Thursday, January 18, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Documenting Good Teaching

A new correspondent writes:

I am a 4th year grad student in (science discipline) and a 2nd year grad student in (complicated related discipline) at a major research school (for these fields at least). Though I'm a big fan of doing research, I am also (*gasp*) a big fan of teaching. And teaching well. Despite the fact that my department divvies out TA-ships with priority toward those who have less experience (don't even ask), I have managed to get two years of TA funding (6 appointments). This good fortune is largely due to two professors being very adamant that I was the only qualified candidate, which should outweigh the priority toward less experience.

A group of students, profs and alumni--I suspect led by the two aforementioned profs--have nominated me for a university-wide teaching award. I have advanced to the candidacy stage, and am now faced with some vague guidelines. You know the drill: 1) the department chair was contacted, but she has no idea what I teach, so she 2) contacted my chair, who has no idea what I teach, so he 3) has sent me the following criteria. I must turn in a CV, list of courses taught, and materials that "demonstrate my teaching excellence totaling no more than 20 pages from the last 2 years." In addition, there will be 2 faculty, 2 student, and 1 department chair recommendation letter.

So my question is basically, how do I demonstrate my teaching excellence? I have positive student evaluations, both the scantron-type, and some written comments. Is it appropriate to present the numerical totals and then present selected comments, rather than just photocopy the comment sheets (which strikes me as a waste of space)? Do student evaluations really demonstrate teaching excellence or do they just demonstrate that I was well-liked? I have two courses for which I was the primary instructor, from which I can provide the syllabi. However, for those courses for which I was a TA, what do I show? As a TA, one must follow the teaching philosophies of the instructor, as well as his/her content plan. So being a good TA isn't necessarily the same as being a good teacher. Are there other sorts of materials that could potentially "demonstrate teaching excellence?" Sadly, our university does not have a peer-review system, so I have no peer evaluations. Is it appropriate for me to write something about my teaching philosophy and/or teaching experiences?

Mostly, I'm trying to understand the perspective of an evaluator looking at my information packet. If you were granting such an award (or hiring a teacher) what would you look for? Specifics are much appreciated.

To further complicate matters, I'm trying to walk a fine line between putting everything I have toward winning the award/being a good teacher, and being a graduate student at a research university. I was told in December by my subdiscipline head that "teaching has no value" and that I'm "wasting my time worrying about teaching." I'm inclined to ignore this and be the best I can be at teaching (in addition to my research, blah, blah, blah) but as I have no power in the department, I worry that this might be stupid in the long term. This award application (even if I don't win) will be a very public declaration of my teaching. Perhaps my I'm paranoid after years of grad school, and this is all irrelevant.

There's a lot here.

First off, I'm constantly amazed that we socialize our science Ph.D.'s to avoid teaching like the plague, and then we can't figure out why science education in America sucks. Seems to me that if we really wanted better science education, we'd reward scientists who took teaching seriously. Over the long term, better science education might actually pay off in more and better scientists, thereby repaying the opportunity cost with interest. But that's me.

(Of course, that assumes plenty of teaching gigs for scientists. Round and round we go...)

Bravo to you for knowing what you want, and for rejecting the dogma that teaching is for those who can't cut it in the lab. Your future students are lucky.

That said, the heart of your question is how to prove that you're actually good at teaching. Since the teaching in question has already happened, it's too late to design a class to include, say, pre- and post-tests. You probably don't have access to student pass rates in subsequent courses, which, all else being equal, would strike me as very persuasive evidence.

Although your skepticism about student evaluations has some merit, you use the evidence you have. I'm partial to statistical totals over selected comments, only because almost anybody can find a positive comment here or there. If you have departmental or course norms against which to compare your totals, all the better. Even better than that: if you have departmental and/or course grade distributions, and your own. If you have strong student evaluations and you can show that you didn't get them by grading easily, that, too, would strike me as persuasive.

Depending on which office the request came from, you might be able to gain access to applications from previous years, just to see what they've included.

I'll second your distinction between being a good TA and being a good teacher. I vividly recall interviewing a job candidate at Proprietary U whose answer to almost every question about teaching started with “My Big Name Advisor would...” After several of those, I actually cut her off and reminded her we weren't interviewing her advisor. She did a double-take, but then started giving much more interesting answers. In my TA experience, much of my job involved either decoding the words of the Great Man for the students, or covering material that the Great Man didn't bother covering because he was too busy spinning anecdotes about his travels. It's hard to be the ringmaster when you're also cleaning up after the elephant.

