• Spencer Bennington

Graduate Syllabus in Historical Rhetorics: Sharing is Caring

Updated: Oct 9, 2019

Welcome back to Rhetorical Roundhouse--we're so glad you could join us! Last week I answered the gauntlet thrown down by Liz Ricketts and explained that Tae Kwon Do rhetoric really IS a thing! This week I'm just popping in to share some more materials that I've made for the academic job market.

In case you missed it, I wrote about updating my digital portfolio a couple of weeks ago and discussed some of the most common documents that university's request when seeking full-time faculty. This week I wanted to share some components of what might be referred to as a "teaching portfolio" by a lot of places. I'll talk about some of the major components that could be included in this as well as share a couple new syllabi that I produced as a result.

What's in a Teaching Portfolio Anyway?

This is a great question with, sometimes, no clear answer. I was lucky in that some of the jobs I applied to gave more explicit directions as to what they expected to see. You can usually assume that they want most of the following:

  1. Teaching Philosophy

  2. Sample Syllabus (of your own creation)

  3. Sample Assignment/Activity

  4. Course Evaluations

This portfolio should begin with your pedagogical theory in the Teaching Philosophy documents and then move toward the more practical applications of those beliefs via syllabi and assignments sheets. This part seems simple enough, but there are some tricky bits worth thinking about more in-depth.

What Can a Syllabus Reveal about your Teaching?

Short answer: A LOT!

When making syllabi to share with other teachers, you have to understand that they will be reading these documents very differently than your students. Anyone with any administrative experience will likely start with your student learning outcomes/objectives (SLO's) to see how well these match up with the kind of work to be accomplished in the course. Course objectives/SLO's are NOT throwaway text. They should be clearly measurable outcomes that a series of well-designed assignments can help your students achieve. Remember to follow the trajectory in Bloom's taxonomy by developing the lower tiers earlier in the course (knowledge, understanding, etc) and the higher tiers toward the end (analysis, synthesis, etc).

Committees may also be interested in how you interpret what it means to teach a standard course. For my portfolio, I chose to develop a syllabus for a history of rhetoric course. I selected this for a number of reasons that are important to share:

  1. Every Rhet/Comp program needs someone to teach this course so it demonstrates value

  2. The job I was applying to asked specifically for applicants to have a research specialty in this area (which implies they need someone to teach it regularly)

  3. My research focus in embodied non-Western rhetorics aligns well with the current trends in the field to diversify the historical canon and the ways we teach the history of rhetoric

So how does this apply to you?

What you should take away from this is that the syllabus is a way to show a committee that who you are as a scholar informs and strengthens who you are as a teacher instead of your research distracting and detracting from the other parts of your job. That said, it's always helpful to show how you can teach the courses they need you to teach instead of the courses of your dreams. So be prepared to offer a syllabus that shows you know how to connect SLO's to assignments and larger programmatic goals, one that covers a course in their major/degree program that is offered regularly, and in a way that demonstrates your expertise as a researcher.

In my teaching portfolio, I have included a graduate syllabus for the history of rhetoric as well as an undergraduate syllabus for a class on discourse communities (specifically those constructed by conversations about the body). I want to point out that I also provided a brief summary of each of these in the portfolio so I could stress the major takeaways. Don't forget that you can annotate these syllabi (and sample assignments) or provide any amount of helpful meta-commentary. I likely could have done a better job of this but ran out of time.

The Elephant in the Room: Evals

So here's the thing, frequently when on the job market, you might be asked to provide information which makes you feel uncomfortable in some kind of way. For me, this happened when I started noticing how many universities wanted me to include student evaluations as part of my initial application. Why does this bother me? Because despite my own evaluations always being pretty positive, I understand this assessment practice to be biased toward non-white, non-hetero-normative, non-male instructors and it makes me feel a little icky to be able to bolster my own ethos as a teacher because my body fits the stereotypical mold better. Don't get me wrong, I love my Rate my professor pages, but only because it's hilarious, not because I think it should be the deciding factor in my employment or promotion.

So what do I do about it? Well, I handled it in the way that I feel most doing--being perfectly honest and upfront. Here's how my summary of teaching evaluations opens:

Student evaluations of teaching are a flawed assessment instrument in a number of ways. To utilize these documents as serious evidence for tenure, promotion, or hiring is a discriminatory practice. I say this because of the many well-documented studies of gender and racial bias in such evaluations (for example, Mengel, Sauerrman and Zolitz 2018). With this in mind, however, I’ve always told my students to take these evaluations seriously so that I can learn from them and take steps to actively improve my pedagogy. Still though, when I read effusively positive comments about my teaching persona, I wonder how my positionality as a fairly extroverted, straight white male affects my students' understanding of my teaching.
For example, a student in my spring professional writing course wrote:
Mr B is one of the coolest professors I've ever had while still being an excellent teacher. He teaches information effectively and gets everyone in class involved. He can be professional and personable which is something a lot of professors can't do. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting him and working with him on various projects in and outside of class. Give this man a raise.

Is this risky? Of course it is. Do I care? Only a little. Your stance can be different, but I'm much more comfortable showing these committees a more accurate portrait of the dissident I can be in hopes that none of us are disappointed if they end up offering me a job. In other words, if this kind of opening upsets the committee and they decide to not interview me because of it, that's great. It's great because there is no WAY that I could work with/for a group like that in good conscience.

Back to the genre of presenting your evals though. Make sure you keep this kind of thing to a page or two at most and create some sort of narrative for your reader. I went with a fairly standard excerpting of three evaluations: one that is highly complimentary, one that offers a critique, and one that shows how I adjust my teaching based on criticism. If you have evaluations that can support this narrative I'd suggest using them because it shows a committee that you aren't afraid to adjust your pedagogy based on critical assessment and feedback. Some universities may ask in much more detail for data about your evaluations. If you have some nifty visualizations then include them. If not, you need to ask yourself how much work you're willing to put in to present data about your teaching in a manageable way.

Final Thoughts

I have a lot to say about the syllabi I crafted but I think I'll save it for another time. I've got papers to give feedback on and more more more jobs to apply to!

Thanks, as always, for stopping by. I hope you like the newest edition to my digital portfolio.


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