what R1 faculty need to know to help students applying to non-R1 schools

This is the third in a series of reflections on going through the academic job market during COVID. Part 1, on the basics of what this process was like, is here. Part 2, on what things we should keep from virtual interviews and what things we shouldn’t, is here.

I went to grad school because I wanted to be a professor at a small liberal arts college like the one I attended for undergrad. As any liberal arts kid who has been through grad school at a top PhD program will tell you, how you thought the discipline would socialize you based on your experience and how it actually socializes you are light years apart. Wanting to transition back to a teaching-focused environment, then, required resistance to norms I’d spent six years learning. It also, perhaps ironically, required a lot of teaching of R1 faculty about a system very different from their own.

What follows is an attempt to compile insights into the world of teaching-focused colleges in the U.S. and how to go about getting interviewed at one. I base it on my experience making it to the final round for a position at a liberal arts college, attending a liberal arts college for four years, and spending a lot of time researching how to apply for jobs at liberal arts colleges. I address it to faculty because a lot of the advice I got on the job market was not tailored to (or was flat-out wrong for) teaching-focused jobs. This is not anyone’s fault—R1 faculty of course speak from their R1-focused personal experiences—but it is also a problem, and a fixable one! Whether out of necessity in a market with too few jobs or due to genuine preference, grad students are applying for these kinds of jobs, and they deserve to receive advice on how to actually get them. By extension, some of the tips here may also help grad students looking for teaching-focused jobs.

To impose scope conditions: I elide “teaching-focused colleges” and “liberal arts colleges” throughout this post, but this of course papers over a lot of nuance. Not all teaching-focused colleges are liberal arts colleges, and not all liberal arts colleges are teaching-focused. I’m interested here in schools where a professor’s primary job is teaching and good teaching is valued and rewarded while research is less important, which encompasses some SLACs, community colleges, some R2s, and even smaller state schools. I also interviewed at a community college, and I’ll draw a bit on that experience as well.

Emphasizing research in an application, including letters of reference, is not always the right move.

In years of conversations with R1 faculty, this point seems the most difficult to convey, so let me use a series of examples:

I interviewed at a liberal arts college this past cycle. During a meeting with the dean, I asked about tenure expectations. They said faculty should be research-active before launching into a much more detailed explanation of the teaching website all faculty were expected to set up, the structure of peer observations, and all of the additional training faculty were expected to pursue. (I never got a firm answer to what “research-active” meant, but judging from other faculty in the department, it seemed to mean a book and a couple of articles.)

In undergrad, my thesis advisor received tenure with three articles in decent journals and a couple of book chapters. They published not even one thing a year. But they taught a lot and mentored a lot of students. This pattern of activity was not abnormal at my institution, and it frequently earned people tenure.

I asked a friend who worked at a small private university if I could see the cover letter they used for their job. I was shocked to see that they had begun the letter with their teaching experience and philosophy and put their research last—the exact opposite of how I’d been taught to write academic cover letters. (For what it’s worth, I also put my teaching first in the cover letter for the liberal arts job that invited me to interview. The search chair told me, and I’m paraphrasing, “Typically, we try to assess if candidates understand the liberal arts mission, but you clearly get it.”)

My aim in sharing these anecdotes is not to suggest, again, that teaching-focused schools don’t also care about research. Clearly many do. But the balance is fundamentally different than at an R1, and over-emphasizing research at a teaching-focused institution suggests the candidate doesn’t know what they’re getting into, even if the candidate is also a very good teacher. Likewise, over-emphasizing a candidate’s research in a letter of recommendation gives the search committee little to go on when evaluating the criteria that actually matter to them (teaching, service, campus and community involvement—more on that later). This also goes for giving advice on the job interview itself: a faculty mentor whom I adore told me to think about how my research might invite collaborations with other faculty at the liberal arts school where I interviewed. I didn’t know how to tell them that the LAC cared that I had a research agenda and that it was vaguely interesting and nothing beyond that, and that I knew this because I’d gotten a list of interview topics in advance and none were about my research beyond the usual elevator pitch. At teaching-focused institutions, one’s identity as a scholar may not be solely, or even mostly, about one’s research agenda.

How can faculty write better letters for their students applying to teaching-focused institutions? A few things:

  • First, advisors should be able to speak to their advisees’ teaching. This means observations earlier on in a student’s grad career at minimum. Ideally, it also means students should TA for their advisor. In departments where someone other than the instructor picks who the TAs will be, administrators and staff need to think strategically about where they place students so that their future letter-writers will be their current supervisors.  
  • Second, talk about the student’s research, but don’t only or even mostly talk about that! Teaching-focused institutions want to know that their future faculty members genuinely care about undergrads as people, not simply as bodies in chairs, and are prepared to engage in the sorts of creative, interactive activities that may only happen in small discussion sections at an R1, if at all. They also want to know about campus and community engagement. I received very positive feedback from selection committees on my letter-writers’ accounts of my engagement beyond my own department. This may feel strange to R1 faculty—I was advised early on, for instance, not to talk about being a member of a campus community—but when the entire campus is 2,000 people, involvement only in one’s own department would also be strange. If your advisee is involved in either your campus or the discipline more broadly, talk about that! It’s a plus.
  • Third, emphasize not only that your student has teaching experience and is decent at it, but that they’re great. Faculty at teaching-focused institutions are not expected to be just passable, and an amazing research agenda will not make up for real deficits in the classroom. Things that consistently came up in my interviews as positives were my experiences mentoring other grads on how to teach and my work in online teaching. Search committees wanted to know that I was keeping up with trends in pedagogy and learning new tools, in much the same way that search committees at R1s might want candidates to be on the cutting edge of research in their fields. If you can speak to a candidate’s experience with such things, do so.
  • Finally, if you want to help candidates applying to teaching-focused institutions but aren’t sure where to start, ask your former students who are now at (or have taught recently at) teaching-focused institutions. They are the best equipped to know what search committees at these institutions are looking for, because they’ve successfully navigated them and also probably served on a couple if they’re more senior.

