The Teaching Portfolio

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Back in the day, at Rutgers, we were required to take a class on pedagogy, but there was little supervision of our teaching once we entered the classroom. I taught my first undergraduate class as a second year PhD student (“Modern America, 1880-1940”) without any oversight, and, just a few years later, blindly taught both halves of World Civ at St. John’s (from the glaciers to the Gulf War). Tellingly, not a single peer or senior colleague watched me teach until I went up for tenure.

Still, teaching was absolutely central to my life as an academic. Even at an early date, I cared about my classes, about the design of the course, and about what the students learned along the way. I wish I’d had the wisdom of Robin Bernstein back then, but there were others who advised me along the way, and I owe a lot to hundreds of frank conversations about what worked, what didn’t, and how to make adjustments – either at the end of the semester or, of course, on the fly.

If you’re a graduate student, you need to make space for those conversations now. Because you can’t, in the end, make something out of nothing. You build your teaching portfolio – an assemblage of syllabi, teaching experience, pedagogical philosophies, and general wisdom drawn from these conversations – in the years before you even get close to the job market.

A central facet of that teaching portfolio is the demonstration that one understands the local atmospherics of the classroom and teaching at varied sites. At a big public, for instance, or a small liberal arts college, or an elite private, and or a community college.  Or all of the above, preferably.

For me, this meant first actively seeking out opportunities to teach in different contexts. A small seminar at the Newark campus of Rutgers. World Civ (I & II) at the Catholic St. John’s, taught even as I TA’ed for a Western Civ class on the Rutgers Livingston campus. One year of teaching at a big public out west. Two years of teaching on a postdoc at Brown. Years of developing syllabi for courses I never taught – many, many versions of Development I & II in U.S. History, for instance, or yearlong surveys of African American History.  Over my five years of graduate school, if I wasn’t writing, or working on my CV, or just living my life, I was drafting or revising a syllabus.

Looking backwards, all of this was more important than I first realized. As a state college graduate with a big public degree, I was received with great skepticism, at first, when I applied to elite private colleges and universities. And, because my written work was respectable, that skepticism manifested itself chiefly in conversations about my teaching. Interviewing at one New England university, I was asked where I might begin a class on the Civil Rights Movement. My answer – Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells – didn’t please my dinner host, seeming too “broad” to him, and, to this day, I read in his displeasure a hint of elitism, a disdain for my ability to meet the students of one privileged university on their own “hidden Ivy” ground.

Reading a draft of this page, my friend Janet Davis of Texas, with a degree from Wisconsin, was reminded of her own experiences on the job market. “When I interviewed at a large public in Nevada. The search committee asked me to address the potential challenges of teaching a student population primarily comprised of adults working at casinos and in the hospitality industry. The committee specifically asked me, ‘You are at an elite RI state institution with a traditional undergraduate population. How will you deal with our large adult commuter population – students who attend classes at 8:00 AM or 8:00 PM, when they are off work?’ It was,” she remembers, “a revelation. And I can only imagine what they might have thought had I been a PhD student at an Ivy!”

To my students right now, I say this: Coming from a place like Brown – with its small, boutique classes, its open curriculum, its status as an Ivy League university, and its obsessive student-centered ethos – you will need to work very hard to convince a search committee that you can teach in another environment and that you can understand the needs of students far removed from your doctoral degree granting institution. And that, to be honest, can’t be faked; you have to believe it, and they have to believe in you.

So you have some work to do. Everyone does, really.

The first step is, again, to ask good people good questions. And to do it now, without waiting until you are actually preparing your dossier.

This is a lifelong habit, and it should never end. Preparing for this page, I wrote, for instance, to Harvard’s Bernstein, one of my gurus, to ask how she trains her students for a job market driven by places that are rather distinct from Brown or Harvard. “If you come from an Ivy to a less-competitive school for an on-campus interview,” she reminded me, “everyone will approach you with the same question in mind: Are you a snobby jerk?  Like it or not, your most important task may be to prove that you’re not.  If they think that you are going to spend the rest of your life looking down on colleagues and students, they will not hire you–not matter how great your work is.”

In short, you will need to reassure everyone (students, faculty, administrators, and staff) that you aren’t some fancy lad or lass, and that reassurance comes only when you take the teaching needs of their institution seriously.

On this front, Bernstein added a great piece of tactical advice: “As much as possible, your syllabi should conform to the school’s norms. Do everything in your power to score a copy of an existing syllabus from the department–or its closest analog.  If the norm at the school is to assign x number of pages of reading per week, that’s your target, too. If syllabi normally have a lot of language about learning goals, grading policies, etc., try to make yours similar.  This is another way of demonstrating that you “get” the culture and understand who these students are.”

This would include, I’d add, any of the most basic assessment criteria – like the most metric-oriented articulations of “learning outcomes,” for instance – that are now de rigueur at many schools.

Coupled with her blog post about syllabus construction, these points are great reminders that how you present yourself as a potential colleague matters. These are examples of “soft skills,” as the business world calls them, and their importance should not be overlooked.

Note, too, that my own education about teaching continues.

I also reached out to Davis, who teaches in Austin. Focusing on the lessons she has learned over years of teaching at a public R1, Janet offered me a tightly focused listicle, some of which is worth repeating here in full, with some modest annotation.

