Evaluating Teaching Faculty Positions

2022-10-28
16 min read

It’s beautiful fall weather out here on the prairie. And that’s a sure sign that hiring for academic positions is starting up again(1). So it’s a good time to consider what makes a good teaching faculty position, and provide some advice for candidates who might be evaluating different institutions.

This post is directed at applicants for teaching faculty positions at research universities.

This post is directed at applicants for teaching faculty positions at research universities. It’s probably not as helpful if you’re applying to a small liberal arts college. It’s also focused on evaluating institutions, not on preparing your application. If you’re looking for advice about how to apply, I’d be happy to prepare some thoughts from my vantage point of evaluating applicants. Send me a note if this would interest you.

I’m also writing this from my vantage point in computer science, a field that is unequivocally a leader in establishing and professionalizing teaching faculty positions. My sense is that good teaching positions in other fields are fewer and farther between.

Because this started getting long, I’m breaking it into multiple parts. This is Part 1 of (probably) three parts. Part 2 is now available here.

Evaluating Teaching Faculty Positions
Evaluating Teaching Faculty Positions

As a teaching faculty applicant, you really do have to consider differences between institutions. Much moreso than research faculty applicants! (Note that I use research faculty to refer to what most people call tenure-track faculty jobs, partly to avoid deficit framing (non-tenure-track), partly because there are tenure-track teaching faculty positions, and mainly because it’s accurate.)

That’s because expectations for research faculty are fairly standardized, with most of the variation between institutions being of degree rather than kind. For example, to be promoted and tenured you have to write lots of top-tier conference papers at a top-tier school but fewer papers and at less-selective venues at a lower-tier institution. But at almost every research university the promotional goals for research faculty are the same: Raise money, write papers. You get an office, and a printer, and an assistant, and some startup funding, and maybe some equipment and lab space. Overall, job parameters for research faculty positions just don’t really vary that much between institutions, and even less between institutions in the same reputational tier.

In contrast, teaching faculty positions vary quite widely between institutions

In contrast, teaching faculty positions vary quite widely between institutions, even institutions at the same tier, and even between departments within the same university! If you’re applying, you’ll notice this immediately due to the bevy of titles used for teaching faculty jobs—Teaching Professor, Lecturer, Professor of the Practice, Industry Professor, Practice Professor(2), and so on. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. At best, teaching faculty are treated as first-class citizens alongside research faculty. At worst, they are little more than adjuncts with a different title. Usually, the reality is somewhere in between.

As a result, if you are applying for teaching faculty positions, you need to do more work during the interview process to determine whether a certain institution is a good fit for you, or even a good fit for anyone. Even among institutions that treat teaching faculty well, there’s a lot of variation in how that’s expressed—some offer some tenure-like job security, others pay well, others offer more freedom and institutional support. At the moment, I’m not aware of any single institution that checks all of these boxes. So the right fit for you will depend on what you care about more or less. And you certainly want to avoid institutions entirely that are setting you up for failure, disappointment, or overwork.

Below are the questions that I wish I had considered when I was on the teaching faculty academic job market. Having already obtained a research faculty position, I thought I knew how to evaluate faculty jobs. But during my time as a teaching faculty, I’ve realized that there are important differences between what research and teaching faculty need to feel supported and be successful. I didn’t ask a lot of the right questions, and asked a bunch of the wrong ones.

That’s not to say that I feel that I made the wrong choice! Computer Science at Illinois is, in many ways, a great place to be a teaching faculty member, even if we also have room to improve. And, we’re hiring this year! I’m the outgoing chair of the search committee, and I will certainly be prepared to answer these questions if you apply for a job in my department.

In summary, here are some questions to ask and things to consider when evaluating a teaching faculty job:

  1. How many teaching faculty are there in the department?
  2. How does the department evaluate teaching, and how are teaching faculty evaluated for promotion?
  3. What are the details regarding contract length and security of employment?
  4. Does the department pay teaching faculty and research faculty equivalently at the same rank?
  5. Are there departmental leadership opportunities available to teaching faculty?
  6. How are teaching assignments done?
  7. Ask for details about the department’s commitment to broadening participation in the discipline.
  8. What type of institutional support for innovative instruction is the department willing to provide?

These are only loosely ordered. And I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list. But I think it’s a pretty good starting point, and will lead your thinking in the right direction.

Let’s go through each item in turn, starting with the first two in this post and continuing on in later installments.

Teaching Faculty Size
Teaching Faculty Size

Generally speaking, departments that already have a good number of teaching faculty are going to be safer bets than those that have few to none. I realize that this does create a bootstrapping problem, and so I’ll include things to consider if you’d be one of the first teaching faculty to join a department as we go.

