Our books






Become a Fan

« Reader query on editing a special issue | Main | Queries: going on the market from a TT job »

07/19/2018

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Outsider

On the one hand, the approach to pedagogy described sounds refreshing. But, on the other hand, the poster should know her/his audience. For example, in many European countries the curriculum and grading is fixed in format. Whereas in the USA, a student's grade in a course is determine by what he/she does throughout the course, elsewhere the grade is often determine by a final examination ONLY. So the description of the pedagogy will sound very strange to many outside of the USA.

Sam Duncan

I would be really curious about what kind of school gradstudent14 is teaching this class at. From my own experience this seems like a set up that might work well at a school with very selective admissions, but not so well at most other places. In a community college environment I'd go so far as to say it would probably be a disaster. I don't say this because I think students at schools with high rejection rates are really "more talented" (I doubt that "talent" as philosophers use the term really means much of anything, but that's a matter for another day.) But they do tend to have a lot more in the way of the sort of soft-skills like time management and and study skills that would allow them to navigate a class like this successfully. A good many of my students haven't yet developed those skills, and to throw them into a class with as little structure as this would be a recipe for failure. This set up seems to put an incredible amount of responsibility on the student. They need to decide what to read, when to come to lecture, and what assignments to do. Most students need much more structure, and not giving it to them is a recipe for failure. One of the things I want my students to do is to develop those skills, but I can't pretend that they already have them. I don't mean to sound discouraging or overly critical, but if I were on a hiring committee at my school and someone described their teaching like this it wouldn't just be a red flag it would be a red flag with sirens wailing. One of the things students need to think about when developing teaching practices is not just whether those practices work with the students they currently have, but whether they are likely to work with students with very different backgrounds and situations. One of the ways that I don't think graduate education serves would be job seekers very well is that since most PhD granting institutions have fairly competitive to incredibly competitive admissions the students they teach are a lot different from the students at the institutions that are likely to hire them. In developing your teaching approach you ought to think about those future students as much or more as your current ones. One thing that might help is to adjunct at a different kind of institution if possible. That not only gives one a better idea of what different students are like and what works with them, but it also assuages many teaching school hiring committees worries that the applicant may have no idea how to teach their students.

Pendaran

We all talk from our own experience. But your statement strikes me as too radical and probably not acceptable at most schools. It wasn’t too long ago that a Canadian prof of physics was fired for not wanting to assign grades and implementing a radical new approach to teaching. So, although schools like innovation, it needs to be within mainstream parameters. Your statement strikes me as probably too innovative to be acceptable. But that’s just from my experience as a student of various departments and as someone who has been reading higher ed news.

Shen-yi Liao

I don't think the particular pedagogical strategy is too radical to be problematic, but how you talk about it might be. (I broadly agree with Marcus, though my comments are going to be more meta.)

Generally, I think it's worth thinking about many demographic "variations" that one might encounter in different teaching environments. How many other classes do students take? How many extracurricular activities or jobs do students have? Race, gender, educational background, family income level, etc. A pedagogical strategy that "works" in one context can fail to work in another. How can a pedagogical strategy be adjusted or implemented differently in different contexts?

In your particular case, I thought the idea was interesting. But then I read down to "While I'm still in the middle of teaching my first class," and then I've got some questions about variations and adjustments. First, is this a summer course? That's a pretty different context from the kind of teaching that people typically get hired for. Second, what evidence can you have so far about why this "works" better? Third, even if there's good reason to conclude that it works in this case, what are the limits to its generalizability?

There are no uniquely correct answers to these questions. But I think a teaching statement is where one can demonstrate thoughtfulness about teaching if they anticipate these questions and respond to them.

NK

I think that what Sam Duncan says probably applies at most schools, especially in lower-level courses. Certainly it applies at the large state school I'm at. Most of my students would love the *idea* of the OP's course, but, while some of them would do well, many (possibly most) would fail due to a lack of the kinds of soft skills Sam mentions. And most of those who didn't fail would still learn almost nothing. Most of them are trying (more or less explicitly) to do the bare minimum. As such, my main goal is to try to make the bare minimum substantial enough that they end up learning something anyway.

Marcus Arvan

Hi everyone: thanks for weighing in! Really helpful thoughts. Here are a few quick reactions...

(1) Shen-yi writes: "I don't think the particular pedagogical strategy is too radical to be problematic...In your particular case, I thought the idea was interesting. But then I read down to "While I'm still in the middle of teaching my first class..."

