Sunday, September 23, 2007

Writing the Statement of Teaching Philosophy

What the hell is a statement of teaching philosophy? These make no sense to me. And don’t point me to the sample ones on the web … I’ve seen 'em; I get, in theory, what they are supposed to do. What I want to know is: how seriously do places take them when they ask for them? How does one write one that is not vague, general, and dorky-sounding? Because, really, the sample ones I have seen sound either incredibly empty and inane (“I run a student-centered classroom” --- no shit, Sherlock, isn’t pretty much everybody’s class centered on, um, teaching the students?) or sound like ass-kissing pedagogy robots. And you know I like teaching, and I even like talking about pedagogy, but I really dislike those grad students who manage to sound incredibly formulaic and unnaturally enthusiastic when spouting off pedagogical jargon. (“In my class we leverage our dialogue to facilitate the acquisition of life-long learning skill sets!” ---- Couldn’t you just say, “I had a great breakthrough getting my students to understand me in class today”? Probably not, eh.)

The teaching philosophy is one of the places (oh, I could make a list of the places, honey) where my department falls down on the job in prepping us for the market. We are given no models, no examples, no list of what to do and not to do in the teaching philosophy. Last year whenever I mentioned I needed to write one and was having trouble, the job market advisor, my advisor, all the profs I talked to, just cocked their heads in that Aroo?-confused-dog look and then changed the subject. In one of the meetings I piped up to tack on “and sometimes a teaching philosophy” to a list of required materials and the job market advisor paused for a sec, then said, “Oh yeah, some places will want that sort of stuff.” Now, people very rarely out-and-out tell us that we have to get Research 1, tenure-track, fancy-pants jobs if we want to live up to the program’s standards but incidents like this get the point across pretty plainly. (although at times they do tell us straight out, usually when we’ve had a bad market year and we tell them about our only offer, which may be a VAP, a CC job, or state-school-out-in-the-middle of nowhere. Some of us were told that we were letting them down. I didn’t get anything at all though, and luckily nobody pulled any “letting us down” shit on me. I might have killed.)

Now I had to write a couple of them for last year’s job search, for different departments and types of jobs even. But I just went back and looked at them and they sound quite stupid. Unlike my job letter and diss abstract, which still sound intelligible a year later and I think just need lots of tweaking and smoothing. But no matter what I write, it sounds either un-teaching-philosophy-ish or vapid and stupid and not really like me.

I think it’s because it’s a “philosophy.” You’d think with my love of all things theory I’d be good at philosophizing my teaching. But nope. And what I do with theory is basically figure out what other people are theorizing. So heck, maybe I’m a brilliant writer of other peoples’ teaching philosophies, culled out of a suitcase of their strange and abstruse aphorisms. (If you think there is any money in this line of work I’d be willing to try it.) But my problem is that I can come up with laundry lists of what I like to do in the classroom and descriptions of exercises that are very concrete and specific and good, but that’s not a philosophy. And when I try to abstract a philosophy out of these activities I either get empty jargon that doesn’t sound like my teaching style, or a completely contradictory mess. (Cause honestly? I’m a pragmatist in the classroom ---- I’ll try anything once and see if it sticks. Which leaves me with a wide range of catchall tricks and “teaching recipes” that don’t make any sense when lined up next to each other.)

Furthermore, what I tried to do with the teaching philosophies last year, since I only had to do about three or four, was tailor them to the department asking for them. I poked around on the departments’ websites and tried to figure out what they were interested in, I matched my examples to the types of classes or surveys or authors they favored, etc. But what matched one department is reeeeaally off for the departments asking for statements this year. So, (gah!) I’ll have to do them all over again.

