Posts Tagged With: Teaching

The Professor is IN: Interviewing for Acadamia

Maybe it’s something in the water (or lack of since we’re in the middle of a drought), but there has been some major turnover at my college lately. Most of it is due to retirements, although a few have been people who can’t handle our isolated location. Be it the water or the isolation, we’re hiring in a big way. As an assistant to the alpha (also known as Chief, my rock star dean), I am on the hiring committee for several different disciplines. A few weeks ago I gave some tips for job interviews. Interviewing for a teaching position, at least at the college level, is slightly different. So for those would be professors hitting the interview circuit, here are a few pointers to help you on your way.

Before You Go

  1. Know what you believe. One of the questions you will most likely be asked will be about your teaching philosophy. Some schools even ask for a statement in writing. Even if they don’t, take the time write one out, if only for yourself. What do you value? What do you see as your actual role as an instructor? What do you want your students to take away from your classroom besides facts? Cheesy as it might sound, a teaching philosophy represents the core of who you are as an instructor. Face it, you don’t do this for the money. So why do you do it? Avoid the cliches if possible, but be honest and reflect who you really are.
  2. Know the school. Colleges usually have thoroughly developed websites. Look at their mission statement, history, and anything else to give you a sense of who they are and, more importantly, who they serve. Look at the schedule. What courses are offered? In Texas you can even view the CV information for the current faculty. Review these not only to get a feel for who they have, but who they don’t. If the entire department is specialized in American Lit, your background in British Lit is worth mentioning during the interview because it will bring diversity and new opportunities for their students. Knowing what the school actually is will not only help you in the interview, it will help you if you get the job to have realistic expectations. As a community college, we have a number of people interview with us who have only taught as grad students at the university. Likewise, we have public school teachers who want to move into higher education. In both cases, often the applicant has unrealistic expectations about the role of the community college, thinking it will be the same as the university. Spending time on the school’s website can help you understand its specific needs.
  3. Have a plan. Many colleges ask that you teach a sample lesson (about 15 minutes), either to real students or to the hiring committee. This is not the time to ‘wing it.’ When scheduling your interview, if they want you to teach a lesson, ask some questions about what they want: How long should it last? Will there be technology available? How many people will be there (figure out who, if possible)? If you are teaching to actual students, what topic will be covered? The answers to these questions lead us to . . .

Your Lesson

  1. Teach to the college. Your goal when you teach a sample lesson is to allow the hiring committee to picture you in their college’s classroom. Many of the people, if not all, will be teachers themselves and they will be envisioning their own students responding to your lesson. Since you’ve taken the time to look at the course schedule, you know what classes are offered at the college. Teaching something in one of these areas will make it much easier for the committee to see you in their classrooms than if you teach something way too advanced or way too simple.
  2. Teach to the non-majors. Unless you know for a fact the position you are interviewing for is all upper-level courses, don’t teach a lesson designed for majors. Teach instead to those students who would be the least interested and engaged in your class. Our committees are always made up for mixed disciplines (for the Government hiring we’ve been doing, we had Biology, Chemistry, History/Government, and History/English). In a perfect world you would only teach to passionate, like-minded individuals who adore your subject. In the real world, they are few and far between. So how will you teach the rest?
  3. Give a a trailer for your classroom. When you plan the lesson you will teach, think about what your ideal class would look like condensed into a movie trailer. What would be the highlights? Don’t just plan on giving a lecture you happen to know. Use technology* (if available) prudently and with purpose. Engage the hiring committee in discussion or a brief activity that still showcases your teaching skills. Talk to the actual people in the room. (I once sat in on an interview where the applicant talked to imaginary students during the lesson, as opposed to us. It was strange and unnerving.) You are on an audition. Be yourself, but be your best self.

*Anytime you use technology, have a backup plan. Bring your jump drive, email it to yourself, print it out, and, if all else fails, be prepared to pick up a piece of chalk and go low tech. If you plan to bring handouts, make sure you bring extras so that everyone can have one.

