Kevin Gannon

Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University

How to Succeed at a Teaching Demo

Full vitae teaching demo

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You’ve been shortlisted for a tenure-track position and invited to visit the campus. Congratulations — you’ve made it up some pretty steep terrain to a point few Ph.D.s reach. Chances are, your interview is not at the type of research institution where you were trained, but at a teaching-oriented one. Equally likely, you haven’t been all that well prepared for the most important piece of the interview there: the "teaching demonstration."

We all know that a tenure-track search can be a nightmare, and that academe should do more to make the hiring process less onerous for applicants. The overproduction of Ph.D.s and the underfunding of higher education have created an employment landscape where, in some subfields, literally hundreds of qualified applicants seek a handful of available openings. It’s a drawn-out, nerve-racking process that rarely honors the interests and well-being of the candidates.

My purpose here is to offer insight and advice to help you navigate the teaching demo at an institution like my own — that is, at the sort of teaching-focused campus where you are most likely to land one of those increasingly rare tenure-track jobs. Any advantage you can give yourself in this difficult hiring market can make all the difference.

Trouble is, the common tendency among graduate programs has been to prepare Ph.D.s to compete for research-focused jobs (though there have been some encouraging signs of change recently). In that context — most often at a large, research-oriented, perhaps even "elite" university — the teaching demo is rarely a deciding factor (if, indeed, it’s a factor at all).

What that means for a finalist interviewing at a teaching-oriented college is that the hiring process might look a bit different from the one your program prepared you for, and thus requires some strategic decisions on your part.

Those decisions include de-emphasizing the standard "job talk" — i.e., presenting your dissertation and your future research agenda — and instead focusing on the teaching demo or "teaching talk." Of course, some institutions require both a teaching demo and a research-based job talk, but most teaching-oriented places (as well as two-year colleges) ask candidates to do the former and not the latter during a campus interview.

Search committees at our type of institution use the teaching demo to assess a few things:

  • First and most obviously, we want to see how you approach teaching: What is your pedagogical style? How do you convey our field to students? Are you comfortable in the classroom?
  • We also watch how students react to your teaching: Are you accessible? Are you creating rapport with them and sparking their interest in the material? Are you engaging students in learning?
  • The teaching talk can also reveal how you respond to difficult or unexpected situations: How do you react to a question that doesn’t quite land? Or handle comments that threaten to derail a productive discussion?

For candidates with a fair amount of teaching experience already, those are relatively familiar classroom situations. For newer teachers, however, they can spark some anxiety, but a little preparation and a plan for those eventualities can go a long way toward easing your nervousness.

With that in mind, here are some of the most important points to consider in your preparation for the teaching talk:

What type of class will you be teaching? Some departments ask candidates to step into a pre-existing class, and teach a particular session as a guest instructor. Others create a Potemkin class of sorts: They set a date and time for the candidate’s teaching demo, and faculty members and students treat it as if it was a real course.

The dynamics in those two scenarios can differ greatly. As a guest instructor, you’ll be in a course that has an established rhythm and classroom culture. In a free-standing demo, you might encounter a more hodgepodge group. Student attendees might be self-selected (interested and engaged majors, for example), or they might be there simply because they were offered extra credit. That difference will matter if your teaching demo includes a discussion component.

Once you’re clear on the immediate context of the demo, there are other questions to consider: Will you be asked to teach a session for a survey course, or will you be working with upper-level students and majors? Will it be a "traditional" class session, or will it be a lab, a writing workshop, or some other format? You’ll also want to know where your demo falls within the course calendar; knowing that will help you understand what background knowledge the students will already have on the specific content of your demonstration.

Some search committees will ask you if there are readings or other materials that students should review in advance to prepare for your sample class. If you have such materials, make sure that they’re in easy-to-read formats (PDFs, preferably) and that their length and complexity are appropriate to the course.

What’s the classroom setup? It’s fairly unlikely that a teaching-focused college would ask you to teach a sample class to 400 students in a lecture hall. But you never know, and preparing to teach in a large lecture hall will be quite different from leading, say, a 15-student seminar.

