Applying and Interviewing at Four-Year Teaching-Intensive Institutions
Rebecca R. Noel, Elizabeth DeWolfe, and Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello
Popular media frequently treats higher education as a monolith, taking elite or R1 (Research 1) institutions as the norm. Resulting generalizations about overpaid faculty, low teaching loads, or overuse of graduate teaching assistants can be wildly off-base. The United States contains over 4,300 2-year and 4-year undergraduate institutions, but fewer than 10 percent of them occupy R1 or R2 status, and only about 3 percent offer a Ph.D. in history or adjacent fields. About one-third of the nation’s undergraduates attend community colleges, which feature quite high teaching loads and no TAs at all.
In these and other ways, faculty positions at teaching-intensive institutions differ significantly from those at research-intensive universities with relevant doctoral programs. Most academics recognize the large range of post-secondary institutions and the variable ways the profession is structured.
It’s perplexing, then, when applications for faculty jobs at our teaching-intensive schools seem to replicate normative assumptions based on R1 priorities. At our three institutions, located in three states—non-flagship four-year state schools, one with a history master’s program and one without, and a private four-year health sciences university—we have all seen candidates submit ill-fitting applications that can undermine their chances for success.
What are the odds of success, job-hunters might wonder, when the quantity of tenure-track hires, state appropriations, and history majors are almost universally plummeting? Fair enough. We share these frustrations. The increase in post-docs, visiting assistant professorships, and other short-term contract hires comes at the expense of tenure-track jobs, and that’s the good news compared to the proliferation in online teaching and rampant adjunctification. At present, we have no answers for these distressing problems.
While we cannot vaporize the dragon in the room, we believe we can help applicants showcase their assets more effectively for the kinds of jobs we have been involved in filling. Among the three of us, we’ve served on several dozen contract and tenure-track faculty hiring committees, in history and related fields, and chaired over a dozen. That means we’ve reviewed well over a thousand applications, conducted hundreds of first interviews, and hosted over a hundred campus visits. Our observations about avoidable errors made by job applicants are strikingly similar.
We offer these tips to current and future job applicants. We also hope they will reach faculty teaching in doctoral programs who are responsible for coaching graduate students through the application process. We do not feel convinced that all of you are serving your students optimally in this regard. In some cases, our advice appears topsy-turvy from conventional wisdom.
Life at a Teaching-Intensive Institution
First, it’s important to understand what a teaching-intensive institution is. We mean community colleges and other two-year institutions, where faculty often teach thirty credits per year; four-year non-doctoral institutions (at least with no doctorate in your discipline), private or public, where faculty typically teach twenty-four credits per year, give or take (a 4/4 load in two semesters, if courses are three credits); or a non-elite liberal arts college, where faculty teach eighteen to twenty-four credits per year. Institutions that prioritize research, and their faculty, may care a great deal about teaching and do it well. In fact, these faculty often make the case that their teaching is of higher quality, since it is more specialized and research-based, and they have more time to prepare, grade, and advise. But research-intensive institutions generally prioritize research over teaching in hiring, tenure, and promotion, whereas teaching-intensive institutions care about research, but, in effect, teaching leads.
This clinical definition may sound familiar, but it does not suffice to explain the differences in culture, lifestyle, and values in these two loose groupings of institutions. We often see evidence that job candidates are underinformed, and we encourage applicants to use their research skills to understand this variation. Your doctoral institution, by definition, is R1. If you attended an elite or R1 undergraduate institution, or you weren’t attuned to faculty concerns, you may have missed the story entirely. Take active measures to fill in the picture. Use your existing network, pay attention on Twitter, read books and columns that help you understand how teaching-focused institutions work. This article will provide a start, as did the community college article in the December 2019 issue of The American Historian.
Landing a contract or tenure-track faculty position at a teaching-oriented institution is often framed as a less desirable outcome, a consolation prize for not getting an R1 job. When candidates reveal, even unintentionally, that they do not understand or, worse, do not respect jobs like ours, is it surprising if that puts their application in a negative light? To those who are heartbroken that they may never get or have not gotten a faculty job, we acknowledge that we have been very lucky. To those who, conversely, look down on teaching-focused positions, we would like to point out the advantages of teaching-intensive institutions that might make someone welcome or even prefer such a job. At the very least, we hope to help job candidates submit a positive and informed application.
We are all strong researchers; among the three of us, we’ve published many articles and five books, with more in germination, as well as delivered popular public lectures, conducted community projects, and won awards. All of us have chaired our departments, served our campuses and communities, and contributed service to the profession. Despite their challenges, we love our jobs.