The fact that you pretty much have to invent an answer to this out of whole cloth gives some indication as to how important it is to your department. That said, I'm a firm believer in “to thine own self, be true.” If you're a dedicated and talented teacher, be a dedicated and talented teacher. Your department is not the sum of the known universe. There are departments out there – not enough, but they exist – that actually appreciate good teaching. Some of them even appreciate it enough to try to develop intelligent ways to encourage and measure it. If you market yourself as what you really are, the odds of finding a good fit – even if it involves looking in places you might not think of at first – are better.

Talented and underappreciated readers – any ideas out there?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

For the courses in which you were the primary instructor, definitely use the numerical evidence and as DD says, with department norms if you have them.

In addition to syllabi, you might provide (and discuss in your statement of teaching philosophy) assignments or labs you created, and how these worked to aid student learning. (People like you to be able to talk about "student learning" now, not just "teaching.") You might also provide examples of feedback you've given students.
Maggie has some good suggestions.

Also, if you have contact with a few students from your TA class, you could ask them for a short letter of recommendation... something like, "Super TA did a good job of explaining abstract comments and his/her comments on my papers were helpful".

Like selecting comments from your student evaluations, this is selective -- but, what the students say does reveal something about your teaching.
I'm guessing that the two faculty members who champion your teaching might be able to give you some guidance about your portfolio.

At my place, it wasn't unusual for teaching documentation for promotion, tenure and awards to run to several hundred pages, perhaps as many as a thousand for tenure. It can be pretty nutty.

Oh, and good luck! Good teaching is important, whatever "they" say!
You might also go to the teaching center at your U -- assuming you have one. The people there are used to helping faculty put together teaching portfolios, which is basically what you are talking about. Best of luck! And, I second Dean Dad's comment, your future students are lucky.
Doesn't do much good for this situation, but in the future you might invite faculty who are concerned about/invested in good teaching to observe some of your classes. Do this in addition to whatever formal observation program your dept might have. If no one in your dept fits into the "concerned about/invested in teaching" category, contact your university's teaching/learning center. They will often do this kind of professional development. In the end, just the fact that you seek out extra support & feedback demonstrates a commitment to teaching that goes above and beyond minimum requirements.
Some ideas:

1) To follow up on maggiemay... If you still have contact with students from previous classes you might want to try to collect a set of old work from them.

Specifically, if they wrote a lab report and you gave feedback that included suggestions for betterment along with the grade, how did they do on the next one? Collect both and do a quick comparison--1 paragraph

2) Write an essay about what you do in class and bring any examples that you have. Also talk about how your practice has evolved.

Big four questions:

i) What do you want the students to learn?

ii) What do you do to help make that happen?

iii) What evidence do you have that it does/does not happen?

iv) What do/did you do differently given the evidence from (iii)?

And... Think small, selective liberal arts schools in the midwest. They absolutely adore people who do good research and care about teaching. Grinnell, St. Olaf, Kalamazoo, ...
"If you have strong student evaluations and you can show that you didn't get them by grading easily, that, too, would strike me as persuasive."

When I attended Big Name Engineering University a long time ago, the best teacher I had taught a huge lecture in organic chemistry, mostly freshmen. I say he was the best because he was so engaging and motivating and clear in his presentation that many students went way, way overboard in studying for this class.

Students learned the material so well that grading on the curve had to be abandoned, there were so many perfect exams. The exams were essentially the same from year to year, and this class as a whole demonstrated objectively a markedly superior mastery of the subject.

Not a situation that is repeatable, but the question broght the experience to mind.

Despite being a genius at teaching, this professor eventually achieved his fame in the research field. I believe that he only taught that course for a few more years before moving on to other pursuits.
On the subject of future jobs: when I was an undergrad at a SLAC I was on several search committees. The fresh PhDs and postdocs with no teaching experience or awards never got the positions; too much competition. So in the long term, if you can get the award, it will definitely help you. My spouse, who is in a similar situation, also plans to adjunct during his postdoc; you might consider that to strengthen your resume.

As for your subdiscipline head, well, that's the attitude here, and it breeds a lot of very expensive bad teaching.

As long as you can get two good recommendations out of people (your advisor(s)? the profs who nominated you?) and as long as they let you graduate, I'm not sure your department's opinion matters in the long term. Though I well understand the impulse to paranoia, it seems counterproductive to let the dinosaurs dictate your path more than they already do.

