In the comments section of our newest "how can we help you?" post, gradstudent14 writes:
I'm planning to go on the job market next year, and lately I've been thinking about my teaching statement. I know that it's often said to be a good thing to stand out here, to make sure that you don't sound like every other candidate. And I suspect that I do, indeed, stand out here. Yet I also worry whether some aspects of my teaching philosophy and pedagogy are simply *too* radical, such that they'll scare search committees off. For example, I don't require attendance in my classes, nor do I require that students do the suggested readings (I don't give reading quizzes or assign homework on the readings). Nor do my classes have any required papers or other assignments. Rather, students may turn in a variety of different kinds of work (papers, posts on the class blog, presentations, podcasts, an optional exam, etc.), and the number of points they get for a given submission depends on factors like the kind of work it is, how long it is, and its quality. A student's final grade for the course is based on how many points she's accumulated by the course's end. There's essentially only one due date for students' work, and it's at the very end of the course. Before that due date, there's no limit to the number of submissions a student can turn in.
There are of course other aspects I could mention, but the above should give a basic picture of the structure that I prefer in my courses. When I talk to others about this way of structuring a course, often the initial reaction is to think that I must be crazy. People seem to be particularly struck by the absence of an attendance requirement and of a requirement that students do the readings. The message I get is "In a class like that, no one's going to show up, no one's going to read any of the readings, and no one's going to do any work." (As a side-note, such predictions have not been borne out by my experience thus far. While I'm still in the middle of teaching my first class, so far I've been quite impressed with the level of initiative students have shown...)...
Once I get a chance to explain my rationale for structuring a course in this way, I've found that people's disbelief often becomes a bit more tempered. But it's the initial reaction, the moment of being taken aback, that worries me when it comes to search committees. I worry that my preferred pedagogy will make me seem too "weird," too much of a risk, and that it'll be difficult to give as full or convincing a justification of it within the confines of a teaching statement as I could in a longer document or in person. And so, not that I suspect the question has a simple or easy answer, but I thought I'd nevertheless ask: When it comes to a teaching statement, how radical is too radical?
This is a really great query! I am very curious to hear other readers' reactions, but here are my own, speaking as someone who has served on three search committees.
First and foremost, all things being equal I think that as far as "teaching schools" are concerned, unconventional/unique teaching practices are far better than being just another chalk-and-talk, Socratic dialoguer. This isn't to say that Socratic dialogue can't work well, nor is it to say that teaching schools won't hire people who teach in that traditional way (indeed, my department hired someone like that this past year). It is to say that it is much harder to stand out in a good way as a traditional teacher. Having worked at a teaching school for 9 years, I can say that the general culture is one of "innovation." People at institutions like mine seem to care a great deal about creative pedagogy - and I know many people who really like unconventional teaching methods. This isn't to say that everyone likes it. I know people (even at my own institution) who prefer traditional methods. However, on balance, I would say different is good, provided of course you can make a good pedagogical case for your methods and give evidence that students respond well to them. That being said, I do think many search committee members would like some assurance that an applicant at least sometimes requires traditional assignments, such as term papers (in part because I would think many/most people on the hiring side of things think it is vital for students to learn how to write a decent paper).
In any case, the term-paper issue aside, if I were gradstudent14 I wouldn't worry about being "too radical" per se. Having read through hundreds of job-applications, my sense is that applications with teaching statements like these tend to stand out in a good way--as indicating a kind of courage, commitment, and creativity in the applicant as a teacher (as people on the hiring side of thing recognize it does take time and a willingness to take risks to develop unique teaching methods!). This is my initial reaction, and I will be curious to hear whether others share it (for my part, I wouldn't be surprised if unique teaching methods don't help much with R1 schools, but that's simply because they care primarily about research).
All that being said, I do think there is something about gradstudent14 in particular that may give search committees pause, and that is the fact that gradstudent reports this being their first course. There are, I think, a few problems here.
First, as I explained before, people at teaching schools are generally looking for more solo-teaching experience than that. One solo-taught course is better than none, but it is still far less than people at teaching schools would like - as we are looking for a sustained record of successful teaching (not to mention experience teaching different types of courses).
Second, on that note, gradstudent14 must realize that the success their methods are having in their first course could in part be an artifact of it being their first course. Here is why. Gradstudent14 reports that they have been surprised that students haven't taken advantage of the no-attendance requirement, and with their overall level of initiative. The problem here is that even if this is true in this one course, people with more teaching experience--particularly people on search committees--know very well that a person's teaching practices can and do affect who chooses to enroll in that teacher's future classes. And here is the potential problem in this context: students talk. They often share who is an "easy" professor, which professors do or do not have attendance policies, and so on. And the problem is this: even if students this semester aren't taking advantage of no attendance policy, I would be willing to bet that students who enroll in future classes very well may (in part because "word may get out" among student who like to skip class that gradstudent14 doesn't require attendance!). I say this, by the way, as someone who attempted no attendance policy in the past, and who ran into precisely this problem.
Of course, these unintended consequences may not happen. Gradstudent14 may be such an awesome teacher that their future students will respond just as well as the students in their first class. My point is simply that at this point, I would expect search committee members to worry about this, and there may not be much gradstudent14 can write in their teaching statement to entirely dispel the worry (what they really need, it seems to me--speaking as a search committee member--is a longer track record of teaching success, which can only be gained through more experience). However, here is what I would tentatively suggest: saying something in their teaching statement about how well their policies and practices have worked this far, saying how well students have responded, and then noting that although it is possible that future experience may or may not require rethinking the attendance policy, their experience experimenting with unique teaching methods shows that they are openminded and willing/able to adapt as a teacher. That, I think, would help!
Finally, although gradstudent14 didn't give details about this, I would think (speaking again as a search committee member) that it would be very important to give clear examples of the unique types of work their students have produced under their teaching methods. For example, if students have done podcasts, what were the podcasts on? How philosophically sophisticated were they? Did the podcast demonstrate things the philosophers or people outside of philosophy might find to be important (for instance, was the podcast similar to a term-paper or conference presentation, summarizing material from the class, giving a novel argument, responding to potential objections, etc.)? These are the kinds of details I would really want to see, as I would want to know that the methods being used are more than fun gimmicks that students like, but instead alternative forms of assignments that are really challenging, require sophisticated philosophical thought, and so on.
But these are just my thoughts. What are yours, especially those of you who have served on search committees?