• August 22, 2014

What's Your Teaching Philosophy?

It's time to overhaul a foolish job-application requirement

Advice Illustration Teaching 05-13-09

Brian Taylor

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close Advice Illustration Teaching 05-13-09

Brian Taylor

The season for academic job hunting is upon us. It's a time when graduate students sweat the details of their applications. It's also a time when they all become philosophers—well, philosophers of teaching, anyway.

Not every institution requires job applicants to submit a "teaching philosophy'" statement, but enough of them do that it seems no graduate student on the market today can escape having to write one. And not just in the humanities. I've read statements written by students in many other fields, including the sciences.

The requirement is especially common at colleges with heavy course loads, where teaching is more closely scrutinized and weighs more heavily in tenure decisions.

Hiring committees at those colleges must have a tough time because teaching philosophies account for some of the most tiresome reading that academe has to offer (and that's saying something). But those committee members can't be as tired as the graduate students who write the things. I've helped many a student craft a teaching philosophy during my years as an adviser, placement director, and graduate chair. The writers always suffer through the task.

Nor do the results justify the pain. Most of the teaching philosophies I've read have ranged from forgettable to terrible. And why shouldn't they? "Teaching philosophy" is a misbegotten genre.

Ever-escalating application requirements amount to professional cruelty.

It's a genre that has nonetheless penetrated the profession. Teaching statements proliferate because employers seek more and more ways to make distinctions among better- and better-qualified job candidates. To separate them, we give them more and more hoops to jump through, such as the absurd demand that they cast a philosophical eye back on a career that they haven't even started yet. These ever-escalating application requirements amount to professional cruelty, and the rise of the teaching philosophy illustrates that.

Who ever heard of someone with fewer than five years of experience at a job having a "philosophy" of how to perform it? I've been teaching at the college level for about 30 years, and I don't have a teaching philosophy either—unless you call "follow your nose and steal what looks good" a philosophy of teaching.

Who ever heard of young people having a well-thought-out philosophy of anything? We might expect experienced savants—and only some of those—to have philosophies of life or work. Yet here we are asking our apprentices to come up with these statements. No wonder the results are lackluster.

Defenders of the teaching philosophy may accuse me of fussing about a name. To which I would answer, first of all, that names are important. They establish expectations—and in the case of teaching philosophies, expectations of the most burdensome sort.

Second, it's not just a matter of a name. Let's imagine that we could all agree on a more neutral name for this troublesome document—call it just a "teaching statement," say. That would solve the problem of ponderousness, but not of expectation. It would still leave the job candidate struggling to find something summative to say about her approach to a profession she only recently entered.

Defenders of the teaching philosophy, who seem as rare as hunchbacked giraffes (I know I've never seen one), might say that I'm just being uptight. Of course graduate students don't have a full-blown philosophy, this argument goes, but we're just asking them to talk about their teaching. It's a useful exercise, in other words.

Useful exercises have their place. We ask applicants to Ph.D. programs to project forward to a dissertation topic, for example. On its face, that convention is silly, too: Applicants want to go to graduate school in order to learn to write a dissertation, so how can they describe what's in it ahead of time? But we should remember that we're asking applicants to think of a plausible thesis topic, not expatiate on their research philosophy. Everyone understands that the exercise is a fiction, but it's a useful fiction. That's because when writers embrace it, readers get to watch the minds of potential doctoral students at work on a revealing task.

A teaching philosophy is not a useful exercise. Instead, it's what writing teachers would call "a bad prompt."

Bad prompts produce bad writing from good writers. A bad prompt confuses its respondents. When a discussion leader asks a badly phrased question, it produces blank looks. Bad prompts do the same thing. "Write your teaching philosophy" is a bad prompt because writers may not understand what is being asked. (For that matter, I'm not sure that those doing the prompting are so sure, either.)

More often, a bad prompt steers writers away from what they know. It throws them into unfamiliar terrain that doesn't allow them to show their skills. They try to embrace the task, but they can't get their arms around it, so their attempts look mechanical, even clumsy.

I recall only one excellent teaching philosophy in my career. I'd like to say it was my own, but mine was lost to posterity years ago when my laptop was stolen. I have no memory of what I wrote, which is the surest indication that posterity isn't missing much.

The fine entry I'm thinking of was written by a computer scientist. He spoke of his work teaching people how to read at his local public library, and of the courses he hoped to design if hired. His account was vivid and specific. It's worth pointing out, though, that he was applying to only one college. Also of note: The author was already past 50, a veteran of another career who was already comfortably employed but looking for a specific new job. Put simply, the situation and the candidate were exceptional. (P.S. He got the job.)

The computer scientist's teaching philosophy stood out not only because of the writer's maturity but also because he knew enough to ground himself in the particulars. He wasn't really "philosophizing" at all.

How might we redesign the teaching-philosophy prompt to ask younger and less-experienced candidates to do the same thing?

We need to prompt for the particulars that we want to see. Because the particulars of a new teacher's work and interests are what we're interested in, right? Asking for a "teaching philosophy" (or a "teaching statement") drops a grand piano of expectation out the window onto the applicant's head.

I have a simple alternative: Let's ask for an annotated course syllabus designed by the applicant.

What to include would be up to the writer. The annotations could describe the arc of the course, the sequence of the assignments, or the reason for assigning one reading instead of another. Those explanations might even get—dare I say it?—philosophical, but within the framework of a particular course plan.

A syllabus provides a skeleton that's individual and particular to begin with. I've found over the years that I can learn a lot about teachers—apprentice or otherwise—by looking at their syllabi. An annotated syllabus supplies even more information. If the reader's goal is to learn something about how a graduate student approaches the work of teaching, we could do worse than to ask for an annotated syllabus.

Actually, we're doing a lot worse now. So let's ask our students to talk about their teaching in a way that they—and we—can understand and learn something from. And let's allow them to delay becoming philosophers until they have at least a gray hair or two.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at lcassuto@erols.com.

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