLF, you should apply as you would to any other job.  Highlight your background at an SLAC, showing  that you understand what this sort of environment you'll encounter.  Talk about your frustrations with large classes at your current universities, and your desire to mentor undergraduates, and how their curiosity will support your interest in teaching and research.  The fact that you're currently on TT, and have been teaching for 5 years will be a plus. 

I'm sorry, I don't really buy into the world view of ruralguy and quasihumanist, here, maybe because I've only taught at slacs and know that is what I'm best suited for.  I'm not sure I can comment on quasi's disappointment in an undergraduate thesis except to say that it was an undergraduate thesis.  I've read a lot of them in my day, and while they may not look like what I remember undergraduate theses to be in my day (mists of time, walking through snow barefoot, etc, etc.), I've found my work with students on these projects to be meaningful in a way that perhaps doesn't come out in the product.  I currently teach at an slac where the SATs are 1500+.  I used to work at a school where ACTs where more the standard measure, but the SATs were much closer (on the south side) to 1100.  I don't honestly see a measureable difference, because I don't feel as though my classes are focused on raw intelligence, but more on teaching -- how do I improve them. How do they challenge me. I find the students most interesting when they have a strong work ethic and are willing to tackle Middlemarch, even though it's 900 pages, and they've never read anything that long in their life.  SLACs give you the time to teach students the value of hard work and perseverance.  In return you can gradually treat them like colleagues, primarily because the classes really are quite small.  (20 for first-years.  5 for seniors.)  For me that's rewarding.
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quasihumanist
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« Reply #10 on: September 25, 2011, 1:14:17 AM »

I'm sorry, I don't really buy into the world view of ruralguy and quasihumanist, here, maybe because I've only taught at slacs and know that is what I'm best suited for.  I'm not sure I can comment on quasi's disappointment in an undergraduate thesis except to say that it was an undergraduate thesis.  I've read a lot of them in my day, and while they may not look like what I remember undergraduate theses to be in my day (mists of time, walking through snow barefoot, etc, etc.), I've found my work with students on these projects to be meaningful in a way that perhaps doesn't come out in the product.  I currently teach at an slac where the SATs are 1500+.  I used to work at a school where ACTs where more the standard measure, but the SATs were much closer (on the south side) to 1100.  I don't honestly see a measureable difference, because I don't feel as though my classes are focused on raw intelligence, but more on teaching -- how do I improve them. How do they challenge me. I find the students most interesting when they have a strong work ethic and are willing to tackle Middlemarch, even though it's 900 pages, and they've never read anything that long in their life.  SLACs give you the time to teach students the value of hard work and perseverance.  In return you can gradually treat them like colleagues, primarily because the classes really are quite small.  (20 for first-years.  5 for seniors.)  For me that's rewarding.

I've moaned before somewhere in the middle of the Surviving the Job Search thread about the rather high failure rate in the ability of very good faculty to teach students to write proofs in mathematics.  There is no question that some kind of raw ability is an important factor.

At the 1300 SAT average SLAC I used to teach at, there are some students who try their damn hardest to learn and work with excellent faculty (much more skilled and experienced than I) who try their damn hardest over 2 or 3 years to teach them to write mathematical proofs for mathematical statements.  ('Some' means maybe a quarter to a third.)  They still can't unless the statement and proof are very similar to something they have seen and memorized.

I'm sorry, but when a graduating senior is completely unable to write a paper about Middlemarch that isn't just a complete rehash of ideas you have mentioned in class, then you have failed.  Yes it is great that they tried, and yes it is great that they at least got through reading it, and yes it is great they can write a coherent paper, and yes they are miles ahead of where they were four years ago, and yes it is heroic of you and the other faculty for getting them this far, but still you have failed.  (And to make a theological analogy, perhaps I am rubbing my face and yours in our total depravity, but I can't help it.)