Your Interview

  1. Review these Seven. In addition:
  2. Be specific. Questions at an academic interview can be all over the place–discipline, assessment, academic dishonesty, student engagement–these are integral elements of teaching that might come up in various forms during the interview. Essentially, the committee wants to know how you will function as an instructor. So begin by answering those questions for yourself. How will you/do you grade? How do you engage students? How do you handle discipline problems* in the classroom? How do you handle cheating? When answering these questions, be specific. Give examples of real instances and how you have dealt with them. If you don’t have a ton of experience, talk about how you think you would, or an instance you’ve observed as a student where you think the professor handled it well. When I got my current job, my teaching experience was tiny. But I had a plan for how I would run my classroom and discussed the lessons I had learned from¬† my own professors.
  3. ¬†Be confident and passionate, but keep the ego in check. Students can smell weakness and they will exploit it. Likewise, on an interview, if you are uncertain or intentionally evasive, the committee will know. It is one thing to be nervous, it’s another to be vague or wishy-washy. But be careful as you tread the line between confident and egotistical. Even the best teachers still have something to learn. You may have been teaching for twenty years, but if you move to a new school, they will expect you to fit into their community. They don’t just want a good teacher; they want a good teacher who will work well within their system. Being demanding about things like offices, schedules, and titles (in general, but particularly in an interview) makes you appear high maintenance and difficult to work with. Having integrity doesn’t mean being inflexible. On several occasions I’ve seen applicants say they wouldn’t want to use our online system because they already have things set up their own way or that they won’t teach a certain type of class because they don’t like it, or even one asking why we couldn’t supply every student with a laptop so the instructor could keep teaching the way she liked. To me this is getting lost in your own ego and not considering what is best for the school or students. It will also raise red flags as to what other things you’ll be demanding about in the future.

*In one of the best answers to this question and the academic dishonesty policy, the applicant explained how he tried to handle discipline problems and preempt cheating, but then noted that as for consequences, he would begin by following school policy. The answer was great because it showed a proactive approach and a willingness to comply with campus policy.

There are many other things to consider on an academic interview, but this is a good starting point.



PS. Have questions? Post in the comments or email me at amberkellyanderson[at]gmail[dot]com.

Categories: Get Smart | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

A is for Apathy

This month I’m happy to be participating in the Blogging A to Z challenge. I love a good blogging challenge and this one happens to mirror my current habits–write Monday through Saturday, chill on Sunday. So for today, I was overrun with ideas for A: Austin (where I am heading next weekend for VegFest), Alpine (the gorgeous little town on the edge of the Big Bend where I received my MA), Archetypes (one of the my favorite literary elements to discuss), Margaret Atwood (the best writer in the history of life), Avocados (the food I’ve grown to love after years of hate) . . . so many options!

Instead, I decided to talk about apathy, a crime of which I am certainly guilty. When my students come to me with their excuses for why they haven’t don’t their work/come to class, I usually tell them I don’t really need to hear the excuses. They interpret this as apathy, that I just don’t care. And in some cases I don’t because they are lying to me or have made a habit of lying to me. More often, I do care and want to help them, but I have set up rules in my syllabus to keep me from getting taken in by the liars and letting students scam grades they don’t deserve. It’s my protection from taking everything in my classroom too personally and being completely apathetic.

Another frustration I find in the classroom is my students’ apathy. It often seems that they care about nothing. They don’t read, they don’t watch movies, they don’t do anything that I can connect with–I often end up saying in frustration, “What is it you do care about?” because I can’t find anything other than texting in my class that they show any passion for. From a writing standpoint, I often have to tell my fiction students that their characters must want something (as Kurt Vonnegut says, even just a glass of water), that apathy is boring to read about. We want to read about people who want something, who feel something, even if it seems silly. At least it’s something.

In life, apathy is dangerous because now it’s so easy to say “I don’t care” or its eye rolling cousin, “Whatever.” There is too much in the world that threatens to mash our hearts that apathy becomes our protection. We can’t deal with the terrible things we see and hear, so we make the call not to care. Or, we select two or three things we care a great deal about and focus on those. I am guilty of that crime–my apathy extends to things not in my “wheel house,” so to speak. The problem then, as a parent, is how do I keep my children from the dangers of apathy while protecting them?

I don’t have an answer (as I get older I find the number of questions outweighs the answers); instead I have my instincts which tell me to keep it simple. We should not be apathetic to suffering. We should not be apathetic to joy. We should not be apathetic to making the world just a little bit better each day.



PS. Since I am blogging A to Z, any letter specific topics anyone wants to see?

Categories: Get Smart, Life and Other Nonsense | Tags: , , , , , | 24 Comments

Top Heavy Leisure: The Homework Problem

Yesterday as I was paging through my new issue of Brain, Child magazine (which, if you aren’t reading, you should–it’s the best parenting magazine on the market), I came across a section where parents where asked the craziest thing they had done to help their kids with homework.

Expecting things like late night runs to Wal Mart or helping hands on craft projects (which were present), I was shocked to find parents who admitted to–nay almost bragged about–doing their kids homework for them, refusing to make the children do homework, or telling the teacher that her definition of homework didn’t work for them and she should accept what they termed as homework.


