It has been years since I had to write a philosophy of teaching statement. Instead, I have to write short self-assessments for our annual personnel review, and composed longer statements, which combined philosophy with self-assessment, for my tenure file in 2009 and NEH Distinguished Teaching Professorship portfolio in 2011. The audiences for these vary: internal, horizontal, up the line, external. In any case, I decided to compose one for the workshop and the two associated posts. It was difficult for me fully to imagine writing for a job application again, so I dug up an old one for comparison. None of this means that either of these are any good.
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Case 1: 2014, Hypothetical Execution of the Form.
The main purpose of universities, in my view, is to preserve, transmit, and generate knowledge. As scholars, we commit to ongoing study in our fields, and as teachers, we cultivate students as knowledge-seekers and knowledge-makers. If the class must be centered on something, it is neither students nor professor, but knowledge and its tasks. By knowledge, I do not mean something static available for apprehension from no context; I mean an active human construction, in disciplined dialectic with ourselves, others, and the world. For me, curiosity, humility, and intellectual passion govern this dialectic and motivate the construction of knowledge. The reciprocal address of one mind to another is the sine qua non of teaching.
In course design, I seek to demonstrate both the what and the why: what we currently have justification for concluding, and how we reach those conclusions. The micro-step for anyone, scholar or student, is the inference from primary sources, through method, to conclusions, however small. Thus I structure lectures in terms of primary sources, selection of questions that guide research, and the major premises and conclusions in a given piece of work. I rarely lecture for an entire session, but prefer to use only a portion of class time, and then open discussion that invites students to attempt objections or explore the implications of the main argument. To do any of these, students must begin making their own inferences, and these will in turn be probed in discussion. This analysis-of-argument approach can work across short and long assignments; across lecture, discussion, and hybrid modes of instruction; and across both student and scholarly work. In all of these cases, it demonstrates and practices knowledge-construction in action. Finally, it lends itself to formulating course objectives and structuring assignments that build toward those goals.
As counterpoint to the focus on inference, I also aim to cultivate empathy and creativity. Students tend to arrive with rather thin and abstract notions of other people, both present and past. Since religions structure human motivations and conceptions of the good, and do so differently, I seek first to construct a thick description that brackets one’s own framework, before embarking on higher-order interpretation and explanation. Thus early assignments focus on accurate and rich description from primary sources, while later ones introduce analytical questions. Personal interviews and participant-observer assignments are useful with this aspect of pedagogy. Further, in some of my advanced classes, students have the option of a creative project in which they produce a work of art in dialogue with the course texts, and then write a short analytical paper discussing their process. While this is appealing for students in the arts, it invites all students to understand a major mode of cultural production by doing it, and then treating their own work as a primary source for secondary inquiry. Beyond those overt objectives, such assignments offer students a chance to find their own distinctive connection to the material, an exercise in self-awareness without which our knowledge is hobbled.
I became a scholar out of my own strong desire for lifelong learning. By modeling intellectual passion and rigor, I hope to spark intellectual curiosity in students. My philosophy of education is grounded in that self-understanding and informed by classical and critical pedagogies. From Plato, Tolstoy, and Russell, I have derived the idea that the teacher’s own drive to learn more can be “caught” by students (Tolstoy’s theory of art as contagion), that teacher and student jointly seek a knowledge beyond themselves (Plato, Phaedrus), and that knowledge requires the extension of Self toward the Non-Self (Russell). From Peter Berger, Paolo Freire, and bell hooks, I have learned how much our socialization runs unconsciously, and how pedagogy must call for the student’s own active knowledge construction (Freire), with awareness of and a critical stance toward our own starting points, as well as a healthy suspicion of universalizing essentialism (hooks). These may seem like strange philosophical bedfellows who would disagree with each other on much. I would summarize my composite with a few statements that I use in all of my classes: no knowledge apart from the body (at least not for us); no thoughts without a thinker, and that thinker is somewhere and somewhen; and, our image of ourselves is not the purpose of, or the most interesting thing in, the cosmos. That last item is consciously counter-culture, but pedagogy needs to work both with and against the grain. Education that works only with the grain entrenches power and fails at knowledge; education that works only against it dismisses the past and undermines its own ability to build. The right balance is the difficult and necessary path.
