PALS Roundtable: Writing Better Teaching Philosophies

 

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via EmilyRachelMartin

If you have ever put together job applications or promotion packets, you know how difficult it can be to write a teaching philosophy. Most job documents feel more clear cut than the teaching philosophy—outlining your research, for example, is something that we have all practiced with every abstract that we have written. But the teaching philosophy is more amorphous. It is supposed to be at once practical and theoretical. It is supposed to show who you are as a teacher but not be too focused on yourself. It should present the current you and give the committee a vision of the future you. How does one go about achieving this? A lot of the generic advice out there is pretty bad, so we at PALS have put together a post that gives some tips on how to approach your teaching philosophy in order to make it a useful document which shows off your strengths as a teacher and allows anyone reading it to get a glimpse into your classroom. First, we start with some resources. Then, we think about the big picture goals of the philosophy, and finally, some advice for revision. The usual caveat to our PALS advice–that we are all Humanities, specifically English trained–remains true for this roundtable.

Before you Start:

Advice on Resources from Randi Tanglen

There are several excellent (and free) online resources available to colleagues writing their philosophies of teaching and learning. Here are a few that have been useful to me and the faculty members I work with at the Johnson Center for Faculty Development and Excellence in Teaching at Austin College.

Neil Haave’s short article “Six Questions That Will Bring Your Teaching Philosophy Into Focus” asks instructors to link their past experiences as learners to their current teaching practice. By reflecting on unforgettable learning experiences as students, instructors may be able to better articulate their own teaching values and goals in a teaching philosophy.

The Faculty Focus blog offers a free report on “Philosophy of Teaching Statements: Examples and Tips on How to Write a Teaching Philosophy Statement.” However, you must sign up for their free newsletter (a great teaching resource, and they won’t spam you) in order to download the report. This 21-page report includes several short articles on approaches to the teaching philosophy genre depending on audience, purpose, and discipline. I especially appreciate the last article in the report, “Writing a Teaching Philosophy Statement: Why, What and How” because of its practical, nuts-and-bolts advice. Those on the job market will like the article right before it, “Teaching Philosophy Statements Prepared by Faculty Candidates.”

A Google search will lead to any number of college and university teaching center sites with sample teaching philosophies. I have found the site at The Ohio State University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching to be particularly useful with concrete tips and several samples of teaching philosophies from a variety of disciplines, including one from English.

I hope these resources are helpful to those writing their teaching philosophies. Best of luck!

As You Work:

Caitlin Kelly on the Aims of a Teaching Philosophy

There are two main routes you can take when you are beginning to craft a teaching statement: philosophical/theoretical route or the applied/practicum route. In the former, you set out your overarching theory of teaching and in the latter you focus in specific activities and assignments that you use in your classes. In my writing center work with doctoral candidates and postdoctoral fellows, I’ve seen both approaches but the most captivating teaching statements, regardless of discipline, always lean toward a focus on application. My advice to job applicants then is to try to find a balance between the two that fits your discipline’s expectations and the type of job to which you are applying. I tend to lend toward a 15/85 split between theory and practice. That said, I’m applying for teaching-intensive generalist and writing faculty positions, and it makes sense that they would respond favorably to more a focus on classroom application where that might not be as appropriate for a research position. Plus, for generalist and writing positions, which are often NTT, those hiring processes often do not included campus visits–in those cases, the teaching statement is doing the work of the teaching demonstration.

So here’s what I do: my teaching statement is just a bit short of 2 pages single-spaced, and each paragraph includes 1 or 2 vivid descriptions of assignments or class activities. Because of the type of jobs I apply to, I need the document to be as versatile and efficient as possible, and so I make sure that my examples represent activities that would work in both literature and composition courses and everything in between. I also unify the document by identifying a single goal—for me, that’s cultivating curiosity in my students. So, after I identify and describe why I focus on curiosity in my courses, the following paragraphs outline the key approaches and strategies I rely on for doing that. Those paragraphs are then supported with the vivid examples I described earlier. I return to the common theme of cultivating curiosity at the end of the statement. Thus, the theoretical or philosophical approach acts as a framing device, supported by my vivid descriptions of assignments and activities.

I’d also highly recommend that advanced graduate students and NTT faculty in particular check in with their campus writing center and faculty development or teaching centers for help crafting and revising teaching statements and other job materials. We often don’t think of these units as resources for us, but many writing centers these days serve faculty as well as students, and most teaching centers and faculty development offices are happy to work with graduate students.

Time to Revise:

Brianne Jaquette on Revising with a Critical Eye

I remember the first teaching philosophy that I ever wrote, which was more like a list of courses that I taught than any concrete explanation of my teaching. In my second philosophy, one of the first things that I did was take out the lists—of classes I taught, of texts I taught, of goals I had for my students. I had wanted to be comprehensive, but after seeing examples of teaching philosophies and getting advice on writing one, I realized that it should be less about giving the scope of your teaching and more about allowing the reader a glimpse into the present of your teaching. I don’t mean present as in explain the gift that you are to the teaching profession. I am suggesting that the reader should feel immersed in your teaching from reading your statement. The first thing I do when I revise a statement is ask: at what distance am I keeping my reader? Is this an overview of my whole teaching career or a look into what I am trying to achieve as a teacher? (In my opinion, it should be the latter.)