Thinking about it, I’m coming to hate teaching philosophies even more. I see that search committees are trying to find committed and thoughtful teachers who will work on improving their pedagogical strategies. But their means of assessing (heh, yeah, I know their lingo) teaching commitment and self-awareness is actually guaranteed to produce lies and game-playing, as it’s pretty much impossible to write something true to yourself and honest and get a job. (Though, what do I know? I didn’t get any jobs last year with my “earnest” teaching statements either.) For example, the following statements are all fairly accurate readings of aspects of my teaching style, but would never fit the format of a teaching philosophy:

- In my classes I model my own writing style to them, which involves endless whining and procrastinatory blog reading while nursing a beer and futzing over a badly-written draft...

- I am a hardass who believes in grinding down students’ young spirits through hard work and disciplinary structures. None of that “nurturing, accessible” shit from me --- I push students to do their reading and revise their drafts --- or I push them all the way out of the classroom. My evaluation comments are fairly evenly divided between the cliché “tough but fair” and “evil bitch-spawn from hell.” Besides, most of them come to love the beatings after a while.

- As both a graduate student and a teacher, I believe my role is to assist in the coming global revolution by boring from within. To that end, I combine a rigorous analysis of the corruptive nature of global capitalism with pragmatic activist organizing strategies, direct action, and group work. The writings of Paulo Freire and Franz Fanon, as well as Peter Elbow’s Writers Without Teachers, have been extraordinarily helpful to me. As an organic intellectual I look forward to the day when I can tell my teaching has been effective in overthrowing the university system because I am stood up against the wall and shot.

- Due to the keenly competitive structure of T&P and the rigorous demands of my active research and publishing schedule, I strive to cut corners and maximize effectiveness in my teaching wherever possible rather than have teaching eat my life. Luckily, my eminence in the field has attracted many grad students to our program, and I make working with me contingent on them doing most of my undergraduate teaching scut work. I believe the best student is the self-motivated student and that assigning drafts, reminding them of deadlines, and showing up regularly to the large lectures coddles them. College is meant to be preparation for the real world and as such the training wheels should be taken off as soon as possible.
(ok that one’s more my advisor and some of my profs than me --- but they are trying to mold me in their image, aren’t they?)

- Official university assessment methods like finals and evaluations are useless for actually figuring out what students’ real opinions are. That is why I have trained a network of spies, who resemble regular undergrads, to infiltrate other classrooms and public campus spaces. They listen in on my students’ conversations and ascertain which pedagogical aspects of my class worked and which confused the students. I also have extensive hourly breakdowns of who did the reading, how long it took them, and when they took a bathroom break. Plagiarism has been almost completely eliminated in my system, and my special STudent-Initiated Secret Inquisitions (Stasi) team tests how well the students have mastered the material by breaking into their dorms in the middle of the night, shining flashlights in their eyes, and asking them the exam questions. Students with excellent test results are often recruited into the team, while the Ds and Fs are never heard from again.

Your homework? To give me advice on a real teaching philosophy (some of you have got to be at teaching schools, right? If your SCs ask for statements, why? And what are they supposed to be like?) or, alternately, to amuse me by producing better parodies. Or heck, why not both?


adswithoutproducts said...

Some of us were told that we were letting them down.

Seriously? That's nuts!

Not much advice on this task. Best thing to do, I think, is to cut to the narratively-rendered experience as fast as you can and keep slim on the abstract theorizing. Talk about what you did in class just this semester etc etc.

negativecapability said...

I hate these, too. Love teaching, hate writing about it.

And those looks from the profs. like "teaching philosophy? whatever, like anywhere that matters needs one anyway..." yeah, I get those. Um, dudes, you're famous, so you get to work here. I'm not.

Tiruncula said...

You know, I'd be very tempted to write something like, "Having a teaching philosophy is STUPID, because what matters in the classroom is what worked today and what you do when it didn't," and then discuss precisely that. That follows the standard graduate/professorial methodology of reframing the question into one you feel like answering.

More practically, I think somebody should design a Teaching Philosophy Madlibs set. Get together with the other people on the market, play a few rounds, and voilà! Everybody has a teaching philosophy.