Job interviews at teaching-focused institutions look different.

In my department, it’s standard to give a practice job talk the year you go on the market. This is structured in typical R1 fashion: a 40ish–minute talk followed by a Q&A interrogating the research design, methods, and implications. We’re also all socialized from early on to hold additional practice talks for our friends, such that more junior grads get exposed to the job talk formula throughout their grad careers. It’s a highly effective system for grads interviewing at R1s, and I was very grateful to have this preparation when I did a virtual campus visit at an R1.

This preparation was much less useful for every other interview I did. As I wrote about here, I also interviewed at a German research institute, a UK research university, a liberal arts college, and a community college. Here we’re getting into cross-country differences, not just teaching vs. research-focused institutions, and the former is a topic for a different post. But what I was expected to do at the liberal arts college and community college was quite different: a 20–minute job talk at the former (which in effect meant writing an entirely new talk, since I had to cut my existing talk in half) and a 15–minute teaching demo at the latter with no job talk (and also, for what it’s worth, not a single question during the interview about my research).

I’ve given enough talks of varying lengths over the years that I could put together a 20–minute research talk, even though it was annoying to write a new talk. The teaching demo was new to me, and I had zero preparation for how to do it (because planning in-class activities for students you know as part of a larger syllabus for a course whose goals you understand is very different from trying to teach a new topic in a one-off with no context). My teaching demo was…not good. I had to give another one at the UK research university, and that one was better because I’d learned by doing. And learning by doing is great and all, but it’s not an optimal strategy when what’s at stake is, y’know, your future employment.

Moreover, the questions I got at teaching-focused institutions were different than those I got at R1s. I got asked how I would teach very specific courses. I had to talk about online pedagogy and techniques I’d tried in the classroom. My department does practice job interviews, which, again, are helpful but clearly geared toward an R1 environment. I’d gotten practice distilling my teaching philosophy into a short 2–minute answer, but my answers about other teaching-related things were much more off the top of my head. I think I did an okay job, but that was more out of luck than anything.

How can departments help students prepare for interviews at teaching-focused institutions?

  • First, they can offer opportunities to give a teaching demo and receive feedback, just like for practice job talks. Unlike for job talks, interviewees may be assigned a topic for their teaching demo, there may be different parameters for what they’re allowed to do (straight lecture vs. other activities), and lengths can vary quite a bit, so it may be less useful to have a prepped demo ready to go. I think it can still be useful for students applying to lots of teaching-focused institutions to put one together, though, just to gain some familiarity with a somewhat odd format. If R1 faculty aren’t familiar with what teaching demos look like and so don’t know how to structure practice ones or offer feedback…ask colleagues at teaching-focused institutions! (This isn’t rocket science, friends.) At the very least, job market candidates should know that teaching demos are something they might have to give so that they’re psychologically prepared to do so and not caught off guard.
  • Second, departments can have candidates practice teaching-focused interview questions. Here are some examples of questions I got in interviews (these are from memory, so the wording is not exact):
    • How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
    • How would you teach a course on [X]? (I got this question for both intro and upper-level courses.)
    • Students come into courses with different levels of background knowledge. How do you design lessons that cater to all types of students?
    • How have you dealt with racist/sexist/etc. students?
    • How do you approach teaching controversial or sensitive topics?
    • What’s your favorite exercise you’ve ever designed?
    • What’s an example of a time where you mentored a student one-on-one, and what did you learn from that experience?
    • What’s an example of a time you used technology in your classroom, and what worked and what didn’t?
    • Is there anything you’ve learned from teaching online that you want to keep doing going forward?
    • Who’s someone you consider a teaching role model, and why?
    • If I walked into your classroom on any given day, what would I be likely to see?
    • How would you approach teaching the isms in an intro IR course? Would you teach them?
  • Finally, departments can recognize that prep for the job market can and should look different for different types of students. I don’t think we should get rid of full-length practice job talks, because if you do have to give one, that is an enormous amount of work for an extremely important evaluative exercise, and it’s not something most people can throw together quickly and do a good job. I have never wanted to quit academia more than when I was writing my job talk, but I was very thankful to have it done when it came time to give it for real. And also, students applying to different sorts of institutions may be better served by putting more of their energy elsewhere. Preparation and advice need to be tailored to students’ goals, and students’ committees need to be more actively involved in the job market prep process to make sure students are participating in the department-provided opportunities that are most appropriate for them.
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