(Dean Dad, I'm not sure science PhDs are always socialized "to avoid teaching like the plague" so much as there is no reward for doing it well and no penalty for doing it badly, i.e. no selective pressure. Teaching is surely undervalued, but I don't know if it's an active process.)
There are some resources out available that might help. At Indiana University (for example), one can check out materials developed by the project on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at

Or, from the University of Texas, a guide to "Preparing a Teaching Portfolio"

Here's what they do at Washington State University:

And Ohio State University:

Google is your friend.
At my university, there is an increasing focus on research despite the fact that we are an "undergradate" university (our highest degree is an MA/MS). We have a terrible time finding people who can do research and teach because science Ph.D programs rarely allow students the opportunity to teach much and usually give their students a bad attitude about the whole thing anyway (all that interferes with research is evil). If you like research and teaching, there's going to be tons of jobs opening up in the next 5 years as our aging faculty retire - get adjuncting experience at a JC in a diverse area during your post doc and keep the non-R1 schools in mind when you think about jobs. You'll have a lot more options that your more limited, "research only" colleagues.
Let me re-emphasize the positive comments! Know up front that you're preparing to do very important work, and very underappreciated work.

One thing I've had a great deal of success with in my teaching portfolio (and I graduated from Ohio State, so the OSU teaching portfolio link is very nearly the exact model I built on) is building up a document of student comments on my courses (and being comprehensive about it; making sure positive and negative comments were included) and then following that up with my OWN critique of what I did that semester. And I've gotten positive feedback on that in the interview - "it's apparent that you not only care about teaching, but you care about IMPROVING at what you're teaching." Specific, honest information up front about what you're good at and what you need to improve on HELPS the person interviewing to know if you're going to be a good fit. If you get hired, you're more likely to be there for the long haul. (And I've now seen that from both sides).

And, tfc: As much as I love the Midwest (holding a bachelor's from Rose-Hulman and a doctorate from OSU), don't sleep on the south. Or the plains states. Or the west. Heck, there are good liberal arts schools that are teaching-centric all over the fruited just have to be dilligent in looking...
From the original questioner:

Thanks DD and readers for your feedback. There are some great ideas here, though as many of you note, they'll be easier to apply as I move forward as a teacher (a little forethought will save a lot of trouble in the future). Mostly though, it is very gratifying to hear support for one who does both research and teaching. I have a fairly extensive teaching background that I downplayed when applying to research universities. Now that I'm here, the prejudice against teaching is not subtle; as I indicated in my post, it is hard to ignore one's subdiscipline head. Especially when he controls the grad student funding lines. Nonetheless, many of you have assured me that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks! Now if only the tunnel weren't so long...
Been there, won that. I did not prepare the materials; that was done by someone who knew what he was doing based on a previous successful nomination. Find all you can about what they look for.

It must be prepared for your audience. It will be a committee, so it had better have a succinct executive summary that already contains the text that will be turned into a paragraph in the announcement of why you won the award.

Do not be afraid to make your case, and make it up front. First impressions count, and you start to close the "sale" from the first paragraph of your 20 pages.

If portfolios are used for tenure at your institution, something similar may be expected here.

Don't be afraid of the TA detail. You are likely being compared to other grad students, not senior faculty, so that is expected. Besides, the simple fact that someone else set the grading standard in those classes makes them a better test of your teaching skills vis-a-vis others involved in those classes.

Make maximum use of the fact that you are teaching something the members of the committee consider "hard" to teach well.

Choose your letter writers well. You have two enthusiastic faculty, so you just need to find two students who are even more enthusiastic and will emphasize "learning" in their comments.

Selective quotes from students are fine. If you have room, pack all of them into your 20 pages in 10 pt font, but feature ones that make your case. Some students *will* say that they like you for the "outcomes", not just because you were fun in class. Highlight those in the part the committee sees first.

One thing in one of my letters that ended up in the final award document concerned that fact that I was also doing significant research and had published a paper.

IMHO, most science faculty know that a good researcher (as distinct from a great one) has to be a good teacher. You have to be able to "teach" your results at meetings and in papers. The reason they (and their chairs) discourage it in their grad students is that their personal goal is to get the research done that keeps the grant money flowing and gets the student out of there. A research Uni is not known for its altruism. It is known for its bean counters.
I am in a similar situation (large state research college, highly rated, blah,blah,blah) but in the Humanities. My goal is not to do research and write books for my own glory, but to teach. I was nominated for a teaching award a couple of years ago and just have a word of warning. After I was rejected for the award, a number of faculty members who know me pretty well told me at least one of the reasons I did not win was that no one from our department was on the committee. Advice: whther or not you win, being nominated is an honor and should be noted on your CV. Best of luck!
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