That’s why you need to ask about the setup. The physical environment of a classroom can shape the learning within it, so the more you know about the room where you’ll be demonstrating your pedagogy, the better. Can you or the students rearrange seats, desk, or tables? Is there a whiteboard? A chalkboard? Cavern wall on which to scrawl your pictographs?

Some universities have "virtual tour" features on their websites. See if you’re able to use that to get a sense of what a classroom on that campus looks like, even if you don’t know if it’s the specific one in which you’ll be working. Finally, you’ll want to know what (if any) technology will be available for your use. Speaking of which ...

What’s your instructional-technology plan? Whatever the material or the context of your demo, you probably will use one or more tech tools. The technology should complement, not dominate, your teaching talk.

Don’t use a tool unless you know it stone-cold. A teaching demo is not the time to use that flashy new platform you’ve only played around with a little bit. Even if the classroom has a glitzy array of the latest digital toys, don’t be tempted unless you’re already familiar with them. Best to avoid using something if it’s likely you’ll flail and struggle in front of your audience.

Your technology plan should include:

  • Ample practice beforehand — to the point where it’s almost muscle memory. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that you should know your technology as thoroughly as the context in which you will be teaching.
  • Making sure the room you’ll be in aligns with the tools you want to use. If you employ slides, is there a projector and either a screen or a whiteboard available? If your slides are online (for example, a Google Slides file or a Prezi), is there a computer with internet access available in the classroom? Also, download the presentations onto a flash drive — just in case the room’s computer doesn’t have internet access or the campus Wi-Fi chooses the day of your teaching demo to get squirrelly. Likewise, if you plan to stream content (online audio or a YouTube video, perhaps), the availability and reliability of internet access is going to be a significant consideration.
  • What you’ll do if (when?) something goes wrong. In some cases, you can take steps ahead of time to mitigate potential problems: If you’re using a video, download it to a flash drive instead of streaming it live, for example. In other cases, Murphy’s Law will prevail, and the projector will burn out or the classroom computer will blue-screen. At the same time, a technology glitch can be an excellent opportunity to demonstrate your adaptability and show how quickly you think on your feet. But you can do that only if you have the confidence borne of practice and an adequate backup plan.

How you will balance style and substance. The teaching demo is a chance to show both your command of disciplinary material and your pedagogical chops. It’s that second part that’s the hardest to convey — after all, you wouldn’t have made it this far in an academic search if you didn’t know your stuff.

But if you’re a relatively inexperienced teacher, the thought of demonstrating excellence in an activity in which you may not feel fully confident or accomplished can be intimidating. You might be tempted to structure your talk along the lines of what the experts view as "good teaching."

That’s a worthy pursuit, but don’t let it come at the expense of who you are (and want to be) as a teacher. Inauthentic pedagogy is easily spotted, and if you’re trying to teach like someone you’re not, chances are your demo will suffer as a result. If you’re not a highly energetic, animated, "cheerleader" type, don’t assume that you have to act like one to engage the students and faculty members in the room.

Plan to use more than one teaching method in your demonstration, just as you would in your own classroom practice. Straight lecture for 50 minutes might demonstrate your command of the material, but it’s not going to engage the students or search-committee members in the audience. Conversely, devoting the entire session to, say, group work without providing any scaffolding or context for the material might also produce suboptimal results — you might have an engaging, interactive style, but the substance won’t necessarily be there.

If you’re not sure how to navigate this question of balance, talk to the more-experienced practitioners in your department. Their experiences might help you clarify your own thoughts about the task in front of you.

Ideally, the search committee and/or a departmental representative will share enough information and suggestions to make your planning process relatively easy. If not, though, don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions. An email — with wording like "I’m looking forward to the opportunity to teach a sample class for your department. As I plan the session, I was wondering if I could get a little more information about ..." — is a perfectly acceptable step to take.

The teaching demo may be a different scenario from what you were prepared to encounter on the job market, but it’s an opportunity to make an extended and thorough case for your potential value to a department. If you’re in the fortunate position to be planning a teaching talk for a campus interview, I wish you the best of luck.

(Don’t forget your flash drive.)

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