In my post on teaching statements in last year's Job-Market Boot Camp, I shared some advice I learned from the job-market consultant I hired during my final year on the market. To briefly summarize, my consultant maintained that many teaching statements make several common mistakes--among them, broad generalizations about one's teaching philosophy and soaring rhetoric intended to convey one's enthusiasm as a teacher and commitment to students. I then suggested two rules I learned for avoiding these mistakes and writing a more effective statement:
- Cut out all emotionalizing/emphasizing.
- Simply describe, in as precise detail as possible, exactly what you do as a teacher.
Since writing last year's post, I have had the opportunity to read a large number of teaching statements. I not only served on a search committee, but have also mentored several people on the job-market. Although I do not think it is appropriate or helpful for me to talk about what "I look for" in a teaching statement (as I am but one person, and do not want to give any future job-applicants at my institution an unfair advantage), I want to say a bit more about why I think the above rules are probably advantageous, and how to best ensure that one's statement conforms to them.
Like many teaching statements, my old teaching statement contained broad generalizations emphasizing my enthusiasm, commitment, teaching philosophy, and practices, including how much I enjoy teaching, how committed I am, how I engage with students, get them to do group work in the classroom, encourage original thinking, include diverse perspectives, etc. On the surface, this might seem like exactly the things a teaching statement should do. It might seem to its author to accurately convey their teaching philosophy (e.g. getting students involved, developing students' abilities to think clearly, rigorously, creatively, etc.), as well as their personal qualities as a teacher (e.g. enthusiasm, hard-work, etc.). Indeed, this is presumably why so many teaching statements appear to be just like this. Alas, as I explained last year, therein lies the problem.
Imagine yourself in the shoes a search committee member, reading hundreds of teaching statements that all say basically the same thing: just about every candidate, one after another, writing about how they they are passionate about teaching, get students to think clearly, creatively, and rigorously about philosophical arguments, etc. The problem with writing a teaching statement like this is that there is little, if anything, that actually distinguishes you as a teacher from anyone else! But, if anything is the proverbial "kiss of death" in applying for a job, surely that is. In order to get a job, one must stand out as a candidate. So, then, what does that take?
There is a famous dictum in film, literature, and art more generally: "Show, don't tell." Good films don't have their characters standing around giving plot exposition. They have the characters' actions on screen move the plot forward. Contrast, for instance, the much-beloved first Star Wars trilogy (from the 1970s and 80s) to the much-maligned 'prequel' trilogy of the 90s and 2000's, or the much beloved first Matrix film to the much-maligned later films in that trilogy. The original Star Wars films and first Matrix film invested audiences in the films' characters and plots by showing their struggles--following around the hero and small band of rebels (in both cases) in their fight against evil-doers. In contrast, the less-successful films in both series contained large stretches of characters standing around giving plot exposition, explaining in broad terms things happening off-screen. The main reason why it is important to "show, don't tell", is that it is precisely the details that matter. A viewer is only invested in character or plot if they can see the plot and character-development themselves.
With this in mind, let us return to teaching statements. How can one provide the reader with details that both (A) distinguish oneself from hundreds of other applicants, while (B) investing the reader in your teaching philosophy and practices? The answer, I believe, is that one has to show the reader exactly what one does as a teacher, giving precise, concrete examples (rather than generalizations) of things one does in the classroom, explaining precisely how the things one does engage students and improve student learning. And, how does one do that? My job-consultant helped me see the difference between three different levels of abstraction/generality:
- Broad generalizations (which give no real details): as in, "I am a passionate teacher who engages all students in the classroom in an inclusive manner." (To which the reader is apt to think, "Really? Then show me how you do those things!)
- Mid-level generalizations (which give some vague details): as in, "I engage students in the classroom by getting them to formulate arguments from their daily readings, and then debating as a class whether they formulated the arguments correctly and whether the arguments are sound", or, "I engage all students in an inclusive manner by assigning texts by philosophers from many different backgrounds" (to which the reader of the statement is apt to think, "Really? That's what everyone says! Can you show me how you actually do those things effectively?")
- Precision/concreteness: giving readers concrete examples of actual assignments, illustrating precisely how they plausibly improve student engagement, student learning, etc.: as in, "I require my students to bring to class daily 1/2 page reading responses in which the student must (1) briefly summarize a philosophical claim from the daily reading, (2) explain in a sentence or two the claim's relevance within the reading, and (3) briefly motivate a question or concern about it. This assignment requires students to practice several important philosophical skills daily: the ability to correctly summarize difficult philosophical ideas, explain their philosophical importance, and think critically, developing well-justified philosophical questions or concerns."
Whatever you might think of the actual example I just gave (e.g. the 1/2 daily paper example), I think the importance of precision/concreteness should be plain. Instead of providing the reader with vague descriptions of one's "teaching philosophy", precise/concrete examples show the reader what you actually do as a teacher, illustrate practices that may be relatively unique to you as a teacher, explain the pedagogical aims of those specific practices, and describing briefly but clearly how the practice actually advances those aims (viz. daily practice of three important skills).
If were looking to hire an effective teacher, aren't those all of the things you would most want to know? Wouldn't you want to see precisely what the person does, how their specific practices/assignments actually engage and develop students' abilities, how specific practices are pedagogically justified, and how the practices actually achieve those pedagogical aims?