07 April 2011

Teaching philosophies

I wasn't going to do this one; I don't even like memes that much. But when my comment got to two paragraphs, I decided I'd better move it over here.

First, remember that the teaching philosophy statement isn't just something you have to put in your job applications. You'll also need one for your tenure file, and if your school does comprehensive third-year reviews, for that file. At least that one can be tailored to a school and colleagues you actually know, and even someone who had little or no teaching experience when going on the market will, by tenure time, have lots of experience and specifics to put in. You meet the students where they are? You'll probably have a great narrative about how your figured out (the hard way) where they actually are, and how you re-shaped your expectations to get them from there to somewhere closer to where you want them to be. Student-centered teaching? You can talk about the actual activities you've used successfully. Teaching courses that actually require a lot of lecture and content-based knowledge? That's cool, too, especially if you can discuss how you make your lectures dynamic and sensitive to students' questions and relate them to real-life learning situations.

The main role of the teaching statement, as I know it (and this is my opinion and belongs to me; in no way should I be taken as speaking for my or any other institution), is to check that the writer is not (a) crazy or (b) completely out to lunch about what good teaching requires (I mean, crazy). Are you aware of your audience and the place where you actually teach (or want to teach)? Do you sound like you actually care about teaching and students? If the answer to both is "yes," it doesn't matter very much if your statement is a bit wooden, or whether or not you hit the appropriate buzzwords for this year.

I've never read a brilliant statement of teaching philosophy, but I have read statements that made me think, "oooh, very bad fit" or "dude, look, we're not Haahvaahd" or "we can't afford that kind of technology and no, actually, lots of our students are not so technologically savvy as you're assuming" or "you know, many of our students are not single white 18-22 year-olds from relatively affluent families, so what are you going to do about the returning students, the veterans, and the single parents?" This sort of failure to consider your audience is a red flag, but doesn't automatically rule you out of consideration for a job if you still sound like you enjoy teaching and are flexible enough to roll with the classroom punches once they start landing. But if your third-year statement prompts such responses, you may have trouble. Once you're in a job, you have to find a way to work with what you've got.

Now we all snark from time to time. Students are people. Professors are people. Sometimes people are annoying, or clueless, or unprepared. It happens. If you annoy your students, or if you find them clueless, these are things that can be addressed in a statement of teaching philosophy: how did you find out that you were annoying, and how did you fix your [assignments] [grading] [voice] [sarcasm] [expensive texts] (pick one)? What measures did you put in place to ensure that students will prepare for your course? You can get around bad teaching evaluations by showing what you've done to address the complaints.

But you have to address them. You have to show that you care about doing a good job, and that you want to improve. That's the main thing your audience is looking for. You don't have to be perfect. But don't sound like you look down on your students, or on teaching.

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