When I Say ‘Be Specific,’ What Do I Mean?

As I explained in last week’s post, I won’t be blogging for the next few months while I get the Professor Is In book written.  However, I had this post in draft form, so I’m putting it up.  After this I hope to solicit guest posts on a range of subjects. If you have any interest, please do email me at gettenure@gmail.com.  It can be anonymous or not, and be on advice for the job market or tenure track, or your own personal adjunct/job search story, etc. etc.  I welcome your inquiries and contributions!


One of the most common issues my clients have with the teaching portions of their cover letters, or with their teaching statements, is the lack of concrete, specific examples from the syllabus and the classrooms.  Show, don’t tell, is my general response in such cases.  Give specific examples that show something about who you are as a teacher.

But what is specific enough?  Over time, I have noticed that clients think they are being specific, even when they are not.  What happens is this: when someone moves away for the first time from the completely vague mish-mash of abstractions and says something, anything, concrete about classroom techniques, it seems like such a giant leap that I imagine clients going “ah!  THIS is what it means to show, not tell.”

And that is how clients fall into the trap of what I like to call “meso-level specificity.”  It is characterized by writing about teaching experience through cataloguing or listing specific kinds of things one does, but not giving any examples of how such techniques work out in a particular class, or with a specific student population.

For example, a typical client may start with a bad habit of telling, rather than showing.  Their teaching paragraph or teaching statement is likely to feature something like this:

“I am committed to the mission of liberal arts, and I ensure that my classroom is a space for creative expression and critical thinking alike.”

When I tell them, as I always do, that this is “vague blah blah,”  they move to meso-level specificity.  That looks something like this:

“I stress creative and critical thinking in all my classes.  For example, to develop creative writing skills, I give students regular writing prompts.  To train them in critical analysis, I design a sequence of in-class debates on topics relevant to the course topics; subsequently, students have to produce a position paper, drawing on those debates.”

Of course, if you start with fluffy musings on “the mission of liberal arts,” mentioning specific kinds of assignments seems like clarity and specificity.  But it is not.  It is still telling, not showing.

How does one make a leap from meso-level specificity to showing?  Through tethering any discussion of techniques to concrete classroom examples:

“I stress creative and critical thinking in all my classes.  For example, to cultivate creative writing skills in my Critical Theory students, I give them writing prompts—in five minutes, they have to improvise a conversation Foucault and Derrida might have had at a cocktail party, or write an ad for a missing pet from the perspective of Wittgenstein.  To train them in critical analysis, I design in-class debates and other collaborative assignments on topics relevant to the subject of the course.  In my Deviance and Control class, students debated whether gossip is a form of bullying, while in my Literature and Psychology seminar, students had to do a clinical intake of Hamlet to evaluate him as a potential patient.”

Don’t stop with meso-level specificity.  Make sure you discuss not only the kinds of teaching strategies you employ, but also specific examples of what they look like.

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When I Say ‘Be Specific,’ What Do I Mean? — 11 Comments

  1. Excellent advice. I think that many people struggle with the teaching statement, in part because most programs spend years training students on how to do research, and teaching is more of an incidental. So we learn the language for specifically describing our research, but do not have similar language for teaching, and end up using the vague wording you describe.

  2. Telling and Showing: As a philosophy candidate on the market having recently wrung my materials through the venerable Professor’s grist mill, I can only say this distinction is profound, and profoundly underthought. In fact, despite the name dropping in the last sentence (which I removed from everything but my teaching statements), Wittgenstein (the Investigations) and Derrida (cf. White Mythology) are good places to go to begin thinking this issue through. All this to say, while I find marketing and selling myself on the job MARKET entirely repulsive, Karen’s insight about showing and telling has made the process deeply provocative and edifying in this regard. Thanks. (Sorry about the dyad addiction, that’s much more metaphysical!)

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  4. Showing and not telling is a great advice, especially to showcase one’s inventiveness. But what about the other qualities, such as listening and creating a nurturing environment? An awful lot of what I do is not really “doing” (in the same sense of using a 5 minute prompt to make Hegel and Kant fight) — I listen. How do you show that?

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  6. Pingback: Another Teaching Statement Cliché: The Messiah- Narrative | The Professor Is In

  7. Pingback: Your Academic Cover Letter: Don’t Fall into the Cliché Trap About Teaching! | The Professor Is In

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