Do Canadian Law Schools Care More About Teaching? The Case of the Teaching Dossier

Blame CanadaOne of the first things that people interested in applying to law faculty positions in both the United States and Canada will notice is that the Canadian application requirements are the more onerous of the two.  In this post, I will focus on one way in which the Canadian approach is superior to the American approach, even if it is a bit more burdensome on applicants.

American law schools are generally content to let the capacities of the AALS’s Faculty Appointments Register website dictate their application requirements.  Consequently, they have two requirements for those seeking to obtain an initial interview: a one-page “FAR form” and a C.V.   Even listing these as separate requirements is somewhat misleading; other than the section for Teaching Preferences —  in which applicants list up to five “preferred” subjects and five “other” subjects — everything on the FAR form is also present in the typical C.V.

Compare this to the Canadian application process.  First, there is no Canadian analogue to the Faculty Appointments Register, so applicants send separate applications directly to each school that interests them.  Moreover, the application requirements for each school are considerably more extensive than those for American schools, at least with respect to getting an initial interview.  In addition to a C.V., a Canadian school typically requires the following: a detailed cover letter (or, in Canadian, a “covering letter”) which identifies the applicant’s areas of interest in research and teaching, a detailed research agenda, copies of all law and graduate transcripts, two sample publications, and a teaching dossier.   While applicants might grumble about having to find their old transcripts, they still have the comfort of knowing that they  will eventually have to provide almost all of those items to the American law schools that decide to interview them anyway.   But not that last item — the teaching dossier. What is a teaching dossier?  What are they all aboot?

It is a mistake is to assume that the teaching dossier is the Canadian equivalent of the FAR form’s Teaching Preferences section.  One does not simply list ten courses and consider it a teaching dossier.  Just a little online digging reveals a host of Canadian websites and workshops designed to walk people through the process of writing one (e.g., Toronto, Victoria, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada).   It does not take long to realize that a dossier is not something that can be dashed off; the Queen’s University manual is nearly 50 pages long, and that might be even shorter than the instructions on the University of Toronto’s website.

Though I did not do a comprehensive survey, there is considerable uniformity among these guides.   Generally, they recommend that dossiers have four main components: (1) Approach to Teaching (your teaching philosophy); (2) Summary of Teaching Responsibilities and Contributions (courses you have taught, methods you have used); (3) Evidence of Teaching Successes (course evaluations, analysis of the results of your teaching innovations); and (4) Professional Development (continuing education, mentorship).

The consistency in format might be a byproduct of the fact that a pedigreed source, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), was the first to call for them, and its call became a focus of academic attention for several years before widespread action was taken.  In the 1970s, a CAUT committee  headed by Bruce Shore rallied around shared dissatisfaction with the practice of using student course evaluations as the primary metric for evaluating teaching quality.  The committee wanted professors to be evaluated by “a summary of a professor’s major teaching accomplishments and strengths” as evidenced by multiple sources of information.  Thus, the initial appeal of the dossier was that it accorded to professors the opportunity to put their best feet forward even in the face of less-than-stellar student evaluations.  It gave them a chance to supplement those evaluations with justifications of teaching methods and goals, as well as personalized accounts of teaching successes.

Canadian schools did not warm up to dossiers until the early 1990s, after some American academics (e.g., Peter Seldin) and organizations such as the American Association of Higher Education picked up on CAUT’s idea.  To quote a legendary Canadian troubadour, “Isn’t it ironic?”   Since taking the idea back from the Americans, Canadian schools have run with it, outpacing  CAUT’s original ambitions.  For example, the original CAUT Guide recommended that dossiers be three pages long, but now the typical size is between six and twelve pages.  Appendices can bump that total into the sixteen-page range.  Although it is an outlier, one school saw fit to set a maximum of thirty-five pages, with a maximum total of twenty pages in appendices.

Today, the teaching dossier is not simply a way for professors to insulate themselves from the consequences of unfair student evaluations, it is also a way for faculties to get aspiring academics thinking about how to develop coherent and effective teaching strategies.  When an applicant is forced to put as much effort into a teaching dossier as she put into a research agenda, it can lead her to believe that the employer values those two dimensions more or less equally.

It is fair to wonder whether the fact that American law schools do not require applicants (or even junior faculty in most cases) to draft teaching dossiers is a sign that they do not care as much about teaching as do their Canadian counterparts.  It is possible, of course, that American law schools value teaching just as highly but fear that making teaching dossiers a necessary part of their applications would be too burdensome.  Along similar lines, they might believe that applicants do not yet know enough about teaching to make the completion of a dossier worthwhile for either the applicant or the hiring committee.  And to be fair, some Canadian schools require dossiers from applicants only “where appropriate,” meaning perhaps that those without teaching experience need not provide one.  Whatever the merit of these arguments, there is a growing sense that American law schools must do a better job responding to the demand for excellent teaching.  This sense is potentially at odds with reality; as there are law schools, such as my own, where teaching is of paramount importance in promotion and tenure decisions and where tremendous effort is put into classroom observation and evaluation. Still, making the teaching dossier a part of the application process is a low-cost  measure that could send the signal that law schools are taking teaching seriously.  And it might make better teachers too.

For those interested in learning more about the history of teaching dossiers, consider reading Christopher Knapper’s, The Origins of Teaching Portfolios, 6 Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 45–56 (1995).

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