Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Statements of Teaching Philosophy

A returning correspondent writes:

I have to write a statement of teaching philosophy for a job I’m applying
for. What makes these statements useful to the reader? Is there anything I
can look for in the institution to get an understanding of that they are
looking for in such a statement?

I have a certain sympathy for this question, since I'll need to do something similar ('statement of administrative philosophy') for an interview next month.

In my experience on hiring committees, I've usually found statements of teaching philosophy more airy than useful. They're usually pretty disconnected from the ways people actually teach -- “I want my students to reach for the stars” “I don't just believe in lectures” -- and I've never noticed a correlation between well-written or interesting statements and good teaching. It may exist, but I haven't seen it.

It's a variation on the interview-questions-that-won't-die. “What's your biggest weakness?” (I'm always tempted to say something like “well, that would probably be my crippling addiction to heroin,” but some people just have no sense of humor at all.) “Where do you want to be in five years?” (“Finally off probation!”) “How would you describe yourself?” (“Sympathetically.”) “What words do people use to describe you?” (Which people? How about “devilishly handsome, with a rakish glint in his eye”? “A younger, buffer George Clooney.” “Mostly harmless.” “Carbon based, and apparently featherless.”)

The kabuki aspect of job interviews is such that they're revealing only when people screw up. (Presidential debates are much the same way.) I've been on multiple search committees for vice presidents, and in my experience there, every candidate has said something like “I'm not a micromanager.” It's just part of the script. Sometimes it's true, sometimes not, but knowledge of the script is taken as a sign of a sort of fundamental savvy. My contrarian side would like, just once, to see someone say “damn right I'm a micromanager!,” but I'm not holding my breath. And the candidate brave or stupid enough to try it wouldn't get the job, even if I appreciated the chuckle.

So we come to the statement of teaching philosophy. It needs to be earnest enough that it looks like you put thought into it, anodyne enough that it doesn't offend anybody with a pet pedagogical hobbyhorse, and well-crafted enough that it doesn't reveal something negative by mistake. My bias – and I'll admit it's just my own – is in favor of theorizing from the ground up. Ground your theoretical flights in actual anecdotes from classes you've taught. When in doubt, go specific. I also happen to like statements that show some sort of learning. “I discovered that I had to adjust x when y happened.” “The style I had developed at Snooty U had to be modified when I taught at Working Class College.” Statements like those suggest actual thought, and the ability to recognize (and adjust) when something isn't working. I like people who can learn from their failures, which presumes that they can recognize their failures as such. I instinctively distrust people who never admit mistakes.

In terms of customizing, a good place to start would be to get a clear sense of the institution's profile. Is it super-selective, or a dumb-rich-kid's school, or a former teacher's college, or an open-admissions cc? What does the teaching load look like? (If possible, get a sense not only of how many classes you'd teach, but at what level, and at what size.) Who are the students? If you write an eloquent essay about spending lots of time tutoring students one-on-one, and the job calls for teaching intro sections of 300 students a pop, you're writing yourself out of consideration. If you write about dynamic multimedia lectures and the average class size is 12, the same is true. Applying to a cc, it's good to address the issue of 'academically underprepared' students, and how you've helped them succeed. Don't bash technology, but the degree to which you embrace it should vary based on the degree to which the school seems to value it. At a SLAC, you might be able to evade it entirely. At many colleges, though, the clash between the irresistible force of new technology and the immovable object of senior faculty is resolved by valuing technical skills in new hires. Again, the more specific you can be, the better.

Different academic disciplines may also have various buzzwords at given times that you either must or mustn't mention.

Worldly, wise readers – any helpful hints?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

All good advice. I would only add, from the world of a SLAC, that it's important to stress your commitment to teaching the skills and habits of liberal education that cross disciplinary boundaries - writing, speaking, critical thinking, research, etc.. At a SLAC, if your teaching statement is too rooted in discipline-specific kinds of things, it might suggest you aren't a good fit for the broader atmosphere of the SLAC. Yes, you should talk about how you teach your discipline, but it should be embedded in the broader pedagogical goals of communication skills and critical thinking.
I wish I'd had that sort of advice when I first went on the market.

I think it's vitally important for an applicant at any level to get a sense of how the school wants to see itself (from its on-line presentation, at the least). You don't have to buy the fantasy, but at least recognize pushing in the opposite direction is going to ruffle some feathers.
If, like me, you're hearing a lot of advice, but still don't know where to start, here where two ideas that helped me:

1) As a teacher, what do I believe are my responsibilities? What are the students' responsibilities? What happens if either party is unable to initially meet those responsibilities in a given teaching situation?

