Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Teaching Statements

Most philosophy instructors have had to produce a teaching statement at one point, either in the attempt to get a job or receive promotion/tenure. Professor Kevin Haggerty, at the University of Alberta, claims that "Teaching Statements are Bunk."

Haggerty says,
The first suspicion that there is something insincere about teaching statements derives from the fact that almost every author professes to love teaching. Cumulatively, this pandemic of instructional ardor strikes a dissonant note when compared with the routine activities of academics, many of whom spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to secure release time from teaching. That is, when they're not complaining about the petty hassles of coordinating teaching assistants, dealing with "grade grubbers," writing reference letters for undergraduates they could barely identify in a police lineup, evaluating essays, ordering textbooks, completing copyright permission forms, revising syllabi, learning the latest instructional software, and worrying about the time all of that takes away from other academic pursuits. Such grumblings dominate the hallway conversations of most faculty members I know.
...This, then, is a plea for greater specificity in reflections on the techniques and tactics used in teaching. I have learned almost nothing useful from the smattering of statements that I have read, but my students and I have benefited enormously from pragmatic lessons that colleagues have passed along about how they coordinate assignments over the course of a term, train teaching assistants, craft course outlines, remember students' names, and organize online resources.
Haggerty argues that we should be concrete when constructing teaching statements, rather than speaking in general and nearly universally-expressed abstractions. I think he's right in many ways, but then the crafting of a teaching statement is nearly useless, and perhaps irrational to require, of a job applicant with limited teaching experience (say, a freshly-minted PhD). On second thought, it might be quite reasonable to require such a statement from a new PhD, because it may be more difficult to give concrete and pragmatic lessons learned about teaching rather than the standard general claims about "instilling a love for philosophy in my students," "not teaching them what to think, but how to think," "showing students the relevance of philosophy," and other such statements contained within the standard teaching statement.


  1. Haggerty certainly seems cynical about how academics approach teaching, but I have to say that I'm mostly in agreement with his view that, as tools for evaluating prospective teaching quality or performance, teaching statements are not useful. As he states elsewhere in the piece:

    "Teaching philosophies are a performance, a ritualized symbolic moment in which professors are expected to articulate the university's proclaimed values in its preferred rhetoric."

    That's been my observation as well — that most every statement of teaching philosophy echoes certain tropes. Teaching statements usually end up being mostly about uncontroversial or banal goals, with a smattering of broad statements about techniques. But of course anyone can profess allegiance to goals while still utterly failing in helping students to meet those goals! A long way of saying that good teaching is mostly about means rather than ends. Better, as he puts it, to have people talk teaching specifics than expound a general "teaching philosophy."

  2. Regarding cynicism, I agree, as many professors who are at research-oriented schools still are conscientious and seek to excel in the classroom. And I am in agreement with much of what he says as well. The teaching philosophy/statement that is a part of job dossiers is much more interesting and helpful if it contains practical specifics, rather than abstract and idealistic generalizations.


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