Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

What Qualitative Evidence Can You Include in a Teaching Dossier?

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Question: Our departmental newsletter just published a feature interview with a recent graduate of our undergraduate major. Her interview specifically identified me as the instructor who had (a) inspired her to choose the major and (b) shaped the course of her undergraduate study. I had no advance knowledge of the interview or any involvement in its production. Can I include this recognition in my teaching dossier, perhaps as a printout of the interview? If not, how might I mention it?

The short answer is yes — you can and should add it to all the other evidence you’ve compiled in your teaching dossier. How much this sort of endorsement will count — or, rather, how much artifacts of this kind count generally in the hiring and promotion process — depends on the type of campus and the institutional culture there.

A rule of thumb: The more the atmosphere is oriented toward teaching and the liberal arts, the more important it is for faculty members to accumulate such nonquantitative artifacts of their teaching. Those artifacts, taken together, speak to your excellence in teaching and mentorship.

To go beyond the scope of your question, here are some things tenure-track faculty members should be saving for the "miscellaneous," "additional," or "voluntary" section of their teaching dossiers.

  • Appreciative emails from students, current and former. It is gratifying to get email from students who tell you that you were a formative influence on them — that your course set them on a previously unexplored career path or sparked their intellectual interest in a topic they previously had considered dull. Or maybe you mentored them through the law-school application process. Or took the time to work with their learning style in a way that other professors had never bothered to do before. Print out and save those emails as evidence of your rapport with, and dedication to, students.
  • Positive online "reviews" from students. I’m not talking about anonymous ratings but, rather, those "Thanks for a great course" comments that students often leave when they submit their final papers on sites like Blackboard, E-campus, and Canvas. You might miss those endorsements if you download all of the submissions in bulk, so it’s worth checking for individual comments and printing out the good ones.
  • Service-related invitations from students. Perhaps students asked you to supervise their club or organization, speak on a panel during a student-organized event, or serve as a judge in a student-organized contest. Record all of those things in your dossier.
  • Qualitative evaluations of your teaching. Some institutions provide only a quantitative course-evaluation format — highly unlikely at a small liberal-arts colleges but fairly common at larger universities, even at some that claim to have a "SLAC culture." The gender and racial bias of course evaluations is well established, but they are the devil we are stuck with. Consider creating your own anonymous qualitative evaluation (unless your institution explicitly prohibits it). Hand it out at the end of the semester along with the one your administration supplies. On your qualitative survey, you can ask "fishing" questions — "What did you like about this class?" Balance them by asking about what would have made the class better. Don’t ask: "Do you like me? Yes or No, check one." Do ask questions that would show how you come across in the classroom, such as "How would you describe the dynamics of our in-class discussions?" or "What is your opinion on the balance between lectures and discussion?" Do those evaluations for every class, and save them.

You get to choose which artifacts to include in this "additional" or "miscellaneous" category. So you don’t have to include the one that says you were impossible to understand because of your accent, or the one that accuses you of brainwashing because you won’t grant equal time to creationism in an evolutionary-biology class. Just include the evidence that shows what kind of a teacher you strive to be.

Question: As an international applicant for teaching jobs, I have a question. What is the etiquette I should use when replying to an email from department heads or hiring-committee chairs who use their first names? Should I use their first names in my reply? I know I should not behave like a graduate student and be overly formal, but I am hesitating here and I hope you can guide me in this.

That’s the email equivalent of the haptic awkwardness that ensues when Americans and Europeans are introduced and there is a confusion of protocol about handshakes and kisses on the cheek. A good rule is to follow the chairs’ lead: If they use first names throughout the letter, take the cue and mirror their informality. If they used first names for themselves but addressed you by title, it is a good idea to code-switch and do the same in your reply, addressing them by title and signing off with your first name.

But what if you are the one initiating an email exchange? Perhaps you have a question in the midst of a job search (and I am going to assume you have a very good reason for emailing; otherwise, don’t). In that case, err on the side of formality in the opening salutation and sign off in the way you wish to be addressed. If you want to leave maximum room for the department or search committee to take the lead on this, sign your email with your first and last name, and make sure your preferred title is in your email signature.

In those rare-but-not-unheard-of situations in which the chair or a professor frustratingly doesn’t sign off at all (beyond a stock email signature), it’s OK to start your reply without a greeting or use the letter writer’s first name with "if I may" inserted afterward. End your reply with something like "By the way, would you prefer to be addressed as First Name or Dr. Last Name?"

Question: I have a #MeToo-related question. As a new assistant professor, I was in the process of developing a manuscript when I came across an article that is pretty much perfect for my paper. In fact, it is so good that I was going to reach out to the first author to see if this person was still doing work in the area. However, it turns out that the scholar resigned from a faculty position after being investigated for having improper relationships with students. There isn’t really other work in this area, and this article is about the best I’ve read so far. Should I use it and cite it? Also, it is an unfortunate situation for the co-authors, who probably put in work on the article. Should I not approach them, either? What would you do?

You will find a range of opinions on this question — some arguing in favor of still citing the accused harasser’s work and some against. It’s an emerging conversation.

My opinion is that you shouldn’t sully your reputation by associating with the work of someone who has been removed from the academic community for having an improper relationship with a student. While there are larger debates to be had about whether artistic and intellectual work should be treated on its own merits, separate from the behavior of its creators (do we cite abusers? do we boycott Woody Allen or Roman Polanski films?), from a purely pragmatic perspective, for a tenure-track faculty member still building a reputation in a field and community of peers, it would be wiser for you to follow that old dictum: "If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas."

That said, it would be entirely ethical — and potentially a productive connection — to reach out to the article’s co-authors, explore possibilities for collaboration, and build on your shared interest and approach. You will presumably keep working on this topic, and could cultivate them as your co-authors for the future. You don’t have to explain your thinking process to them about this. I assure you they are aware of the situation with their colleague, and would probably appreciate evidence that they are not being tarred with the same brush.

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