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.