30 September 2010

The truth about teaching statements

Almost every tenure-track job ad includes some language that says, “Tell us about your teaching.” Sometimes it’s called a statement of “teaching philosophy,” sometimes a statement of “teaching interests,” or something else.

Those teaching statements are often the weakest thing in the job application, in my experience.*

There are a couple of reasons for this. Many tenure-track applicants have distorted views of teaching responsibilities, because many of them were trained as doctoral students and post-docs at the biggest research institutions. That is to say, institutions with the biggest research programs, the greatest pressure to generate data and publish, and the lowest teaching loads.

Plus, institutions generally doesn’t have to invest in someone’s teaching career in the same way as they have to invest in someone’s research career. Lecture halls don’t have to be renovated for a new instructor, but labs often have to be refurbished for a new researcher. The infrastructure for teaching is already in place.

The result is that job applicants will write research statements that go on for pages, single spaced, with an exhaustive list of references. Documents that show someone has put in a great deal of thought and preparation.

Them, you get a half a page about teaching with no details or specifics. They often wallow in vague generalities, like, “My students will learn critical thinking skills.”

In contrast to the scholarship displayed for the research statements, I rarely see evidence of scholarship regarding teaching. I can’t think of one time where I’ve seen someone refer to the science education literature in their teaching statements, for instance.

Another specific thing you can mention in a teaching statement is whether there are any existing classes in the course catalogue that you might want to teach. There are cases where a department is specifically trying to hire someone to teach an existing class. You can sometimes glean that from the job ad if specific classes are mentioned. We have had positions where one of the listed expectations was, “The successful candidate will teach BIOL 3333,” but when asked to list course they could teach, they don’t mention the one course specifically mentioned in the job ad! Ooops.

The follow-up to that is what courses you’d like to develop. Obviously, both of these require you do your homework, and read the catalogue of the institution you’re applying to.

What am I looking for in a teaching statement?

The level of experience is not critical as long as you have some. Most people applying for tenure-track jobs are going to have experience as teaching assistants (TAs) in labs. Some might have a few guest lectures. Very rare is the person who will have done an entire class.

It is important that you convey a positive attitude about teaching. One of the shocks that I got when I moved to the review and hiring side of the search process was the number of job candidates who give you the distinct impression that they see teaching – particularly teaching undergraduates – as a terrible burden to them. One that they want to get out of as fast as possible.

A lot of job candidates take themselves out of the pool with this contemptuous attitude.

Admittedly, I’m at an institution that is not a research intensive one with a lot of doctoral programs, but I’m willing to bet that many search committees at places with greater research capabilities are not going to ignore bad teaching.

* And what is my experience? I’ve been on search committees most of the years I’ve been here, usually searching for two or more positions a year.

Photo by icentralarkansas on Flickr, and used under a Creative Commons license.


Bjørn Østman said...

Zen, thanks for sharing this insight. It is really highly valuable for me. Keep it coming.

Miss MSE said...

Do you have recommendations for those of who are interested in teaching positions, but have minimal access to teaching experience in our graduate programs? Because I'm in a small field, the majority of courses are taught by professors, and while one semester of TAing is required to graduate, it's rare to get any additional teaching experience beyond that.

Zen Faulkes said...

Miss MSE: Being a TA is a completely acceptable level of teaching experience for an entry level job. Just one semester might be a little on the low side, so if you have the opportunity to TA more than once, I would take it.

Another option is to ask profs if you can give an occasional guest lecture. Maybe they're going away for a conference for a couple of days, for instance, and you can cover their classes. If your profs are there to see you lecture, that can also help them write better letters of recommendation, since they've seen you in action, so to speak.

If you can get on the short list for an on site interview, people will be looking very strongly at your departmental research seminar for evidence of your communication skills. That job seminar is a very high stakes talk; you need to "stick the landing" on it.

Tracy said...

Thanks for the insight. I have a well developed teaching philosophy. But I now need teaching philosophy and a separate reasearch scholarship statement for an teaching only position. You did give me a starting point.

Bill Skaggs said...

Have you considered the possibility that those people are simply being honest? To many of us teaching is a huge burden -- I have never been able to put as much attention as I wanted into research during a semester while I was teaching.