Thursday, April 18, 2013

Faculty & Technology

This is a continuation of my First Search Committee post, largely inspired by respondents answers to questions about technology. I broke it into a second post for several reasons: there were no good responses to technology questions, the first one was already pretty long, & I have a specific interest in educational technology. It's not merely that I'm a library technologist, it's also that I serve on a distance learning committee that exposes me to a lot of major issues with the way we deliver education online. When we framed what we wanted in a candidate, experience teaching online was one of our primary attributes. Despite receiving numerous, well-qualified applicants, this was the one area where we couldn't match our desired qualifications.

Bad Interview Responses

Students love watching videos! I use lots of YouTubes.

I asked a question about online tech usage during the phone interviews and no one gave a convincing answer. The worst were neo-Luddite and the best contented themselves to list a series of proper nouns as if that demonstrates technical competence: BlackBoard, WebCT, YouTube, PowerPoint. PowerPoint is never a great answer to any question, but it's particularly bad answer to a question about online technology. What I really wanted was an honest, critical opinion of tech. Tell me how you use it and why, not what you use. Your specific tools are time-sensitive and prone to making you look foolish if you name something antiquated. If you have proficient in WordPerfect on your CV, now would be the time to remove it. Honestly, my solitary question about online technology was easily the most troublesome part of the hiring process. Many instructors are comfortable using technology but few seem thrilled about it or possessed of any rudimentary understanding.

I love technology, but Twitter/texting is ruining my students writing.

Really? That's interesting, do you have any longitudinal data to share? I assume you ran a multi-year study, comparing students who use Twitter to a control group who do not, to come to this conclusion. It's a bit controversial, because virtually every piece of research on this subject disagrees with you: the more someone reads and writes, the better they are at reading and writing. Thanks largely to the ubiquity of cell phones, students are reading and writing more today than they ever have in the past. Those students who write poorly today may have been near illiterate without the added practice of texting or tweeting. Secondly, consider that one of the faculty members you're talking to might be hella into Twitter. I identified myself as the Emerging Technologies Librarian before asking my question; anyone with any familiarity with Twitter probably knows it's popular among those in the tech scene. When you say "Twitter is turning my students into idiots," the snarky response that pops into my head is: I use Twitter, do you think I'm an idiot?

Students are good with technology! They show me how to do things!

I like the admission that one learns from one's students. I don't mean to indict that. But the blanket generalization that all students are good with technology is not only false, it's damaging. I know these faculty members. They're the ones who ask students to make a chart in Excel without giving any instruction. They ask students to make a video presentation without knowing how to do it themselves. And when the students become frustrated and get stuck, they come to the library, where we patiently try to guess what the faculty member wanted and assist the student in completing the assignment. That's a big part of my job and I'm not complaining about the helping part; I love it. I'm complaining about the poorly written assignment that assumed a skill base that didn't exist.

The Myth of the Digital Native

The assumption that students are skilled and comfortable with technology belies a much more disconcerting issue: the myth of the digital native is alive and well in academia. The myth, for those who are unfamiliar, is basically the kids these days are so good with computers. It's an assumption that growing up today, our younger students are so inundated with technology that they somehow magically glean a deeper understanding of it than prior generations. The fact is, many of our younger students know how to log onto Facebook, send a text message, and little else. If you ask them what web browser they use, they will say Google. And they don't mean Chrome, they mean Google. They can't differentiate between the address bar and the search box in Internet Explorer 8. Many have a cursory understanding of the use of some pieces of tech and but no conceptual grasp of the larger edifices of the web and computer operating systems.

To be clear: some students obviously do understand tech, the issue is when we assume they all do.

At a community college, the digital native assumption is even more problematic. When you say students are good with technology, meaning that the younger generation is, what I hear is I don't understand that many of my students will be adults, some doubtless older than I am. We have a lot of adults returning to higher ed. For many of them, calculators were the only computing device involved in their prior education. Now we ask them to understand the bloated behemoth that is a Learning Management System, to juggle several different accounts, to manage at least two emails, to complete assignments using specific software packages (e.g. PowerPoint). It's a major struggle for many of them; again, I know because I end up helping them in the library. A faculty member simply assuming technical competence is severely damaging their ability to deliver effective instruction.

Where Do We Go From Here

I don't have a solution to the problems I've raised. As a job applicant, I would avoid naming specific software, instead describing the broader category to which they belong (e.g. word processing, presentation). I would also take some time to think critically about how you incorporate technology into instruction. Do you use it to increase collaboration? To make instruction less top-down & more interactive? Or are you simply showing amusing YouTube videos because the students seem to like them? There's a vast gulf between using technology and using it effectively.

Finally, I want to impress one hopeless plea upon the graduate schools of the world: offer—ideally require, but I'll settle for offer—an instructional technology class for all disciplines that covers the basics of technology, its technical underpinnings, how to use it, and finally how it can fit successfully into different pedagogical strategies. As a devotee of two-year, teaching-focused institutions, I already think it's tragic that most faculty members don't receive any teaching training. They become brilliant researchers and writers, but they're mostly left to their own devices when it comes to teaching. Knowledge of educational technology falls by the wayside as a consequence. Its use can be learned on the job but I wish grad schools would do more in this area.

Monday, April 1, 2013

What I Learned from My First Search Committee

I was recently on my first search committee for a full-time faculty position at my community college. I was excited to see academic hiring from the other side and, sure enough, I learned much about the process. Below, I express my particular preferences for the enlightenment of the job-searching public. These views do not represent those of my institution or my peers on the search committee (indeed, some would doubtless disagree with certain contentions).

