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?