One advantage of a teaching-intensive job is the sheer variety of teaching we do. A typical rotation is eight different courses in a two-year cycle. Those courses will each span more material than those at a larger or more research-focused department. Presumably we lose some depth, but we do not get bored with the same few subjects. Broad intellectual curiosity finds greater scope in this diverse teaching portfolio.
Reflective, state-of-the-art teaching is the nucleus of our job, and we are rewarded for keeping up to date on developments in pedagogy. As expressed by the Boyer Model of differentiated scholarship, we pursue the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and so do our colleagues. Project-based and experiential learning, high-impact practices, hands-on application of content knowledge, and connecting students to career development all happen frequently and intentionally at our types of schools.
The academic truism that one must publish or perish is more lightly applied at our universities. We do need to publish for tenure and promotion, and we needed to show that potential when we were hired. But a wider range of scholarship is accepted; again, see the Boyer Model. History programs at teaching-intensive institutions may grant tenure to faculty without a book (though this varies). To be sure, financial support of faculty research at teaching-intensive schools falls short of what R1 faculty enjoy. This modest research support is disappointing, but not shocking, since we are not expected to publish as much.
Part of the distinction between teaching-intensive and research-intensive institutions is socioeconomic. Our institutions are poorer and many of our students are poorer. On average, our students are more likely to be Pell-eligible, first-generation college students, perhaps food-insecure or housing-insecure. Many (perhaps most) of our students work thirty or more hours per week, sometimes far off campus; many have children or are caregivers for older family members; others have served in the military with some re-entry concerns, or are dealing with health issues. We may have a more diverse student body in racial and ethnic terms as well. As compared with students at elite schools where we have also taught, more of our current students really need us. Many teaching-focused institutions also develop close ties to their communities. These challenges bring rewards: We see the transformative potential of higher education, for both individuals and communities, again and again.
In a related vein, our campuses have high service expectations. The research workaholic who never serves on committees is rare on campuses like ours. We spend hours on academic advising for students and extracurricular organizations, manage the curriculum and departmental affairs through committee work, and serve our communities. Those forms of service are important criteria in tenure and promotion, and therefore they are also considered, if somewhat speculatively, in hiring.
Finally, and most impressionistically, teaching-intensive institutions seem to allow a somewhat more holistic approach to a faculty career. The primary recipient of most of our work products is our students and colleagues. With our high workloads, we can’t claim these jobs are more family-friendly than research-focused jobs; that comparison may be a wash. But older applicants may be more welcomed—meaning less disadvantaged—at teaching institutions than they are at research institutions, and there seems to be less of a taboo about discussing families.
These features of our teaching-intensive positions contain numerous implications for job candidates. It may now be clearer what we are looking for in a colleague and applicant. As a teacher, you need to be a utility player, game to take on large survey courses, thematic courses for the major, and methods classes, as well as upper-level courses based on your specialty. A faculty member who disdains teaching introductory courses or only has narrow topical offerings will not serve our needs. We need colleagues with a genuine passion for teaching and multiple pedagogical skills, not just lecturing brilliance. Some institutions still rely mainly on lectures, some eschew it, and some departments are divided over the topic. We also need faculty members who are dedicated to teaching and mentoring students rather than trying to minimize this part of their jobs, and who are understanding of students’ challenges outside the classroom. It should go without saying, but we’ll say it: Keeping office hours, answering email promptly, and treating students with respect are non-negotiable requirements.
Positioning Yourself for a Teaching-Intensive-Institution Job
With these traits in mind, applicants can take several steps to position themselves for teaching-intensive jobs. Seek a range of teaching experience with varying kinds of students. In your applications, honor and discuss all of it, whether you were the instructor of record or a TA, teaching at your graduate institution or elsewhere, online or face-to-face. Keep a teaching journal, recording successful methods, great days, and, crucially, pedagogies that flopped. Ask one or two established colleagues to observe your teaching and supply letters of recommendation. If you have quantitative or narrative student evaluations, retain them. We all know they are problematic, especially for women, faculty of color, and people with disabilities. We would like to see them anyway, or if narrative, a sample.
Meanwhile, follow developments in higher-education pedagogy. Take classes and workshops when you can. In history, it can be helpful to have some other skill that can help history majors connect to job opportunities. Even if the job ad doesn’t ask for it, experience in digital humanities, service learning, grant-writing, museum work, filmmaking, secondary teaching, or some other application of a history major can suggest additional ways you can be useful to students and to our department as a whole.
