Evaluating Teaching Faculty Positions: Part 3

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An arctic blast arrived in time for the holidays out here on the prairie. So it’s time to wrap up the topic of evaluating teaching faculty positions(1).

Because this started getting long, I broke it into multiple parts. This is part three of three parts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. For more context, please see the first post in the series. And, at the suggestion of a reader, you can also access all three parts as a single shareable and commentable document. However, I may add a fourth installment evaluating my own institution along these same lines. Stay tuned.

As a brief reminder, here are eight questions I would consider when evaluating teaching faculty positions:

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

In Part 3 I’ll pick up where we left off last time, and discuss teaching assignments, broadening participation, and institutional support for innovation.

How Teaching Assignments Are Done
How Teaching Assignments Are Done

While I’ve left these final three considerations for the end, that does not indicate that they are unimportant. In fact, the first on the list—how teaching assignments are done—may be one of the most important factors in determining whether teaching faculty can be successful in a given department, and the degree to which a department is able to make good use of dedicated instructors.

This consideration can be simply framed. There are courses in a department that need to be taught. There are faculty in the department available to teach. But who decides who teaches what, and how does that assignment process work?

The process of assigning faculty to courses is somewhat interesting, because despite academic departments’ tendencies toward loose confederation, making sure all courses that need to be taught are covered usually requires a strong central authority. A good process will incorporate faculty preferences. But it may not be possible to give everyone their first choice or even something desirable—particularly given that many research faculty may prefer not to teach at all(2), or if it’s absolutely required, to teach a tiny seminar on whatever they happen to be thinking about that term. Teaching is also one of the few things that departments can make checked-out research faculty do—not that this works out well for students.

As a prospective teaching faculty, your goal should be to set yourself up to teach well and to improve your skills and abilities over time.

As a prospective teaching faculty, your goal should be to set yourself up to teach well and to improve your skills and abilities over time. I’ve seen two ways that the teaching assignment process can get in the way of that goal—either because teaching faculty are assigned to teach too many courses, or because their teaching assignments are changed too often. Both have the effect of reducing even spirited teaching faculty to the worst incarnation of an instructor—someone just fronting someone else’s materials. And both practices also hint at a departmental culture that doesn’t value high-quality education.

The results of assigning teaching faculty to teach too many courses are probably a bit more straightforward to understand. With way too much on their plate, an instructor in that position is likely to end up doing a fairly mediocre job. Yes, they’ll be doing a mediocre job at teaching a bunch of classes—but people don’t tend to feel fulfilled by doing a mediocre job, even if they know they are doing a lot of mediocre. Mediocre never adds up to great.

It’s probably worth pausing to mention how stressful even having a single course going can be during term time. Even after doing this for years, I find myself surprised by how relaxed I feel at the end of each semester—once my grades are in and the thousands of students I’ve been responsible for are moving on in their academic journey. (And once the dozen-or-so software systems I build and maintain don’t need to be working 24-7. And I can get back to some of my side projects!)

Part of the problem is that the academic calendar is extremely inflexible. The end of the semester isn’t like a proposed release date, or like any other deadline that can be shifted slightly if needed. It’s firm. Really firm! For people teaching in a lecture-style format, students expect you to show up at the appointed time, say intelligent things, and probably even manage to answer a few of their questions. Every time.

So even just standing in front of someone else’s slides and using existing materials can be draining—and even more so when the content of course is unfamiliar or itself somewhat challenging. There are courses in my department that I would be downright terrified to teach And a bunch of other ones that I know that I could manage, but would require a ton of effort and guile to pull off, particularly the first time.

Now imagine you’re trying to do something new, different, or innovative, and the stress level rises even farther. Because that new, different, or innovative thing will probably break or fail a few times, or need an input of time and energy at an unexpected moment during the semester, requiring that you drop everything to attend to it(3). It’s hard enough when everything else is just the course where you’re trying something new—and starts to sound downright impossible when it also includes a bunch of other courses as well.

All to say that teaching is hard, teaching unfamiliar material is very hard, and innovating in the classroom is harder still. Loading up teaching faculty with too many courses can stifle their creative urges—which is neither good for them nor their department.

Putting teaching faculty in a position to excel means allowing them to get comfortable enough with their courses to try new and exciting things. And that brings us to the second common problem with teaching assignments for teaching faculty—constantly-changing assignments.

Constantly-fluctuating teaching assignments are usually the result of an assignment process that preferences research faculty. If the department’s algorithm is: first assign all research faculty to courses based on their preferences, and then use teaching faculty to mop up what’s left, then the courses that you are assigned may change unpredictably from semester to semester, often at the last minute.

