The American Historian

Unraveling the Mysteries of the Teaching Portfolio

Robin C. Henry

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Every year, well-qualified candidates enter the job market hoping to land a tenure-track or visiting position. While each job notice requires slightly different expertise and skills, one common denominator is the request for a teaching portfolio. Presumably, this document of unspecified length and content will demonstrate your “teaching excellence” and give search committees insight into how you will fulfill their department’s needs. Less common, however, are more specific directions for how you should compile your portfolio and what it should contain. There are some general rules to consider and some pitfalls to avoid that will allow your teaching portfolio to sell you as a wonderful candidate for just the right job.

Important Things to Consider

  1. Take it seriously. 

    Regardless of whether the job is at a small liberal arts college or at a large research university, evidence of strong teaching is important and will make you stand out above other qualified candidates. In today’s competitive job market, it is no longer enough to have an amazing dissertation and research agenda; you must showcase your teaching. This means that you should prepare your portfolio with care. Remember, people on search committees do not know you and are not familiar with you in the classroom. They need to be able to look through your teaching portfolio and get an idea of what you do and how you do it.

    Organization is key to this endeavor. Put things in order. Course materials should be together, preferably in the order the class would use them. Provide a table of contents. You are telling a story with your portfolio and no search committee wants to be hunting for your documents. Departments can tell the difference between a thoughtful presentation and one thrown together at the last minute. Finally, make sure to reference some of your teaching portfolio’s content in your cover letter and align your portfolio to fit the “teaching interests” listed on your curriculum vitae. These small points can make your whole package feel connected and well thought out.

  2. Your materials should demonstrate both your optimistic and pragmatic sides.  

    Each portfolio should have a brief teaching statement that tells departments your specific philosophy, methodology, and areas of interest. This statement gives departments insight into you as a colleague in the classroom. (By the time you go up for tenure, you might look back on this statement and laugh at your naïveté and wonder where those fantasy students went to school, but do it anyway). Departments like to see your ideas and optimism for the profession.

    Classroom materials should be the bulk of your portfolio, as they allow departments to see how you translate your teaching philosophy into practice. Provide syllabi for all the courses you have taught, or, if you are a seasoned veteran, the most recent version of your syllabi. If you have only taught survey courses, prepare two to three upper-level courses in your related teaching fields. Make sure your syllabi are detailed. Provide reading assignments, dates for exams, instructions for online quizzes, and all the elements of a syllabus that you would hand to a student on the first day of class. This will allow committee members to see your 

    preparedness and understand your classroom expectations on both the macro and micro levels. In addition to syllabi, be sure to include examples of assignments, exams, study aides, and any other supplemental materials for each course. If you have had a class do a visual project, provide pictures. Departments want to see what type of teacher you are and if your previous expectations and experiences match with their needs. Providing complete materials for each course allows them to see you as more dynamic.

    Finally, if you have them, include student evaluations. These are a biased tool of evaluation and are sometimes more about the student than you as a teacher, but many departments still use them to evaluate classroom performance. That said, a great way to show progress and learning from the evaluations is to write a brief evaluation of yourself, addressing things you did well, things you would do differently, and addressing any specific comments from students. This process will put your teaching experience in context and demonstrates how you take and process feedback, all evidence of a good future colleague.

Things to Avoid

  1. Do not portray yourself as a one-person department.

    Admittedly, job ads can be broadly worded. Departments want to make sure that basic classes are covered, but they also want to leave room for you to take them in surprising new directions. Once you have identified that you fit some of the criteria for the job, focus next on what you can do. If the ad provides a long list of preferences, pick the ones that best fit your research and teaching fields and provide materials for them. If you provide too much and make yourself too available, you can come across as disingenuous and unfocused. A good rule of thumb: if it is not obvious from your dissertation research subject and time frame that you should be teaching the course, do not pretend that you should be. Remember, knowing what you cannot teach is just as important as knowing what you can. The broad wording of an ad is an attempt to reach a diverse pool of candidates and rarely comes with the expectation that you will meet all the preferences.

  2. Investigate each department thoroughly. 

    The majority of your portfolio will be the same for each application. Be sure, however, to not only read over the job announcement, but also the department faculty pages. What do they teach? How would you fit in? Leave out or downplay materials that overlap what the department is already teaching. It is your job to show them that you are prepared to jump in and fill departmental needs, not to replicate the position of a current faculty member. The exception to this is if someone is retiring or going on academic leave. Remember, as tight as the job market is for applicants, many departments have been under hiring freezes and unable to replace faculty over the last decade. Departments want to make sure the person they choose fits all the current needs and potential interests of their students.

Conclusion

While a teaching portfolio may seem like an afterthought to the all-important research and writing samples, do not neglect it. Your teaching portfolio shows more of your personality, potential as a colleague, and interest in academic life than you may realize. Make sure it represents the best version of you; departments are reading and they can’t wait to meet you.

Author

Robin Henry is an Associate Professor and Graduate Coordinator in the Department of History at Wichita State University. Her teaching and research interests look at the intersections among gender, sexuality, law, and region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century United States.