Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Week 8: The Teaching Portfolio, Part 2

This week in the GTC, we followed-up on our discussion on teaching portfolios from earlier in the quarter by focusing on the teaching philosophy statement.

Having earlier established what a teaching philosophy is, we spent today’s discussion on the most common mistakes writers make when crafting their statements and how to avoid them. We conducted a quick brainstorming session to identify what we thought might be some common points, supplementing our ideas with pitfalls described in the blunt-but-effective article from Karen Kelsky (author of renowned academic advice blog The Professor Is In) entitled The Dreaded Teaching Statement: Eight Pitfalls. The items on our list included:

  • Too long (or too short): while disciplinary norms vary, 1-2 pages is the most appropriate. As Dr. Karen argues, “everything you actually NEED to say in a teaching statement can be easily said in one page.” Remember, you do not need to cover every single detail of your teaching career in this statement – that’s what a teaching portfolio is for. Rather, you want to be as succinct as possible, while still leaving the reader wanting to know more – a desire which could only be fulfilled by advancing your application to the next round.

  • Tells instead of shows: a teaching philosophy should be less of a story about teaching and more a statement of principles about teaching. This does not mean avoiding the larger picture; indeed, a common trait of effective teaching statements involves opening the essay with a clear statement on how university education serves some sort of larger purpose beyond the classroom itself. With this argument in mind, the remainder of the statement then deals with the multitude of ways that your teaching contributes to the realization of this goal. In other words: start broad, and end specific. According to Dr. Kelsky, “the statement has to articulate a wide general good that can be achieved through university pedagogy at its broadest level. Then the writer demonstrates, in concrete and specific terms, how this good is manifested in specific teaching strategies, with examples. Then evidence is provided to show it was done effectively. Then there is a conclusion.”

  • Over-exaggerates enthusiasm, skills, or effectiveness: nobody is perfect, and rare is the class where every single student expresses glowing joy over their experiences in your classroom. While it is of course important to demonstrate your prowess as an instructor, moving too far in that direction can make it seem as though you feel you have nothing left to improve. Finding a way to balance candor and positivity in your statement is thus one of the most challenging but important processes to manage. One method of addressing this is to use a discussion of “future teaching interests” in order to transition from a section on teaching effectiveness to the conclusion. Something along the lines of, “I feel that XXX university, with its strong commitment to pedagogical excellence and intellectually-curious student body, can provide me with the perfect environment to explore current and new teaching interests. These include experiences with upper-division undergraduate seminars, the chance to work closely with international students, and…”

  • Uses words/concepts without understanding what they mean: buzzwords, when used sparingly, can be very helpful in terms of signaling committee readers that you are aware of current best practices in university instruction. However, a statement jammed full of references to current teaching fashions can seem insincere or disingenuous to readers, especially those who may not ascribe to those practices. On top of that, a professor who is unaware of such terms may feel slightly mystified by what it all means – which is not a headspace you want to encourage in your readers. It would also, of course, be extremely embarrassing if, upon being asked about a practice or approach during a follow-up interview, you were unable to confidently describe what the technique is or when you actually used it.

  • Over-emotional, over-general, hyperbolic, too personal: Dr. Kelskey is particularly adamant about this point, saying that an over-emotional tone can be especially damaging to women (though the general concept applies to all). As she notes:

“Teaching at the tenure track level is not about being nice. It is about being a professional….
Those who are competitive in the tenure track market…. articulate a teaching persona that is completely consistent with their researcher persona: serious, intellectually hard-hitting, disciplinarily cutting edge, demanding, and with high standards and expectations.”

The other major danger to overly personalized rhetoric is that, in many cases, such talk does very little to separate your statement from the other candidates’. A statement like, “I have had a passion for teaching for most of my life; it is by far the most rewarding part of being an academic, and I love the opportunity to connect so deeply with my students” might seem sincere, but it’s one that could theoretically open every single teaching statement in a reader’s pile. So in this case, the best way to communicate your enthusiasm for teaching is through your actions: the multitudinous ways you’ve tried to improve your teaching methods, the extra opportunities you’ve taken to gain teaching experience, and the overwhelmingly positive feedback you’ve gotten from students as a result. Again: show, don’t tell.

  • Excessively critical of other teaching approaches: remember, your rant about the evils of lecturing might not be received so well by a senior faculty member who has found lecturing perfectly acceptable for three decades or more. Try and learn as much as you can about your audience, and if you do feel the need to offer critiques, do so in as respectful a manner as possible.

While there are, of course, many other possible critiques we could offer, these form a good base from which to approach your own teaching statement. In the end, what works best for every person and every job posting will be quite unique, so any and all “standard” advice should always be absorbed with that in mind. In the meantime, additional resources (including statements from successful job applications!) are provided below. Good luck, and good writing!

Link to Cornell University collection of resources on Teaching Statements: http://gradschool.cornell.edu/career-services/teaching-philosophy-statement

Link to The Professor Is In blog: http://theprofessorisin.com/

General resource guide for teaching, research, and academic success (access the site using UC Davis’s institutional membership): http://www.facultydiversity.org/?GraduateStudents

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