Our country continues to fall behind in academics, students go to college and the workforce unprepared with poor work ethic, and we wonder why. It’s not the action that bothers me (okay, so it bothers me a little), it’s the attitude. That students deserve plenty of leisure time and education is infringing on that. With younger kids, I get not loading them down, but I also think that having something for them to do each night that relates to school is important.

As they get older, many students and parents seem to think leisure time and after school activities should take precedence over homework. My colleagues and I constantly receive emails from our dual credit students telling us they cannot do their college work because of their extracurricular activities. Apparently they don’t understand the extra part of extracurricular. More than that, a number of my students of all types are just lazy. They are annoyed that I ask them to do things outside of class.

I suppose I do have some nerve, asking them to read and write essays for a college writing class. Or asking them to turn things in on time even thought they have basketball practice and have known about the essay for three weeks.

Last week I was watching PBS in my hotel room at an assessment training conference. Charlie Rose was interviewing former DC superintendent Michelle Rhee (I first became aware of her in the documentary Waiting for Superman). Rhee made the point that education is not, as we treat it, a social issue. It is an economic issue. I’d never heard it articulated like that before, but she’s dead on. Education is not for socialization (that’s a side-effect); it’s to create a strong workforce. So when parents don’t make their students complete homework, they are modeling a poor work ethic whether they realize it or not.

Yes, I agree that there is a difference between homework and busy work. Yes, I agree students should have some down time. But many students seem to think they are only accountable during class hours (never mind those that bring their leisure time into my class as well–phones are the bane of my existence). Homework is the chance for them to work on bettering themselves, establish what they do and don’t know, and attempt to demonstrate the skills without someone looking over their shoulders.

So if your student comes home with work, teach them time management, answer their questions, guide them, but for their sake, make them do it.



Categories: Get Smart, Life and Other Nonsense, The Little People and Furry Friends | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tough Love: I Think I Might Be Mean

Last night my six-year-old daughter had sneak week at her dance class. Basically, parents were invited to watch a class and sneak a “peek” at the recital dances that they’ll be performing in a few months.

I was excited because Lili usually does really well at performances. Her memory is good and she’s usually the loudest, smiley-est, and most energetic. (There was one Christmas pageant performance where she was part of a large angel chorus and was decidedly not feeling it, mostly because she found the costume “bland.”) My kid is never the one who cries or hides or stares blankly into space.


Last night, she was. It started with the warm up. Somehow the simple acts of doing butterflies and touching her toes had her in tears. She went through the exercises with a dripping face to rival any performance in Les Mis. Next, she executed her ballet dance technically well, but after each run, despite my encouraging smile and waves, looked at me forlornly and gave me a thumbs down for reasons I do not know.

By the time they got to their tap dance, she was in full on martyr meltdown. This dance, which she struggles with, she barely attempted. Instead she cried. And cried. And cried. Silent tears dripping down her face in the few moments she didn’t bury her head in her hands or turn her back on the room. I stopped watching her directly, thinking that might help. All it did was allow me to watch her cry in the mirror.

But what finally pushed me from annoyed to angry was when she was instructed to watch the other half of the class (who had just watched her group) perform the dance. Lili turned away from them and watched herself cry in the mirror in extreme close up. It was like a really sulky Norma Desmond (sadly, Lili is not one of those pretty criers–she has no future in soap operas).

All the other parents rushed to their kids after the class to tell them how great they were. We walked silently to the car. She knew I was disappointed. And she was right. I suppose I could have told her it didn’t matter, that she tried and we all have rough days.

But here’s the truth: she didn’t try. And while we do all have rough days, crying over it for that long (I suspect for attention seeking purposes) and taking the teacher’s time to deal with the drama does matter. Never mind that the teacher is a girl I used to dance with who was teaching the class injured–I felt bad for the kids who were working so hard and nailing the dance or at least trying.

On the way home Lili and I talked about if she should continue dance. My vote was no. Dance, I reminded her, is supposed to be fun. Sure it’s hard, but not everything is easy and hard things can be fun. There was more crying and I didn’t try to comfort her. Perhaps that makes me mean. Instead of telling her it was okay, I tried to talk to her about commitment and learning from rather than wallowing in mistakes.

A colleague and I were discussing the participation generation earlier today–children raised with the idea that everyone gets a trophy. Maybe it was that frame of mind that led me to be hard on her. I feel bad about it; I don’t want to be strict with my children. I want to be their champion and cheerleader. But every day I see what happens when students don’t have standards and deadlines. I find myself battling with young adults (and sometimes older adults) who lack discipline, responsibility, tenacity, and work ethic. I don’t want my children to end up that way.

