Academic Job Hunting and Teaching Experience

Academic Job Hunting and Teaching Experience January 11, 2009

At some point soon I will be posting more on my experience interviewing at SBL and what I learned from the experience. I have had a lot of questions from friends and fellow students about navigating this process.

For now, I want to address an important issue: teaching experience. If you are looking for an academic position, more likely you will end up in a small liberal arts Christian college (as opposed to a research-intensive university or seminary position). That is just a matter of crunching the numbers- there are many more jobs in liberal arts Christian colleges (LACC) than research universities.

That being the case, you need to factor in two very important things. First of all, these LACCs are not going to be that interested in your thesis and how much of an expert in one small area you are. Secondly, they will want to feel comfortable that you are a good teacher (and thus will need proof!).

There is a commonly held view that you will get a lot of teaching experience in an american Phd program and you will not get any in the UK. That is not exactly the situation. Not all American programs can offer real teaching experience. At several acclaimed university grad programs, you can only become a preceptor/grad assistant where you assist in teaching. Of course there are some American programs that permit or even require students to teach intro courses. Check this out before you commit to one.

As for the UK, here at Durham most students will get the chance to lead small group seminar discussions for undergrad courses and we are required to go through some certified pedagogical training. Also, many universities in the UK have a theological training college attached and there are sometimes opportunities to adjunct a course. For instance, I teach (completely on my own) Basic Greek and an intermediate Greek reading course on Philippians. This has been a very formative experience for me.

What elements of ‘teaching experience’ are important? First, you need to show that you are an effective communicator with solid knowledge of basic issues in your general field. Secondly, you need to show creativity in teaching- that you care about students, have fresh ideas for communicating issues, that you have enthusiasm for the course work, etc…

There are also some practicalities involved – can you develop a syllabus with reasonable expectations of students? Can you design lectures that fit within the time frame? Can you produce goals and objectives that match the course catalogue and further the mission of the department and institution?

The next hurdle is proving the a search committee these things! Of course having something on your CV is the first step. But there are other things. Often times schools have evaluations at the end of a term. I usually don’t get to see these, but you can request to receive a sampling to pass on to prospective employers. If your school does not have these, you can create your own teaching evaluation and let your students anonymously fill them out. Choose a sampling to pass on in your portfolio.

If there doesn’t seem to be teaching opportunities available to you in a formal way, talk to your supervisor about it and let them know this is an issue for future employment.  Ask her if you could lecture once for one of her classes.  Or, check to see if anyone is going on sabbatical in the next year because sometimes universities let grad students do some filling in when there is a short-term need.

Another option to consider is connecting with some kind of online course teaching that many american seminaries offer.  Sometimes PhD candidates are allowed to lead such internet courses and do the grading.  Use any connections you have at your former seminary and Bible college (or university).

If there is really nothing out there, you might try to do an advanced course at your church that would be something like a seminary-lite course.  Try to get a group of elders or deacons to do a NT survey or even Greek!  Any way you can get teaching experience is really worthwhile.

Keep in mind also that in your academic interviews you may get teaching-related questions.  Here are some I have had before: how do you manage an unruly student?  When a student questions your grading of an essay, how do you handle it?  Discuss one time when you have resolved a conflict in the classroom.  How would you manage students who come from an ultraconservative background when it comes to introducing things like the Synoptic problem or the complex relationship between Acts and the letters of Paul?  How do you utilize various forms of communication in the classroom?

I don’t have tons of experience teaching, but the little I have had has aided me much in thinking through these kinds of questions.  You may see ‘teaching’ as just an option in grad school, but if you really are looking to the future, it should be a priority.  Also, it helps you stay grounded in the basics and may even open up various issues and topics that can help your thesis research.  I have really learned both from my students and from the process of thinking through the basics.  If others out there can think of alternative teaching experience opportunities, do share.

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  • J. B. Hood

    Great stuff, Nijay. Three quick comments (1) Teaching at any level is highly useful, less so for your CV and interviews than for your own experience. (2) Teaching at an overseas theological training program for a week or two or a summer. (3) The difficult but now quite common phenomenon of night courses for adult students. Much of what goes on in night schools in Christian colleges is not really very good educationally, of course. This at least gets teaching on your CV, and also helps immensely in getting some practice ‘staying on schedule’ in a course, getting difficult material down to an understandable level, etc.