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Teaching Thursday: Teaching Demonstrations

One of the most bizarre rituals in the interview process is the teaching demonstration.  I suppose not every university asks their candidates to do such a thing, but from my experiences as both an interviewer and interviewee, most schools that prioritize teaching do.  The Department of History at the University of North Dakota is no different and having seen three groups of candidates over the last four years, I feel like some critique of the process (not the candidates!) is in order.

First, anyone who has done a teaching demonstration during an interview knows how bizarre the experience can be.  Typically, you are “invited” to give a lecture in a section of a survey class.  I’ve taught the French Revolution, Roman Greece, the Augustan Age, and 19th century Marxism over the course of my relatively modest career as an interviewee.  While I consider myself fairly comfortable in a lecture or teaching environment, these guest lectures were almost always awkward.  In one memorable case, I had to give a mock teaching lecture in an empty lecture bowl as the students were all on summer leave! I still remember the strange acoustics when I spoke and the dead silence whenever I stopped speaking in this cavernous, empty, classroom.

Even more realistic venues — say, with actual students in the seats — are still hardly ideal environments to showcase one’s teaching.  Trying to get students to interact with a lecture, quickly develop some kind of rapport, and cover material in a way that is both representative of one’s teaching style, but generic enough not to offend folks who might have significantly different ideas of how to teach a class or a topic.  I always tried to do something for everyone in my teaching demonstration.  I’d lecture for a bit, then show that I could interact with the students in a Socratic style, question and answer, and then show that I could amuse the class and keep their attention with a witty anecdote, and then use a primary source. 

To this day my colleagues tease me for one desperate effort to engage the students in class.  When discussing Augustus’ use of visual propaganda (following Zanker, for example), I noted the significance of gestures in making an imperial figure immediately comprehensible to a broad audience.  I could tell that the students did not really understand what a gesture was and how it could communicate identity or even ideology. So, in an act of desperation, I sought a modern parallel and came upon the Heisman Trophy pose (stupid Desmond Howard).  The students laughed and maybe got the point.  I got the job, so some silliness didn’t disqualify myself from employment. 

Our positions at UND almost always require a substantial commitment to teaching both graduate and undergraduate students, and we expect our candidates to be comfortable in the classroom.  There is almost no good way of determining that.  One is always uncomfortable in someone else’s classroom, particularly if one is discussing a topic that is at the far fringes of one’s expertise.  Moreover, the teaching demonstration rarely demonstrates whether a candidate can achieve rapport with a students (what works for a fun, guest lecture can confuse students over the course of an entire semester). 

This isn’t one of those posts that gives a candidate advice on how to give a good teaching demonstration nor do I have any alternative except maybe to drop the teaching demonstration entirely.  I am not sure that it works except in extreme cases where a candidate is paralyzed in front of a group of students or cannot command their attention or is so instantly connected with the demographic in the room that they create a new standard for rapport and student engagement.  In most cases, however, these aspects of a candidates personality will come out in other parts of the interview.  The ability to command a room, advance an organized argument, and think on their feet, should come through in a job talk, for example.  Ability to engage students would be just as apparent in less formal meetings. 

For more Teaching Thursdays see:

Teaching Thursday: Revised Classes for Spring
Teaching Thursday: Architecture 1400-Present (K. Kourelis)
Teaching Tuesday: Trends in Grades in a Western Civilization Course
Teaching Thursday: Interviews (K. Kourelis)
Teaching Thursday: Rethinking Lectures, Content, and the Classroom Vibe
Teaching Thursday: Teaching by Templates
Teaching Thursday: A Historical Perspective on Teaching Research Methods with Kate Turabian
Teaching Thursday: Teaching Time
Teaching Thursday: Classroom Modernism (K. Kourelis)
Teaching Thursday: Teaching the Election
Teaching Thursday: Making Room for Experiments
Teaching Thursday: More on Writing
Teaching Thursday: Making the Test
Teaching Thursday: Red pens, Reading, and Assessment
Teaching Thursday: The Structure of Seminar
Teaching Thursday: Jennifer Ball’s Teaching Thursday (K. Kourelis and J. Ball)
Teaching Thursday: The Changing Meaning of the Large Lecture
Teaching Thursday: The Modern Graduate Student
Teaching Thursday: Reading the Digital Palimpsest for Traces of an Analog World
Teaching Thursday: Who Are My Students? (K. Kourelis)
Teaching Thursday: Another View on High Tech Teaching
Teaching Thursday: Transmedia Teaching
Teaching Thursday (K. Kourelis)
Teaching Thursday

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