And so I stop myself from rescuing them when I know they can rescue themselves. It’s hard and sometimes it makes me want to cry–no one wants to be the mean mommy. I always tell them I love them no matter what, but I demand they work hard and learn to pick themselves up. In my heart I think it’s the right thing to do. I just wish there were an easier way.



Categories: Life and Other Nonsense, The Little People and Furry Friends | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Three Lessons Making Out Syllabi Have Taught Me

Today is back to work day for me. No students yet, but rather a week of meetings and hours spent in my office battening down the hatches for their return next week. This week is important because it sets up the structure of my semester. Much of the energy that ends up wasted in the semester can usually be deterred through prudent use of my time this week. Setting up my courses, clarifying my policies in my syllabi, and structuring me office hours are all things that will set the tone for my semester. My syllabi are especially crucial. Every semester I find that I must revise them to include some new issue that students have introduced me to during the previous semester. These three life lessons have been garnered through the revision of my syllabi over the past few years.

People do not read policies because they do not care or think that the policies really apply to them.

A Syllabus, for those not in academia, is not just an outline of course policies–it is a contract between the student and the teacher. You are clarifying your expectations and they are agreeing to abide by them. Some professors even have students sign something stating that they have read and understood the syllabus. Others, myself included in my online courses, have quizzes over the information. More than half of my students fail the syllabus quiz even though it is open book and open notes. The number one missed question is: “Under what circumstances is late work accepted?” Now in my syllabus is says in two different places “No Late Work will be accepted at any time. No excuses. No exceptions.” The most popular wrong answer students give to that previous questions is “On a case by case basis.” This tells me they either don’t read the syllabus, or they believe that should it come down to them turning it late work, they will be the exception.

If you want something done, there must be a tangible penalty.

For years I have had no cell phone policies and listed bringing the textbook to class as a requirement. Neither of these things were even close to obeyed until this past semester when I had a clause in my syllabus saying that I would deduct points from the final grade for cell phones out or missing books. And even then I had a few who still acted surprised when they lost points for not bringing a book to a literature class.

You can always get easier, but you can rarely get harder.

There have been semesters where I realized halfway through that there was a serious problem in my class. (Last year it was the class that just refused to bring books, hence the new book policy.) While I might want to institute changes to fix those problems, I can’t renege on my own contract, especially to make it harder. Oddly, that’s not how the real world works, but I digress. My policies are strict because I would rather be able to have one day where I give the students a break by making things easier than spend an entire semester fighting against a class that won’t do things just because they are asked.



PS. My cleanse starts today!

Categories: Get Smart, Life and Other Nonsense | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Grande Finale

Finals week for a teacher is like being the hero of an epic–you will be tested. Students seem to awaken from some sleeping spell they have been under for the past few months and realize they are a.) in your class, b.) that class requires work, and c.) they haven’t done that work. While they are not the majority, their voices ring through you, drowning out all other sounds.

Many call for the deus ex machina (“What can I do to pass?”/”I know I haven’t taken all the tests or completed all the assignments, but I really need to pass this class.”/”I turned in this assignment that you have no record of and I have no record of. Can I have credit?”).

Others strike at you, insulting your class, you, your children, and anything else they can think of. They tell anyone who will listen that you burn monkeys/commune with the devil/are heartless/are unfair/hate students/hate them/are uneducated/are a communist/eat babies and that’s why they are failing your course. Sometimes their pleas might be so dramatic you’ll get a call from your dean wondering what sort of baby eating-monkey burning-communist tomfoolery you’ve been up to.

There is also the great joy of having to fail the final paper or project a student completes because it’s plagiarized/half the assigned length/off topic/doesn’t follow guidelines. Each time you enter those failing grades, it’s like setting a timer on a bomb. When will the email demanding an explanation for their failure arrive? In three . . . two . . . one . . .

Whatever their cause, these students will test your patience. They will test your policies. They will test your integrity. They will test your sanity. You may want to give in, to round that 64 up to passing just to make the emails/phone calls/minutes perched in your office stop. However, somewhere through the fog of coffee and grading, you will try desperately to hang on to your principles all while telling yourself you would be doing them no favors by giving in.

This semester feels like a beating, more than in the past I think. It seems the drama is more intense, the papers more taxing, and the to do list never ending. These are the times Starbucks beckons to me. But I won’t quit to become a barista. Instead I’ll take a few days, read a few books, and start all over again.




