Now that we have discussed cover letters (and for earlier parts of this series, see here), I would like to move onto teaching statements. In my experience, this is one of the most difficult documents of all to get right. The advice I will offer--which I gained from a job-market consultant--may sound really simple. However, according to the consultant I used, almost no one follows it. As with other job-market materials, the big thing I learned from my work with the consultant is that we job-candidates systematically misunderstand what search committees are looking for. Allow me to explain.
According to the consultant I used, just about everyone writes teaching statements that (A) "talk themselves up" as teachers, and (B) in very broad terms. Basically, the average teaching statement goes on about how the candidate loves teaching, cares deeply about their students, utilizes creative in-class activities, and so on. Candidates aim, in other words, to display their passion for teaching. In one sense, this might seem like obviously the right way to write a teaching statement. If you're applying for a job at a teaching school, you want the committee members to know that you truly care about teaching--and so you figure that you need to make this really, really clear and explicit (otherwise, you worry, they'll fail to appreciate just how passionate you really are!).
As intuitive as this approach to writing a teaching statement may seem, I have come to believe--in part due to talking to my consultant and in part due to the results I had on the job-market afterwards--that this is absolutely the wrong way to write a good teaching statement. And for one very simple reason: a statement that goes on in broad terms about how passionate you are, or how you use creative in-class assignments, does nothing to distinguish you from the 400+ other candidates applying for the same position. Literally all of their teaching statements will say exactly what your said. Can you imagine what it would be like to read through 400+ teaching statements saying more or less the same thing? I can tell you, in no uncertain terms, that if I were a search committee member, this would positively irritate me. It would be frustrating seeing person after person say the same thing, with little to help me distinguish one person from another. What would stand out are teaching statements that don't do that--a teaching statement that gives the search-committee member a clear view of what distinguishes you from other candidates. And so the question is: how do you do that?
I can summarize everything important I learned from my consultant about teaching consultant in two sentences:
- Cut out all emotionalizing/emphasizing.
- Instead, display your passion for teaching through merely describing, in as precise detail as possible, exactly what you do as a teacher.
Allow me to expand on both points. There is a common saying in theater and movies, "Show, don't tell." Good movie scripts (e.g. Star Wars-Episode IV: A New Hope, the first Matrix movie) have their plot unfold on screen, with little or no background exposition. Bad movie scripts (e.g. The Star Wars Prequels, the second and third Matrix movies) have their characters talk about the plot. The former is interesting and engaging, the latter ponderous and disengaging.
By a similar token, telling a search committee member that you are super-passionate about teaching gives almost no unique information about you--it does not display to a search committee member who you are as a teacher. As such, engaging in emotional/emphasizing descriptions (e.g. "I am very committed to my students", "I use creative in-class group activities) accomplishes little more than conveying to your reader that you are approximately as passionate as 400+ other candidates. What you need to do is display your passion--and you do this by describing precisely what you actually do in the classroom: by giving a very precise example or two of things you do with students in class. Precision here is important. Do not engage in broad generalizations ("I have students answer questions in groups") or even mid-level/moderate generalizations ("Once, in class, I had groups of 3-5 apply moral theories to health-care rationing"). To give the search-committee members some real clue of how your classes actually go, you need to give them a clear, precise example. Here are a few examples from my teaching statement:
Doing philosophy well takes a lot of practice. Consequently, my students practice it daily in creative ways. I assign daily ½-page reading responses requiring summary of a single idea or argument from the daily reading, a brief explanation of why the idea is philosophically important, and finally, motivation of a question or concern about it. Selected students also discuss their assignment with the rest of the class, giving them practice thinking on their feet.
