A place I am interviewing at in a few weeks has asked me to present in my interview (presumably some kind of teaching demo, though the parameters are vague) on a topic provided to me by the school. It is not a topic I have ever taught about before. While it is possible that they misunderstand my area of expertise, they have seen two syllabi of mine (one of the courses is on my main area of expertise) and this topic isn't mentioned anywhere… I assume if they wanted to pick something I knew about, they would have drawn from that. My best guess, then, is that they want me to prepare to teach about something I don't know much about. Have people ever had something like this be requested of them? What are they looking for?
Date: 11 Feb 2011 19:44
Number of posts: 14
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Not heard of it directly, but I have heard people mention this sort of thing third-hand. I assume this is a teaching-oriented job, perhaps a SLAC?
I do think it seems reasonable to just confirm with your contact that you'll be ready to present on the stated topic and in the process find a way to inquire about their rationale for choosing a topic outside your central expertise or something similar. My guess is that its completely intentional and they do want to see how you'll do on a fresh topic.
Yeah, it's SLAC. I just got another interview invite earlier today that also specified the topic of the demo, so I guess that part of it is not unusual… but at least this is a topic from a course I have taught before! Jeez.
I am sure I can prep the topic, I just don't want them to be, in error, judging my performance as if it's a topic on which I am an expert. It's hard to explain without talking about my particular interests, but I could see how someone who has only superficially heard about my subarea might think this is part of it. My anxiety is compounded by the fact that they have told me literally nothing about the interview other than the topic (the exact wording and entire content of the email was: "The topic of your interview will be xxxxxxxx." And I had to ask them three times just to get that.) The good news is that the total lack of information has given me an opening to ask a variety of questions, and I tried to work in a gentle inquiry about whether they picked something I have never taught about intentionally. Hopefully, that will bear fruit.
As a side note, I am baffled to discover that several places have been really sketchy about what it is they expect from me. One place basically just sort of said I had x minutes to talk about anything I want, and that it is sort of a teaching demo (def. not just about my research), but also a chance to tell students what my work is like (so kind of a job talk?). I couldn't get any clarification beyond that so I am just kind of winging it.
I wonder if part of the interview process is to see how you manage to perform well given little or no structure or direction. :P
As with any interview, the most important thing is to be yourself. Being given flexibility is a wonderful opportunity to showcase your strengths without trying to conform to some standard that you don't fit. In the ideal situation, a school will see you for who you are and want to hire you. Similarly, you'll be able to see who they are and what they have to offer and get a feel for if you want to work there. Remember, if you get hired, you are going to see these people everyday and presumably be their colleague for years to come so as has been said here over and over again… fit is everything. There is always the issue of whether a bad fitting job is better than no job, but I believe it is important to aim for the ideal, don't over think it and be yourself.
I've recently had an experience so similar I have wonder if it's at the same institution. I also had no information provided to me except for a pointed description of the topic (as if it were an assignment). As in your case, it was completely outside my field of expertise (I had only one undergraduate course in the topic many years ago), and had less than a week to prepare, after making several requests for information.
I have to assume that it was done intentionally - not only to compare "apples to apples", but because it seemed to be a topic that the audience was quite familiar with, so could easily evaluate the presentation…
It was a curveball for me - no mention of this in grad school!
Good luck! :)
anon2011: I ended up not being able to go to this interview for a variety of reasons, so I can't tell you how it went (I wish I could!), but I would be curious to hear about your experience after it's over. If it *is* the same place, I did eventually get the search chair to tell me that it was a topic that nobody knew much about on the search committee. It was really just a topic that they picked because it was unlikely anyone had expertise in it, and thus, I am extrapolating, a way to compare the candidates on an even playing field. So I don't think you are going to be teaching an unfamiliar topic to a room full of experts, if that is a comfort.
On a broader note, I continue to be totally amazed by the HUGE variety across SLACs in what they ask for in the way of talks. I thought the two standard setups were either 1) 45-min job talk on research OR 2) 45-min job talk on research PLUS a teaching demo. I had no idea some places would ask you to combine both, and others would want just a teaching demo, and that there were so many different types of demos! But I'm having fun with it.
I'm glad you're having fun throughout the process. Thanks for your insight (topic was one with few experts). I never thought to ask why/how it was chosen. I got through it, although (of course) I feel like it wasn't as polished as it could have been (i.e., if I had been given more time), and it was difficult to read the committee's reaction. I'm writing a thank you and don't know whether to explain that (I am aware) that it wasn't the/my best (and would typically prepare my lectures more thoroughly), or just focus on the positives and assume they all know the conditions. As psychologists we probably all overthink these things…
Good luck with your search!
This has not been my experience. They have allowed me to choose the topic for my talks.
In the teaching demos that I have given, two of them had completely vague descriptions. "Create a 50 minute lecture on a topic of your choice. We want to see how you interact with students." I created a nice intro to my area lecture with a last slide discussing what topics I would be comfortable teaching and or classes I would like to create in the future. However, two other teaching demos that I did were in areas outside of my expertise. One was because it was an intro class, and that just happens to be the topic they were discussing on the date of my visit. I think this is good. It shows them you can handle an intro class (it does cover a wide array of topics), because more than likely that is what you are going to be teaching once you get there. Besides, that is one less lecture you will have to prep your first year. The last one was for a 300 level class outside of my area completely. I must admit, this one was the worst. I was completely insecure, uptight, and worried the entire time. I am not sure what the rationale was. I just finally accepted that maybe some SCs enjoy torturing applicants. :). More likely, they wanted to get more bang for their buck by having you actually teach a course, and that is what they were teaching. I wish you luck.
My limited experience with this is that when they specify the topic, they are trying to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges between the candidates. For example, one place had all the candidates teach a lecture from XYZ course. That way it standardized the process for them.
The schools who assign topics do this deliberately, not to torture candidates but to assess whether they will be a good fit for the teaching mission of the school. SLACs are SLACs because they're SMALL, meaning that they will have fewer faculty members to cover a wide range of courses in the discipline. You will simply not be able to teach classes that fall only under your area of expertise. The faculty want to see whether you can communicate clearly about areas outside your interests.