I will write a second post focusing on technology, because I found our applicants' ideas about technology particularly underwhelming.

The Good

Included is my teaching philosophy.
Oh, we didn't ask for a statement of teaching philosophy? I don't care. It was great to read these statements. The mere fact that an applicant sent an unsolicited pedagogical statement meant that they'd thought about teaching as a discipline. It indicated a degree of rigor and dedication.

For instance, in my 101 class I have my students do...
Yes, a concrete example! It's very easy to say that you're a great teacher, you care about students, you employ multimedia, you know technology, you appeal to variegated learning styles. There, I just did it. Obviously, I'm the best candidate! No, the people who stand out give concrete examples that show me that they know their stuff. They don't say "proficient in Microsoft Office" they say "I hold Skype office hours." They give assignments, lectures, and media right there in the cover or add further attachments.

Attached are my student reviews.
It surprised me to see student reviews included. While it's true that, if you've been teaching a while, it's trivial to pick out the two semesters you happened to receive ace reviews. But I do like seeing reviews, be they from students or peers. It shows that the faculty member kept the reviews, cares about them, thinks that they speak well of their teaching. That alone is important.

Developmental and adult education...
These are the people that really get it. While many applications mentioned diversity, a surprising few actually singled out their experience with developmental education and non-traditional students. When you mention these issues it tells me that not only have you worked at a community college but you paid attention to the institution's foremost issues and programs. How to effectively deliver developmental education is a huge dilemma for us. Even if we're hiring for a position that will never teach developmental classes, the faculty member will teach students either in or recently out of developmental ed.

Many interviewees were clearly honest; they said things that undoubtedly were admissions of weakness, or humanity, basically anything that made them out to be something other than a robot sent from the future to instruct students to death. You're nervous about the interview? That's perfectly normal and we're not hiring you to sit through job interviews, we want to know what kind of teacher you are. You're a woman and a mother, first and foremost, and a faculty member second? Well, that's great, those are logical priorities. The value of honesty isn't in the statements themselves but the trust that it builds with the hiring committee.

I also liked mentions of service learning or flipping the classroom, topics which have come up recently amongst our faculty. It shows that the applicant is aware of some of the same teaching approaches that we utilize.

The Bad

I'm available ASAP.
I've written this in cover letters because it sounds like a plus. In truth, if we're worried about your start date, that worry comes much later. Say you're available to start immediately during your phone interview or especially once you've been called to campus. But anything prior to that is both irrelevant and makes us think that you're desperate, perhaps have been rejected by other places for reasons we haven't discerned yet.

My research focus is...
Under certain circumstances, & when written in a concise manner, research interests can work well in a cover letter written to a community college. But applicants should understand that I want to know first & foremost what kind of teacher you are. Research is not a part of our mission, period. The easiest way to rule out most candidates was when their cover & CV went to great lengths to demonstrate their research prowess to the detriment of teaching. If you're a respected researcher with plenty of publications & presentations, by all means add that to your CV. But if all you can say about teaching is "yeah I really love it" then your application immediately drops to the bottom of the pile.

I taught graduate level quantitative analysis, a seminar on Michel Foucault's notion of transgressive dissimulation in relation to the liminal corporeality of modernity...
OK, so you've taught a bunch of things that will never be in our curricula, cool. I guess I can just skip over this section. It becomes even more worrisome if that looks like the only thing you teach because now I'm concerned that you'll be bored—or worse, think it beneath you—when teaching introductory level courses exclusively. And while this search committee wasn't in my area of expertise, I'm quite familiar with theory. If I can't follow your course's theme or what you say your research interests are, I worry our students won't either.

The Ugly

Your esteemed institution
Look, no offense to MPOW which I truly love, but no one esteems us. We're not Harvard and, more importantly, we're not trying to be Harvard. Institutional prestige is meaningless to us. We're in the business of teaching students, of moving them along to prestigious institutions. We don't need the credit. And the fact that you failed to name our institution indicates you sent this same cover to a dozen other schools.

I taught X at Y, Z at A, B at C, D at E, F at G, H at I..
Yes, people actually wrote this in their cover. The laundry list approach shows you're clueless and perhaps haven't read your own cover letter aloud. Lengthy lists are unpersuasive, particularly when you relate zero details about each appointment (oh boy, do we get to be another bullet point on your list?!?). Furthermore, it wastes an incredible amount of space in the cover when I'm searching for persuasive narrative. These details are entirely redundant with your CV; let the CV do that, the cover is the time to tell me about who you are and why we want you.

Tiny font, no line-spacing, letters over a page & a half long
All of these show me that you don't respect the hiring process. We're reading a lot of letters. I would love to devote an infinite amount of time to carefully considering each applicant but the truth is the reason why there is a conventional cover letter length is that time is finite. No one gets extra time or space. Have a lot to say? Include an optional attachment that I reserve the right to ignore or only consult if you make it to the next round of consideration. But making your cover 8pt font with no line spacing is a sophomoric trick which fools no one. An unfortunate majority of faculty don't trust students and thus require a particular font and spacing; do you really think they won't spot the opposite trick coming from you?


After reading dozens of job applications, many of the points above were obvious. But they weren't all on my mind when I was submitting job applications. I probably included laundry lists, I said I was available ASAP, and I didn't include a teaching philosophy (which, as it happens, was never required for any of the positions I applied to). The point is: none of this is obvious. I hope someone reads it and finds it helpful.