This was sort of my reaction. While some search committee members may view their teaching style as a "red flag" (more on this below), at least *some* search committees may find it really cool and interesting. The real problem, I think, isn't necessarily how radical the person's teaching pedagogy is. It is that they risk coming off as naive, given that they have only taught one class (and, as you note and as I also noted in the OP, what works once may be a disaster in the future).

What gradstudent14 really needs--for their teaching style to not count as a red flag--is more evidence that it actually works: a more extended teaching record that indicates its viability.

(2) Sam Duncan writes: "From my own experience this seems like a set up that might work well at a school with very selective admissions, but not so well at most other places. In a community college environment I'd go so far as to say it would probably be a disaster...I don't mean to sound discouraging or overly critical, but if I were on a hiring committee at my school and someone described their teaching like this it wouldn't just be a red flag it would be a red flag with sirens wailing."

Pendaran writes something similar: "We all talk from our own experience. But your statement strikes me as too radical and probably not acceptable at most schools. "

I think all of this is right--but I think both comments may miss a crucial point about the job-market.

My sense is that Sam and Pendaran are right about one thing: there are indeed institutional contexts where gradstudent14's teaching style would probably be disastrous--and thus frighten SC-members at those kinds of schools away.

That being said, I think it is important to realize (and emphasize) that one's primary task on the job market is *not* to "be competitive for as many jobs as possible." It is to get offered and accept a TT job one desires.

Why is this important? Well, gradstudent14's teaching style may be a disqualifier for some search-committees. But there may be other search committees--at adventurous, teaching-focused SLACs--who are looking for someone dynamic and original. And by being a radical teacher gradstudent14 could put themselves in a position to be the best candidate for *those* jobs.

Indeed, I think a lot of job-candidates make a deep mistake here. It's sometimes said "you shouldn't try to please everyone." I think this is true of the job-market: that many job-candidates try so hard to be as "appealing" to as many different jobs as possible--by not taking risks that may "raise red flags"--that they inadvertently end up looking *average* to everyone.

This is, I think, the worst thing one can do. The TT job-market is like car-racing or ski-racing. It doesn't matter how many times one is "competitive", finishing 5th or 6th...if you never finish first. Your task is to simply finish first *one* time, with one search committee. And it can take some real risks--in skiing, car-racing, and job-markets--to finish first.

Take the famous American downhill skier Bode Miller. He had a wildly unconventional skiing style that led to some terrible crashes and disqualifications. But when it worked, it *worked*: he was faster than everyone else.

Consequently, I think more candidates might actually benefit from being more like gradstudent14--and that, with a track record of success with their teaching style, gradstudent14 might absolutely *kill* it with some search committees who would be impressed by their commitment to teaching innovation (and indeed, taking risks, which some people do value!).

Far too many candidates simply "disappear into the pile." gradstudent14 at least stands out, and might stand out in the best kind of way for *one* job: a school that wants to hire someone just like them.

So, once again, I think their real problem isn't their radicalness; it's their lack of a track record.

Finally, an aside to Pendaran: I recently found out that someone I actually know doesn't assign grades. They give everyone an 'A' and make it clear from Day 1 in their class that it's not about grades but about learning and improving--and apparently they not only get away with it; their students love it so much that the administration seems happy to have them do it. Once again, I worry that fear of taking risks dooms many candidates. Risks can backfire--but again, the risk of *not* taking risks is that you end up in 5th place for job after job, never getting an offer.

gradstudent14

Thank you for this post, Marcus. You've raised a number of very helpful points. I agree that what I need most at this point is more teaching experience. And I acknowledge that it could very well be that, with the more experience I gain, the more I realize that I'll have to rework some aspects of the pedagogy I've been exploring (such as the lack of an attendance requirement). I plan to take your advice on what to include in the teaching statement, especially the advice to indicate an openness to revising my approach based on future experience.

Your point about how, when it comes to the various search committees at different schools, a job candidate shouldn't try to "please everyone" (for risk of becoming bland) was also a point I hadn't considered. That does provide a bit of comfort, though of course I still agree that ideally I should get more teaching experience.

A few further thoughts in response to some of the comments:

@Outside:

Thanks, that's a point I hadn't considered. I suppose I may have to write multiple versions of the teaching statement (one of which acknowledges the different course structure requirements in the relevant European countries, and expresses a willingness to respect them).