It is rewarding that the students work hard and learn and improve, but some of them still just are not good enough when they graduate.  I can understand that a faculty member might not dwell on this failure, but if you don't notice this failure at all, then either your field doesn't have any absolute standards (which I highly doubt), or you have lost track of them.
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brixton
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« Reply #11 on: September 25, 2011, 10:11:47 AM »

(So, you really think that coming out with original ideas about Middlemarch or writing original proofs is a marker of success in the global world?)

 After having done this job for over 20 years, I've noticed that some of my not-so-original, but doggedly hardworking and persistent students are way ahead of me in their careers.  I like to think our four years with them started them off though. A fairly mediocre student/advisee who took classes in French, got to Paris through a corporation.  Her French is now excellent.  Could she write an original paper in Moliere -- then or even now?  Probably not, but it certainly is serving her and her company well.  A student who couldn't get into grad school because her statement of purpose didn't show the raw ability that a grad school might be attracted to, is high up in studio in CA, doing very interesting things, shaping our culture much more than she ever could as a college prof.  She points to things she learned in college as being central to some of the choices she makes, as she works with producers.  Another, an international student, struggled very hard with the language, culture and ideas in a survey class that she took.   Ten years later, she suddenly reconnected to me.  She teaches sociology at a small school in her country, and reports that she discusses class issues, and sometimes turns to the novels that she read in college, which she  confesses that she did not really understand until her country went through the upheavals that they've faced in recent years.  She has an article appearing in a very small local magazine that she sent me.  It is a beautiful imbrication of passages from Middlemarch about class struggles, and words from some interviews that she collected before and after the uprising.   It still doesn't have a particularly strong argument, but reads like a beautiful prose-poem. She uses passages from the novels that we read to lead her student through the issues that her students face.  These are just a few that come to mind.  They and others, who stay in touch, see their four years not as a culmination, but just the beginning.  Originality might not be something that we have to shoot for, but life-long-learning and curiosity is always good.... So not so bleak and definitely not a failure.
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ruralguy
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« Reply #12 on: September 25, 2011, 12:35:51 PM »

Brixton and others,

I think you either misunderstood me or purposely misrepresented me.

My point isn't that ALL SLAC's are mediocre and have mediocre students, just that one should realize in making a jump from
a so-so R1 to a standard sort of SLAC that some of the same "diploma mill" and medicority stuff is there too. You shouldn't see it as cure all---just a differnt sort of emphasis, which sometimes works quite well, and sometimes not.

I agree with Brixton that many students who even he admits were so-so (and thats all I really was saying) can grow tremedously from their experiences. Some even become scholars, eventhough that wasn't our originally intention at all!

I won't dignify the thinly veiled insults from others with more comment. I can teach just fine without going around saying that all SLAC's are sunshine and roses, and all students are wonderful and brilliant. I realize their potential, and realize that they can get something out of my classes without being a "mini-me" (i.e., a Phd scholar in my subject). My school has a lot going for it, but can stand to improve in some areas weven WITHOUT getting "better" students. We can do better with what we have.


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theblackbox
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« Reply #13 on: September 26, 2011, 12:25:09 PM »

It is rewarding that the students work hard and learn and improve, but some of them still just are not good enough when they graduate. 
Not good enough for what? To receive the degree? To be a contributing member of society? To be an English scholar? To get an entry level job in a publishing company?

This statement can only make sense in context.
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ruralguy
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« Reply #14 on: September 26, 2011, 1:13:46 PM »

I think "quasi" meant "good enough at critical analysis" , a skill which many schools say they value.
(for the record---one math faculty guy here who is GREAT with students, constantly says he can't do proofs with our guys!)

Look, many SLAC's are great. Many flagship state schools are great. Even some so-so schools have great faculty and great students, but at the end of the day, the typical student or even faculty or staff member at the typical school is just going to be--well---typical!

Lets all just agree to do the best with who and what we have!

We can have high expectations, but we must realize that not everyone will meet them, and some will still be pretty good people, doing good things. Some won't, and that will hardly have much to do with what curriculum they experienced!
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