My second piece of advice is to look for moments when your text has energy and revise with a focus on spreading that energy throughout your text. I always love to write about moments in the classroom. My teaching philosophies are best at that level. When I revise, I think about how I can make my discussion of assignments as dynamic as my talk about what an exciting lesson is like. I still remember the first time I felt that energy from a teaching philosophy. I read the opening of the teaching philosophy where the teacher described an in-class activity, and I thought, “Oh, I want to do that in my class.” This happened several years ago, and at this point, I only vaguely remember what that activity was, but I remember who wrote that teaching philosophy, and I remember that moment of recognition. If you can find those moments in your own statement, then you should use them to guide the shape of your essay. Can you lead with that dynamic energy and then take your reader to a more practical or a more theoretical level (depending on where teaching comes alive for you)?

What that excellent teaching philosophy did was connect to my interest as a teacher. I would also suggest that it is useful to remember that your audience is primarily other teachers. Connect to the reader as a teacher. You don’t have to drop the latest pedagogy terms or name the theorist everyone is discussing. What you have to do is to connect the teacher in you to the teacher in whoever is reading it. I would think about what gets you the most excited about teaching and also what parts of teaching you love to chat about with other teachers. Tap into that feeling, into that excitement and draft your philosophy from that place.

Finally, the best teaching philosophy advice I ever received was about the arc that your philosophy should take. For me, it is important to not just stay in the nitty gritty of the classroom (because that is where I would stay if given the chance). I want to give the readers the scope of my teaching from moments in the classroom to the big picture of my course. I always try to hit the classroom experience, then discuss assignments or bigger themes in my courses, and finally I move to the bigger takeaways of my teaching. This order might be different for you depending on how you shape your essay, but as you revise, think about the levels on which you need to describe your work. Your philosophy should move the reader from the start to finish through time and space in your classroom. A too narrow focus or a too broad one does not allow the reader to obtain a sense of your vision as a teacher. Sometimes we think of this as showing who you are as a teacher. I would rephrase this slightly and think about what goes into your teaching and how you can weave the semester together from beginning to end and from tiny moments to overarching narratives.

Shape and Reshape and Shape Again:

Shelli Homer on Packaging that Statement for Application Requirements

After you have read all the tips about writing your statement of teaching philosophy, read samples and found strong models, drafted your own statement, and revised and revised that statement into a beautiful final product, it is time to acknowledge that it is never done and you will be required to hack it all to pieces over and over again to meet requirements of each job to which you choose to apply.

Even a document like a teaching philosophy, which seems like it would transfer across job positions because it is your philosophy for teaching, is individual to each job application. Are you applying to teach literature or writing courses, or both? What does your teaching philosophy need to do to reflect your awareness of that.

The 2-Page Teaching Philosophy

It is fabulous to have 2 single space pages to fill with your teaching philosophy. You can breathe; you have the time and space to develop your philosophy on the page for your readers. As the advice above suggests, you can describe what your classroom looks like, how certain assignments function, what students take away from both of those things, and discuss what you value as an educator. You can build a complex image of yourself as an instructor. You might end up with multiple versions of this document to meet the various needs of the different positions you will apply to.

The 1-page Teaching Philosophy

Then a job app asks for a 1-page statement of teaching philosophy. You have to speed up your pacing, cut pieces of explanation or examples that you spent a lot of time crafting in the longer document, and pare down your overall philosophy.  You are essentially creating a new document. In paring down your philosophy, you might go slightly broader so you can still get in the main concepts you want to articulate. Or, you might go more narrow, showing one piece of your overall philosophy and frame it as such. Since you are choosing this piece to represent you, it can be helpful to let readers know both that it is one small piece and why this is the piece you are choosing to showcase.

The 2-Paragraph Teaching Philosophy

Now we have a job app that asks for your teaching philosophy to be incorporated into your cover letter, along with everything else. Perhaps that cover letter is a 2-page document; you will go back to that 1-page draft of your teaching philosophy and figure out how much of it you can use. But a cover letter is a document with a different tone and the way you discuss your teaching philosophy could likely look very different.You are now reshaping it to fit within and make sense connected to what you include in the rest of the letter.

The 1-Paragraph Teaching Philosophy

Finally, let’s take this a step further and imagine that the requirements for that cover letter cut it down to a 1-page letter, which cuts your teaching philosophy down to 1-paragraph. This isn’t a lengthy paragraph. Now you have maybe one sentence to do each of the things listed in the above advice. If it was challenging to give a hiring committee a sense of who you are as a teaching in 2-pages or 1-page, it is an entirely different kind of challenge to articulate it in 1-paragraph. In many ways, all of that earlier advice goes out the window. It is time to get very direct.

After You’re Finished:

Our teaching philosophies should be alive. Every course we teach, every learning experience we have, and every student interaction should refine how we see ourselves as teachers. Don’t get stuck in the past. And sometimes revising that document means opening a new one and not looking at your previous versions at all.

