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.



PALS Roundtable: Big Oops, Little Oops! Learning from Missteps when Teaching Literature

via Nicolas Nova

Reading about teaching on the web is like seeing everyone’s social media posts full of their beautiful vacation picks without seeing what their day to day lives are actually like. Even PALS posts are mostly about what has gone right in the classroom or what we would like to do in our classes. While framing our posts in this way is beneficial, we also do not want to suggest that our classrooms are some sort of magical space free of struggles. Oh, how we have struggled! Teaching is hard, and at PALS we do not want to ignore that. It’s why we spend so much time discussing pedagogy and practical teaching practices in the first place.

There is some available information about teaching failures on the web. For example, the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy has an entire section, “Teaching Fails,” dedicated to failure, but for the most part we highlight our successes and ignore the rest. The problem with hiding our failures is that it doesn’t help anyone, including ourselves. There are two obvious reasons to talk about failure: 1) if we share our failures, other people can learn from them, and 2) not paying heed to our failures, can enable them to fester and become bigger deals than they really are. Laughing off our teaching failures with other teachers, even when we don’t find them all that funny, can help us move forward more quickly and develop strategies to prevent those same issues in the future. With this in mind, the PALS writers are embracing our failures by joining forces to present a roundtable post on our missteps in the classroom. See below for our individual experiences of failure in the classroom.

Shelli Homer:
The course: Introduction to American Literature
The text that felt like a teaching faceplant: George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life (1880)
The problem: There was a The Count of Monte Cristo sized character list.

The play-by-play: This was by no means the first time I had taught literature or taught a novel. There were so many reasons I chose to teach this text, but I did not anticipate how challenging it was going to turn out to be for students. I knew there was going to be a little bit of character confusion; for one, there are two characters with the same name. The first day of the novel, we mapped the characters, including the complicated family trees. By the second day, students were mixing up which character was involved in which plot point. Then, on the third day, they couldn’t even tell me what had happened in the assigned pages. You may be thinking, they didn’t read. You would be wrong. They could recount fragments of incidents across those pages, but they couldn’t recount any of the big events. For instance, my students questioned, “We don’t understand why they spent all that time on the porch” To which I replied, “You mean when they were preparing for that really important duel?” They followed with, “Duel! What duel?” This actually made it worse. They were doing the work, and I was clearly failing them. I spent a painful 30 minutes helping them construct a summary for the day’s reading–did I mention I was being observed during this class period, too?

Reflecting through the pain: At the time, I didn’t have some grand plan that saved the rest of the novel. Sure, they probably could have read more carefully, actively, or just slowed down, and I could have summarized the plot for them so they could have read with other aims. We struggled through the rest of the novel and took away what we could. There was a lot of silent cursing in my head and questioning of all my teaching abilities in general. Looking back, was this novel simply too much for an introductory class? Would I teach it again? What did I get out of the experience? Of course, I would teach it again. All the reasons I chose to teach it initially still stand. I also don’t believe in keeping challenging texts out of introductory classrooms. Bring in the challenging text and watch the students rise to the occasion. In order to help the students rise and conquer this text in the future, I have utilized the reading technique of character tracking (McCuller’s post forthcoming). By making students responsible for a specific character, they can help one another through the sea of Cable’s characters and teach each other about the importance of their character and his/her plot lines.

Brianne Jaquette:
The course: Introduction to American Literature
The text: Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”

The play-by-play: I have a theory that the second time you teach a text is the hardest/it goes the worst. The first time you are very prepared. The third time you begin to know the text really well. But the second, you remember most of what you did the first time, but maybe not all the steps in the process. The time I felt the worst about how I taught a text was the second time I taught Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” (It was also the second time I taught literature ever.) In the middle of the poem, there is an extended description of the speaker being like a Jewish person dying in the concentration camps while the “Daddy” of the poem is depicted as a Nazi. For example, some of the lines where this is emphasized the most read, “An engine, an engine/Chuffing me off like a Jew./A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen./I began to talk like a Jew./I think I may well be a Jew.” My students wanted to know if Plath was Jewish or not. Fair question. I remembered reading something about Plath and her mother’s relationship to Judaism. (I tracked the comment down later, and it was this that I was thinking of, “The poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra complex…Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly part-Jewish.”) I told my students that Plath had Jewish family members because I thought I was remembering it correctly. I wasn’t remembering it correctly, and Sylvia Plath is not Jewish. I looked up the quote later and sent my students an email clarifying what I had read and why I had confused the fact. Thinking back on this now, it does not seem like a very big deal at all, but I was tormented by it for a really long time.