@Sam Duncan:

You're right to suspect that the course I'm teaching is at a school with very selective admissions. (That said, half the students in the course are not undergrads at my institution, but high schoolers who applied to take a summer course here. There's no doubt that such high schoolers are still more motivated than most of their peers, though.)

"From my own experience this seems like a set up that might work well at a school with very selective admissions, but not so well at most other places. In a community college environment I'd go so far as to say it would probably be a disaster.... [Students at highly selective colleges] do tend to have a lot more in the way of the sort of soft-skills like time management and and study skills that would allow them to navigate a class like this successfully. A good many of my students haven't yet developed those skills, and to throw them into a class with as little structure as this would be a recipe for failure. This set up seems to put an incredible amount of responsibility on the student. They need to decide what to read, when to come to lecture, and what assignments to do. Most students need much more structure, and not giving it to them is a recipe for failure."

I think this is a legitimate concern. One thing I've done to try to confront it is to help students with their study skills directly. Several of the early class sessions are devoted in part to going over how to read and take notes effectively, how to find sources, how to plan writing a paper and tackling other big projects, etc. Students are also given handouts on all these subjects, along with a list of topics relevant to the course and and access to some corresponding intro-level readings (to help them have a starting point for what to read). To help students have an idea of some of the things they might write about, I also give them a list of sample paper prompts, together with frequent reminders that students don't have to try to tackle all of the topics; one can do well in this course by approaching it in a more or less traditional way, if one prefers (say, by simply writing two 4-5 page papers, each on one of the topics / sample prompts mentioned in the syllabus). Of course, at this point it's difficult to know how much all this has helped students; I acknowledge that it could very well be that even with this scaffolding, the course would be too overwhelming for most students, especially students at less selective schools. That's something I'll be thinking more about. The question of how to have a course with enough structure so that it doesn't intimidate or bewilder those who don't have very advanced study skills, but without so much structure that it unduly constricts other students who'd like to have more say in how they learn about the course subject, is indeed a difficult one.

@Pendaran & NK:

Thanks for the input. Yours is a perspective that I acknowledge may well be right.

@Shen-yi Liao:

These are helpful questions to consider, especially the questions about whether what works for one context, demographic group, etc. will work for another.

"First, is this a summer course? That's a pretty different context from the kind of teaching that people typically get hired for."

Yes, it's a summer course. Could you say a bit about how that makes it a pretty different context from the kind of teaching people typically get hired for? I know that summer courses run for fewer weeks and have longer individual class sessions, but apart from that I'm not aware of any real differences between summer courses and courses that run during the academic year. Or is the thought simply that when one teaches a summer course, it's typically the only course one is teaching at a time, whereas if one is teaching during the academic year, one may well be teaching multiple courses at a time?

"Second, what evidence can you have so far about why this 'works' better?"

I'd say most of my evidence is indirect--so, not so much evidence that my approach works, but evidence that more traditional approaches often don't work very well. To be clear, I think that a more traditionally structured course can be a great experience for students, if the instructor is skilled enough. But I suspect that even in such cases, the courses tend to be good despite their structure, not because of it. When students are given little to no say in what or how they learn in a course, they're liable to feel alienated or resentful (perhaps without realizing it). Such courses can lead students to feel that learning is something one has to be forced to do, rather than something that can be intrinsically motivated to do. Now, such a course can have all the superficial hallmarks of success: good attendance, reasonably high grades, and so on. But I worry that markers like these all too often fail to show what's going on more deeply. A course may be well-attended, but that matters little if many or most of the students show up only because they have to, and mentally check out for most of a given class session. A student may jump through the hoops needed to get a decent grade, but that matters little if the student quickly forgets the material afterward and leaves with no motivation to learn more about the course topic. And so, the question that's driven my course design so far is this: How might a course avoid all this? And it seems to me that the only answer is to have a bit more faith in students, to give students a bit more freedom, to allow students more of a say in what and how they learn.

Another point perhaps worth mentioning is that I've been influenced heavily by educational theorists like Carl Rogers, Peter Gray, and Alfie Kohn. While it would be too much to try to summarize their work here, I can say that if anyone is interested in learning more about why one might be drawn to having less structured courses, their work is a good starting point.

"Third, even if there's good reason to conclude that it works in this case, what are the limits to its generalizability?"

