Thursday, 1 August 2013

Interviews & tackling teaching questions #2

Dr Steve Joy

After a brief summer hiatus, let the blogging resume - where we left off, no less, with interviews & teaching questions. In this second post, I want to comment both on some of the simple principles & on some of the political pitfalls of discussing your teaching contribution. In other words, how do you position yourself in terms of existing courses which you could teach & new ones which you would like to develop? I would like to propose four golden rules.

Golden rule #1

As with any interview preparation, the best possible way to get answers to your questions is to ask them. No, really. Speak to someone in the department to which you're applying. In most cases, this means that you should, at the very least, speak to the contact for informal inquiries named in the job description. I can't emphasise strongly enough what a mistake it is not to take up this opportunity when it's offered to you.

You can & should be asking, in effect, why this position exists. Is the institution looking to meet some particular teaching needs? Has someone gone on leave, on sabbatical, or elsewhere? In which case, do they know the courses they will need you to teach? Or is this an entirely new post? Are they looking to build research & teaching capacity in new areas? In which case, are they asking you to develop reams & reams of new course materials during your first year in post? Obviously, I can't promise that you'll get all of this information out of an informal contact (whisper it softly: not all institutions appear always to have thought through exactly what they're needing from a given post). But I can assert confidently that not asking any questions guarantees you won't get the information you need.

Golden rule #2

You should know the teaching system of the institution to which you're applying - advice that probably sounds so blindingly obvious as to be redundant, but you'd be surprised. Here are some common traps. First, the simplest: language. Course, module, paper, unit? Term or semester? Lecture, class, seminar, tutorial, supervision, demonstration? In this post, I have the luxury of using a capricious jumble of vocabulary, but you don't. Secondly, structure. How is the teaching organised? What's compulsory & what's optional? Is it a system based on credits? How long does a course last? What's the relationship between lectures & seminars?

This might seem like hair-splitting when interviewers ought to be more focused on the content, but it really can matter. A recent piece of evidence for this came via a justifiably grumbly email sent to us by a Senior Lecturer at a UK university; in it, she complained that Cambridge applicants were repeatedly letting themselves down in interviews by talking about 'papers', 'terms', and 'supervisions'. Careless talk costs - well, jobs. Avoid such ire by doing your homework. Top tip: see if you can find the department's induction handbook for freshers. Judicious use of Google is, as always, your friend.

Golden rule #3

When thinking about where you could contribute to existing teaching, think carefully about what you are proposing. It's not wise just to trawl the list for things that fit with your experience and/or your research specialisms. Put it this way: if you had spent years developing a final-year module based on your research expertise, lovingly refining the materials & single-handedly delivering a highly successful part of the department's curriculum, how pleased would you be to hear an interview candidate offer to boot you off the course & teach it in your place? Instead, think about where there is a potential need. Start by looking out for the compulsory and/or general survey courses that are typically taken by large numbers of students. Try to ascertain which modules are team-taught, so that you can become a member of the team.

Golden rule #4

Finally, when thinking about proposing new courses, remember - and here's a link back to the first post in this series - to think in terms of outcomes & objectives. Too many candidates present their proposed module as if its value were entirely self-evident, or they simply lean on the intrinsic intellectual interest of the topic. This is not scholarly thinking. What will the students get out of it? How will it complement the rest of their studies? What skills will they acquire? How do you plan to get them interested enough to sign up for your course?

And at the risk of making you, dear reader, quite cross, I would also suggest that it's comparatively easy to dream up final-year research-led courses, where these basically involve turning your current project into a curriculum. Of course, I don't wish to deride the value of such courses, but consider whether there are other options that will help you to present yourself as a more flexible & well-rounded teaching colleague. Can you show that you are able & willing to work outside the narrower field of your specialism by proposing a new survey course? Where are there logical gaps in the first or second-year provision? Similarly, is your approach too 'single honours' for a department where the majority of students are pursuing joint honours programmes? Where can you build bridges?


  1. I'm intrigued by Golden Rule #1 which I’ve broken in all my previous applications... I am definitely taking your advice on board!

  2. Going back to when I applied for a few jobs, a variation of Rules 1&2 combined once caught me out. A Uni advertises short term (1/2 year) lectureship cover, which has responsibility for teaching courses I was familiar with / could teach, but not 100% in my particular area/period of research. Had I made enough enquiries, I would have known that said Uni also expected successful candidate to carry out research for those 2 years in the subject area of the person on leave, broadly speaking. Although in reality everyone probably knew was that it would be an intensive teaching post, with lots of material to prepare and so perhaps the research would have been limited, it was still an awkward moment in interview when I proudly told them what I planned to work on...and it was about 500 years out! Again, research what they want! :) Nicola