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, here's my advice (though take it with a grain of salt because I haven't written one since my first year out on the market. I don't even have an electronic copy of mine, I don't think, or I'd send it to you. And yes, one reason that I decided not to apply to a couple of jobs this year is that they required SoTPs, and I feel like anybody who thinks that it's a useful form of letting somebody know what kind of teacher you are is an idiot. But I digress.)

Ok, so advice:

1) Focus the main points of the philosophy on what you want to bring to students. So, for example, instead of "I'm a hardass," you write something like, One thing that excites me about teaching students is that I can model for them work habits that will serve them throughout their college careers. (That's a crap sentence, though. You could also go with something like, "I expect a great deal out of my students, and I believe that by maintaining high expectations in the classroom I show them that they can achieve beyond what they perceive as their natural limitations." Also too wordy, but you get the drift. Bring it back to the student.)

2. My next piece of advice is to use concrete, specific examples to support the assertions you make about your philosophy. So, if we go with hardass example again. Tell the committee a story about a slacker who made good after your ministrations. Be specific about how you handled the situation, why you made the choices that you did, etc. Tell them why you think that this example demonstrates who you are as a teacher. Make them care about you and want to meet you. That, ultimately, is the point of this crap from the candidate's end, yes? And really, that's what the committee wants too: to want to meet you.

3. I wouldn't do a lot of tailoring for each individual place that requests these, as it's not at all worth the time investment. What I'd suggest is that *you* have one and only one teaching philosophy, so if you do that much tailoring it probably will come off as insincere. I'd keep to one boilerplate philosophy, and perhaps tack on one paragraph someplace where you address specific institutional needs.

I hope this helps!

dance said...

Yeah, back every abstraction up with concrete examples. I also talked about my undergrad experiences--eg, having experienced the tutorial system in England taught me XYZ. I like Tiruncula's idea, too, and totally think you could get away with sly (short) jokes like "if I had a network of spies in the dorms, this would be easier. But since I don't, I do XYZ to find out how the class is progressing *before* end-of-term evaluations."

I haven't served on a search committee yet--but my guess is that the professors don't really know what the TP is supposed to be like, either. I think they are reading, quickly and on intuition, to figure out "is this a person we might want here, in front of our classes?" not to see whether you hit some ideal format.

Re tailoring--mine talks about playing a role in the wider college community as a professor (eg, reading the student paper). I think I had that additional paragraph *only* for small liberal arts colleges, and having two slightly different philosophies for research and teaching schools may be worth it--one might make some reference to grad training, for instance--*if* there are research schools that ask for these at all.

I always addressed specific institutional needs (I could offer classes XYZ and ABC, to follow-up existing DEF and GHI) in the cover letter, I didn't tailor a TP.

heu mihi said...

Yeah, I agree with Dr. Crazy and Dance--back up abstractions with concrete experiences/activities. I talk about my undergrad experience, too, as a way of introducing my approach; I describe an experience from my first year of an extremely effective professor and how that's influenced my own teaching practice. I'd be happy to send you my TP if you want--just send me an email (heumihi at yahoo dot com). I can't promise that it's any good, but one of the people on the search committee who hired me for this year said that he liked it, for whatever that's worth.

Fretful Porpentine said...

What they said: examples, examples, examples. Tell them about your coolest assignments and activities. As for the philosophy part, you really just need to tell them three things: what you think are the most important skills or habits of thought you want students to learn in your classes, why these things are important to you, and how you actually teach these things on a day-to-day basis. I jazzed mine up with a bit of rambling about why I think the liberal arts are still relevant in today's world, but you probably don't even need to do that; you just need to include some kind of rationale about why you do what you do.

You can also talk about stuff that hasn't worked for you in the classroom, if you explain what you learned from the experience and what you did differently next time around.

And I agree with Dr. Crazy that you probably don't need to do a lot of tailoring (in my experience, nearly all of the schools that ask for a teaching philosophy are SLACs anyway, so one size more-or-less fits all).