Hiring a bunch of teaching faculty is one way that departments express a commitment to teaching and education.

There are a bunch of reasons why a department already having a bunch of teaching faculty is a good sign. The first is simple: Hiring a bunch of teaching faculty is one way that departments express a commitment to teaching and education. That money could have been spent on research faculty, who are incentivized to focus on research and not on teaching. But the department chose to hire teaching faculty. That’s good.

More teaching faculty makes it more likely that the department will have developed decent answers to a bunch of the other questions on my list. If you’re not the first, and particularly if there are teaching faculty at higher ranks, that means that they’ve sorted out or at least had to think about things like evaluating teaching, promotional criteria, and so on. If you are the first, then expect them to make things up as they go along, with predictably unpredictable results. You’re the guinea pig.

Put another way, an existing group of teaching faculty makes it easier to evaluate how the department treats teaching faculty and what your future there would look like. If they have a bunch of teaching faculty, but they are all trapped at lower ranks, poorly paid, not considered for leadership opportunities, and pushed around from course to course to cover research faculty absences—run the other way! But, honestly, this type of treatment is a lot more common in departments with only a few teaching faculty.

With a small number of teaching faculty it’s also a lot easier for a department to claim that “Oh, well, we would have a teaching faculty member on the teaching faculty promotion committee, but we just don’t have any senior teaching faculty!” If you join that department expecting that first person to be you someday, you may wind up disappointed.

In departments with a small number of teaching faculty, it’s also not uncommon to discover that these people are unicorns. A research faculty’s former Ph.D. student who everyone liked and was able to teach a course when the department was shorthanded and ended up being popular and sticking around and at some point we found some semi-appropriate title for them and they’re still here. I can think of several top-tier departments with situations like this. As an outsider, you’re just never going to have that same relationship with the institution or department. I’d think several times about accepting a position alongside or to replace a unicorn, unless the department is very intentional about the situation.

I’d issue a similar warning about departments where most of their teaching faculty are former students. Having a few people like that in the mix is fine, but an inability to attract teaching faculty from the outside usually means that something is wrong.

But the most important reason to join an existing group of teaching faculty is that it’s fun! You’ll be joining a group of colleagues who are passionate about the same thing you are—teaching. This is the same reason that people form research groups spanning multiple faculty. Most of my interactions with colleagues and the vast majority of my meaningful ones are with my teaching faculty colleagues.

An existing group of teaching faculty also makes it more likely that they’ve developed their own subculture and responsibilities within the department. That might mean ownership over a certain set of courses or a portion of the curriculum, or input into hiring and promotion. There really is something to be said for critical mass.

One important way in which teaching faculty are different than research faculty is that most of your interaction and validation is going to come from within the department. A lot of research faculty validation is from external sources—you get awarded a grant, or get a paper accepted, or your student gets a good job. Research faculty rightly see themselves as part of a research community spanning institutions, timezones, and continents.

Good teaching faculty work together in ways that reseach faculty usually don’t.

But as a teaching faculty, the people who will be cheering you on, commenting when you do something effective or impressive, working with you on improving the curriculum, and generally able to support your professional development are teaching faculty colleagues in your department. Good teaching faculty work together in ways that reseach faculty usually don’t. There’s also value to establishing teaching faculty communities that cross institutional boundaries, but a teaching faculty’s primary community in within their own department. And teaching faculty working together to improve education even within one small department can have more than enough impact to justify their positions.

That’s decent segue into the next consideration we’ll discuss: evaluation and promotion.

Evaluation and Promotion
Evaluation and Promotion

I’m assuming the reason that you are interested in a teaching faculty position is that you are interested in excellence in education. So it’s important to consider two things when evaluating teaching faculty positions. First, how does the department evaluate teaching? Second, what are the expectations for promotion?

Evaluating teaching is hard, and I’m certainly not going to propose a solution here. But what you’re really listening for here is an acknowledgement that evaluating teaching is hard, and a willingness to devote time and effort to the challenge. Evaluating research impact is also hard, and promotional decisions for research faculty are at least supposed to be made thoughtfully with a lot of human input, and not just based on metrics like citation counts and grant award totals

But if a department is going to rely entirely on student evaluations to determine if you are teaching well, my suggestion is to find another place to work.

Similarly, a good department for teaching faculty will be willing to think holistically about teaching faculty evaluation, and not base promotion decisions on factors known to be highly unreliable like student evaluations. Those are harmless to use to populate the silly campus lists of “excellent” teachers. But if a department is going to rely entirely on student evaluations to determine if you are teaching well, my suggestion is to find another place to work.

