Your Academic Cover Letter: Don’t Fall into the Cliché Trap About Teaching!

By TPII editor extraordinaire, Verena Hutter

This is a continuation of our 2017 series on the Academic Cover Letter. Verena is walking us through the paragraphs of the cover letter.  Scroll back through the blog over the past 10 weeks or so for the preceding paragraphs: self-intro, current research, contribution, publications, and next project)~

Most clients find the teaching para and the teaching statement the hardest to write. This is mostly because they have been taught to talk and write about their research at nauseam, but not about their teaching. While many grad programs have caught on to this, and focus on training their graduate students better, teaching often is still treated as an afterthought. Moreover, we live in a culture that does not value teaching, and hides it in saccharine statements (and you all know what TPII thinks about that).

These days, most clients actively avoid the overly emotional teaching paras and statements, and they do try to follow the model of Show, don’t Tell. Yay!  That being said, they often fall into the cliché trap. Especially, but not exclusively, in the humanities and in the social sciences, clichés are as common as dirt (couldn’t resist here).

Clichés express a “popular and common thought or idea that has lost its originality and impact by long overuse” (thank you, which explains why they are so popular- chances are that we do share notions and ideas about teaching, that most of us who like teaching carry a certain percentage of Dead Poets’ Society Mr. Keating inside us. And that is fine! Especially in this shit shellacked era of stupid, we need good teachers.

Still, don’t retort to clichés, please.

Here are the clichés that pop up again and again in teaching paras:

  1. Methodological buzzwords: Socratic method, communicative approach, flipped classroom, skill-based pedagogy, active learning models, student-centered approach, Freirean/Diltheyan/famouspersonean Pedagogy, the list goes on. These approaches are all fine and good, but they won’t tell us much about YOUR teaching. In fact, if you’re telling us that you’re implementing so and so’s pedagogy, it comes across as if you didn’t think for yourself (something none of these pedagogic leaders would approve of). Instead, tell us what you want students to take away from your classes, and follow up with a concrete, specific example.
  2. Adjectives that are fine once, but don’t overuse them: critical, hands-on, real-world (that phrase needs to die anyway). Look at the following: “In my teaching, I stress critical thinking. In my course xxx, students first watch film yyy, to then critically analyze power relationships between the protagonists. In their final essays, I ask students to compare film yyy critically to a film of their choice. Students’ thoughtful interpretations then were read aloud in class and their classmates respectfully critiqued them.”  See the issue?  “critical” is there four times.  If everything is critical, nothing is.
  3. “My teaching, like my research…”- “My dedication to xxx also inspires my teaching”- Oy veh. Those are TPII sentences! They are true, but overused. You’ve probably read them in the sample docs! Unfortunately, at this point, please don’t use them any longer, they’ve become cliché as well.
  4. Hollow statements about your teaching: “My courses are entertaining and quickly paced, with enough time spent on each topic for all students to understand the material, but not so much to bore them”. – “I challenge students, without overwhelming them”- “I grade fairly and without bias”.   Why are these bad?  Because:  THIS KIND OF THING IS THE BARE MINIMUM AND IT IS EXPECTED OF YOU.   Instead, we need to know: What do you actually do in class? Remember, the SC hasn’t seen you teach, so you need to give us examples of what you do, not take us to common lowest denominator town.

This is a short list of the most common clichés. Avoid them like the plague.

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Your Academic Cover Letter: Don’t Fall into the Cliché Trap About Teaching! — 8 Comments

  1. Hi, this was a very helpful article but the expression is “ad nauseaum” not “at nauseaum”.

    Maybe this was just a typo, but it makes your following article seem less reliable because you don’t have the contextual knowledge or background to know this is Latin. Just an FYI.

  2. I am applying to an NTT position teaching an “Intro to Academic Research” (in the social sciences) course designed to prepare 1st year students. I think it would make sense to really foreground my experiences teaching intro level and interdisciplinary courses, but everything I am finding online says to stick to the same format. Introduction. Two Paragraphs on Dissertation. Publications. Future Research. Teaching.

    My question is, should you always put teaching last or should this format be tailored to the position?

    Thank you in advance!

    • I was recently told to include headings in my cover letter, such as “research agenda” and “teacher education”. I have looked at other cover letters in my field (education) and have not seen this for newbies coming out of a PhD program, but have noticed already tenured professors (associate) do this.

      Is this good advice, to add headings to my cover letter? Also, doing so makes it 3 pages long and I was trying to keep it short – but job calls have been saying no more than 4 pages. I’m not sure what to do. Thank you for your guidance!

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