Flavia said...

God, you HAD to write about teaching statements today, didn't you??

My reappointment package is due in a week--yes, a WEEK--and I haven't started it because I have an article due in a week-minus-one-day. For the most part, it'll just be assembling copies of a hell of a lot of documents and putting them in binders, but one of those documents is a statement of teaching philosophy. I'd rather kill myself than write a new one, but my old one is SO BAD--not to mention two or three years old.

Anyway, I'll note that it's not just teaching schools that require SoTPs--at least a couple of flagship state U's that I applied for wanted them. I did no tailoring whatsoever, and got interviews (or didn't get interviews) at schools that ranged from SLACs, big state Us, and comprehensive Us. My impression is that sometimes, within a state system, it's HR or the Dean's/Provost's office that mandates this rather than the individual departments. Like the GREs, I think a crashingly awful one might hurt, but an excellent one won't help, and mediocrity is the order of the day.

(Except. . . I just pulled up my old SoTP and read it. And it really is pretty bad. So if you want to be comforted by that fact, or to laugh at it, I'd happily email it your way.)

gwoertendyke said...

yuk, teaching far, no school i am applying to requires one. but i don't understand them anyway, nobody has ever taught it, and my job letter covers my teaching philosophy and concrete i'm at a loss.

mr. whore refused to write one, even when they requested one, he never did it. not sure about this as an approach:) but it somehow worked for him!!! an aside: from the advice i have gotten from many, all schools--even so-called teaching schools--want you to know you have a serious research agenda and that this is how you identify yourself. for these schools, i've been told, both need to be stressed and in no way should research be lesser.

gwoertendyke said...

btw: i love that you are teaching students to revolt. you go.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, I just thought of another possible thing that you can do in your teaching philosophy: you can expound on how your research contributes to teaching. I think this can be a huge piece of the puzzle at teaching-oriented places. They want to know how you're going to handle the intense teaching expectations while still doing enough research to get tenure, which doesn't always come through in the letter.

Tiruncula said...

Back with a slightly less snarky comment, to agree with Dr. C. I lucked out because my research, while crashingly obscure, has something to do with the history of education, so I could talk about how my research related to my teaching practice (note PRACTICE) in a fairly persuasive way. Also, buzzword from friends in the Ed Biz, if you want to sound like you are philosophically practical: reflective practitioner. Best I can tell it means you think through what you've done and do ongoing assessment and are willing to revise, reflectively.

Belle said...

Examples based on experience shaped by philosophical musings. Yeah, we'll ask for a TP - because believe it or not, there have actually be TPs that emphasize remoteness and teacher-centered classrooms. So not the thing in the current assessment-mad academia. We had one guy who got fired for being a lousy teacher (good scholar, but his students might as well have not shown up for class, as he couldn't bring himself to acknowledge their existence) who argued that abstract philosophizing about the linguistic basis of certain sounds (this in a beginning German class) was great pedagogy. His philosophy was 'teach by inspiring and lecturing' in a university that emphasized student contact and interaction.

So while you're looking at their web sites, see who their peer/benchmark schools are: that's who they want to be. Which is probably better articulated than who they are now. Think of it as another opportunity for you to show them how much they need you!

undine said...

This is all excellent advice. I'd only add this (briefly):
1. Say what you really think and can be passionate about in your teaching. You might get asked about it in an interview. (I've heard this happen.)
2. Use examples of what worked.
Good luck!

Bardiac said...

I'll agree with Undine; you've gotten GREAT advice here.

When my colleagues want a teaching statement, what I think they're looking for is a real sense that the person has meaningful classroom experience and won't be crying in the hallways (or hiding in their office instead of going to class) when faced with our load.

So the advice about specifics you do in your classes, especially in different sorts of classes, would be appealing here. We want people who can teach comp, because we all do, and who can teach lower and upper level classes. It's sort of harsh if you haven't had those opportunities, but we really need to see evidence that you can walk into a semester and make it work.