2) Describe your teaching style in such a way that someone could recognize your teaching from the description. However, you cannot mention your subject area in the description. (This one stumped me for ages until I tried to describe a few of my previous profs this way.)

In the end, you have to package the statement so it helps you to get a job (see DD's advice etc). But these ideas helped me get started. #2 was especially helpful so my teaching philosophy didn't sound too generic. Good luck!
Actually, I find myself in a similar dilemma all the time, or really a double dilemma: as a journalist, I've got to worry that my cover letter, which is really the foot in the door that will get someone to read my resume and clips (old articles), has to find some sort of sweet spot between all the qualities that a journalist is supposed to have, avoid the ones we're not, hit the high points of the job description, preferably show a little knowledge of the publication and/or the editor, and finally some skill in writing, all in a page or less with no errors whatsoever--plus there can't be anything that would upset an HR-bot, because sometimes they read the things, not an editor or pubisher, who might know what a journalist is saying. Ditto the phone interview and even, at times, the initial interview.
And yes, there are sometimes "philosophy of journalism" questions that come up, and a tricky minefield that is to cross. Come down on the big-j side, and they'll be worried you'll balk at anything smacking of compromise, don't bang on the ethical drum enough and they'll worry you'll be sending your stories to sources for pre-publication review.
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I have no idea where that post of mine came from. What I had typed was this:

My favorite job interview question was asked of my brother during an interview at the newspaper that published all the news that's fit to print: "If you were a fruit, what fruit would you be, and why?" He said he'd be a kiwi.
Excellent advice, as always, but a couple additions.

That letter of teaching philosophy is also a writing sample. If it is incoherent or shows a poor mastery of communication skills in english, we might not want you in the classroom.

One key topic I did not see in DD's article is "different learning styles". That is a big deal at a CC, particularly as it impacts a diverse student body (which includes older students and veterans, not just minority groups). I will also second the reference to fostering "critical thinking". That is a big deal at our CC, and not just for new hires.

Finally, be sure you can back up your claims. Don't say it if you don't do it. Your sample teaching exercise needs to reflect the philosophy you articulated in your letter.
My statement of teaching philosophy was probably the hardest single thing that I had to write while in graduate school (save the dissertation, of course). Since I haven't served on any search committees (yet), I haven't really seen any teaching statements other than my own. In the space of about 2 pages, I merely tried to give the reader a sense of my teaching style (although I most certainly mentioned classes in my subject area...I have no idea why it would be taboo to do such a thing).

And since DD mentioned interview questions, the interview question that I hate *hate* HATE the most is "Why do you want to work here at X University?" This question serves no purpose other than to stroke the ego of X University; the person who asks it already knows the answer--because X University is hiring, and the applicant wants a job! Any other reasons that an applicant would have for applying to X University should have been made apparent before the interview.
I love the interview answers you dreamed up! Alas, it probably isn't worth it screwing up a job interview in this hiring climate, but it is tempting!

This post and the responses highlight the importance of "tailoring" the teaching philosophy to fit the school's self-presentation, which makes sense. It's just --- and since you are not the one in charge of academic application packets nationally, this is really just a rant --- that becomes harder and more overwhelming when you're applying to a clutch of schools all at once, tailoring the letter and tracking down god-knows-what-all to include in the packet as well.

Ok, that won't change anything, but it makes me feel better. :)
Absolutely absolutely ABSOLUTELY let me reinforce DD's take of "when in doubt, go specific." "Glittering generalities" [1] don't do anybody any good when seriously evaluating what kind of teacher you would be; specific anecdotes and your specific responses to circumstances do.

In general physics teaching, I ALWAYS come back to learning how to take an equation and blow-by-blow describing what each term in that equation represents, and "connecting the mathematical to the physical." [2] Being able to point to specific exchanges I've had with students and specific ways I've been able to help them understand a concept has (I believe) really helped me out in the interview processes I've been through in the past.


[1] $1 to my old college roommate.
[2] That one is all my own. If you use it, I want the royalties from it.
I would encourage applicants to use some of the language and concepts of the emerging "scholarship of teaching and learning" (SoTL). For those who are not tuned into SoTL, these references will be inoffensive. For those who are engaged with SoTL (a growing crowd), it will really make an impact. Much more than what you actually say, simply indicating your interest in SoTL conveys that you take the practice of teaching seriously and you care enough about it to work systematically to improve it.
Thanks for the input - it really helped!
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I read this post 2 times. It is very useful.

Pls try to keep posting.

Let me show other source that may be good for community.

Source: Teacher interview questions

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