A good question, and a difficult one. The most I can say here is that I think that even in a highly unstructured course, there are ways of helping students who prefer more structure. In my view, one of the main advantages of structuring a course like this is that it seems able, at least in principle, to accommodate both students who like a great deal of freedom and students who prefer more structure. How it might accommodate the latter group of students? By making it possible for students to succeed by turning in the work that is typical of a traditionally structured course (e.g., two or three traditional, short-to-medium-length papers). Of course, students who take this path would still have choose what to write on, and it'd be up to them not to wait to write the papers till the last minute. But I believe that instructors can still provide resources that will help students here (e.g., handouts on study skills and time management, a list of sample paper prompts, frequent reminders to talk to the instructor in office hours about what they might write on, etc.) Again, though, I realize that future experience might prove to me that this is naive.

"There are no uniquely correct answers to these questions. But I think a teaching statement is where one can demonstrate thoughtfulness about teaching if they anticipate these questions and respond to them."

Agreed. These are questions I'll certainly be thinking about more as I write the teaching statement.

Michel

FWIW, a small anecdote about taking attendance: Although I know some people who do take attendance, the vast majority of philosophers I know don't. So I don't think one needs to spend much (if any!) time justifying that decision. At least, not for fear of seeming weird and unconventional.

slac chair

I agree with a lot of what has been said here, and I want to emphasize one strand of it. Lots of schools (not just the Oberlins and Sarah Lawrences of the world) will value someone who takes pedagogical risks. At that same time, I think most faculty who care about teaching will want some evidence that either a) the specific risks pay off, or b) the candidate is interested in learning what *does not work* in her risky strategy, and in modifying her strategy accordingly. The more easily recognizable trajectory would be for someone to start with a relatively standard approach and document how she gradually moved to a radical approach with good results. The other trajectory would be to start with OP's unconventional method and document how she refined it. The danger in OP's situation is that she can't provide any evidence of the latter, as she has only taught (part of) one class. If gradstudent wants to foreground this in her teaching materials, I would suggest that she try to come up with an end-of-semester evaluation that attempts to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the approach, then talk about her diagnoses in her teaching portfolio.

As an aside, I'm at a good not great LAC and most of our students would be very unnerved by this type of freedom. Many of them would also be fairly unsuccessful in negotiating it, insofar as they tend to devote energy to whatever is most pressing in their schedule (a rational strategy, I think). Our students are surprisingly interested in having *lots* of assessment, as it lowers the stress level for each particular quiz, exam, paper, etc. So yes, be very careful not just in how you pitch your pedagogy, but also in whom you pitch it to.

Sam Duncan

I want to be clear I don't think that most of my students are lazy. But I think a lot of them don't yet know how to succeed in college classes.
One other thing I'll mention is that as a learner I find it extremely frustrating if a class has too little structure, especially if it's in a subject I find difficult. I think this is a large part of the reason I react so negatively to the course gradstudent14 described. I recently took a drawing class (and I should be clear it wasn't one offered by my community college) where the teacher's usual approach was well just come in and do what you want and I absolutely hated it. My reaction can be summed up as: "I don't really know what to do to learn to draw and the only reason I'm paying you is because I presumed you do. Just to be turned loose with him coming by to offer the occasional comment and every now and then do a little lecturing and the odd demo was not at all helpful. I'd have really liked it had he had set assignments that were supposed to build and evaluate the skills I was supposed to be learning. In fact, the only classes I felt like I actually learned anything were the very few where he did have a set assignment. The only people his class worked for were two people who'd taken a lot of drawing classes previously and one woman who just had a huge natural facility for drawing. Those of us for whom it didn't come easily and who didn't have a background were incredibly frustrated. Moreover, whether it was fair or not, my impression was that the teacher was just too lazy to come up with a structured plan for the course. I suspect that students with a lot of background or for whom philosophy just comes easily will be just fine with highly unstructured classes. However, I don't think they serve other students well, and in most classes outside the majors the students who just take to philosophy and/or have a lot of background will be fairly rare. Turn them loose and let them do what they want is great for a graduate class and not bad for a 300 or 400 level undergrad class, but I'm extremely dubious of it as a method for introductory courses. Anyway sorry if that's harsh, but I've strong opinions about teaching (and yeah I'm still sore about that drawing class).

