My Calamitous Teaching Demo

Brian Taylor

April 23, 2013

Sob stories from the campus visit are a time-honored institution in academe, with lively recaps occupying Wiki real estate for the past decade.

Usually, and for good reason, the writers are anonymous, and while that affords them a "safe" space to vent, their stories run the risk of being discounted as hyperbolic or even fabricated. Putting my real name on the following humiliating and true account may not do much in the long run to alter how campus visits are conducted. But I hope it will get a small conversation going about something we often forget about when we're on the job market: those fresh-faced young people who sit in the chairs and stare at us in the classrooms. What are they called again?

Most campus visits include a teaching demonstration. After all, even the snootiest prioritizer of research (pronounced with the em-phas-is on the second syl-lab-le) will have to come into contact with undergraduates at some point. Although it diminishes my research cred, I adore working with students (there's the word I was looking for) and helping them push themselves to succeed. And until a recent campus visit, I was deluded enough by five years of adulatory evaluations to think I was good at it.

Well, we all know what overconfidence goeth before, and I fell hard. That fateful day, I tottered into a second-year German class at the university at which I was a finalist, overplanned lesson in hand. Let's just say there were magic markers and construction paper involved.

However, unbeknownst to me (but, in the words of the great Mel Brooks, knownst to the students), this class had a small essay due the same day. Thus, they had not even looked in the general direction of their regular homework, upon which I had based the entirety of the lesson. (I should mention that I'm spoiled: In my own classes, homework is worth a large portion of students' grades, so they always complete it. Also, making an essay due on a day when class meets is amateur hour! Uploaded on a Saturday, people. Saturday.)

Also unbeknownst to me, this group had no experience with "full immersion" language learning, in which the instructor speaks only in the language being taught, with the desired result that students' brains adjust to the reality of not understanding 100 percent of what they hear.

So the first thing that happened was this:

I greeted the students coming in with a warm "GUTEN MORGEN!" and instructed them in clear, slow German to make nameplates so I could address them by name. I used dramatic body language, and pointed excitedly to the aforementioned magic markers and the nameplate I'd made for myself.

The students reacted by staring at me like I had 12 heads, and answering in English: "Where is our real 'Frau'?" (I don't have the space to even go into the sexist and patronizing "our Frau," but it didn't go unnoticed.) I answered, in even slower, body-languagier German, that I would be teaching their class today, to which they said, in English: "Is our real 'Frau' coming back?"

I'm a little bit slow, but at this point I realized: These students had not been notified that they would have a visiting instructor. Also: As you might guess, the full-immersion lesson I had planned—and cleared with my own department's brilliant pedagogue as level-appropriate—turned out to be highly level-inappropriate for this group of students. My vague guess, as I stared out upon resistant Friday-morning faces (did I mention this was a Friday morning?), was that I had planned a lesson approximately six semesters too difficult for them.

I could not resort to code-switching—switching between two languages in a single conversation; in this case between German and English. Doing so would have been an immediate deal-breaker for most language-teaching jobs. When I managed to get through the entire lesson without vomiting or sobbing, I called the whole thing a great success, released the students into the code-switching arms of their "real Frau," and limped through my job talk knowing my goose was cooked.

Now I'll be the first to admit that the mark of a good educator is the ability to alter plans in the moment, and that is a lesson I've committed to heart. Should I encounter a similar situation, I will plan backup lessons for my teaching demo at three separate levels. I would heartily recommend this for anyone up for a teaching job in foreign languages.

But while job seekers can certainly take precautions to gird our loins against demo disasters, I would also like to see some discussion about how the process can be refined—not for the ease of poor schmucks like me, but for the benefit of the students. As traumatized as I was, they had basically been ambushed.

So what are some positive solutions that would be painless to implement next job-market season?

There are many, and most are not difficult: The course's regular instructor can shuffle major-assignment deadlines around the job candidate's demo, since most departments schedule campus visits a month or two in advance. The instructor can also tell the students they will have a visitor, and to give that visitor a warm welcome—because as much as the candidate is on trial for the committee, the university is auditioning as well. After getting stonewalled by that class, I was certainly scared of the possible tough road ahead had I actually gotten the job. (I didn't.)

But the best solution of all is to reimagine the demo using a method already common at many liberal-arts colleges: Hold a fake class. Give students who are personally invested in the new hire (majors, usually) a chance to participate and make a difference in the search process, by arranging a small mock session for which they can volunteer (for extra credit, if the institutional culture requires it, and with either a very small homework assignment or none at all).

The only problem with that idea, of course, is that it fails to strike sufficient terror into job candidates, and also does not set us up for enough humiliation and degradation. Both of those seem very important on today's job market—far more important than serving the best interests of those ... you know, those wide-eyed, disheveled, impressionable whatever-you-call-'ems in the chairs.

Rebecca Schuman is a visiting assistant professor of German at Ohio State University.