Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Philosophy of Teaching Statements

For obvious reasons, I haven't been blogging about the activity that occupies a significant part of my time these days, being on the job market. That seems like an extremely bad idea.

However, there is one aspect of the job search that I feel like I can safely complain about, because it is not limited to job applications: the statement of teaching philosophy. I had to do several before I was on the market, and I know that I will probably doing them the rest of my life for promotion and grant opportunities. But can I just say, what exactly are they supposed to tell you? Admittedly, at this point in my career I have only rarely been on the selection end of one of those things, so I don't really know what I'm talking about. But still, are there actually teaching statements that reveal some interesting and useful information? It is, I suppose, one more chance for one's personality to come across. But beyond that...

Is the hope that a candidate will slip up and accidentally reveal a hidden truth about their teaching, buried amongst the pedagogical gobble?

"I put a high priority on engaging students in the learning process, through small group discussions, performance opportunities, and corporal punishment."

And of course, these statements never tell you what you actually need to know about teaching habits:

"To keep my students in a constant state of tension, I enjoy stopping musical examples immediately before large scale climaxes, or even, when possible, halfway through a cadential gesture."

"When lecturing, I find that the mystery of pedagogical communication is maintained by avoiding eye contact at all times, even if this means staring at the floor."

"Writing is best taught through a series of drafts, feedback, and revisions. To give my students adequate time to ponder important issues, I like to give feedback on drafts after a good 1 to 2 years of gathering dust."

"One technique I use for structuring lectures is to focus on a small incidental word, and repeat it extensively. This, like, means that my students can like hook on to this familiar word whenever I like say it, and they like feel more comfortable. Like."

The thing is, the best theorizing about one's teaching is always self-reflexive: what do I do right, what do I wrong, how can I improve myself? To have one constant, coherent "philosophy of teaching" is, I think, the entirely wrong approach. But being honestly self-reflexive in front of a hiring or promotion committee is exactly what you don't want to do, in our hyper-administered world.


Rebecca said...

The only constant in my teaching philosophy is that teaching IS learning.

At some point, I think they also just want to know that you've thought about it. Having a teaching philsophy implies that you've invested some level of mental energy in the process. And while that may seem obvious to you and me, I bet we also know people for whom this is not a foregone conclusion.

Caroline said...

For what its worth, I find that it actually got "easier" after going on some interviews and talking with people about my teaching. In the end, though, it still seems to be primarily about communicating what I think they want to hear.

At least we're not in a field where it's required for every. single. job.