Even if your teaching load is reasonable, constantly-fluctuating teaching assignments are not good. This will usually result in having to teach unfamiliar courses, and teaching an unfamiliar course for the first time is a lot of work. But to make matters worse, it also makes it hard to get familiar with any given course. You’ll teach it once, get your sea legs under you, and then be rotated on to something else a semester later.

Being constantly shuttled from course to course also makes it unlikely that teaching faculty will invest in significant course improvements or changes. These invariably take multiple semesters to complete, and there is frequently some initial investment of added effort required to achieve some desirable outcome later. If you’re not around to reap the benefits, why do the initial work?

As an example, we invested a lot of effort in my CS1 course to create a novel system to make it much (much) easier to author programming problems. That software required over a year of development effort, and of course the stress of rolling out something new to thousands of students / beta testers. At this point it’s completely worth it—because I can author new problems an order-of-magnitude faster, and my students benefit from the practice provided by our library of over 700 programming challenges. But this is not the kind of thing that a teaching faculty does when they aren’t sure whether they are going to be teaching the course again next semester.

In summary, a good department for teaching faculty will allow you to teach a course that you’re excited about and give you enough time to teach it well—meaning both within each semester (reasonable load) and across multiple semesters (little to no rotation). If you see signs that teaching faculty are overworked, or shuffled from course to course to cover holes created by research faculty, my suggestion is to consider joining another department.

Note that this is also something that you can examine fairly easily by perusing the departmental and faculty websites, since most teaching faculty will indicate what courses they have taught recently. Some teaching faculty will claim that they like to bounce around and teach a ton of different things each term, and I think some actually mean it(4). But if it looks like everyone is constantly rotating, it’s probably the result of policies, not preferences. At Illinois, given the option, most of my colleagues choose to remain in the some course for multiple years at a time.

There’s another level at which allowing teaching faculty to get good at a small number of courses is also an important sign of respect from a department that values education. First, because they believe that you can get good at teaching. But also because, by allowing you to get really proficient at one course, they are acknowledging that you will then acquire some amount of say and ownership over the format and the future of that class. Not to say that that means that you can or should unilaterally alter important aspects of how the course is taught or what it covers—there are important ways in which courses need to work together as part of the curriculum. But you’ll be able to initiate those conversations, and be considered the expert on how to teach that particular topic within your department.

This may seem like it goes without saying—that a department would defer to teaching faculty in matters of, well, teaching! But I can definitely think of cases where the design of a particular course is captive to a research faculty, even if they haven’t taught it in years. And no teaching faculty ever feels empowered when they are just keeping the podium warm for a research faculty who happens to be unavailable that term, which is what may be happening in departments when assignments rotate frequently.

Put another way—a department that forces teaching faculty to teach too much or switch courses too often is making it difficult for them to ever become more than just a lecturer—someone just standing in front of someone else’s slides. You’re probably looking for teaching faculty positions because you think that you can do better than that.

Two final asides before moving on. First, being able to continue teaching the same course doesn’t mean you have to teach it forever. I’m wrapping up my 13th semester teaching CS1 here at Illinois, and I still find it fun and challenging. But I also know that, if I do want to try something else, I have that opportunity as well.

Second, in addition to load and permanence, you may also want to ask about how the assignments are done. Here at Illinois, for many years teaching faculty assignments were negotiated between individual instructors and the department’s Associate Head for Academics—at least until now, invariably a research faculty. This worked out in most cases, but it was different than how teaching assignments worked for research areas, which were assigned relevant courses to cover and then allowed to determine their teaching assignments internally.

With the creation of a new instructional area here at Illinois, teaching faculty are now collectively responsible for coming up with our course assignments by working together with our colleagues. I think that’s a better approach.

Commitment to Broadening Participation in Computing
Commitment to Broadening Participation in Computing

There are two reasons to ask about a department’s commitment to broadening participation in computing (BPC) and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

The first is that these are tremendously important initiatives, particularly for a field with as troubled a history in this area as computer science. I’m not going to go on for pages and pages about this, but there are a lot of great resources available to learn more about these issues and the challenges our field is facing with both representation and treatment of certain groups.

The second and perhaps less obvious reason to ask about BPC and DEI when considering a teaching faculty position is that one of the most important places that a department’s commitment to these issues should be reflected is in the undergraduate program. Yes: There are issues later in the pipeline as well—graduate student recruitment and retention, faculty hiring, and so on. In computer science, if the pipeline has a stage, that stage probably has a diversity problem.

For many students, college is still the first place that they are exposed to computer science.

But there are also incredibly important opportunities to create educational experiences that introduce computer science in ways that appeal to students from diverse backgrounds. For many students, college is still the first place that they are exposed to computer science. Meaning that early college courses are our first chance to make a first impression. There are a ton of great questions to ask here, and departments that truly care about these issues will be able to provide accurate and thoughtful responses.