Another important quality in a colleague is collaboration and service ability. For graduate students or those who have been working as adjuncts, this can be hard to demonstrate. Pursue service opportunities when you can, ideally more than one. Almost any sort of service will count: a graduate student council, conference or professional organization committee, or, unless you’re applying at a visibly hostile campus, a role with a union. Community groups may also allow you to show collaborative skills, but for most jobs, you are not obligated to share information about religious organizations you may be involved with. Ask your recommenders to discuss your collegial qualities and achievements, document them in your cover letter, show them on your C.V., and be ready to discuss them if you get an interview.
Here’s a ticklish one: If it’s a tenure-track or multi-year job, we are hoping for a colleague who will stay. Hiring is expensive at best, and it’s disruptive and frustrating to serve merely as someone’s launchpad. This problem arises frequently at campuses in remote or less desirable places where there is high faculty turnover, often for the sake of a spousal career. At poorer schools, now more than ever, if a colleague leaves, the department may never get to fill that job again. We can’t ask whether you have family ties to the area or could make the job work for your family, but you can briefly volunteer that, if it’s true. (Do not invent a family and local grandparents!) This advice appears to be the opposite of what many applicants hear from graduate advisers pointing them toward R1 jobs. Candidates have been cautioned not to discuss their families or any aspects of their personal lives. Again, though, we are hiring a whole person, perhaps for a long time, not just a researcher.
What we don’t need is what you’ve been told you must now have before you even start: peer-reviewed articles, a book with a scholarly press, two dozen conference presentations. Show us you know how to do quality research and will continue to produce it at the rate our campus allows and requires. Among applicants, moderate scholarly achievement with great teaching and collegiality looks like a better fit than two academic monographs with minimal teaching and no visible service.
The Application Package
After developing these sorts of qualifications, your actual application and candidacy should also be tailored to a teaching-intensive job. That’s least true for your C.V., which may be the same as you would use for an R1 job. It should be easy to follow, with clearly defined sections. Any descriptions should be short. All of your teaching should appear, including secondary school teaching if you’ve done it—that’s especially helpful in programs that train teachers—and any other work skills that can help students find careers.
In preparing your cover letter, decode the job ad carefully. Most importantly, hiring committees have to score each candidate on everything mentioned in the ad. If the ad says they are looking for someone who can teach online, they need to give every applicant a score for that quality, and so on. So definitely address every single thing in the ad. If you don’t have much to brag about in some piece of it, at least help out your exhausted search committee by telling them that. Don’t make them guess! Although you won’t know exactly how the different aspects of the job are weighted, there will surely be a difference between required and preferred qualifications. If you don’t show that you meet the required qualifications, the committee may never see your application because the Human Resources staff will do an initial filter. Preferred qualifications are optional and thus are weighted less, but again, address them all.
In addition, your cover letter needs to emphasize teaching. Put teaching first in the letter, and discuss it with care and respect. Show that you have researched our students, program, and university. Express credible enthusiasm for anything you might teach and any teaching method that you might need to use—to please the old guard and the new. Talk about your research after your teaching. But remember that nobody will be in your subspecialty, so brush theory in lightly and don’t overdo jargon or namedropping. The research paragraph can be a bit shorter for a teaching-institution job than a research-focused job, too, maybe 150-200 words. Also include a paragraph about a few service interests and experiences.
These suggestions go double for a contract position, where, sad to say, the successful candidate won’t be around long enough to make major research progress, but will need to hit the ground running as a teacher and colleague.
Your letters, if they are requested, should discuss your abilities in teaching and service, not just research. Recommenders who know you well are more important than superstars, although a little star power is fine.
Your teaching statement should follow the writing rule of show, don’t tell. No matter how lyrically written, a high concept teaching statement that doesn’t paint a picture of your teaching activities is not helpful. Give specific examples of techniques you’ve used so that search committee members can picture your classroom. Know what’s the buzz in college teaching and show that you’ve used new pedagogies. But don’t be critical of Luddites, because they are among us—and they may also be excellent teachers and colleagues. Also, teaching-intensive institutions frequently value student-centered pedagogy and policies. Given our students’ stresses and our own financial picture, we need to worry about student retention. Foregrounding old academic pieties like rigor without showing flexibility to consider other issues may please some committee members but alarm others. We all care about academic quality and the discipline of history; we want candidates who also care about our students. Any whiff of academic or demographic snobbery about our students will not go over well.
If you are asked to submit a writing sample, shorter is better, consistent with the guidelines in the ad. Committee members will probably skim the introduction, then set it aside unless your candidacy advances.
