Thursday, October 3, 2013

Talking (to a Search Committe) about Teaching

When I was a wee slip of a jumped-up grad student, [1] I was fortunate enough to have faculty who were invested in doing mock job market activities. We workshopped CVs and cover letters, had mock interviews (complete with appropriate attire) and job talks, the whole nine yards. It was a very popular series, and saved more than one of us from more than one disaster.

Around that time was just when the "statement of teaching philosophy" was just coming into vogue as a part of the job search package. Suddenly, every search committee wanted one. Problem was, since it was so new, no one could figure out what it was -- not even search committees who asked for it, I suspect. But one of the faculty mentors in our job search series made a comment on one draft statement that has stuck with me. Reading how this faux applicant talked about his emphasis on primary sources and class discussion, the faculty member said, "This is a good teaching methodology, but it's not a teaching philosophy."

So, what's the difference?

Now, before I jump into that let's get two things out of the way. The first is that everything I say from here on out is in the way of general advice. But if your job ad or search committee's instructions say that your teaching philosophy should feature a discussion of A & C, then fertheluvagod, ignore my advice and write about A and C. And thank your lucky stars that you are working with a search committee that is clearly communicating what it wants to see. This is the kind of department you want to work for. Don't screw it up by ignoring their instructions and sending them something generic just because some random blogger told you that this was what a teaching philosophy should look like. Got it?

Second, you'll hear a lot from certain quarters how the teaching philosophy is a BS exercise, that most committees  ask for it as a sort of fishing expedition with no clear understanding of what they want to see, and that everything that everyone says is all exactly the same... basically, comments that might encourage you not to take this seriously. Mama Notorious is here to tell you no. Okay, in some cases, some of this might be quite true. But in jobs where teaching is a significant part of the mission, your ability (or not) to talk about your approach to teaching shows the search committee that you have thought deeply about how to be effective in the classroom, and that you have a sort of a vision that goes beyond the syllabus and "I assign lots of primary sources." So if your search committee asks for one, take it seriously. Spend some time on it, just as you would spend on a cover letter.

Okay, with those two caveats in mind, as well as the usual YMMV, I'll talk about my approach to teaching philosophies, and I hope that people who have served on search committees that have asked for these will also jump in on the comments and add their perspectives.

Keep it brief: Just like you wouldn't go on and on in your cover letter, you want your teaching philosophy to be no more than 1-2 single-spaced pages (again, this is assuming that your committee hasn't given you specific page limits).

Remember that teaching methodology isn't the same as teaching philosophy: What you do in class is important, but why you do what you do is really what the "philosophy" part of it is.

Philosophical points can be abstract, so back them up with a concrete example: This is where you can -- and likely should -- weave in a bit of methodology. So you have a principle that guides your teaching or course design or whatever. Then you give an example from a course you have designed or taught to nail it down.

Beware the Scylla and Charybdis of edu-jargon and treacle: Too much Bloom's Taxonomy is going to cause lots of eye-rolls among faculty members who have sat through far too many meetings where far too many folks have tried to force-feed them the latest technological innovation or educational model that will save us all, at least until 18 months from now when the next one comes along. Likewise, sounding like you've watched Dead Poets' Society too many times may cause them to lose their lunch. A knowledge of new directions in the field is good (even essential if you get an on-campus interview and find yourself across from a provost who wants to know how you scaffold your courses or what your take on the flipped classroom is). So is idealism -- in fact, if you are an ABD or a freshly-minted Ph.D. and you're not a bit more idealistic than the people interviewing you, there'd probably be something wrong there. But don't overdo either one. Too much in either case and you risk coming across as someone who is saying things that someone told them Good Teachers believe. Be enthusiastic, be engaged, but above all, do not pull out your trowel and start laying on the bullshit. Be true.

Avoid pretentious references like "Scylla and Charybdis." 'Nuff said.

A teaching philosophy should not read like a course catalog, replete with a list of every course and every topic within each course. On the other hand, it should, along the way, give an idea of the range of courses you could teach. In this, you will want to slightly tailor each one to the school you are applying for. If the job is going to call for you to be a generalist, then you will want to emphasize the breadth of courses you can teach. If the job description says that, in addition to courses in your field you will be responsible for teaching the Early U.S. History survey, then your statement ought to address your approach to intro-level survey courses. Just like in your cover letters, you'll probably be working from a general template or two, but then make sure that each one is targeted towards the job you're applying for. And again, don't get all list-y. Remember that the approach/philosophy is the main point; weave in mentions of your courses as you deliver that main message.

Sound like a lot of work for a document that hardly anyone asked for 15 years ago? It is. So here's my last bit of advice: Just like the cover letter, the teaching philosophy is a work of writing and a presentation of who you are as a teacher and what you would bring to their department; give it as much attention as you would that cover letter. Revise it, show it to people, revise it again, have a beginning, middle and end to it, polish the prose. And make it honest.

Thus endeth my take on this. Now, for those of you out there who have sat on search committees and read more than your share of these documents, what would you advise?

[1] And I was always a jumped-up grad student whose reach was always, if not exceeding my grasp, then certainly preceding my grasp by about 18 months. I'm sure the faculty of my graduate institution could only roll their eyes and shake their heads at times.