I think Dr. Crazy above said not to put time into adjusting your statement for each school, and I'd agree totally with that. The teaching philosophy may lose you the job ("I hate students!" wouldn't get you hired here.), but is unlikely to be the thing that gets you the job.

(I teach at a comprehensive regional univ, a teaching school.)

Good luck.

Sisyphus said...

Wow, this is amazing! Thanks for all the great comments! (and if other people want to add more, by all means please do!) I will get back to this ---- I think these demand another whole post to properly respond, along with a good effort towards revamping the SoTP. But first, unfortunately, I have added a couple massive deadlines that will be absorbing the rest of my week. But soon --- more SoTP madness will soon follow!

Horace said...

Late to the conversation, but one thing that I did, which got mostly very positive feedback, and strikingly negative feedback from a few corners. was to design the principles of my teaching statement around ideas that are controversial in the classroom (or as controversial as these things are). So a statement that in somewhat plain English that said that I believe the classroom is a political place and I make my political stances clear up front and often, was something that some of my advisors said was a bad idea. On the other hand, two different potential employers noted that my philosophy was more substantive than most, and so in that way it worked.

There was still a lot of smoke-blowing, though...

Dr. Brainiac said...

I had to do that for the local community college both semesters I taught. Confused by the nature of the task, I just made up some fluffy pink bullshit, tossed in some teaching buzzwords, blew the resulting smoke up their asses and they were happy. Don't overthink it. They probably sit around laughing and taking pots on which of the applicants has the brownest nose anyway. Okay, that's probably what I would do but you get the point.

Marcelle Proust said...

OK, I still have to write these things from time to time & I still hate them. But Dr Crazy & others do have excellent suggestions. Now, from the hiring committee side, I'll add to (and agree with) what Belle and Bardiac said: we want to make sure you have meaningful classroom experience, some ability to anticipate problems and to learn from experience, ability to relate to the students, ability to think about and justify your approaches. A lot of the things you said in your parodies could be un-parodized: hard-ass becomes high standards; modeling my own practice is great if you leave off the drinking; lists of exactly what you do and why are good. Specifics are good. TP is sort of like "methodology": it's not as fancy a thing as it sounds like. If your methodology is close reading, then say so, and if your TP is to be pragmatic and respond to the needs of particular classes/students, then say so. A little jargon isn't the end of the world, but if you're blowing smoke, we'll notice.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Okay, I adore the revolutionary comments, and if I were on a teaching committee, that would make me laugh and I would instantly like you as a candidate. Since I'm not (and not ever likely to be) on a search committee, though, perhaps you should take that with a grain of salt!

But I do agree with Marcelle that a lot of those parodies could be straightened out, so to speak, pretty easily, and that yes, it should show you can handle actual classes with actual students. My grad program had a grad teaching-training program (inspired partly I think by the fact that there were more grad students than teaching slots, so it was a way for people who didn't get a lot of teaching experience to be able to say something about teaching for jobs) and I know that one woman I talked to who came out of the program who hadn't yet taught herself had a variety of "philosophies" about teaching that sounded completely unworkable in a real classroom.

So my sense is that people who have decent experience in the classroom and who are decently successful teachers, are going to write perfectly acceptable TPs anyway - which is all you need to aim for!

Andrew N. Carpenter said...

My sense is that, from the search committee's perspective, these statements often serve as tools to identify academics who are disdainful towards students or dislike teaching. If so, a superb statement might help a little and a terrible one could hurt a lot, especially if the flaws connect to problems that the readers will see in other parts of the application.

From an applicant's point of view, however, I think that working hard on these statements is a good way to learn how to articulate your key values, passions, innovations, and insights as an educator. Most places that ask for statements like these will probably spend a lot of time talking about teaching when they interview candidates, and I think that folks who can share their passions, insights, innovations, etc. in clear and compelling ways have a real advantage in those job searches.

