Teaching Tuesday: Interviewing–the teaching test lecture


This week I’ve been a bit distracted by instructions I’ve been given for a demonstration teaching lecture. It is for a permanent position in my department so the interview is stressful, important, and far from certain. There are three others interviewing for the spot, all colleagues and/or collaborators*, all friends, and all deserving of the position. It is also a little strange in that you can exactly know the CV of your fellow candidates and that all of us will show up for work after the interview, regardless of the result of the job search. The only difference is that one of us will have a permanent job and the others will not (still). I have talked a bit about the Swedish interview process previously and the upcoming one will function in a similar way. One major difference is that in addition to a short research lecture, we’ve been asked to give a 20 min teaching lecture. The topic is outside everyone’s expertise (Ecology of Plant-Pathogen Interactions), so in some senses an even playing field.

I have taught classes previously but not on this particular topic. But given that I’ve never done a demonstration lecture, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to tackle the task. Unfortunately, teaching talks don’t seem to be a common feature of the interview process, so unlike the research seminars and chalk talks, there isn’t so much out there (see Meg Duffy’s post on links for tenure-track job searches, for example).

However, I did find this helpful post about giving test lectures with a focus on those given to actual students in an on-going class (yikes!). It would be tough to drop in on a class that has already established a rhythm between the students and teacher, although I think it would be a good test of your teaching. It might not be fair to the students in the course, however, if they are continually interrupted by different interviewees. The teaching talks I’ve heard of are more commonly to faculty and maybe grad students. Anurag Agrawal compiles some advice on finding an academic job with this bit of wisdom on the teaching lecture (you can find more advice here; HT: Meg):

Teaching talks: Many places will have you give a teaching talk—they may give you a topic or let you choose one from a list. Some will want a sample lecture—others may actually want a verbal statement of your teaching philosophy. In general, ask those around you that actually teach those subjects for outlines or notes. It is usually fine to have notes for your teaching talk. They will probably ask you to not use slides, but overheads and handouts may be very useful. The faculty may interrupt you during your talk and pretend to be students asking questions. Try not to get flustered by them, but rather have fun with them.

Even before reading this, I began my canvasing of people for lectures on plant-pathogen interactions. So far I haven’t found it to be a common topic in ecology courses (if you lecture on the topic and are willing to share, yes please!). So after researching for this interview, I might also advocate for including the lecture in one of our ecology courses (I have funding for two more years regardless of the outcome of the interview).

I’ve only had one experience with this sort of interview requirement and that was indirect. When I was a masters student, my department was hiring a number of people to expand and we were also going to an Integrative Biology model from an organismal division (merging depts). So there were a lot of positions (~6) and likely a lot of opinions on how to best fill them from colleagues who hadn’t worked together before. In any event, I got to witness a bunch of job talks and meet with a lot of candidates. It was a useful lesson as a grad student but the one portion that was closed was the test lectures. I’m guessing these were to distinguish people’s ability from very different fields but I don’t know what the exact instructions were. We (the grad students) did hear rumours that some people’s talks were terrible, so it clearly doesn’t do to blow teaching talks off. But how to do it well?

Turning to advice on how to give lectures can give some clues. Improving lecturing has a bunch of hints and tips for generally improving your lectures. Another list of practical pointers for good lectures is focused mainly on the classroom but can also be helpful in thinking about how to demonstrate your teaching. I had to link this good talk advice for the hilarious nostalgia it created for the overhead strip tease (advice: don’t do it, and I think this also applies to powerpoint reveals).

From the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center (many useful pdfs here including one on giving effective talks), it is better to:

  1. Talk than read
  2. Stand than sit
  3. Move than stand still
  4. Vary your voice’s pitch than speak in a monotone
  5. Speak loudly facing your audience rather than mumble and speak into your notes or blackboard
  6. Use an outline and visual aids than present without them
  7. Provide your listeners with a roadmap than start without an overview

There is also this simple and eloquent advice from a twitter friend:

My plan is to demonstrate how I would give a lecture to a course, including emphasizing where I would stop lecturing and turn things over to the students. As I move away from straight lecturing, it feels a little strange to demonstrate my teaching through lecturing only. But I only have 5 minutes to describe the structure of the course, where this lecture would fit in and how I would evaluate learning, followed by the first 15 minutes of the lecture. Given all that is required to pack into 20 mins, this teaching talk is really a demonstration, rather than a lecture. I won’t prepare for it as I would do for a regular course lecture and given my unfamiliarity with the topic, it is also going to take a fair amount of research. This is a job interview, so I know it isn’t really a teaching lecture, it is a performance. One I’m hoping will convince the committee to let me get on with actual teaching for years to come.

