Transition to Academia II: The Teaching Portfolio

Recently, I served on a search committee for a new faculty member in our school, and it was an interesting opportunity to see how other people presented their academic credentials. In reviewing the applications, I found that it was fairly simple to get a feel for the applicants' research interests and background. It was also fairly easy to sift through the list of publications to get an idea of the productivity and quality of their research. However, I found myself very frustrated about getting inside their teaching "skin." Most of the candidates presented their teaching credentials by simply listing the courses they had taught, which gave me almost no information about their approach to teaching and their potential to contribute to our program as teachers. What I found myself wishing for was much more detail and elaboration on their teaching philosophy and motivation.

You may find yourself in a similar boat as these applicants when trying to document your teaching, whether you are applying for an academic position or for reappointment, tenure, or promotion. How do you go about documenting on paper something as dynamic as your performance as a teacher and mentor? People reviewing your file usually have never seen you in action in the classroom or watched how you interact with students. Often, they are in different departments or universities, and they therefore do not intimately know your department's unique environment. How do you put your teaching into the context of your overall development as a scholar? How do you infect the reader with the same enthusiasm that you impart to your students?


The ideal teaching dossier should be...

  • Concise: Keep the body of the dossier within 4 to 12 pages. Put supporting materials into appendices.

  • Readable: Your dossier will be read by people outside your research area. Avoid jargon.

  • Engaging: Grab the readers' attention and involve them.

  • Documented: Make sure you support any claims for greatness with appropriate material placed in the appendices.

  • Insightful: Have a point about your teaching and make sure it is highlighted.

  • Believable: Ninety-nine percent of people think they are "above average." Make sure you do not overinflate your abilities.

  • Literate: Proofread your dossier and ask for feedback from colleagues.

  • Edifying: Ideally, both you and the readers should learn something new and interesting about you.

The tool you should consider developing is the counterpart to your research-based curriculum vitae (CV), often called the teaching dossier or portfolio. Like your CV, your dossier serves as a condensed record and accurate reflection of your teaching activities and accomplishments. As with a good grant application, your aim with the dossier is to give the reader a "living" document that is both informative and engaging. Although it can be a very difficult and time-consuming task (I spent a solid week doing nothing else to get a solid draft), a side benefit of developing a teaching dossier is that it will force you to reflect on your teaching. It will serve as a full-system diagnostic to see whether what you are doing actually jives with what you think you are doing or what you want to be doing. As such, this process of reflection can serve as a powerful tool for analyzing and improving your teaching.

As you'll read in the second sidebar, the material you can include in a teaching dossier goes well beyond the standard listing of courses. However, a saturation approach is self-defeating, because it demonstrates to the reader that you have not really taken much care in developing the dossier--which reflects badly on your commitment to teaching. Another caution is that, although it is great to extol your teaching brilliance by stuffing it full of listings of your teaching awards and nothing but glowing reviews from students and colleagues, there is a fine line between self-confidence and boasting. Although you certainly want to highlight your strengths, you should also acknowledge areas for improvement. A senior administrator at my university is a strong believer in the need for faculty to have an attitude of constant self-improvement. His philosophy when evaluating faculty files is that he is not so much interested in how good a teacher someone is, but in what the person is doing to become a better teacher.

Items to Include in Your Teaching Dossier

Each university will have specific items that must be included, such as a listing of courses taught and student evaluations. There are also obvious items to include, such as letters from students or colleagues, courses taken, and teaching awards. However, there are also plenty of supplementary materials that can support your teaching effectiveness. In developing my dossier, rather than incorporating every possible item, I concentrated on items that illustrated or elaborated on themes from my teaching philosophy. What you can place in your dossier is almost limitless, but here are some ideas:

Evolution of Your Students

  • Evidence of effective supervision of undergraduate and graduate students, such as scholastic awards or acceptance into prestigious programs after working with you.

  • Documentary evidence of the effect you or your course had on student career choice or success in obtaining employment, such as letters from employers about your former students.

  • Student products (such as lab books, essays, and publications) that illustrate their progress under your tutelage. This is especially effective if you include "before" and "after" material along with your feedback to the students. Make sure you have their permission to include their work in your dossier.

Evolution of Your Teaching

  • A record of changes resulting from self-evaluation.

  • Attempts at instructional innovations and evaluations of their effectiveness.

  • Future teaching goals.

Contributions to Teaching

  • Courses developed or overhauled. Because I was fortunate enough to be given the chance to develop a new course from scratch (see the following article in this series), a detailed analysis of the course formed the core of my dossier.

  • Committees served on (such as curriculum overview committees) and your contributions to teaching development.

  • Invitations to teach for outside agencies or to contribute to the teaching literature.

So how do you highlight improvements without making your prior work seem awful in comparison? Acknowledge your previous work but focus on the improvements. An approach I took was to compare a course my first time through it, when I was in my first year on the faculty and in full survival mode, with the course the second time I taught it. I discussed some of my students' evaluations and my own evaluation from the first time. I then detailed some changes I made in the second year, the rationale for those changes, and the improvement in evaluations following those changes. Similarly, I included a detailed discussion of how I substantially changed the design of one course after I attended a teaching workshop on active learning. At the same time, I highlighted the marked elevation in teaching evaluations to demonstrate the effectiveness of my course revisions.

Although dossiers vary greatly in style and content, one common ingredient is a statement on teaching philosophy. Many search committees request such a statement from applicants, so it is crucial that you draft one even if you do not include it in your dossier. The philosophy section serves as the foundation for your entire dossier. Ideally, the statements that you make here are themes that run throughout the remainder of your dossier. One approach is to brainstorm potential items to include and then check for common themes. Alternatively, write the philosophy section first, and then let the rest of the dossier flow from the ideas you come up with. Regardless of which approach you take, it can be a fairly intimidating experience to sit down with a blank screen and start pontificating on your philosophy on teaching. To combat this, one useful brainstorming activity is to complete the following two statements: 1) "I use the following instructional methods, materials, and techniques when teaching course X," and 2) "My approach to teaching course X is based on the following notions, principles, and/or assumptions about teaching or learning." In other words, what do I do day to day in the classroom, and why do I do it? I hope your responses to these two questions will not be completely contradictory!

As a final note, remember that students love teachers who are full of passion and enthusiasm, and the best dossiers should give the reader that same impression. Have fun exploring your teaching!

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