Susan said...

I've been on searches where *everyone* talks about dialogue and interactive. It definitely gets the eye-roll. What I want to know is why you teach your field -- what you want your students to "get" -- and how that connects to how you get there.

I also want to get a sense that you will respect our students. While they lack the social advantages and knowledge of the world assumed by wealthier students, they will work, and they are smart. (Seriously, I was on a search where an obviously brilliant candidate from a very fancy program wrote with contempt about her students.).

Contingent Cassandra said...

Caveat: I've only written teaching philosophies for renewal/promotion/rehiring activities, not for an actual outside search (haven't done an extensive outside search in a decade).

I read somewhere (I think on a blog) the advice to write what you really believe about teaching (including what you'd never tell a search committee -- see sounding at least a bit idealistic), and then tone it down as necessary to sound professional/acceptable (in whatever direction is necessary; I suspect this would work if you were overly idealistic and enthusiastic as well as if you were getting a bit tired and cynical). I think the underlying purpose is to produce an authentic voice. It strikes me as an approach worth trying, and modified version (I thought about what I really think) served me reasonably well the last time I needed to produce one of these documents (of course one needs to be very careful about storing and sharing the unedited version).

Bardiac said...

This is really excellent advice!

I hate reading teaching philosophies, because they so often sound like methodologies, perhaps, though before you said it, I couldn't have put my finger on it quite that way.

And yes to avoiding too much jargon. And to avoiding sounding like you disrespect students who aren't "you" (where "you" is a privileged grad student who lived for the library).

Anonymous said...

I got lots of praise for my statement of teaching philosophy from SLACs, many years ago. I focused on teaching students to "think like an economist." They seemed to like that.

I'm at an R1 now, so I haven't been on the other side. (And I've only been on search committees for more senior hiring, so mainly just read cvs and research articles!)

clio's disciple said...

I actually prefer some methodological content. Pure teaching "philosophy" often sounds too abstract to me. I want to see that an applicant has thought about teaching and has some realistic sense of what to do in the classroom. I'm at a very teaching-focused school, and this documents is frankly more important to me than a dissertation abstract.

clio's disciple said...

Argh. "this document", not "this documents".

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Cd, I agree that these abstract ideals (e. g. "Teach them to think like a historian") DEFINITELY need to be nailed down with an example or two each. I'm advocating for a semi-sophisticated weaving-together of the two.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

And CD makes another point that helps me underline what I said above: depending on the school, how you approach teaching can be more important to the committee than what you write your dissertation on. So take it seriously.

clio's disciple said...

Yep, I agree that all your advice is really sound.

Again, it can be worth tailoring this statement. If you're applying for a community college job, say something about how you reach less-prepared or struggling students. At a liberal arts college, you'll often be reaching out to non-majors, and (we hope) attracting people to the major. A quick perusal of the college's website can give you a sense of their priorities, mission, and general atmosphere.

squadrato said...

Another voice of praise: these are great guidelines!

I think one of the things I look for in such a statement, when I am on search committees, is a sense that the applicant has thought about teaching as fostering critical skills, as opposed to just facts and content. In my view, a good SoTP should show that the individual has reflected about teaching students how to read a text closely; detect patterns, inconsistencies or other meaningful details; and analyze those meanings in to an evidence-based argument. I used to use a line from a Jonathan Smith essay, about teaching students "how to turn narratives into problems." These critical skills are more important, in my view, than teaching a particular historical epoch, chiefly because critical engagement is transferrable to many aspects of life.

On the other hand, the applicant who writes that students ought to know a particular course content in order to truly understand themselves or the contemporary world is hitting themes that I find pretty banal.

Flavia said...

This is really great. I confess to always having hated the SoTP, which struck me as fluffy BS. I have no idea how successful my own were; since we don't request them for our own searches, I've seen very few, encountering them only in the course of reviewing colleagues' materials for T&P--and even then I pay much more attention to the materials in their teaching portfolios and observation reports.

Actually, if I were to write a new one now, I think I'd take the observation reports I write for colleagues as a model, building outward from practical details (she did X, Y, and Z, with these results) to the larger values and talents those strategies seem to embody. So though a SoTP shouldn't be a methodology, it may be helpful for candidates to start by thinking concretely about what they do in the classroom, and why--and then extrapolate.

That, anyway, seems a way to avoid too much fluff, piety, or sentimentality.

Belle said...

Thank you all for your good advice! We are going through a search right now, and the BS quotient is outrageous. There's lots of "I assign this and that" and absolutely nothing on why they teach, or anything approaching what Notorious (and others here) has said.

While that's fine for the Dinosaurs that've been in the department for 30+ years, it is NOT for those who've been on/in the job market since then. As Susan says - "why you TEACH your field" is really important to us. We're a SLAC, with major emphasis on teaching, and most of what we do is for the non-majors. Applicants are going to be the Lone Ranger in their field, for the most part - we need them to both fit into the department culture AND to be solid and serious teachers. That means knowing yourself, and why you do what you do AS TEACHERS.

Susan said...

I would just add to all these great comments is, Don't assume that because we're an R-1 we don't care about teaching. We care about our students and what they learn. So while research is vital, teaching is not a side issue.