Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: ‘So, How Would You Change Our Major?’

Full poppins

Last year during a first-round interview, the chair of the search committee asked a question that threw me. The department was restructuring its major, she said. What thoughts did I have about reworking the undergraduate curriculum in our social-science field? I totally did not prepare for that question, froze up, and bungled it.

That question is not super-common, but it does come up — usually in a program-building context when a department is "growing" its minor into a major, or offering a new graduate degree. It can also come up in the kind of context in which you encountered it. Perhaps the department recently had an external audit that suggested changes, or the institution has a new strategic plan that demands curricular reform.

Also, if you’re applying as an advanced assistant professor, or with tenure, then the search committee or dean may well be seeking information on your programmatic views. When I was on the job market as a tenured professor, a dean asked me whether I was comfortable with having South Asian studies rolled into the East Asian studies program. I absolutely was not, but I also clearly understood that this was a budgetary question, not an intellectual one, and that any answer other than "yes" would be unacceptable to the dean and end my shot at the position.

So I made vague affirmative noises at him, and mobilized the requisite jargon like "leveraging resources" and "smart growth." I got the job. Incidentally, South Asian studies was never (during my time) combined with East Asian studies.

I relate that story here because it points to the big-picture agenda behind a seemingly narrow programmatic question like the one you were asked. The committee is not just interested in your particular curricular ideas but also in broader questions: Are you a team player? Are you cooperative? Would you be a good and docile soldier in the administration’s neoliberal march to scholarly emptiness? Or are you a typical faculty prima donna who will insist on your intellectual "purity"? Play the latter in a job interview at your peril.

Whatever the particular institutional politics surrounding this sort of interview question, it is good to have a boilerplate answer stored away.

Preparing a good answer requires you to think big picture about professional training in your discipline. What knowledge and skills does a student going through the program need to gain, and in what order, and at what monetary cost? That last part is particularly crucial. Departments have some tiered system of introductory courses, 200-level courses, and advanced seminars for a reason. In the current financial moment, there is an imperative to deliver those courses mostly without any increase in staffing or resources.

If you think about each "tier" of courses instrumentally, you will be well on your way to answering the question. I will use my field, anthropology, as an example, but the principles apply across fields.

  • To start with, students need baseline knowledge of core concepts (in anthropology it would be things like "cultural relativism" and "emic/etic perspective") and they have to learn the specialized vocabulary required to talk about, and apply, those concepts. Intro courses are, to a large extent, informational — that is, designed to transfer building blocks of knowledge from the professor to the students. That’s why, traditionally, the intro course is a lecture class. Sure, it can be taught creatively — with a variety of class-exercises and discussions designed to reinforce understanding of the concepts — but it’s not a course in which students think critically about the discipline itself. They might be gaining new tools to think critically about the world at large, but with regard to the question of the curriculum, they are acquiring fundamentals that they can explore in greater depth, and/or from a critical perspective down the road.
  • Intermediate 200-level courses tend to introduce students to methods that define their major, or their discipline. In anthropology, that would be ethnographic methods. For other disciplines, it would be whatever mix of methods — qualitative, quantitative, field-based, lab-based, or interpretive — the student needs to know to understand how new knowledge in the field is produced. These courses teach students what kinds of research questions are valid in a particular discipline, and what kinds of study designs, or approaches, are appropriate ways to find answers.
  • Once students have the vocabulary and methodology down, they can delve into more in-depth discussions of specific topics. Advanced seminars are where students start to think critically about the production of knowledge in the field itself, and study it by looking at disciplinary history or contemporary debates. Ultimately, all of those bodies of knowledge may be synthesized in some kind of capstone or thesis project in which students develop a research question and execute a study using concepts and methods they’ve learned. They must have enough understanding of the bigger issues at stake in the field to situate their own study in a literature review and explain how it fits into the knowledge-production trends in the field.

Courses in each tier must be cast to reach the absolutely widest "net" of students, so as to fill the maximum number of seats, and generate the greatest tuition-dollar capture for the department. If you are not used to thinking of teaching in that way … get used to it. Immediately.

That’s what I mean by the big picture. Academics specialize in their subject areas, and don’t necessarily think about the bird’s-eye-view perspective of how their courses link up to other courses in the degree sequence (unless their field is pedagogy or curriculum instruction). And we almost never think about dollar-cost.

At The Professor Is In, when we help job candidates with interview prep, one of the questions we cover is "How would you teach X course?" And we emphasize: You must be able to talk about the course in a way that will reassure the search committee that you are not going to take the class off the rails, that students are going to come out of it knowing all the things they are supposed to know to succeed in the courses that come next on the flowchart mapping progress to a degree.

A postmodern subversion of an Anthropology 101 course — taught, say, in a black-light room through interpretive dance — might seem super innovative and creative, but if students trickle into 200-level courses not knowing what participant observation is, that is a problem. And if your version of the course appears likely (to risk-averse interviewers) to attract only 10 students, when the normal enrollment is 100, that is a bigger problem.

The search-committee members want to know that you will not create that kind of problem in their department. They want to know that you understand — to paraphrase the old saying — that no course is an island, and that you understand enough about how expertise is gained in your field to have a clear sense of what things should be taught in what sequence.

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