I have no idea if that is what search committees would want to hear, were I sending it to any. I don’t know if it’s any good. I do know this: it’s an accurate, brief statement of the why and how of my teaching. Yes, I really do believe that knowledge is possible (and difficult), and that it should be the main project of higher education. Maybe that’s retro, maybe it’s idealistic, but it’s me.
You may notice what’s not in this statement. It has virtually no buzzwords – no student learning objectives, no assessments, no digital anything, no edu-prefixes, no “content” “delivery,” and (Athena help me) nothing “student-centered.” I find these terms either vacuous or laden with philosophical freight that I don’t want. (More on buzzwords in another post). There are places where I try to tip the reader off to my awareness of the current edu-speak scene, but these may be too subtle. (Knowledge-centered is a counter to “student-centered.”) Yes, I’m running the risk of appearing out of it. But my other choices would be to present a false self or to compose a polemic against a tribe of terms. Either of those would be worse. My choice to avoid these terms would fall under the subtle self-disclosure that I mentioned in Part 1: I communicate something about myself by this choice.
Further, I don’t emote about caring for students. In other people’s statements, I have never found that informative. In my case, it would be a false presentation. That doesn’t mean I don’t care. I care a great deal for their intellectual development, a kind of attention some of them seem never to have experienced before. Also, I try to treat all people with the basic human decency to which everyone is entitled. All this means is that I don’t use the concept “caring for students,” or its opposite, for pedagogical navigation. I suppose my kind of caring is too specific for me to feel it for a whole category of people, especially before I meet them. Colleagues and teaching evaluations have consistently said that I don’t come across as the warm fuzzies, so there’s no point in trying to appear that way. But this is me. If “caring for students” means something you can explain and really undergirds your philosophy of teaching, then by all means, write about it.
Last bit of self-knowledge. Some people go into teaching, even at the university level, precisely because they want to help others or have influence over them. (LBJ was one of these; he wanted to be a teacher, a preacher, or a politician.) I am not of this sort. That does not mean that I dislike helping others, only that it isn’t the reason why I’m in this line of work. I am motivated by an intellectual curiosity that has driven me since youth. That has to be the basis of my teaching, because it’s the only real one – for me. Discern your own motives for becoming an academic. If you have teaching experience, examine your default moves that tend to emerge quickly in the classroom. Your teaching statement shouldn’t be about why just anybody should teach. Make it about why you teach.
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Case 2: 2000, Old and So Unfortunately Real
My educational philosophy grows out of my own experiences as a student. When I was a young teenager, I read voraciously in literature, philosophy, science, and psychology. For the most part, I was pulling books off of library and bookstore shelves with little or no guidance in what to read or how to read it. In this manner, I discovered many of the authors of the world canon before I knew what the canon was: Shakespeare, Joyce, Lao Tzu, Nietzsche, Dickinson, Emerson, and many others. These authors spoke to my intellectual passions and spurred me on to more reading. At the same time, I was bored in school. I did my work quickly and easily and was an A student, but my formal schooling felt bereft of passion and real challenge. Once or twice, I found a teacher who would talk to me outside of classes about the books I was reading on my own. When I remember high school and college, I think of these conversations and that reading as my real education.
For a long time, I thought I was simply a freak. Now that I am teaching, I have asked my own students two questions: when were they really curious and passionate about something and wanted to learn it, and what was school like? I have discovered that the disconnection in my own education is the norm for many curious and bright people: we feel the desire to learn, but this feeling happens most frequently outside of the classroom and formal school seems to stifle rather than encourage this process. In my own teaching, I make an effort to find students’ genuine interests and develop the course on that basis. I notice that non-traditional students are often more aware of this situation than their younger counterparts, and more willing to take initiative in bringing together their own curiosity with the formal setting of a classroom.
