Writing Better Teaching Philosophies

 

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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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Frankenstudents: Experimenting with Horror Narratives

Warning: Students may have a hard time grappling with the difficult emotions that horror evokes.

This is a warning that I frequently hear when I ask other instructors about their experiences teaching horror narratives. Horror often strikes a deeply personal, intimate chord that can make students feel uncomfortable when reading, discussing, and writing about horror. Strong feelings of discomfort, as we all know, can potentially poison a course.

This semester, I’m teaching an upper level class on the horror novel. Like many of my fellow instructors, I work to make my classroom a safe environment, but the nature of horror challenges that safety, sometimes resulting in student pushback. While I have a number of students who consider themselves “fans” of the genre, I also have students who don’t. Furthermore, even some of my self-proclaimed “fans,” especially those whose fandom is grounded in popular horror tv series like The Walking Dead or The Strain, find themselves unprepared, at times, to deal with the graphic nature of certain texts like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1983) or Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart (1986).

Pet SemataryThe Hellbound Heart

Therefore, it’s important to find a methodology that allows students to engage with difficult emotions that they otherwise wouldn’t want to discuss in ways that are productive and non-alienating.

Developing My Methodology

According to Allison Whitney, “[Student] resistance is particularly strong when dealing with a genre like horror, one that trades in the baser emotions of fear, disgust, shock, and arousal, and which many perceive (sometimes justifiably) as exploitative, sadistic, or motivated by prurient interest” (38). Of course, we can’t just ignore or avoid discussing these difficult emotions because they are, as Whitney asserts, “central to human experience” (38). Focusing on such emotions, she argues, is “crucial to understanding [a horror narrative’s] rhetorical, social, political, and aesthetic properties” (38), and I agree.

I find that the best method to help students meaningfully work through their emotional reactions to horror narratives is initially to put some objective distance between themselves and their emotions. In other words, students should step back from their emotions and examine them “clinically”—as if they were analyzing someone else’s emotions and not their own.

Instead of treating emotions as subjective and personal, my students are the observers of an “experiment” in which emotions are “lab specimens” to be dissected and analyzed. As weird as it sounds—this method really works.

To get students thinking “clinically” about their emotional responses to horror narratives, they read several critical essays by Noël Carroll, a foundational horror scholar who pulled the genre out of the trash and into the realm of academia. According to Carroll, horror texts “cue” the audience’s emotional responses. More specifically, the emotional reactions of audience members generally run parallel to the emotional reactions of the character(s) the audience members identify with.

Carroll writes, “This mirroring-effect…is a key feature of the horror genre. For it is not the case for every genre that the audience response is supposed to repeat certain of the elements of the emotional state of characters” (18). For example, Carroll explains, “When a comic character takes a pratfall, he hardly feels joyous, though we do. And though we feel suspense when the hero rushes to save the heroine tied to the railroad tracks he cannot afford to indulge in such an emotion” (18). On the contrary, in horror, “emotions of the characters and those of the audience are synchronized in certain pertinent respects” (18).

The parallel between character emotions and audience emotions thus, according to Carroll, “suggests a way in which we can formulate an objective, as opposed to an introspective, picture of emotion…rather than characterizing art-horror solely on the basis of our own subjective responses, we can ground our conjectures on observations of the way in which characters respond to the monsters in works of horror” (18).

By studying the emotional responses of characters, Carroll concludes, “Works of horror…teach us, in large measure, the appropriate way to respond to them. Unearthing those cues or instructions is an empirical matter, not an exercise in subjective projection” (31).

To facilitate “clinically” reading, discussing, and writing about horror, I use Allison Whitney’s “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” assignment. A “segmentation,” Whitney explains, “provides a scene-by-scene outline of [a] film, noting its major narrative events” (51). Although Whitney’s assignment is intended for the analysis of horror films, it is highly adaptable to horror literature. A literary segmentation still requires a unit-by-unit breakdown of a text in which the beginning and end of a unit is marked by a shift in space, time, and/or action. Whitney also has her students read Carroll’s commentary on horror cuing audience emotions, which serves as the assignment’s theoretical foundation.