In order to convey that philosophy is a cutting-edge discipline, I also regularly bring research ideas to the classroom, and encourage students to think as original researchers themselves. For example, in a recent course on international justice, I argued that John Rawls’ widely criticized theory of international justice might be based on an unrecognized, tacit assumption that nation-states tend to be self-sufficient, and then presented student groups with the task of determining (1) whether Rawls indeed makes this assumption, and (2) whether it is a justified one. After actively debating different answers, one of my students eventually wrote his final term paper on the idea and published it in the undergraduate journal Res Cogitans.
Looking back at these passages now, I think I could have been even more precise--though, if I recall, I was dealing with space-constraint issues (more on this shortly). Notice, though, what I was doing. In the first passage, I merely (A) described in precise detail a standard course assignment of mine (noting all three parts of the 1/2 page assignment: student summary of a single idea, why it is important, and a motivated concern), and (B) stating/implying the pedagogicial rationale for the assignment (it gets students to practice three important skills: philosophical exposition, distinguishing important from unimportant points, and motivating philosophical questions). Similarly, in the second passage, I gave a precise example of an argument I brought to the classroom (a specific concern about Rawls' international theory), how I got students to debate that argument, and the pedagogical rationale for the practice (bringing my research to the classroom and getting students to do original research themselves).
Whatever you might think of my personal teaching style (and I don't expect I'm everyone's cup of tea), the critical thing this approach to a teaching statement does is this: it actually gives a clear, precise picture of who one is as a teacher. Given that few people teach the same way, a search committee who comes across a precise teaching statement will be able to distinguish you as a real teacher from both (A) the legions of candidates who engage in broad generalizations, (B) other candidates who teach in different ways from you. Although your teaching style may or may not win over the committee, they will at least have some detailed information for evaluating whether you are the kind of teacher they desire.
In terms of structuring the teaching statement, I'm not sure there's a precise template to use. However, the following things seem to me wise to cover:
- Begin with a clear overall statement of your overall aims as a teacher (I gave two aims in one sentence).
- Follow with three or four paragraphs, with each assignment describing a specific assignment along with the pedagogical aim(s) it accomplishes:
- One paragraph might include a general assignment common to your classes (e.g. the 1/2-page reading responses I have students do), giving precise details and rationale.
- A second paragraph example might be a specific in-class assignment for purpose X (e.g. relating philosophy to their daily lives).
- A third example might be a specific in-class assignment for purpose Y (e.g. stimulating independent student research).
Finally, I would like to close by discussing length. The teaching letter I sent my consultant was two pages long--which I thought was a good length. She made me get it down to no more than a page. Although this seemed too short to me, the simple fact is that it worked. Although I can only speculate as to why this is, let me speculate away. Once again, I think it may be helpful to try to work our way into the heads--or psychological frame of mind--of search committee members. My wife works in Industrial-Organizational Psychology. One of the things their discipline has found (or so she tells me) is that hiring decisions are far less "rational" than anyone--including people on hiring committees--think. The fact is, as human beings, our emotions tend to drive our behavior far more than we recognize. Among other things, people are drawn to hire people they (subconsciously) "like." So, you need to get people to (subconsciously) like you. But, how do you do that? Imagine, there you are, a search committee member in the middle of a busy semester--having to read through 400+ job applications. You're sick and tired of reading page after page of applications. And there it is: a short, crisp 1-page teaching statement. I can almost feel how nice that would have to be right now as I'm sitting here in Starbucks--how it might be a kind of "hallelujah, thank god!" moment, in all of soul-crushing business of the semester, to come across a one-page statement that I could breeze through in, like, two-minutes. That, I imagine, would make me feel good--and, whether I consciously recognize it or not, it may well incline me to like the candidate a bit more than I otherwise would.
So, I say, give the one-page-only statement a shot. It just may work. All too often, we think it is content that drives hiring decisions (as in, if we don't say everything we want to say, it will be a disaster). But perhaps it is precisely by not saying so much that one gets a harried search-committee member to like you just a little bit better--and, if empirical results from my wife's field are to be believed, it's that subconscious liking, rather than anything content-related, that may make all the difference.