The dirty underbelly here is that many research-focused departments don’t usually spend a lot of time evaluating teaching or care much about doing it well. The bar that research faculty seem to need to clear for promotion frequently doesn’t seem to be much higher than: Have students broken out the pitchforks? But educational innovation can and does require trying things that sometimes don’t work out, and even things that do end up working can irritate students initially. If you want to be an effective educator, you can’t be chained to whether students like you or not.

Unfortunately, you also need to ask about promotion. Unfortunately because, at some schools, promotion may not have much to do with how well you teach! You would think that this would be true for a teaching-focused position. You would be wrong.

Here’s why. At many institutions, particularly ones with few teaching faculty, promotional guidelines are still being written by research faculty. Research faculty are focused on research and grant writing. That’s their jam! So when they sit down to come up with teaching faculty promotional criteria, here’s what seems to be their thought process, at least based on the results:

Who could imagine that someone would love to teach!

An understandable mistake, even if one resulting from a somewhat remarkable lack of imagination. Who could imagine that someone would love to teach! But a mistake that can cause trouble for you at promotion time. Because if you are passionate about teaching, and you are in a teaching-focused role, and you are putting your time and energy into creating and delivering excellent courses, and you are succeeding at those tasks, the last thing you want to find out when you go up for promotion is that you were supposed to be doing all of these other “research faculty lite” things the whole time. Things that may not interest you, or may rob time from you primary goal of excellence in education.

So you need to ask. And listen carefully to the answers. Some departments are aware that they have problematic language lurking in their official university guidelines, but are confident that they can guide you through the process, even if you focus on teaching. Maybe you trust them, maybe you don’t. Other people will say: Well, that’s not a problem, just publish a few SIGCSE papers! That’s easy, right? (It’s not.) Or, just jam out a few papers in (insert name of regional conference that does in fact accept everything). But do you really want to do that? Will that make you feel proud of yourself, and that the core work that you are focusing on is valued and appreciated? Something to consider.

You should also be careful about expectations for external impact. As discussed above, research faculty are naturally part of a globally-distributed community, and spend a lot of time interacting with and trying to impress that external audience. So when it comes time to demonstrate external impact, they can say: Hey, there’s someone (a faculty member studying the same thing) in Singapore who’s read my papers. External impact! But as a teaching faculty a lot of your impact is inherently internal, and so a strong requirement for demonstrating external impact can require that you engage in relatively low-value activities—like publishing meaningless papers at zero-impact venues.

Another reason to avoid “research faculty lite” promotional guidelines is that universities frequently provide little to no research support to teaching faculty—for example, startup funds to hire graduate students and purchase equipment while you write your first few proposals, or access to grant-writing support staff and other resources. So you’re expected to do a decent-sized chunk of the job of a research faculty, without access to the same resources, and while also spending a lot more time teaching. (Oh, and they’re going to try and underpay you as well. We’ll get there!) Does this still sound like a good job? You can do better.

Lurking behind some of this dysfunction is an awkward reality that I suspect nobody will actually state directly—many institutions just don’t take teaching faculty promotion that seriously! That’s why their actual official guidelines don’t matter. Because nobody cares. And this is even more likely to be true because, at most institutions, teaching faculty promotion doesn’t grant permanent job security. So the stakes are lower.

It’s possible that lowering the bar here isn’t a terrible idea. Tenure is stressful and high-stakes enough to encourage all kinds of bad behavior. But lower it too far, and it’s hard to feel like you and your contributions are being taken seriously. Departments that take teaching faculty serious don’t just throw titles around, but they also have a sane promotional process that’s aligned with the value that teaching faculty bring to a department.

Overall, regardless of whether a department is successful at navigating “research faculty lite” expectations for teaching faculty, having these on the books is still one of several signs that you may pick up that an institution hasn’t quite fully accepted teaching faculty or isn’t quite sold on their value. And the reality is, because computer science is really leading the way in this area, you’re likely to find some vestiges of this uneasiness at most institutions. Mine included(3). So you probably can’t have any whiff of this be a dealbreaker. Not yet. Hopefully we’re moving in that direction.

As a final note, by asking these questions during your interview, you’ll be doing your part to advance the professionalism of teaching faculty positions—something that will benefit you now and throughout your future career. A big part of how we move this role forward is by propagating expectations and best practices across different departments. And, frankly, by making it harder for departments to lure good people into bad positions. More applicants asking the right questions means more departments doing the right things. That’s good for everyone.

Next time we’ll look at several other important elements of teaching faculty positions—job security, pay, and leadership opportunities.

Best of luck with your teaching faculty search! And if you’re in computer science, I hope that you apply to the University of Illinois.

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