I’d love to hear from anyone who’s done a teaching lecture as a part of their interview! Advice on how to nail this will be greatly appreciated by me but I’m sure others on the TT job search will also appreciate pointers.



6 thoughts on “Teaching Tuesday: Interviewing–the teaching test lecture

  1. My department is planning to have both a research seminar and a teaching demo during interviews. I don’t want to say any more about this because, well, we’re in the middle of a search and I it wouldn’t be professional (and might not even follow the collective bargaining contract) to discuss the process while we’re in the middle of it. But I can write more about it well after the search is over.

  2. I had an interview this past spring where I was asked to give three full 45 minute talks (in one day!): (i) past research; (ii) research proposal; and (iii) a lecture on a specific topic to a second year zoology course. Similar to your situation, I was told that the topic was outside the expertise of all the candidates. The teaching talk was the least stressful from my perspective. I took it as an opportunity to take some small breaks from all the talking, by interacting with the “students” (mostly the search committee and other professors), asking them to think-pair-share, etc – all the things I would normally do in a class. I also full on made believe that we were in the middle of a semester, by tying in the lecture topic to material that would have previously been covered in the course and by reviewing plans for our upcoming lab field trip to collect data relevant to the lecture topic at a local conservation area. I did this last part especially to highlight the part of my teaching philosophy that undergraduate education should involve some hands-on field experience.

    I didn’t get the job, so I’ll let you judge for yourself the usefulness of my experience :) For what its worth though, I got great feedback on all my talks.

    • That sounds intense! Thanks for sharing. I like the idea of incorporating pauses/activities in the teaching lectures, like you would do in a real class. Given the time constraints of the demo I need to do, I doubt I will actually have the committee stop and think-pair-share or something like that but rather I will point out where I would have them do that if it were a real class. I’ll need to see how it all comes together.

  3. When I interviewed (about a thousand years ago) for the position I now hold, I had to give a lecture to an ongoing Introductory Biology class, as well as a research seminar. As I was preparing for the Intro lecture, I worried that I might either bore the students (by explaining material they already knew) or blow them away (by assuming they were familiar with stuff they had not encountered before). Then I realized that I could check in with the students as the class unfolded to make sure that I was hitting the right level. At the outset, I said something like “I know you have all been well prepared, but I am at a disadvantage here, because I don’t know exactly what you have heard already—so, you have to speak up if I use terms or concepts that are unfamiliar, and also let me know if I’m talking about something that is old hat.” As it happened, this was very effective. I was able to establish something like a contract with the students at the start—we had an agreement that they would let me know if I was off track. As the lecture unfolded, I made sure to pause briefly and make sure that the word or idea that I just used was going down OK, which provided opportunities for the students to talk back to me, which they actually did (not easy to make that happen in first-year Biology classes, I’ve found). Obviously, this would not work in a standard class that one is teaching during a regular semester, but as the guest lecturer, this is a strategy that might help establish rapport, as well as confirm that the students are on board. No clickers required.

    I really sympathize with everyone on the job market these days. Good luck with your interview(s)!

  4. The “demonstration teaching lecture” is a real trap and I’ve seen it really foul up some otherwise good interviews. In general I advise people to treat it like a second research talk. It is supposed to showcase your skills as an instructor, but that’s not really what I’ve seen it used for. Most of your audience hasn’t been a student for 20+ years, and the few students that attend they aren’t likely to listen to anyway. They *think* they want to see you “teach” … what they really want is a second research lecture. Starting out with more background albeit, but if you go in there and actually teach the way you would to a 19-21 year old, you run the danger that they’ll think it is too facile. This is a real trap if you are a woman and they *want* to believe that you are facile and simplistic and under-evolved anyway … my pragmatic advice is to teach it like a class, but at a much higher intellectual level than you would use for undergraduates. Teach it as a class for your colleagues, is a safer way to go.

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