The Retrospective Essay

The Assignment

When I introduce my literature course’s Final Essay – a reflective writing assignment – I ask students to consider the meaning of “reflection.” A reflection is a pause: it involves turning to look back, and to reconsider something thought or done in the past from the perspective of the present.

‘Maintenance III (Self Portrait)’ by William Anastasi (1967).

The Final Essay assignment asks students to integrate scene and reflection to demonstrate their most important learning from the semester. Students must address two distinct areas of thought: content knowledge and self-knowledge. Our class theme is “Human, Animal, Humanimal,” so in the area of content knowledge, I expect students to (1) consider something they’ve learned about the major questions driving human/animal discourse, or (2) discuss an insight about issues of representation in a particular work. In the area of self-knowledge, I invite students to surprise me. I remind them that because our course incorporates several student-led projects, they may choose to reflect on realizations they’ve reached either in collaboration with peers or in public speaking roles. However, I also invite students to reach outside of class: perhaps a class conversation strangely found its way into Thanksgiving dinner? If so, what did they learn about themselves while translating a topic from school to family?

The last detail of this assignment is form: I spend the semester coaching literature students in close reading skills and in the writerly moves they can (and must!) use to convey analysis. But in this Final Essay, I want them to write differently. Why? So that they also take a stab at thinking differently.

Because this is not a course in creative writing, they have only two class periods in which to learn, experiment, and practice a small handful of creative techniques of craft. However, even minimal instruction in active scene writing can be eye-opening. I try to be transparent to students about the purpose to formal variation with declarations like this one: “your brain will think differently when you are writing in a formal academic voice – than when you are writing in a spunky, edgy voice – than when you are writing in a dramatic, voluptuous voice.”

The language from the assignment sheet is fairly simple:

In my own writing, moments in which I am compelled to turn something over in my mind are my most generative. These instances of pause lead me to make unexpected connections. Reflection is a space for strange insights to emerge, and for persistent questions to grow all the more slippery. Anecdotes from my own creative writing process come in handy when students feel lost with the assignment, or are getting knotted up trying to figure out what I “want.” Illustrating some of my own exploratory surprises gives them permission to experiment as well.

Lesson Sequence

  • Helen Macdonald essay & Backward Outline exercise

Helen Macdonald’s essay, “What Animals Taught Me About Being Human” provides students with a formal model. They read the essay first as literary critics, analyzing the essay’s literary representation of animals by applying tools they’ve honed over the course of the semester.

Students read the essay secondly as writers investigating structure – something with which they have far less experience, and for which I thus provide more guidance. In a Backward Outline exercise, students create a color-codedstructural map of the essay’s components in its margins. They identify “scene” and “reflection” in contrasting colors, describing patterns in the ratio of scene to reflection and in the frequency of each. They also summarize the “nugget of insight” or the “kernel of truth” revealed in each reflective passage. The Final Essay assignment asks students to mimic Macdonald’s structure – that is, to integrate important moments from class or collaboration outside of class, important textual excerpts (since this is a literature course), and reflection from the perspective of the present looking back to meditate on the weight of those turning points.

  • Brainstorm Goulash

Following a series of in-class, memory-sparking fastwrites (Lynda Barry’s Kitchen Table exercise described in this conversation is a favorite), students take home a series of six short prompts designed to get them thinking back in lively ways about class experiences.

  • Reflection Activity

While the Brainstorm Goulash prepares students to write about specific experiences, the in-class reflection activity is key in preparing them to mimic Macdonald’s mixture of scene and reflection. Students have a series of brief, structured conversations with different partners. The question sequence is designed to open from the easy, most apparent narrative, and reveal another layer of insight.

  • Peer Review Workshop

Students exchange essays in small groups on a Friday and reconvene for discussion the following Monday, guided by Bill Hart-Davidson’s “Describe, Evaluate, Suggest” feedback heuristic. As in a traditional writer’s workshop, they write their group members a feedback letter responding to specific questions I supply ahead of time.

Two Example Student Approaches

One student is polishing an essay bookended by two – very different – trips he took to the zoo, and is honing in on the realization that content from the critical articles we’ve studied is reconfiguring his relationship with his mother. This is an example of an especially personal and vulnerable Final Essay.

One student is polishing an essay that grapples with the ramifications of a single comment made by a classmate, “Marjane Satrapi is an unreliable narrator.” Invested in critiquing that perspective, this student is doubling down on her analysis of The Complete Persepolis and interrogating her own motivations as a journalism major. This is an example of a more argumentative and philosophic Final Essay.


Writing this post has clarified for me a principle of my own pedagogy. Early in the semester, I foster a burst of exploration and experimentation. Then I want students to buckle down: class expectations are strict, consistent, and build on one another – exams I and II are the major benchmarks, here. Then, at the end of the semester, I want students to shake off the formal strictures we’ve used to gain a progression of skills. I want them to return to exploration and experimentation, find unexpected uses for the work they’ve done, and in doing so, teach me how the study of literature fits into a life.


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.