Reflection: The biggest lesson here is to own what you don’t know. I don’t know everything (surprise!), and the longer I teach the more comfortable I am saying to my students that I don’t have the answer. In fact, if I had this experience today, I would ask students to whip out their cell phones and Google the answer. No sweat. I have also learned how much I want to embrace the “I don’t know” as part of my pedagogy. For example, when teaching Sui Sin Far this semester, I told my students that I, like them, have predominantly been taught in the Western tradition, so some of the Chinese customs and symbols that Sui Sin Far makes reference to are lost on me. I can look them up, and I do look them up while I am reading. But explaining to my students that this is an area that I do not know that much about either freed us all to ask questions and explore the text. I don’t know why we would rather attempt to answer a question than simply say, “I’m not sure.” I guess because admitting uncertainty makes us vulnerable, but we are all vulnerable in the classroom because to truly learn you have to let your guard down. Let’s embrace the “I don’t know” not as a sign of weakness but as a moment to figure out what learning we still need to do.

Meagan Ciesla:
The course: Introduction to American Literature
The text: Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”
The problem: My students didn’t admire and desire to be hippies like I did when I was in college.

The play-by-play: I’d decided to each Joan Didion’s long essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” to my Introduction to American Literature class. In these classes I make it a point to include several works of nonfiction and we were making the leap from poetry to nonfiction with this essay. The essay is fragmented so my thought was we could apply what we’d learned from poetry to the new genre as our way in. I’d also assumed that my students, like me, would be enthused about delving into 1960s San Francisco hippie culture, which is what the essay is about. Instead, students were confused by the fragmented structure of the essay and annoyed by the hippie figures Didion details in the essay. The first issue I’d counted on: the essay is long and challenging, and you have to be paying very close attention to the narrative threads of the essay to leap from one section to the next. The second issue is what startled me: my students didn’t romanticize the hippie lifestyle like my peers and I had in college. In fact, they (generally speaking), thought hippies had been lazy and irresponsible. They didn’t have much knowledge or sympathy for those who were trying to buck the 1960s system of conformity. As I tried to lead discussion about the essay we didn’t get anywhere. Mostly my students were repulsed or confused by the events Didion describes in the essay and I couldn’t figure a way to get past that initial reaction to talk about the structural elements of the piece or the cultural forces behind the hippie movement.

Reflection: This was one of those times when I came to realize I hadn’t prepared my students at all for the text we’d be reading. I’d assumed their interests and convictions aligned with mine because they were finally away from their parents and curious about how people before them had bucked the conformist system. You know what they say about assumptions. Not only is the essay structurally difficult, it also speaks to a particular cultural moment that a reader needs to know something about before diving in. I don’t think this essay is too hard for an intro level class, but I do think I needed to lay a better foundation for them before sending them off to read it. A brief political history and some key notes about 1967’s Summer of Love in San Francisco would have helped before they read the essay. Similarly, I could have prepared them for the essay’s fragmented structure by working through the first few sections of the essay together as a class before they read the rest on their own. Pre-reading exercises like this would have been incredibly helpful. I’m constantly reminded that my students are still training as readers, and that giving them appropriate contexts can help them grab hold of particularly difficult texts.

Catherine Hostetter:
The course: College English II (Literature and Composition)
The text: Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”
The problem: I assigned “Ligeia” without fully preparing my students for its difficulty, due to my own unreliable memory.

