by Kerim on March 13th, 2012
I recently applied for “academic promotion” from Assistant to Associate Professor. I’m still awaiting the results, but I wanted to share part of that process with you: the ubiquitous “statement of teaching philosophy.” As this is something many people also struggle with in job applications, I thought I’d talk a little about the genre and share my own statement in full. Sharing my statement takes a little guts, as I really struggled to write an honest statement as opposed to the kind of jargon and cliché ridden statements I’ve seen when sitting on the other side of a job search committee, or when looking for sample documents on the web. (Rex sent me this page on writing such documents and the “Rubric for Statements of Teaching Philosophy” included there is one of the few genuinely helpful documents I found.)
Why is this statement so hard to write? Well, for one thing, I think it makes us painfully aware of the gap between our teaching ideals and our actual classroom practices. We can talk all we want about various teaching philosophies, but much of what most teachers do in the classroom is essentially the same. Even Mike Wesch, who wrote here about his theory of anti-teaching, has more recently written about “why good classes fail“:
In fact, the few truly fantastic classes I have stumbled into were just as likely to be “sage on the stage” lectures as they were to be based on more participatory methods. And the disheartening reality has been that a really bad lecture doesn’t fail as badly as a really poorly executed participatory class. Many of these professors seem to do everything “right.” They ask their students questions, pause and let them discuss with their neighbors, show YouTube videos that relate to their own experience, and invite discussion. But disinterest and disengagement still reign. Why?
I appreciate Wesch’s thoughts on this, and I strongly recommend reading the whole piece. (And look forward to his forthcoming book on teaching.) There is also an article about his re-think in the Chronicle. I mention it because it gives me comfort in the more modest approach I’ve taken in my own statement of teaching philosophy. I talk, for instance, about making my goals explicit. This may not seem like much, but in practice I’ve found that it is very difficult to do well and also very helpful to students when done properly. It isn’t the kind of thing that gets one written up in the Chronicle, but it is something I’ve thought long and hard about. It isn’t just about writing a good syllabus, but about spending time in class teaching one’s expectations and the reasons behind them. (In my case we actually created a whole new course to accomplish this goal.)
I hope my document is useful for others working on articulating their own teaching philosophy. I also think it highlights some of the unique challenges I face teaching here in Taiwan and might be interesting even for those not planning on writing such a statement anytime soon.
Statement of Teaching Philosophy
Throughout my teaching career, whether as an adjunct professor at Temple University, a visiting professor at Haverford College, or as an assistant professor at Dong Hwa University’s College of Indigenous Studies, I have sought to develop my teaching skills in such a way so as to keep students with divergent backgrounds and skill levels engaged and challenged by the same class. One way I’ve found to do that is to articulate a range of goals I wish students to acquire, and to articulate those goals clearly to students. Not only does this give the less well trained students something to work towards, but because goals are not necessarily acquired sequentially, even the more advanced students are able to discover gaps in their training which they should focus upon. This approach has two advantages. First of all, being explicit about one’s goals helps compensate for the way educational institutions tend to unfairly advantage students from privileged backgrounds. As Bourdieu and Passeron famously noted, educational institutions often indirectly reward practices which the privileged members of society have already inculcated in the home: language, self-presentation, literacy practices, etc. By clearly defining expectations, and by breaking these skills down into their component parts, I believe I am able to create a more equitable classroom environment. Because a single class is insufficient to compensate for the marked differences , I also worked with my colleagues at Dong Hwa to develop a class in “Basic Study Skills” which is now required for all first year students in my department.
The second advantage to defining a broad range of goals for student performance is that it allows for students to engage with the material in different ways. While I strongly believe in the central importance of reading and writing in developing critical thinking, I have found that many students who have difficulty engaging with the written word can perform very well in other kinds of exercises: oral presentations, oral exams, group discussions, and even producing short plays or films for class. Inspired by Howard Gardner’s theory of “multiple intelligences,” I try to ensure that students who might otherwise feel shut-out have a chance to engage with the class material in ways best suited to their own style of learning. Many of our students at the College of Indigenous Studies come from rural areas where they lacked access to the cram schools so common in Taiwanese urban environments. Many have spent a lot of time engaged in church activities, where there is often a more performative approach to learning. By valuing orality and performativity within the classroom , these students are at less of a disadvantage. Having a wide-range of goals can be just as important for Ph.D. students as it is for undergrads, albeit for different reasons. Graduate students tend to have strong reading and writing skills, but can often lack the performative skills which make for an effective teacher or communicator. Working on these skills is an essential part of their professional training.
As a foreigner in Taiwan, I’ve faced some unique challenges. The poor English ability of many of our students has meant that I’ve had to become an effective lecturer in Chinese. I’ve long prided myself on my ability to explain complex concept in simple, direct, language, but I’ve had to complement that by working hard at creating visual presentations which help illustrate my ideas so as to avoid any chance of confusion. I’ve also had to become a keen student of popular culture so as to find examples students can relate to. But lecturing has been only part of the challenge. Classroom practices which had been effective in American classrooms did not work as expected with Taiwanese students. Students here are often far more reluctant to express strong views or ask questions in class. I’ve dealt with this in several ways: I assign groups to come up with questions collectively, so no one student is put on the spot, I ask students to talk about the topic in terms of their own experience, so that they don’t feel there is a chance that they will make a mistake in public, and I’ve created online discussion groups for all my classes so that students can say things in writing that they might not feel comfortable saying in the classroom.
Social science requires learning how to see one’s own society as an outsider might see it, and to attempt to think about other societies as a local might think about them. For students who have little experience traveling outside their own country this can be a difficult challenge, but the best ethnographies and documentary films are designed to accomplish just such a task. Unfortunately, much of this work is produced with an American or European audience in mind. I have worked hard over the past five years, constantly revising my syllabi so as to select the materials which accomplish this goal while remaining accessible to my students. I’ve discovered that a well written English text can sometimes be more useful than a poor Chinese translation. And I’ve learned where students need some historical or ethnographic context in order to be able to meaningful engage with the material. Following my emphasis on clearly articulated goals, I also work hard to break down the process of reading an academic text into a series of smaller steps by asking students to identify the main themes of a text, the nature of the data and the methodology used. At the same time, especially when using English texts, I try to move students away from doing word-by-word translations by teaching them how to approach the text as an organic whole. I firmly believe that there is a direct correlation between the skills developed by doing close critical readings of texts, and the ability to think critically about society.