(Philosophy of (Teaching) Statements) – Part 1

When Brandon and I began discussions about this blog, he mentioned the teaching statement workshop and suggested that I might contribute both my statement and some comments from the perspective of a search committee. I didn’t have a current statement, and composing a new one seemed like an interesting exercise. Before I drafted it, I looked at the workshop description and first read it as Philosophy of (Teaching Statements), analogous to philosophy of language or philosophy of the arts. Blame my long residence in a philosophy department. I quickly realized my chunking error: it’s (Philosophy of Teaching) Statements. Perhaps I can attempt both of these, in parts. First, I’ll speak as a search committee member.

I do this with some trepidation. Last year, I chaired a search, Texas State’s first national search for a tenure-track position in religious studies. Since I was tenured in 2010, I have participated in senior lecturer searches in both philosophy and one philosophy/religious studies combination. These committees have varied on when, if ever, they asked for a formal teaching statement. However, all of them expected a strong address to teaching in the cover letter, in interview questions, and in demos for campus visits. Thus my experience of the genre as a committee member. Take what I say with two caveats: first, I have no idea whether I am typical in my expectations and preferences (I suspect I’m not); and second, I have never worked in a religious studies department. That said, here are a few things to bear in mind about teaching statements.

  1. The committee members know far more than you do about what their students are like. This is specific, local knowledge gained only from experience, so each committee will have a different body of experience. They will be trying to imagine you teaching students they already know.
  2. You know yourself far better than the committee does. Whatever you write about teaching will also be self-disclosure, even in the absence of much self-reference. Consider both the overt and subtle disclosures embedded in the form. For instance, your reference to authors who inform your pedagogy also expresses your broader intellectual life, commitments, and perhaps even personality.
  3. Students vary. A lot. I don’t just mean the ordinary student at different types of institutions. I mean that one class of fifteen can have a disturbing variety of personalities, aptitudes, interests, and motives for taking a class. Examine your statement drafts for the implied student. Does your implied student assume variety, or only a certain type?
  4. Write in your own voice. It won’t be identical to your scholarly-article voice or how you talk to your grandmother, but it should sound like your distinctive mind at work. Minimize jargon and boilerplate. Don’t fling around trendy terms just to put them in. Watch out for fetish words that seem to be doing heavy lifting but are undefined. (“Rigor” can be a fetish word. You can use it if you explain what you mean by it, but don’t use it frequently without including your conception of it. I have never seen anybody say they strive to avoid rigor because it’s bad.) (Yes, I know what the dictionary says. But I don’t know what the word means to you and your teaching unless you tell me.)
  5. Look at the whole board. If you provide syllabi, the statement doesn’t have to go into massive detail about assignment types or typical course objectives. If a committee didn’t ask for syllabi, but did ask for a statement, you might work some of that detail into the statement. But the Teaching Statement is mainly for your broad commitments – how those translate into classroom practice, and how they fit into your research and whatever else you choose to present about yourself. Compose a statement that fills in and makes links, not one that repeats other information the committee has.
  6. Show independent attention to pedagogy. Committees do think about how your specialized research will translate into course development. (This was a major concern for my committee last year, since curricular development came with the job, and our position announcement said so.) However, the statement’s implied subtitle should not be “Here’s How I’ll Teach My Dissertation.” That approach indicates that authors only thinks of pedagogy in the service of getting across their highly specialized work. A stronger statement examines teaching as a worthy activity in its own right, and demonstrates respect for students (as opposed to just asserting that one cares about them.)

That’s my general advice, based on conversations with colleagues both in my department and elsewhere. I’m sure that Director Chandler and Dean Owens have wider experience than I with the generalities and quirks of teaching statements and the committees who read them, so please don’t take my thoughts as special revelation. As anxious and powerless as you may feel as a job supplicant, if you can imagine the point of view of search committee members reading piles (literally) of material, that may help you write a more distinctive and engaging statement.

In my next post, the other face of Janus.

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