Higher Education

On the Market I: Bespoke Courses

This is the first installment of “On the Market,” a series in which Dan chronicles his experiences and observations as a new PhD on the academic job market. It will continue until he gets a job or dies trying.

As many of us unfortunately know from experience, applying to tenure-track jobs is a lot of work. I regularly take a kind of sick pleasure in describing the process in detail to friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances who innocently inquire as to why I don’t just apply to University of [their hometown] or [alma mater] because, you know, it’s a good school and a great location and they loved the four years they spent there. The moment where that look of pure horror dawns on their faces–usually around the time I say that if you haven’t heard from anyone by February you’re done for the year–is absolutely priceless.

The real killer, of course, is that every search requires a unique constellation of materials: a cover letter and CV accompanied by a random combination of reference letters, teaching philosophies, classroom videos, research statements, academic transcripts, commitments to student diversity, sample courses, and sundry other odds and ends. Preparing all these materials during your first year on the job market is an incredible amount of work, but the bright side is that once you have them on file they can generally be reused for other applications (with some minor tweaking, of course).

One of the major exceptions to this rule, however, seems to be the sample courses. I have designed three completely different upper-level undergraduate electives since coming on the job market, and have not yet been able to adapt or re-use any of them. In a way this is understandable: different schools have differing curricular needs, after all, and committees need some kind of assurance that candidates are able to teach topics outside their narrow research specialties.

Just how far outside depends a lot on the institution. In a small department a single professor might be expected to cover a much greater range of materials in order to ensure that undergraduate majors have access to them. Even a large department might have teaching needs that are more closely related to–yet distinct from–a given candidate’s primary research interests.

And so candidates often find themselves designing several “bespoke” courses in order to meet the varying demands of different hiring committees. As I see it, there are two major problems with this situation.

1) Designing a good, functional course with a complete syllabus is a massive amount of work, usually at least fifteen (unpaid) hours depending on the nature of the course. If you are not using a textbook, tracking down appropriate readings can especially time-consuming, since even if you know the literature very well you still have to track down the bibliographic information, give page numbers for excerpts, and skim it again with an undergraduate’s eyes to ensure it’s accessible for the target audience.

2) Once you have designed a course that you are really proud of and excited about, you won’t get to actually teach it. Maybe ever! This is very sad, and makes the whole process seem especially wasteful.

Is there a solution to the bespoke course problem? I don’t know. It’s hard to argue against the utility of a sample course as a measure of a candidate’s teaching style and expertise, but it is certainly a lot to ask of candidates who are statistically very unlikely to actually get the job in question. It would certainly be better to restrict sample courses to later rounds of the search, when candidates have a much better shot at the job. By the same token, it would be better if sample courses in the initial application carried no special content requirements (shall we call them “prêt à enseigner?”). These would be intended more as concrete examples of the general principles in a candidate’s teaching statement than anything else.

In any case, now that I have these syllabi, here’s hoping I’ll get to use them.

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Active learning: does depth outweigh breadth?

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On the Market I: Brown M&M's



Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.

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