Earlier this month, Columbia released its call for applications for the 2020-21 Graduate Student Core Preceptorships. Like the Teaching Scholars Program, this is a competitive teaching opportunity: one that involves teaching classes in Columbia’s Core Curriculum. For graduate students in the humanities and social sciences, our options are to teach either Literature Humanities (“Lit Hum”)or Contemporary Civilization (“CC”).
We recently caught up with three current Lit Hum Preceptors* and asked for tips on applying for one of these positions. Although their application and teaching experiences are specific to Lit Hum, some of the advice summarized below would also be relevant for English grad students applying to teach CC.
Get to know the course
The first thing to do is familiarize yourself with the course curriculum. As the Core website puts it, Lit Hum is “designed to enhance students’ understanding of main lines of literary and philosophical development that have shaped western thought for nearly three millennia. Much more than a survey of great books, Lit Hum encourages students to become critical readers of the literary past we have inherited.”
Do not think you need to read a bunch of the works on the syllabus before you apply. Instead, you should try to read about some of the titles that you’re not at all familiar with.
To apply, you’ll need several things: a cover letter, a CV, a teaching statement, and a complete set of student evaluations from all courses taught at Columbia.
In an early paragraph, summarize the teaching experience you’ve gained at Columbia (and elsewhere if applicable). Keep in mind that English and Comp Lit grad students teach more, and more independently, than grad students in just about any other department we’re aware of. This summary paragraph should really emphasize the amount and the range of your experience.
Following that, devote a paragraph to each of your teaching experiences so far. Lead with and play up your experience teaching University Writing (UW). This experience is really the best preparation you could have because UW is a required class for first-years, who also have to take either Lit Hum or CC. Through UW, you’ve already learned how to engage students who don’t necessarily think of themselves as humanities students, which is a major part of running Lit Hum.
Across these paragraphs about your different teaching experiences, be specific about the various challenges you’ve encountered and what you’ve learned from them. Mention assignment design (critical, but also creative assignments)! If you’ve TA’d beyond your own historical period or area of emphasis, describe how you adapted to teaching beyond your comfort zone.
As the Core website explains, this is not the same thing as a statement of teaching philosophy. “Instead, please discuss in 500 words or less how you would teach a passage from one text on the Contemporary Civilization or Literature Humanities syllabus. Questions that you may wish to address in your statement include what your objectives for the lesson will be, what kind of context you will provide for the work, how you will structure the discussion, and what supplemental materials you might use. If you are applying to teach both Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities, please choose a text from the course that is your first choice.”
Format your teaching statement as a narrative description of a short lesson plan. You might start with an opening paragraph that lists 2-3 learning objectives, and then walk through 2-3 exercises you would do and/or discussion questions you would pose to meet those objectives.
In the interview, you will almost certainly be asked how you would teach one of the texts on the syllabus, and it’s completely acceptable to just expand on the text that you discussed in your teaching statement!
About the interview
Interviews are conducted by a three-person committee, typically composed of the Lit Hum chair and two current instructors. It’s worth emphasizing that they don’t expect you to have read the whole syllabus for your interview. Instead, as noted above, you should be prepared to talk about how you would teach one course text.
When you respond to this question, be specific. Talk about how you might begin class that day, what questions you would ask, any group work, etc. And don’t pressure yourself to talk about a text that’s completely unfamiliar to you. You want to show the interviewers that, when it comes to something you do know, you have ideas!
You may also be asked whether there’s a text on the syllabus that you’re nervous or concerned about teaching, so it’s good to prep an answer for that question, in case it comes up. To be clear, you don’t have to say exactly how you would teach that text. You just need to explain what it is that makes you nervous and how you anticipate working to make sure that you’re reading to teach it. Basically, this is just one of those “what’s your biggest weakness” questions in disguise. The interviewers want to hear how you’ll deal with the fact that no one is expert in all of these books.
Other than that, try to convey in the interview all the reasons that you’re excited to teach Lit Hum. Enthusiasm does a lot for this course!
A note on diversity
Lit Hum has a standard, committee-approved syllabus, and it’s maybe 90 percent white, European, and male-authored. The syllabus does undergo periodic revisions, but these are made by committee only every three years. Recently, Lit Hum Chair Joanna Stalnaker added a “Contemporary Core” work (Father Comes Home from the Wars, by Suzan-Lori Parks) and this year Claudia Rankine’s Citizen as well. These titles have not yet been approved to be added to the standard syllabus, but they indicate how the people currently running the Core are aware of the ways it needs to change.
In both your application and the interview, don’t be afraid of addressing how you would teach the course with a productively critical view of canonicity, Eurocentrism, and (in the first semester especially) the texts’ pervasive sexual violence. In fact, the question of teaching the course critically will likely come up in the interview even if you don’t discuss it in your letter. Keep in mind that it’s definitely possible to integrate your own brief readings (as in-class handouts, especially) to offer students different perspectives. Short readings can also be added, but be aware that it’s already a heavy reading load.
Some final thoughts
As a standardized course, Lit Hum has some clear shortcomings. But it’s also full of extraordinarily rich, bizarre, and provocative texts. It’s surprising what you can learn from teaching it!
*The Core Preceptors whom we’ve paraphrased in this post requested anonymity.
Diana is a PhD candidate in the Department of English & Comparative Literature. Her teaching and research interests include the Victorian novel, histories of science and medicine, studies of the environment, and theories of gender and sexuality. She has taught literature and writing classes at Columbia University, Barnard College, and Mills College, and she is currently a Senior Lead Teaching Fellow at Columbia's Center for Teaching & Learning.