As an example of how I do this, I’ll describe the main project I am using in my current course in Comparative Religions. The class surveys seven major traditions in about two weeks each – not enough time for a great depth of treatment. Most students come to the class with both a general interest in religion and a desire to learn more about one tradition in particular. The main project for this class is a semester-long study of one tradition of the student’s choice. My only stipulation is that students choose a tradition other than their own, since part of the purpose of the course is to learn about other people. I give them considerable latitude in resources (books, videos, interviews, participant observation, visual arts, music), and I require a journal of their explorations, a final paper on some aspect of the tradition they have studied, and an oral presentation to the rest of the class. I also allow collaboration among students who are working on the same tradition. This project mirrors my own process as a scholar: I first became aware of other religions in my childhood when I made friends from traditions other than my own, and those experiences sparked a curiosity that could drive a great deal of formal academic work. In short, I try to connect the natural curiosity we all feel in our lives with the academic discipline of the classroom.
I mentioned above that my initial discoveries included canonical authors. This fact of my own history influences my approach to the current debate about what to teach in a core curriculum. I am convinced that great works are such because they speak to perennial human concerns and possibilities. This conviction rests on my own experience of engagement with these books. As I said, nobody made me read these books, so I was not doing this because someone else told me it was good for me. By the same token, I have found this same deep appeal and serious engagement with the human situation in the literatures of non-western peoples and in the contemporary world. In short, I do not see the so-called culture wars as an either/or proposition. I hope that we are growing towards a global canon, one that includes the western canon but is more inclusive of other traditions.
Finally, I became a scholar because I wanted to go on learning. Once the formal schooling is over, it is crucial to maintain a fresh approach, to live one’s own life from the desire to go on learning more, rather than resting on laurels or on a sense of security in a “field.” My own interests do not fit very easily into conventional field definitions, and it is a conscious choice not to conform to these. I believe that my studies in ancient western tradition form a cogent whole, and yet they do not fit the academy’s somewhat arbitrary way of dividing up subjects. Students do not come ready-made for a field either, and I sense that my students find this ongoing enthusiasm more engaging than the sociology of academics.
Why did I decide to engage in this process of public self-embarrassment? Oh, yeah: in case somebody else might learn something.
When I wrote this, I was only one year into my teaching career. The thing that howls out at me now, which few others would even notice, is the lack of reference to my late-deafness. Everything in the classroom was about trying to work with, against, or around that. The omission wasn’t about disclosure either, since I had started mentioning it in my cover letters. I don’t recall thinking about whether to discuss late-deafness in teaching statements; it’s unlikely the thought crossed my mind, so I did not have a reason to omit it. My best guess now is that, although this was a constant frustration, I had not yet become aware of how deeply it formed me as a teacher. I taught for two and half years without being able to hear my students. ‘N other story.
Even with that strange omission, this one is too personal. I wrote it before I un-learned the assumption that I was similar to others in how I approach learning. The implied student is far too specific, thus violating item 3 of my 2014-self’s advice. It’s natural enough to take our own education as a starting point for reflection, but we can’t stop there. Know thyself, but don’t put all of thy knowledge into the statement.
My opening paragraph is intended to comment, obliquely, on the culture wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and this connection becomes explicit later on. This is a blunder: the combination of front-loading with obliqueness is not a strong move, rhetorically. Further, as Russell Jacoby pointed out (and I had already read him, so had no excuse), the culture wars were mainly about what kids at elite schools would read. They had little impact in other parts of the higher ed ecosystem. So this reference says something about where I have been, and have not been.
The presentation of my cross-disciplinarity seems defensive to me, as if I have to justify it. I did – I was once asked in an interview “are you a biblical scholar?” – as if fitting into the pre-cut holes was the main thing. Maybe it is. Nevertheless, I should not have assumed that rhetoric for a teaching statement. This aspect of my work could have been presented more positively, as ability to develop a variety of courses, and what sort of institutions that would suit.
For what it’s worth, this one is me too: very much in my head, disdainful of academic socialization, with an aversion to fluffing anything up for appearance’s sake. Not one’s best foot to put forward.
Finally, the common threads between past and present strike me: intellectual passion; personal experience of enthusiasm on specific intellectual encounters; an attempt to find that place in my students, knowing it might take unconventional or unexpected forms; and, although I did not use these words, an incipient sense of student agency and the need to tap into it.
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Whatever you write now – and best wishes on better early attempts than I managed – keep it and put it on ice for about fifteen years. Then try this comparative exercise, for fun, embarrassment, and maybe a little enlightenment.