So, I think the key is to allow your labors on this statement to help prepare you for those future discussions. Reflect hard on what matters to you as an educator and describe this in a concise and incisive manner that lets your passion shine through. In an interview you will doubtless be asked for examples of how your best teaching accomplishments or of how you approach teaching challenges, and if you can develop clear examples now that will be useful.

So, I suggest that the statement not be too abstract -- it really isn't philosophical in the sense of asking you to explore the theoretical underpinnings of your own pedagogical preferences or even to "swear allegiance" to a particular style of teaching.

When I was on the market, I would always it as part of a larger teaching dossier -- if committee members become interested in you, this provides them with better information than a simple statement. I won't recommend sending people information they do not request, but there may be specific job advertisements where it is reasonable to interpret a request for a statement of teaching philosophy in that expansive way.

To provide context, these reflections are based on my experiences on the job market in philosophy 8-10 years ago and on search committees at teaching-oriented institutions after that.

medieval woman said...

Oh god - you make me laugh! :)

Bryan Frances said...

I'm an associate professor at Fordham. I have no fucking idea what a "teaching philosophy" is. I wrote a completely inane "teaching statement" when I went on the market. I doubt whether anyone read it, because I was interviewing at research-orientied depts only.

Now I know exactly what I'd write. I'm stupendously good at running a Socratic dialogue in my classes, even if there are 30 or so students in them. Other than that, I have absolutely no special skills. I have other skills, mind you, but nothing to sneeze at.

My teaching evaluations are great because I have learned to do little more than the one thing I'm really good at. I lecture as little as possible and spend almost all class time doing Socratic stuff.

Other people have other special skills, skills that set them apart from other good philosophy teachers. But I'm guessing that most of us have only one or two things we're REALLY good at.

Okay, some advice from one of those pathetic research-oriented professors:

There are lots of different goals one might have in teaching. You might want to have the student learn a lot of the history of philosophy. Or, you might want to have them become very organized, clear writers about difficult philosophical topics. These are completely different goals! Think about what goals you really have. If you don't know what your goals are, then think about your special skills: if you perform to the max with those skills, then what will the students come away with? Whatever the answer is, that's your main goal.

I know that's not much advice, but I think it may be a bit arrogant of me to give any at all. So I'll shut up now.

azoresdog said...

Can't you just tell them about the rock? You know, the ROCK?

Okay, that was counter-productive, but as I am non-academic and have nothing to add, I wanted to say hi.


the unidentified "M" said...

Great post. And much great advice. I have nothing substantive to add, but I'd like to reiterate some previous advice.

I think that the best thing one can do when approaching writing a 'philosophy of teaching' is to think about those few horrible students in the beginning of the semester who couldn't write a coherent paragraph over such incomprehensibly abstract theorizing that is philosophy and tell the story about how you got them to write not only a descent philosophical paper on the subject matter, but that in doing so they began to understand just what philosophy is all about: the arguments baby! In doing so, you will not only say that you are a great teacher, you will be able to "show" that you are by getting the students to understand arguments as they apply to "critical inquiry." (Do I smell a fallacy there? "I'm a great teacher because of the way that I teach. . .)

Nevertheless, that's my approach. It sounds just austere and pedantic enough to placate the administrative appetite for wanting to hear why you are the best without going in to too much metatheoretical showboating since you have actual examples of the progress of your students.


LumpenProf said...

I'm sure this is terrible advice, but if I were you I would be very tempted simply to provide them the link to this blog post as your statement of teaching philosophy...

k8 said...

Coming to this late, but...

ok - I'm a dork. I enjoyed writing my teaching statement. It gave me an opportunity to discuss specifically about what I do in the classroom, and gave me the opportunity to discuss other types of instruction I do. I'll email you a link to my online teaching portfolio so you can check it out if you like.