“Technology Will Save Us All: Private institutions with healthy endowments generally treat technology as a vital complement to the live, residential teaching/learning experience, while large public universities often treat technology as a way to reduce escalating costs in the face of shrinking state support by increasing enrollment and decreasing the professorate pool. I haven’t had to blend, flip, or record my lectures because my department is small and somewhat immune to the expectation that huge classes (with more than 300 students) will go online, but this is certainly the future for other departments. The growing ubiquity of technology has also led to a decline in the number of people working in media services. When I first taught a large lecture class, there was a person working the booth, ready to cue up a record track or press play on a VCR cassette. We now work independently from a touch screen and we stream our media content from a dedicated console that may (or may not) work.”

Bending, flipping, or recording lectures, Davis wants you to know, aren’t radical innovations at many universities and colleges – they are the new gold standard. Be ready for them, and don’t be too disdainful of them, either. Brown has doubled down on the old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar approach. Many, many other places are going in the other direction. Experiment when you can so that you can speak intelligently about how to make it work, either in your syllabi or around that proverbial dinner table.

“Social Media—Use with Caution: Large public institutions face a lot of political scrutiny over the potential “biases” of their faculty, who are subsidized by “hard-working taxpayers.” 

Her implicit point? If you have a social media presence, be mindful that it may be read carefully by search committees at big publics.

“The Politicization of Everything: Some public institutions have become entangled with state government and/or private initiatives. In my state, for example, a highly active private organization offers recommendations to change public education at every level. This foundation envisions a decentralized “adjunct” labor pool of non-tenured professors who teach periodically and work in occupations outside of academia. This organization had the ear of our former governor, who appointed several of its board members to the Board of Regents. Additionally, we are required by our state legislature to post our syllabi and CVs online at the start of each semester so that interested members of the public have direct access. Sure enough, our state branch of the National Association of Scholars decided that history courses were “too focused on race, gender, and class.” They lobbied legislators to pass a law that would allow them—not professors—to determine which courses should count toward our state Legislative Requirement in American History. Thankfully, the bill died a quick death in committee and hasn’t resurfaced since.”

This stuff really happens. At IU, I once organized a “Constitution Day” event on two week’s notice because a congressman called the University President, who called the Dean, who called me, and asked why we weren’t doing anything. I’d never even heard of this recently (2004) fabricated holiday, but to some Hoosier congressman, it really, really mattered.

“Remember This: Large public institutions draw a remarkably diverse student body. There’s a sizable number of students who would perform beautifully at the nation’s best institutions. There are others who have been so poorly trained in high school that they struggle mightily. In short, there are special challenges and special rewards at these institutions.”

I triple-endorse this last point. Students at elite privates come from all walks of life, too, but never in the same way. At Indiana, I routinely taught students who could not write at all, could not read carefully, had never travelled, and who had encountered the world chiefly through television and the internet. Every semester, I had to address students who had never read a book, from to back, or even held a book in their hands. They could all think, of course, but if there were a hundred students in each class, they individually came from a vast spectrum of backgrounds and each learned at different speeds and paces. The range of abilities, life histories, and skill-sets was astonishing. This even more true at community colleges, where you have a mix of full time students pursuing professional degrees, people trying to save a few bucks or get themselves back on track, and part time returning students.

This incredible difference shapes what you include in the day-to-day of the class, and it also might determine how you title it and how you write the course description. At every step – from design to execution – you need to be attentive to the very different clientele at every genre of university or college.

To Davis’s generous listicle, I’ll add: scale. At Indiana, I taught an introductory course in American Studies with over 200 students enrolled and just two TAs. A class that large – with such a small group of TAs – has to be taught in a very different way. It isn’t appropriate, for instance, to ask your TAs to grade three essays written by 200 students, so you have to do something different. (I fashioned a multiple choice final exam on various keywords). Upper level seminars routinely had 40 students. Be prepared, in short, to either adjust your teaching for scale – or to lose yourself in taking on a lot of grading. Adjust it accordingly on the sample syllabi that you send out, and open your mind to the idea that a bigger class can be a meaningful learning experience, but that assessment mechanisms will have to change.

Another reminder: your teaching portfolio is about knowledge, and it isn’t just a set of syllabi and a two page summary of your philosophy. Once more, you don’t stop learning about pedagogy when the required class is over. Keep reading about teaching. Attend large lecture classes and small lecture classes at your institution – and at neighboring institutions. Go to a big engineering lecture. Be a vagabond in a science class. Try to attend courses taught at nearby big publics. Got a friend teaching at UMass-Dartmouth?  Ask them if you can sit in on a lecture.

Try everything once. The most meaningful teaching experiences of my life came from my involvement in three study abroad programs (one each in Cuba, Guyana, and the DR), but I wouldn’t have ever thought to have organized those if I hadn’t been receptive, or open, to the effort. And I wasn’t mercenary about it – those classes didn’t count towards my teaching load, and they didn’t pay me any salary. I did it for the experience, and for the pleasure of that kind of teaching.

Not all of this will appear on your CV, but if you find yourself at a dinner in Fort Wayne, talking to a committee at IUPUFW, this kind of knowledge will show that you care enough about your teaching to think broadly and beyond your own institution about how it might all work.

The ultimate goal, as you move towards the job market (or life after the degree) is the acquisition of an impressive fluency and the display of great confidence, across multiple registers, about teaching. To be deployed at the moment you enter the job market. A fluency and confidence that takes years to make manifest and that only grows, one hopes, as the years go by.