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Views of the Classroom

Views of the Classroom
October 28, 2009

I surprised students this week by announcing I had assigned myself a B- midterm grade. In response to their quizzical looks, I reassured them I had another seven weeks to pull my grade up to an A (well maybe an A-). I dodged a C by getting the midterms back pronto, but I had to admit that I haven’t returned their papers as quickly as I should have. Ideally, their work would benefit from advice I scribble in marginal comments. Even worse, I’ve been more scattered than I like to be because I simply agreed to do too many things this fall. All of us and our collective performance have suffered lasting effects of the swine flu, which has begun to feel like herd flu, but that’s a lame pig ate my homework excuse. I’m assessing you in relation to the goals for the course mapped out in the syllabus, I explained. And I'm assessing me in relation to my teaching philosophy.

Yes, as a matter of fact, I do have a teaching philosophy, and so should you if you’re on the job market.

In addition to the letter of application, the CV, and a "dissertation abstract," many search committees now request a succinct account of your goals as a teacher and how you go about accomplishing them.

For an excellent discussion of what is meant by the phrase “teaching philosophy,” along with models from a range of disciplines, visit the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching.

After surveying a number of department chairs and reviewing countless examples, authors Chris O’Neal, Deborah Meizlish, and Matthew Kaplan found that the best teaching statements offer clear learning objectives, which detail what you hope students will learn in your class and why. These ambitions are balanced by "evidence of practice." In contrast with the formality of the dissertation abstract, the authors voice a strong preference for an accessible, conversational narrative.

Intriguingly, the authors found that chairs prefer personal examples and anecdotes, couched in a short, reflective, self-aware account of what you have taught or hope to in the future. Statements should offer clear evidence of a teacher’s interest in how diverse students learn. Simply listing the texts or concepts you plan to teach is uninformative and unconvincing. As the examples on the Web site illustrate, some applicants write in an almost intimate tone and describe very particular strategies and assignments. Other writers (you’ll note a predictable humanities/social science split) assume a crisper professional air, but they still offer visceral, persuasive vignettes that show as well as tell what happens in a classroom and what approaches work best with one type of student or another.

The teaching statement should also be the love story of an intellectual life. Some undertow in this profession often sucks pleasure and passion out of our descriptions of teaching. While you don’t want to be the Barbara Cortland of academe, if you don’t find joy in teaching, this might not be the career for you. Search committees want to know not only what and how you teach your subject, but that you genuinely value helping students learn.

The toughest part of this assignment is avoiding clichés. As George Bush famously moaned, it's hard. Try talking about sweetness and light in any configuration of imagery and you’ll still sound like a Matthew Arnold mash-up. That would curl even a Victorianist’s toes.

One of my most thoughtful and astute students found a fine way to overcome this problem. I don’t want to steal her thunder, but she had worked as a professional writer before coming to graduate school. She framed her teaching statement by describing how habits she learned — writing for deadlines, conducting research, and collaborating with colleagues — shaped her teaching. She persuasively demonstrated the ways she used that training to guide students through the process of becoming questioning readers, attentive listeners and analysts, and successful writers, who understand the stages of the writing and revising process. I learned a great deal from the way she juxtaposed materials and to what end; I marveled at several inventive gambits to motivate class discussion and at a provocative writing assignment. The tone was lively and conversational. (And with a nod to an earlier column, I can assure you that “utilize” was nowhere in sight.) The short two-page “philosophy” was an autobiographical yet authoritative narrative of a teacher-in-progress. After reading it, I felt I’d just had an inspiring conversation with a colleague. Her teaching statement returned me to my own pedagogical drawing board to align an upcoming assignment more precisely with the objectives of that course.

Looking in the mirror of another classroom is one of the best ways to discover why you do what you do in your own classes. I learned this lesson when I first began visiting junior colleagues' classrooms as part of routine department reviews. As I found myself thinking oh dear or oh wow (often thinking both during the same course), I sheepishly realized that I was reacting as much to my internal analysis of the way I teach as I was to what my colleague was doing right in front of me. I have benefited enormously from watching others lead a class, especially here at Iowa, where people take their teaching very seriously. One way to plunge into a draft of the teaching statement would be to observe a few friends teach (inviting them to visit your classes in return). Ask an award-winning teacher if you can sit in for a class or two. Jot notes reflecting on the ways your approach compares with theirs. As you see what motivates others’ pedagogical choices, your own method and assumptions will come into focus.

This exercise will be harder if you haven’t had an opportunity to teach yet. Still, studying the models on the University of Michigan site and observing several faculty members teach and then discussing their goals and practices should provide you with rich, if hypothetical, subject matter. You might also try to translate what you observed as a student about the learning process into what you hope to accomplish as a teacher. That would be an honest way to address the gap between plans and practice.

Don’t forget the real experts. If you work with undergraduates, ask them which classes they have found especially memorable. What worked? What didn’t? What assignments led to new insights that stayed with them after the class ended? What can you learn about best teaching practices from these front line informants?

Finally, just as it is wise to tailor application letters to different kinds of institutions, you should signal your attentiveness to the distinctive missions of a community college, liberal arts college, religiously affiliated campus, metropolitan university, research intensive university, and so on. All types of schools will be interested in the ways your research informs your teaching, but search committees need to be convinced that you and your aspirations are a good "fit" with theirs. (The word "fit" comes up frequently in search committee deliberations.)

Committee members at a research university want to know how you plan to interest even undergraduates in the latest debates and discoveries in your discipline. Smaller liberal arts committees, in particular, will need to be convinced that you see the undergraduate classroom as a key site for the creation of your knowledge as well as your students’ learning. If your scholarship includes contributions to the growing field now called "the scholarship of teaching and learning" (or SoTL), tuck in those details. Liberal arts colleges and metropolitan universities are the trailblazers in community-based teaching and research. If you have taught a service-learning course, give that experience special weight if the website of a department indicates a commitment to publicly engaged scholarship and teaching.

Remember the value of your life experiences too. If you are a first generation college student, you have special insight into the challenges facing many students in community colleges and urban universities. If you attended a liberal arts college, that committee will be reassured that you understand and appreciate the high expectations for interaction with students outside the classroom. (I still mull over the question I encountered at several small colleges, where administrators asked not “Is this the kind of job you would enjoy?” but “Is this the kind of lifestyle you would enjoy?”) In other words, read the mission statement of each institution as well as departmental Web pages to assess which experiences will suggest a snug fit between the career you want and the values a college holds dear.

Reflecting on your teaching can lead to far more than an expedient document. You might be surprised to find that rather than inventing your teaching philosophy, you’re uncovering it. You are also training for your future in more ways than one. These days, most departmental reviews require an account of oneself as a teacher as well as a scholar. A vibrant statement offers you as well as your readers a portrait of your principles, your practices, and your pleasure in the classroom.

But now it’s time for me to hit the books (and those languishing essays). Like several of my students, I've got a grade to pull up by the bootstraps.

 

 

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