Ever wonder what getting hired to teach a Core class as a grad student is like? Bwog’s own Monday Daily Lili Brown sat down with Nathan Schumer, a grad student hired to teach CC in the fall, and asked some stellar questions that get to the CORE (great pun!!) of the interview process. Check it out below!!
The central component of Columbia’s undergraduate academic experience is undoubtedly the Core. Love it or hate it, the Core isn’t going anywhere. It ensures that every student here, regardless of major, is involved in the humanities throughout their undergraduate career on Columbia’s grounds.
Since the Core carries such weight for undergraduate students here, the position of Core instructor carries its own honor in teaching these standardized courses that unite Columbia students academically. Core instructors’ backgrounds vary despite the largely consistent nature of the standardized courses they teach; some might be tenured professors, while some might be graduate students only a few years older than the first-years they teach.
The process of becoming a graduate student preceptor for a Core class does not favor or accommodate all qualified graduate students, for the University also hires a group of degree-holding lecturers and professors from within Columbia and other schools each year. Teaching CC or Lit Hum with an unfinished dissertation involves a tedious and competitive application process, and the numbers might not match how commonly you hear a friend talk about their graduate student-teacher.
Newly hired to teach CC starting in the fall, Nathan Schumer (GS/JTS ‘08) broke away from his Butler carell and offered Bwog some insight on the inner workings of the hiring process for graduate students here.
Lili: In terms of the selection process and interview process, were you approached because you are an existing graduate student in the humanities at Columbia? Or did you also have to apply?
Nathan: You always have to apply. They send around a call for applications for a lot of the Core stuff, I’ve gotten emails asking me to apply to be an instructor for University Writing as well as to teach certain kinds of humanities classes in certain departments like Latin American and African Studies. It’s all run through the Core office.
L: What is the application like?
N: The application process begins with sending in a brief cover letter about yourself, and your CV. You send in a separate application to each class you want to teach; I sent in one app to Lit Hum, another to CC. Each class asks for very similar cover letters, but you actually have to show that you have more interest in teaching one over the other.
L: Does it then go straight into the interview process or are there more selection rounds?
N: You get a notice in early December asking you to send in your letters of recommendation and when they can interview you. They set up interviews for two or three days in January for each class you’ve been accepted to interview. I was asked to interview for both Lit Hum and CC.
L: What was the structure of the interviews?
N: Each interview lasts a half hour. To be fair, the questions were pretty generic academic interview-type questions; it wasn’t actually that dissimilar from the interview I had pursuing a teaching position at UC Davis. The big question you always start with is describing your dissertation in a way that’s meaningful and conveyable to people who are not experts in that field.
L: Which is…?
N: I am writing on the memory of the Second Temple period in Rabbinic literature during late antique Palestine.
L: Very specific. What else came up in the interview? Any stumps?
N: Then I got some questions about my teaching. What challenges I had experienced and how I dealt with them…I was actually asked a really good question I didn’t know the answer to in my Lit Hum interview: “how can you make the Core speak to current events?” The example my interviewer gave was Ferguson, and he was curious in how I could make Lit Hum spark discussion on something like Ferguson. It was a really thoughtful question, and one I had difficulty expressing a full answer to on the spot. Regardless, I think a lot of what they want to hear is that you’re a confident teacher in the classroom but also that you’re familiar with the Core and that you have a sense of what its goals are.
L: Did they test you on knowledge of specific texts?
N: No, but after you’ve discussed your dissertation they want you to tell them what interests you on the syllabus that falls outside of your field. I know a lot about the first half of Lit Hum or CC, but they want to know that you can apply your expertise to the entire course.
L: What came of these interviews?
N: I heard back from them in mid-March, and I was told that I was selected as an alternate for Lit hum but as an instructor for CC.
L: And what will teaching CC look like?
N: Because I’m a graduate student, I’ll only be teaching one section of CC, and I was hired as a preceptor. There’s another position called Core Lecturer, who is a graduated graduate student that actually has their PhD. They can teach two sections and it’s part of their post-doctoral fellowship. My workload will be about four hours a week, and in addition to that there will be an hour long seminar for first-year instructors taught by the director of CC or the Core. There’s also another hour long seminar after that with the entire CC faculty. It’s a luncheon where a professor in the in the faculty gives a lecture on a particular text in the curriculum. Someone that knows Plato really well will give a lecture during the time when we’d all be teaching Plato, and it’s supposed to help you think on how to better teach that in your sections. Which is cool, cause not everyone knows Plato very well.
L: What’s your training like before you get to the classroom in September?
N: There’s a “boot camp” in August, and that’s all I’ve heard about for now. I think it’s a two or three day thing. It’s probably this way because graduate students at Columbia, as part of our fellowship, have to teach for six semesters, which is actually pretty rare. Princeton graduate students only have to teach one and a half semesters, for example, so graduate students at Columbia actually have fairly extensive teaching experience.
L: You obviously haven’t read every single assignment on the syllabus. Do they expect you before the training session to have read them or do you work with the texts primarily at the training session?
N: The training session really just talks about CC and gives tips on ways to run a class. For preparation, different people have different styles. Some people are probably planning on reading the texts as their class reads them. I’m planning on trying to read a lot of it beforehand so that I have a good handle on where the class is going to go. And reading it with the class during the year will also probably come naturally with teaching. I like to read things two ways, I tend to read first broadly for general content strokes and then I come back and read in depth.
L: Yeah, you’re definitely an academic.
N: Well, we’re all academics.
L: That’s a good plug for kids wanting to take your CC section. When assembling your class discussions, do you have any leeway in shaping the class?
N: I know that you can add some stuff, that was brought up in my interview. They gave me some suggestions, but the theory is that graduate students are experts in their own fields so they’re encouraged to add something to the syllabus that they know really well. It’s like a little personal flavor from your instructor.
L: But the course material in general is set in stone, right?
N: The majority of it is, I would say. I would assume we’re only allowed to play with about 2-3 texts in the syllabus at the most.
L: What are you hoping to gain from teaching CC at Columbia for the next (if all goes well) two years?
N: One old critique of academics, especially at large research universities, is that they don’t get a lot of hands-on teaching experience; the emphasis instead is on their own research. The Core is great because it really takes teaching seriously. It really trains graduate students to teach well and people are well-equipped to go on from this to teach at liberal arts schools. Graduate students who teach in the Core then become competitive candidates for other teaching opportunities because they have such a rare, strong teaching background on their resumes. It’s also a really generous opportunity from Columbia for graduate students to keep doing research and working on their dissertations, all the while getting strong teaching experience.
To get a more administrative perspective on what this all means, Bwog also contacted Roosevelt Montas, Director of the Core. According to Professor Montas, there are about 62 sections for both CC and Lit Hum, wherein graduate students comprise around one-third of the faculty. The current breakdown of graduate students in these classrooms is 19 Lit Hum sections taught by these preceptors and 17 CC sections. No graduate students are appointed to teach as preceptors in Frontiers of Science.
Nathan joins an elite cohort of graduate student preceptors, for around 30 students apply each year and only about 12 are hired.
The Core’s advantages extend beyond students in the four undergraduate schools to those in GSAS — the courses train students to think like college students and train graduate student preceptors to become valuable educators in academia. This is unique to Columbia as a large research university, and emerges the Core as an academic program that prepares each member of the classroom for a larger educational goal. Be thankful that the Core enables you to dominate dinner party conversations on literary staples, and that these graduate students increase the Columbia’s stats for alumni in academia.
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