If You Land an Interview
Now buff up your research tools. You can use the university’s institutional research, compiled in the Common Data Set (https://www.commondataset.org/), to get information such as enrollment, graduation rates, and demographics (section B); instructional faculty and class size (I); and, crucially, degrees conferred in each major (J1). Then look at the specific program to which you are applying. How many faculty are in the department, and, if you can tell, how many are full-time? Are there many junior faculty, or is it top-heavy? Have the younger faculty taken charge? Do you have overlaps with existing faculty? (Better if you don’t, but a strong overlap might point to the person who’s leaving.) Is history required for all undergraduates, and if so, do they need a particular course? Look at departmental course listings. Are they largely composed of General Education offerings, surveys, thematic or chronological courses? Is there a prescribed sequence in the major? Look carefully at the scope of the department’s courses. There’s a big difference between teaching Women in American History and Women Educators in the Reconstruction South. If you get to the point of pitching possible specialty courses, it’s vital to propose courses that are in line with the department’s offerings and needs.
To prepare for a first interview, expect questions that prioritize teaching. Cue up some overall thoughts about teaching and a few more stories from your classroom or interactions with students. Even describing a single student’s journey can make a positive impression. We’re also listening for attitudes toward students, topical versatility, and excitement about teaching. Also expect questions about your research and collaborative activities. We may conclude by asking if you have any questions for us, so you should have one or two. They can be about the school or the community, but be sure to keep them positive yet not presumptuous. Good questions could be about town-gown relations, fun things to do in the area, strengths of the campus, or the direction of the program you’re applying to. They should not assume you’ll get the job (“are there any decent houses for sale right now?”) or show arrogance (“what percentage of people in that area are rednecks? Is there an art house movie theater? Will I be able to meet my soulmate in that howling wilderness?”) or poke political hornet’s nests (“What do you think of your university’s president?”).
If you score a campus interview, the most important moment will be your teaching demonstration. In our experience, it’s best not to use the whole time on a lecture. Take the students on a journey. Have them do a simple exercise so that they leave the room with a new skill or understanding, not just a new bank of content. Photocopy any handouts before you arrive. Show interest in the students if you get to meet them for a tour or reception; some candidates have gone awry by seeming uncomfortable having lunch with students.
During your visit, ask every faculty member about their work, but tread carefully and stay positive. If long tenured, they may not be research-active, but they may be highly effective colleagues nonetheless; they may also be extremely research-active and resent any implication that they wouldn’t be. Your investigations into the department’s faculty should give you a starting impression. Diplomatic questions include “What are your favorite courses to teach?,” “What kind of service do you find most rewarding?,” and “What are some things this university does really well?” You can bring up research in a non-committal way with “Do you have a research project going right now?” Even R1 faculty sometimes pause between projects, so that does not indicate disrespect. Your institutional research should also supply tactful questions you can ask faculty and administrators you may meet.
Our most important message is that a job at a teaching-intensive institution is simply different from a position at a research-intensive institution. Both career paths have pros and cons. Tailor your candidacy for a teaching-oriented hire in a way that shows you understand these differences and want the job, and that makes visible what you have to offer for a position like ours. Too many candidates are hiding their teaching light under a research barrel.
Rebecca R. Noel is Professor of History and History Program Coordinator at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. She is a rostered lecturer for New Hampshire Humanities, presenting on the history of physical education and on the New Hampshire abolitionist Nathaniel Peabody Rogers. Her book in development is Save Our Scholars: The Quest for Health in American Schools.
Elizabeth DeWolfe is Professor of History and co-founder of the Women's & Gender Studies Program at the University of New England (Biddeford, ME). A former department chair, she teaches courses in women's history, American culture, and archival research. DeWolfe is the award-winning author of The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories and Shaking the Faith: Mary M. Dyer's Anti-Shaker Campaign, 1815-1867.
Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello is a publicly-engaged interdisciplinary scholar/activist with twenty years of experience linking the higher education, museum, social service, K-12, service-learning and cultural sectors in both the US and Europe. She is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies and Coordinator of American Studies at Salem State University where she teaches and writes on issues of the public humanities, shared authority and community theory in museums, urban, immigrant and African American history, and transnational identity formation and partnerships. She is author of Modern Bonds: Redefining Community in Early Twentieth Century St. Paul and co-editor of a forthcoming book on teaching American Studies.
 The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, 2018 update, https://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/, accessed January 2, 2020; Data on the History Profession, American Historical Association, https://www.historians.org/jobs-and-professional-development/career-resources/data-on-the-history-profession, accessed January 27, 2020.
 A 4/4 load means one is expected to teach 4 courses each semester.
 Christina Gold, “Getting the Job: Applying and Interviewing at a Community College,” The American Historian, December, 2019.
 Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990).