Categories: Get Smart, Life and Other Nonsense | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Full Engagement in the Performance Self

“What’s your name when you’re at home?”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

The questions scene from R&G is perhaps one of Tom Stoppard’s greatest and most memorable. The question above, which leads to the follow up, “Is it different at home?” got me to thinking about the public self.

Psychology Today‘s article about peak performance identity further fed this idea of who we play in life. The article quotes a radio personality as saying the public persona presents “the dilemma of authentic connection…yet maintaining full engagement in one’s performance self.”

Although I am no longer an actor, I have talked about the varied roles I play (mother, wife, professor, writer) and how I must switch between them. Of particular interest is the role of professor. In each class I must connect with students, remain engaging, and cultivate learning. More succinctly put, I must be on.

This semester I teach four classes back to back and it is physically as well as emotionally draining. Yes, I teach community college Freshman and Sophomore courses, but I go from lecturing on pathos/logos/ethos to Japanese Feudalism in The Tale of Genji to analyzing e.e. cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town” to discussing color symbolism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Not only do I have to cover these topics primarily from memory, I have to ask and answer questions, keep an eye out for covert texting, and try to make what I’m saying interesting to someone other than me.

The classroom me has a different voice, different gestures, and even different facial expressions than the other versions of me. My face, which usually betrays whatever I’m thinking or feeling, has to be kept in check so when a student asks me the same question for the tenth time, my annoyance doesn’t show. Because several of my classes are recorded, my gestures have to be minimal to avoid distraction on the television screen.

It is a performance. On good days, I love doing it. But there are bad days when I slip and the performance is weak. While my students probably don’t care, I do. That may have been my one chance to sell a student on the beauty of Shakespeare and I dropped the ball because I didn’t come ready to play.
Hopefully those days are few and far between.



Categories: Let Me Entertain You, Objects de Art | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Promoting Mediocrity

Last weekend I attended a state conference for college educators. Although it is a held yearly, I have never bothered to make the trip before. (Perhaps part of the draw was that a number of friends live near the city in which it was being held.) After gorging myself on free books, I sat in on my first session, which proved to be everything I love and hate about my profession.

The topic was giving students feedback on essays. Overall, the point was how do we give constructive feedback without overwhelming, discouraging, or over-praising. Some excellent points were made and although I may not have come away with revolutionary ways to change my teaching, I did get some perspective on how I comment. (Of course all of this relies on the huge assumption that students read comments and try to implement them.)

Where I got ridiculously annoyed was in the round table discussion. We were given a short student essay to read and instructed to come back with two major points of direction to give the student. Fairly quickly most of us agreed that the essay lacked organization and a strong guiding thesis statement.

I can only say most because we had in our group an Underminer. These are the types of people who try to make other people feel bad for having opinions, responding in any negative way, and generally make other people look petty. I’m not talking about optimists; I’m talking about the person who after 15-minutes of the faculty arguing that we do not need to complete a repetitive and unnecessary action (something the dean agrees with), pipes up at the last second and says: “I’ll do whatever you want because I want to keep my job.” It’s like being overbid by a dollar onThe Price Is Right. You just want to smack them.

In this case the Underminer told the table (and later the entire group):

“Compared to the papers I get, this is a good essay. There are complete sentences and the words are in the correct order. I think we need to tell this student how well they did and help build their self-esteem. It’s better than most everything else, so why give them criticism?”

Are. You. Kidding. Me?

Why give them criticism? Because you’re a teacher and your job is to help students improve, no matter if they are A or F writers (and this essay was at best a C+/B-)? Because being better than the norm doesn’t mean the student can’t learn something new? Because you are doing them no favors in passing mediocre as excellent?

Any of those reasons?

As I told this woman, trying not to grit my teeth, I often end up spending more time on good papers because I want to give them something useful to make them even better. I would cringe if I found out there were things I could improve on that someone wasn’t telling me because “it was better than most everything else.” Our job is not just to grade but to instruct. Writing in particular is something where perfection is non-existent. Does that mean we just slap on grades, correct bad grammar, and don’t encourage growth?

If that’s the way teaching and writing should be handled, I am in the wrong freaking professions.

(And while I certainly didn’t say this at the meeting, if one of your criteria for good writing is “words being in the correct order,” I have to question how great a teacher you are.)

Take a moment and read this great post from earlier this week: I Want My Kids to Fail.

Then take a longer moment and pop over to The Baraza to read all the great posts that went up this week, including my musings on pop culture.



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