Teaching Teaching Statements

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written here before about my entering the infamous Job Market and its rampant anxiety concerning the State of Academia and developing Job Materials. Of the latter, I found the teaching statement the most baffling. A writing sample was as straightforward as its name, and CVs and cover letters were familiar and almost even fun. But a statement about my teaching philosophy sounded very abstract and profound. Where would I even start?

Though I didn’t expect to be asked for a statement, going alt-ac as I was, I still wanted to write one—mostly out of paranoia. It would be useful to have, I told myself, just in case.

My first attempt was terrible. I took it to the UWC, and while talking with my consultant, I realized my teaching statement read how I felt—anxious, self-conscious, and more like I was trying to convince myself than anyone else. When my consultant asked if I had a particular job posting in mind, I admitted that I did not, but I was looking alt-ac. She hummed thoughtfully, and then asked about my writing center experience—none of which was in my statement. Where was my administrative skill? My project management and interdepartmental collaboration? Wouldn’t my audience want those experiences just as much, if not more? She was right, of course, and when a job posting appeared soon after asking for a Statement of Administrative Philosophy, I already had a hybrid document that more or less fit the bill.

I relied again on that initial consultation when I taught a cohort of TAs in the School of Undergraduate Studies (UGS) about teaching statements. My consultant had referred me to Karen Kelsky’s The Professor is In (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2015), and I, in turn, referred the TAs to it. We reviewed Kelsky’s whole rigamarole of common mistakes: don’t be sappy, emotional, or overly humble; be specific and concise; a story’s nice, but evidence is better; connect it to your research, but don’t just repeat your CV; tailor it to your audience. 

Then, we took those dos and don’ts and looked at some sample statements in a short activity: the TAs were members of a job committee, hiring an instructor for a UGS course. Like any regular job committee, they had limited time to look over applications—here, only five minutes to review and annotate each sample teaching statement before they had to reconvene and decide which candidate would be called for an interview and which would be politely rejected.

I urged them to be as critical as they wanted—“Rip ‘em apart,” I said.

And they did: they tore into the statements’ language and framing; cliché phrases and flowery platitudes; unexplained jargon and empty buzzwords; perceived arrogance or uncertainty; tacked-on metaphors not carried through. One statement was shredded for having vague goals and meaningless outcomes, another for having examples that did not fit the writer’s claims.

“It doesn’t say anything,” one frustrated TA bemoaned. “The ideas aren’t even connected—they’re just put next to each other for no reason. It’s nonsense!”

However, the TAs also found positive points to balance the negative. One teaching statement was applauded for careful hedging that avoided blanket assumption; another had a clear outline of goals, methods, formative assessment, and results.

Afterwards, I asked them the somewhat harder question—what, as future writers of statements likes these, would they do now? Two said they would be more careful with overlapping concepts, like pedagogy and philosophy. For them, the important lesson was one of organizing the statement to give a sense of progress and purpose.

For another TA, the important takeaway was to frame the statement well.

“I want to use a narrative,” she said. “I think that’d go better with an interdisciplinary audience, and I could use the story as the frame for my evidence.”

Her consideration of her audience was shrewd (and quickly endorsed), and it brought to mind another concern I had wanted to cover that day. I knew some of the TAs didn’t plan on going into teaching, and when prodded during the activity’s debrief, a few admitted they didn’t much see the point in writing a teaching statement.

In response, I emphasized how versatile a teaching statement could be for their job materials, how it can enable them to articulate the skills they’ve developed as TAs. Statements also showcase and emphasize “soft skills”—emotional intelligence, problem solving, self-awareness, etc.—which are highly transferable and much in demand of late. As Joan Marques elaborates in her article, “Understanding the Strength of Gentleness: Soft-Skilled Leadership on the Rise” (Journal of Business Ethics 116.1, 2015), the value of soft skills is increasingly recognized in business and management fields, especially as key traits of successful leadership.

Just because it’s a teaching statement, I continued, doesn’t mean it has to be only and forever a “teaching” statement.

I told them about that first, anxious statement I’d written, how it had also taken “teaching statement” a bit too literally, and how I’ve since adapted it for my other materials—relevant sections appeared in cover letters for jobs that didn’t want a statement of philosophy (teaching or otherwise), while others were adapted for jobs that wanted a different type of statement altogether (a Statement of Contribution to Diversity or an Evidence of Administrative Efficacy document, for example). But it had all started as a truly terrible attempt at a teaching statement.

So write one, I told them. Yes, it’s going to be terrible—let it be. Then revise it and revise it again until it is what you need it to be. Make it work for you, I said. It’s writing, and like all writing, it’s a process.