The Assignment

The “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” consists of three stages. I explain these stages as I have adapted them for literary analysis:

Stage 1: The Narrative Segmentation. In the form of a chart, students break down a text (either a complete short story or a chapter from a novel) into its major narrative units. In their brief descriptions of narrative events, students must identify the emotional states of characters. This segmentation anticipates how character emotions may cue reader response in the next stage.

Stage 2: The Emotional Segmentation. In a second chart, students document the various emotional responses they felt in relation to material on the narrative segmentation.

For this segmentation, my student scientists—even the mad scientists!—need effective tools of analysis. Students work with Carl Plantinga’s classification of “spectator emotions,” developed in Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience. Again, although Plantinga developed his taxonomy for film, I find six of the emotional categories he presents applicable to literature. Here’s how I have adapted Plantinga’s classification system (69) for literary application:

1) Global Emotions: Emotions that span all or much of a text’s duration, such as anticipation or suspense.
2) Direct Emotions: Emotions that concern narrative events and the unfolding of the story, such as curiosity about what will happen or confusion after an unexpected turn of events.
3) Local Emotions: Emotions that are typically brief, such as being startled by a graphic image or surprised by something a character says.
4) Sympathetic/Antipathetic Emotions: Emotions that take as their object the condition of characters, such as worrying about a character in danger or feeling disdain for a villain.
5) Meta-Emotions: Responses to one’s own emotions, such as feeling guilty for misjudging a character or feeling proud that you anticipated a plot twist.
6) Artifact Emotions: Responses to the text as a “constructed artifact.” These emotions are not preoccupied with elements of the fiction, but rather with the text as a product of creative activity. For example, one might feel admiration for a writer’s use of various literary devices or annoyance at a writer’s use of a cliché.

Stage 3: The Emotional Analysis Essay: Based on the narrative and emotional segmentations, students must develop an argument about a text’s emotional structure. In the analysis, students must comment on how the text cues their emotional responses and explain how these emotional responses contribute to the text’s overall meaning.

Important questions students must consider when writing the emotional analysis include:

How do your emotional reactions influence your interpretations? What are the similarities and differences between character emotions and your emotions? Are you surprised by any of your emotional reactions? How does the author solicit emotional states to build suspense, encourage or discourage character identification, or produce reactions of fright, shock, and/or disgust? Are there any moments in the text where you experience multiple emotions or conflicting emotions?

Students’ Work

The Birds

For the first “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” assignment, my students wrote about Daphne Du Maurier’s short story “The Birds” (1952). I was impressed with the diverse range of arguments they developed for the emotional structure of the text. Here are some of my students’ intriguing thesis claims:

“While the characters must fight through fear and prioritize their survival, readers have the ability to scrutinize the actions of characters and revisit character responses with judgement. It is this ability to reflect which helped form my emotional response as I am more empathetic when the characters involuntarily experience trauma and less compassionate when they voluntarily place themselves in jeopardy.”

“Throughout ‘The Birds,’ I found myself wanting to have Nat Hocken’s logical mindset, but I struggled because I identified with Nat’s unnamed wife who is more emotional. Since Nat remains calm and rational, I found him more trustworthy and reliable than his emotional wife, which means that under the same circumstances, I might be unreliable.”

“In ‘The Birds,’ the main character Nat Hocken champions the idea that the avian enemy is motivated by hunger and changes in the season. During my segmentation, I was surprised at the number of emotions I had dedicated to an alternate answer: that, in fact, the birds were more nefarious than Nat presumes. Certain passages contrast emotion and reasoning to challenge the idea that the birds are motivated by pure instinct, and, in some cases, suggest a self-awareness or sentience in the birds. This conflict creates an uncomfortable air of anxiety.”

“Once I reread the ending of ‘The Birds’ for the emotional segmentation, I realized that Nat demonstrates how using intelligence and rationality in uncontrollable circumstances is sometimes just as futile as acting on emotion and not thinking at all.”

For those interested in Whitney’s “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” assignment, she discusses it thoroughly, including the assignment prompt itself and a sample segmentation in the article “Thinking/Feeling: Emotion, Spectatorship, and the Pedagogy of Horror.”

Works Cited

Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. Routledge, 1990.

Plantinga, Carl. Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience. U of
California P, 2009.

Whitney, Allison. “Thinking/Feeling: Emotion, Spectatorship, and the Pedagogy of Horror.” The CEA Forum, Winter/Spring 2014, pp. 37-61.