If you want to keep practicing the newly minted skills you have developed while writing your teaching philosophy, consider pitching a guest post to PALS. As is true with all writing, doing it makes you better at it. Practicing writing about teaching with a PALS guest post will sharpen your vision of your own pedagogy and make the next philosophy that much easier to write.

 

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Book Review: The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy

PALS Note: We are excited to have a guest book review from Caitlin Kelly. In this post, Kelly shares a review of The Slow Professor and addresses what the book offers regarding teaching for both full-time and precarious faculty. Kelly is a Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University.

Book Review: The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. University of Toronto Press, 2016.

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The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber is a book I have been trying to get my hands on for months—when I first requested a copy at the beginning of the fall 2016 semester, it was checked out from every holding library in the OhioLink consortium. As I eagerly awaited my turn to read the book, I wondered whether or not it would live up to the hype. As the title suggests, the authors draw their inspiration from the Slow Movement, a resistance to globalization and corporatization, which “challenges the frantic pace and standardization of contemporary culture” (x). Through this approach, Berg and Seeber aim to “disrupt the corporate ethos of speed” (11) by prioritizing reflection, dialogue, and community.

Published by the University of Toronto Press in March 2016, The Slow Professor is a slim volume of roughly100 pages—a deliberate decision rooted in the strong ethical impulse that permeates their book. In the university, corporatization is evidenced by the rise of contingent and adjunct faculty positions and the erosion of tenure, something that Berg and Seeber acknowledge. As they write in the Preface,

Our guiding principles were for The Slow Professor to be useful, accessible to a variety of disciplines, and affirming. While we acknowledge the systemic inequities in the university, a slow approach is potentially relevant across the spectrum of academic positions. Those of us in tenured positions, given the protection that we enjoy, have an obligation to try to improve in our own ways the working climate for all of us. We are concerned that the bar is being continually raised for each generation of faculty, so the book is also addressed to graduate students. (ix)

While Berg and Seeber do write from a position of privilege, their advice is useful for tenure track and non-tenure track faculty alike. In contrast to the “how-to guides” that aim to help their readers find success in the traditional sense of attaining and maintaining a tenure track appointment, The Slow Professor offers readers guidance in “cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience” (x). Where the typical faculty development book gives us the equivalent of a “couch to 5k” plan, Berg and Seeber offer us something more akin to yoga: reflective, empowering, and focused on where we are now rather than where we think we need to be in the future. The Slow Professor entreats us to be more reflective about our work, and this is where the book distinguishes itself from the many faculty advice books already available.

One of the books that The Slow Professor might remind some readers of is Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members (2000), which also urges faculty to slow down, take time, and be more mindful. Even so, the tacit message in Boice’s book is that the endgame is success on the tenure track. Advice for New Faculty Members is divided into three sections— teaching, writing, and service—matching the three requirements of tenure-track positions. Comparing the approach to teaching between the two books is also telling. Where Berg and Seeber offer advice aimed at bringing pleasure back to teaching, Boice’s advice privileges time management and efficiency. One of the most valuable contributions that Berg and Seeber make is the way that they breathe new life into advice like Boice’s. For example, in their chapter on teaching they recommend his approach to preparing for class but where Boice cites self-discipline and practice as challenges to enacting his advice, Berg and Seeber speculate that the explanation may have more to do with a culture that makes us feel guilty about taking steps that allow us to enjoy teaching (46). This is not to say that a “survival guide” is not useful but The Slow Professor offers a refreshing alternative; despite the fact it is written by tenure track faculty, their advice is not solely in service of the tenure track model.

Over the course of the four chapters, introduction, and conclusion, Berg and Seeber apply the principles of the slow movement to time management, teaching, research, and collegiality. Each chapter situates an element of faculty life within the philosophy of the slow movement and offers small-scale strategies that individual faculty members can use in resisting the increasingly corporatized, administrative university environment. For example, the chapter “Pedagogy and Pleasure” breaks down a typical class meeting chronologically, offering advice at each stage of a class for making teaching more enjoyable. The authors first suggest that we make a conscious transition to class instead of rushing. During class, they urge us to not be afraid to laugh and have fun as well as to listen and create a dialogue even in the moments before class starts formally. In preparing for class, they urge us to think of the course as narrative, as a story we tell. In general, the advice offered in The Slow Professor is not groundbreaking; its value lies not in its originality but rather in the way that it is contextualized as resistance to the corporatization of the university. While contemplative in many regards, The Slow Professor is still well researched and well grounded in the literature on both faculty development and the future of higher education. The book is, the authors admit, “idealistic in nature” (ix) but that is, I think, exactly what makes it so refreshing and well worth the couple of hours it takes to read.

According to the University of Toronto Press website, a paperback edition will be released in May 2017.

Caitlin L. Kelly is a Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. At Case Western, she teaches courses in the SAGES program and serves as a tutor in the Writing Resource Center. Caitlin’s research interests include Transatlantic religious and print cultures of the Long Eighteenth Century, women’s experience, the novel, and digital and multimodal pedagogy. You can follow her on Twitter at @CaitlinLeeKelly.