Cultivating Versatility as a Future Faculty Member

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

This semester, I accepted an invitation to guest teach on Milton’s Paradise Lost for a graduate-level “History of Hell” course in the Divinity School. The invitation gave me some pause, as I’ve been away from the college classroom for eight years.

What’s more, I’ve never taken a single class on Milton, and my PhD is in Victorian literature. However, as one of only two British literature faculty at a small liberal arts college, I routinely taught Milton as part of the Brit Lit survey. And over the course of my faculty career, I taught everything from intro to women’s studies, to a core course in Great Ideas (including a terrifying unit on Kant), to a Russian literature survey, to Business Writing.

Nothing about my teaching experience is unusual. And that’s the point. The majority of today’s college and university faculty (including those in tenured positions) do not have the luxury of teaching exactly what they were trained in, or even things they consistently find interesting.

Why is this point relevant to you? Because if you’re reading the Versatile Humanists blog, it’s high time we addressed what it means to cultivate versatility as a future faculty member. If you wish to secure a faculty position beyond the ranks of R1 universities, then demonstrating versatility in what you can teach is critical. And increasingly, hiring committees expect candidates to demonstrate versatility in how they teach—whether that’s incorporating digital pedagogy, designing innovative assignments and modes of assessment, teaming up with community partners, or supporting diverse classrooms.

Ultimately, what you teach and how you teach is determined heavily by who you’re teaching for. Call this the third dimension of versatility—being adaptable and responsible to the needs of the department for which you teach, and student-centered, in the way that makes the most sense for the people enrolled in your class at any given time.

Many of you are accomplished teachers already. Perhaps you’ve taken advantage of a range of resources at Duke to develop your pedagogy. These include the Certificate in College Teaching and Preparing Future Faculty, both offered by The Graduate School. Newer programs include an annual Teaching with Archives workshop, Archival Expeditions, the Bass Digital Fellows Program, and the Mellon Humanities Unbounded Durham Tech Fellows Program. Duke humanities doctoral students have also sought out opportunities to teach at nearby colleges and universities.

Individual PhD programs also support developing teachers in more discipline-specific ways. For example, with the support of a PhD Innovation grant from Versatile Humanists at Duke, the History department recently revamped its pedagogy course to reflect new currents in teaching, such as an increased emphasis on public engagement.

For all the new programs and innovations, there can still be a gap between what’s on offer at Duke and how students show up as academic job candidates in their first year on the market. I have frequently worked with late-stage students or new PhDs who face a learning curve in one (or more) of these areas:

  • Deciphering the role of teaching at an institution, based on the job description
  • Writing application materials (cover letter, CVs, etc.) for teaching-intensive jobs
  • Crafting a compelling teaching statement
  • Being fully prepared for hiring committees who spend 99% of the interview on highly granular, teaching-focused questions

A gap in preparation may be inevitable, when future faculty are trained in educational settings (R1s) that are so different from the cultures in which they end up teaching. But there are also things you can do now, to help shrink that gap when it’s your turn to go on the market. Beyond taking advantage of the aforementioned programs, you might also:

Take every opportunity you can to be an instructor of record. TA’ing is valuable, but it’s not the same as running your own course—and even better, designing one from scratch.

Seek out a diverse set of teaching experiences at both advanced and introductory levels, on topics close to and distant from your area of specialty, and perhaps through different modes (such as online teaching). Don’t be the person who can only teach one thing.

Get advisors, mentors, and trusted peers to observe your classes as often as possible. Actively solicit their feedback. Watch your peers teach in return.

Get as much feedback as you can from your students (beyond whatever evaluation the university may require you to use). Practice receiving difficult feedback gracefully and constructively.

Engage your advisor in conversation about ways you can prepare to teach in your discipline and across disciplinary boundaries.

Evaluate what support your program already provides for emerging teachers. If you think something is missing, engage with your department leadership about it.

Build in space and structure to reflect on your teaching experiences as you go. Perhaps that’s a log or a teaching journal, or a working group of peer teachers for comparing notes.

Cultivate relationships with faculty members who teach in different institutions and in different contexts. One way to do this is to identify recent (or less recent) graduates of your program who’ve established teaching careers. Reach out to them. Ask them questions about what they do, and how you can prepare.

Finally, be intentional about this process. Don’t lose sight of why you want to teach. You may decide that teaching is your lifelong vocation—or maybe it’s just one of several fulfilling careers you will end up pursuing.

For now, I am a once-in-a-while professor. This works for me. And getting back to the classroom through “History of Hell” reminded me that no matter how long I’ve taught, remaining adaptable and versatile is critical.

Last week, I faced a class of about forty students in the Divinity School. A couple of the students had brought young children. Not every student had absorbed all the details of Milton’s description of hell, being thrown by seventeenth-century diction and unrhymed iambic pentameter.

“So what is Milton’s hell like?” I probed. “Is it hot…or cold?


A small child piped up: “Is it, like, three thousand degrees?”

The contrast between the conscientious grad students, so worried about showing up a certain way, and this excited kid, who just jumped in, was striking. How can we cultivate the excited kid mindset in the graduate (or other high-stakes) classroom? A question for my new teaching journal.