A department’s success in improving representation and retention from diverse groups is also directly connected to the health of their undergraduate degree program. Students who already feel at home in computer science—or who can’t imagine doing something else—are unlikely to pursue another field of study, regardless of how awful a department’s courses and culture are. But high attrition rates from women and other underrepresented groups are usually the sign of problems with the curriculum or environment, and so something that departments committed to these issues will keep their eye on. If you ask about retention among (say) women, and nobody knows the answer, that’s a problem.

It’s also important to find a department with values and commitments to these issues that align with your own. If you believe that overly-competitive admissions are a problem, don’t join a department with overly-competitive admissions. If you think that improving access to computer science courses is important, don’t join a department that makes it tough for non-majors to take their classes. And so on. Even among departments with stated committments to these issues, there are a lot of different approaches to improving the situation, and you may find some more compelling or convincing than others.

Support for Innovative Instruction
Support for Innovative Instruction

If you’re looking for teaching faculty positions, I expect that you are interested in discovering more effective ways to teach students. Doing that requires innovation and experimentation—and a department willing to provide the resources and flexibility required for you to try new things.

Unfortunately, while academic departments like to fashion themselves as hotbeds of creativity, they can be downright stodgy when it comes to instructional methods and approaches. “Do you want to lecture on MWF, or TR?”—essentially the “chicken or beef” of university course scheduling. “Actually I’d like to try active learning, since we have a ton of evidence that lecture isn’t pedagogically effective.” “That’s nice. So did you want to lecture on MWF or TR?”

If you want to deploy novel software tools, can the university provide servers to run them on?

Support for instructional innovation can take many forms. If you want to deploy novel software tools, can the university provide servers to run them on? You would probably assume that, at least in computer science, it’d be easy to find computers to run educational computer programs on—to support your courses in computer science. Hahahahaha! Jokes on you! Getting access to servers ranges from difficult to downright impossible. I have it on good authority that a fair amount of the courseware powering instruction at one of the top computer science programs in the country is running on several discarded laptops tucked into a closet. I’ve been able to get my hands on local cloud computing resources, but at a relatively high cost in terms of endless meetings and justification and the stress that goes along with being frequently unsure of what I’ll have available from term to term.

Space is another resource that can create huge hassles for creative instructors. Despite tons of evidence that lectures aren’t effective, universities continue to put up shiny new buildings filled with… lecture halls! Our own newly-opened Campus Instructional Facility here at Illinois is chock full of them. It even has a lecture hall “in the round”, because the future of innovative instruction is providing half of the class the opportunity to examine your derrière. Sadly, it’s invariably a lot easier to find lecture space than it is to locate rooms designed for group work or tutoring.

The core challenge is that a lot of university instruction is done in ways that are outdated and ineffective.

I’m at a high risk of running off on personally-motivated tangents here, so let me try and summarize. The core challenge is that a lot of university instruction is done in ways that are outdated and ineffective. As a teaching faculty, you’re going to want to do better, and not be held back by institutional norms and inertia. You may encounter skepticism along the way! That’s normal when you’re trying something new and unusual. And it may take more time and energy to accommodate the way that you want to do things, given that the protocols and systems here are optimized for the status quo. So you want to make sure that the department you join is willing to let you try things, and also supportive of your new ideas if and when they work out—and, more importantly, even when they don’t.

Part of the problem here is the difference between the freedom needed by research faculty and by teaching faculty. Research faculty also need resources to explore their ideas, but usually their creativity isn’t expressed in ways that point to institutional change. In contrast, teaching faculty are innovating in ways that can directly challenge current institutional practices, and need the freedom to work outside the bounds of current and potentially outdated instructional norms.

Finally, note that the most important form of support that a department can provide is not servers or space—it’s supportive colleagues excited by your potential and invested in your success. Even just a few of those people can make a huge difference—particularly if they are in a position to help you get the other things that you need. So don’t forget to find out about mentoring, and make sure to ask teaching faculty that you interact with about the degree to which they feel supported by their department.

To close, I’ll again reiterate something from the conclusion to the first post in this series:

(B)y asking these questions during your interview, you’ll be doing your part to advance the professionalism of teaching faculty positions—something that not only benefits you now, but will throughout your future career. A big part of how we move this area 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 roles. More applicants asking the right questions means more departments doing the right things. And that’s good for everyone.

At this point I’ve covered the eight points I had planned on covering. However! Egged on by a suspicion from a reader that these posts may be merely pro-Illinois propaganda, I may return with one more installment where I provide an honest ranking of my current department along the lines of consideration I’ve established. We are doing pretty well in some categories—but there are also areas for improvement.

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. (Our full consideration date has passed, but we are still accepting applications.)

Thanks for reading! I'd love to hear your take. Feel free to get in touch.