Amanda

On the one hand, I agree with Marcus that innovation is good, and standing out is good. The teaching the first class thing is an issue though. What works for your first class may not work for others, as many learn the hard way. I worry that coming across saying all these super innovative things as a first timer might not go well. Some search committee members might think, "This kid is in way over his head and has no idea what teaching is like in a variety of such and such circumstances." I think some people might interpret it as arrogant and insulting to those who do regular teaching. I don't think this is fair, to be clear. But there are lots of faculty members that don't like being told their way of doing things is problematic. Also, many US classes require writing assignments.

Marcus you ask the poster to give more details...but you also like teaching statements to be one page, right? I think the one page thing is pretty important. Anyway, I would give a few examples of your innovative assignments, but wouldn't mention things like grading and attendance. Try to be innovative without being controversial. I think this is your best bet overall, at your stage. And I say this assuming you want to try to maximize getting a job at a variety of institutions.

I have taught many courses, at a variety of institutions. Some with high acceptance rates, others with low (And honestly the low acceptance rate schools are way easier to teach.) I have never required attendance. I am changing that this year. At institutions where college is not a priority, the attendance rate wasn't terrible, but it wasn't good. And I realized it is not fair to the other students. The class environment is much different (and better) with a full classroom. Hence kids who skip out are hurting their classmates too. That is why I'm having a strict policy this year. We will see how it goes. Of course, maybe there is that special teacher who can compel consistent attendance at the type of university where most of the students had 2.0 GPA in high school and bottom half SAT scores. I know many great teachers, and I haven't seen anyone like that yet. But it is possible, of course.

Pendaran

"Finally, an aside to Pendaran: I recently found out that someone I actually know doesn't assign grades. They give everyone an 'A' and make it clear from Day 1 in their class that it's not about grades but about learning and improving--and apparently they not only get away with it; their students love it so much that the administration seems happy to have them do it. Once again, I worry that fear of taking risks dooms many candidates. Risks can backfire--but again, the risk of *not* taking risks is that you end up in 5th place for job after job, never getting an offer."


Here's an idea worth considering (sorry if it was mentioned already). Maybe it makes sense to have a radical statement for radical schools, certain liberal arts colleges I guess, but something a little more mainstream for state schools. My sense is that including too radical a statement in your application to a big state school might be disastrous, but maybe at the right LAC such a statement has a good chance of making you stand out positively from other applicants.

Teach your children well

"red flags and wailing sirens ..." that is priceless. Perhaps we need to be more explicit about why some risks are not worth taking for a department when they are hiring. If someone really screws up, then there will be complaints to the administration, that is, to the dean. The last thing a department wants is to have to spend time explaining to the dean why their new hire is behaving as s/he does. The dean will say: why the hell would I ever give them another line. Whatever innovations a teacher - especially an untenured teacher - uses have to be in line with the explicit policies of the university. Otherwise, students can lodge formal and legal complaints. So if a job applicant is suggesting radical innovations out of line with the campus policies, they will be perceived as naive, too naive to have as a colleague.

Marcus Arvan

Many apologies for the delay in approving comments. I’m in a different time-zone (U.K.) for a conference and couldn’t approve comments during the night!

Marcus Arvan

Amanda writes: “I worry that coming across saying all these super innovative things as a first timer might not go well. Some search committee members might think, "This kid is in way over his head and has no idea what teaching is like in a variety of such and such circumstances." I think some people might interpret it as arrogant and insulting to those who do regular teaching.”

I share this worry too. As someone who has read teaching statements by candidates who have little teaching experience, it can be a frustrating experience to read statements that come across as naive while giving the impression that the person is very sure of their methods.

I like an idea of Amanda’s that was echoed by Pendaran. Perhaps a couple of different teaching statements would be a good idea—one for SLACs like Oberlin (that may prize unconventionality), and another teaching statement without some of the most radical parts for more conventional (i.e. state) schools. I also agree with Amanda (and others) that it might be a very good idea to make it clear that you are willing to rethink and adjust your strategies to different contexts and types of students, not to mention institutional policy requirements.

gradstudent14

Just wanted to say thanks for all the thoughts, everyone. You've all shared many important points and suggestions. I intend to adhere to many if not all of them, especially those concerning having different versions of the teaching statement for different kinds of schools, along with paying extra care to try not to come across as cocky or belittling of those who favor more traditional approaches. (Especially after reading this discussion, I can certainly see how it's important to be willing to rethink and adjust one's pedagogy to different contexts, students, and institutional requirements, and to make this clear in the teaching statement.)

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Job-market reporting thread

Categories