Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Interviews & tackling teaching questions #1

Dr Steve Joy

Everyone knows the rules of academic interviews: you get research questions, teaching questions, and a few admin/service-type questions. True, there may be a tricky icebreaker ("How well do you know Aberystwyth?") or a real googly at the end ("What else should we have asked you?"), but the bulk of the interview is given over to this tried-and-tested triptych. The three categories can certainly be subdivided further - e.g. past research, future projects, funding, publications, collaborations, and so on - but we know what we're dealing with overall. Frankly, it's rather comforting.

Yet, despite their predictability, I often encounter a lot of anxiety about teaching questions, even from early career academics who are already hugely experienced pedagogues. So, today's post is the first of a series in which I am going to attempt to demystify some of what's going on in these teaching discussions & to offer some tips which you can put into practice for your next interview. But it all comes down to one simple insight: they need to know that you're a good teacher. This isn't necessarily the same as an experienced teacher, nor is it the same as someone who can teach a lot of topics. Focus on the word 'good'. How do you know when you've been successful as a teacher?

Tough question, isn't it? And it's a real one. It was recently asked to one of my clients in a lectureship interview.

On the whole, I don't think we're very good at talking about our teaching. Perhaps this isn't all that surprising. After all, many universities reward achievements in research much more readily & more obviously than they do teaching success. And when we do talk about teaching, there's a strong tendency to focus on the end product, i.e. what happened in the room & what the students did or said. (Of course, the in-the-pub version of that same conversation is when we cast professionalism to the wind & say what we really think about our students.) But in my experience, too many of us shy away from seriously discussing the pedagogical process - by which I mean the choices that go into the design, delivery, and evaluation of teaching. I wonder whether the aetiology is to be found in that frequent academic malaise: imposter syndrome. We can't say it out loud, because somehow we should know it already. Just think how much better it would be if more people did start speaking about the process. Readers, I'm talking to you.

Often, I think, we teach in the way that we were taught - precisely because that's the way we were taught. Great if you were taught by the living embodiment of Socrates & you learn best by the Socratic method, but interview panels need evidence that you're more than a mimic. Why does the Socratic method work? When is it more effective & when less so? In what situations might it not work at all? Be more Plato than parrot.

Enough of the diagnosis. What about solutions? In this first post, I would like to propose that the most critical thing you need to know about preparing for teaching questions is what the Higher Education Academy calls reflective practice. In other words, you need to be preparing for that perennial question, the one which I drive everyone mad by asking all the time: Why? Why do you structure your lectures the way you do? Why do you choose these texts & not those texts for your seminars? Why do you begin your supervisions by asking how the students found the essay? Why do you give feedback but not offer grades? Why set an essay & not a presentation? Why use PowerPoint? Why not a handout? Or both? Why? Why? Why?

Flash forward for a moment. When, say, a panel asks you to talk through a new course that you would like to develop, how useful is it to go into all sorts of glorious technicolor detail about content? How much do the panel know (assuming a diversity of backgrounds & research interests)? Surely, you're the expert; that's why they've invited you to interview. What the panel needs to understand is why. Why should the students study this? And here's a clue: falling back on the intrinsic intellectual interest of the topic is a dreadfully weak answer. What will the students get out of it? What knowledge? What skills? What will they be able to do differently once they've successfully completed your course? And why is that useful for them?

None of the above questions is, I freely admit, easy to answer - certainy not off the cuff. So, my key advice to you is to start thinking about them now, whether or not you have an application coming up. Make notes. Reflect on the teaching you're currently doing. Talk to others. Ask them about their pedagogical process. Bug them as I will surely bug you with WHY questions. Beware the parrot.

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