The play-by-play: During my second year working as an adjunct instructor, I decided to add Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” to my College English II: Literature and Composition course. I previously had taught “The Tell-Tale Heart,” one of the more frequently anthologized Poe texts, in that class. While I found that my students enjoyed discussing and reading “The Tell-Tale Heart,” I often was not satisfied with the writing they produced about it. My solution to eliminating “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but keeping Poe on the syllabus? Substituting in the more obscure “Ligeia,” which is what I did… without rereading it first. As a young instructor, I decided that my fond memories of analyzing “Ligeia” in a undergraduate Gothic Literature class justified its place on my syllabus. What could go wrong? There’s still an unreliable narrator and a crazy ending, but with so much more content to dissect! Well, a lot could go wrong, which I realized as soon as I reread the story. My main memory of “Ligeia” was that crazy ending; I had completely forgotten how dense it is. It has a fairly simple plot, but that plot is complicated by Poe’s use of lengthy descriptions, allusions, and, at times, difficult vocabulary. I knew, before even walking into the classroom, that many students would be very frustrated by “Ligeia,” especially when considering it was literally the first text I had assigned students to read on their own that semester. When I did walk into the classroom that night, I was met with a chorus of complaints. I promised my students that we would tackle the difficult content together and braced myself for the rest of class. After a lecture on Gothic literature, I put the students into groups and had each group trace one element from the story, including examples of the narrator being unreliable, descriptions of Ligeia, descriptions of Rowena, and descriptions of physical places. It was an arduous process for these groups to figure out which parts of the text fit into the category they were given, but the students slowly began to understand the story and even started relating their examples to the themes I had introduced in the lecture. The groups then reported their findings to the rest of the class, which became the foundation for our overall discussion about the text.

Reflecting through the pain: Of course, the biggest lesson that I took away from this experience was to reread any texts I plan on adding to a syllabus before finalizing the course schedule. I shouldn’t rely solely on my (potentially unreliable) memories of a text when making the decision to put it on a syllabus. If I was teaching “Ligeia” now as a more experienced instructor, I would spend time during the previous class preparing students to tackle this difficult reading, using pre-reading strategies similar to the ones Meagan mentioned in her reflection. With that said, I don’t regret assigning “Ligeia.” That class became an important teaching moment, for both me and my students. We worked through our collective frustration by using simple close reading strategies, ones that my students returned to again and again throughout the semester. In fact, the following week, I was shocked and, to be honest, relieved to find some of my students eagerly discussing the (also crazy) ending of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” before the start of class. I don’t think that discussion would have happened without having to struggle with “Ligeia” first.

Corinna Cook: 
The Course: Introduction to American Literature
The Text: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

The Play-by-Play: Feeling compelled to tackle the “so what” question (why read Emerson?), my idea was that the class would discuss transcendental ideals as they play out in the present, then work back through the text with an appreciation of Emerson’s objections to entrenched institutions in light of our own concerns about herd mentality. I gave a quiz (close reading style) on Emerson’s ideas about self/society, then we discussed a short documentary that makes an argument about transcendental experiences manifesting – and especially not manifesting – in contemporary American society. But my students were uncharacteristically accepting of the film’s argument that contemporary hustle and bustle has derailed the spirit of individuality, eroded attentiveness to nature, etc. In fact, they didn’t see anything to argue in the first place: the notion that screen culture impoverishes spirituality struck them as a point of fact, not perspective. I thought we’d have a conversation around the question, “do transcendental ideals figure into your own experiences of life?” but instead of conversation, we had consensus: nope, no tenets of Transcendentalism here. I pulled up a series of pop culture examples to unpack, including an advertisement for a clothing brand romanticizing figures like the lone skier shredding the pow in slow-motion and the rock climber seemingly miles above her belayer. But students weren’t seeing a connection: from their perspective, consumer culture has always included images of strong, driven people on glorious mountaintops – that’s just a normal way to sell tee-shirts, or cereal, or anything else – and by the time we had circled back to the text we were basically out of time.

Reflection: In trying to plan class around a philosophy, I skipped a crucial preparatory step. Students hadn’t grasped the big ideas I was asking them to identify and unpack in pop culture examples. We had been practicing close reading skills for several weeks by that point, and while they were getting better at explaining the significance of a single line, I made a mistake in assuming their attention to self/society at the line level in the quiz would give them a foundation from which to consider self/society at large. I scrambled to correct this in the next class on Walt Whitman by articulating four major points of Transcendentalism. It felt like a gross and hasty reduction of a whole movement, but with these four points on the board, students were not only able to find examples in Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” but they also found complicating examples in which Whitman’s poem departs from transcendental ideals. Debate about contemporary experiences followed naturally—some students equated social media with anti-transcendentalist conformity (spiritually corrosive), but others argued spirituality is alive and well in social media experiences (such as in following Pope Francis on Twitter). The problem with the Emerson class is painfully obvious in retrospect—students need to break a text down before synthesizing its ideas. The takehome: a great class first makes a complicated text simple, then makes it complicated again.

We all grew a lot as teachers from experiencing these failures. Some were bigger than others, but all had an impact on our current practices. Please feel free to comment or message us with your own failures. Let’s not hide from our failures but see what we can learn from them!