Damning Yourself With Faint Praise–Teaching Edition

For some reason people love to include undergraduate student feedback in the teaching paragraph of their job letters, and that feedback usually looks like this (from an actual letter):

“Former students have consistently told me that I give helpful feedback on papers and in meetings about assignments, as well as stimulate interesting and informative class discussions.

Really?   This is the best you can do?

This is called damning yourself with faint praise. If this is the best you can come up with for student feedback, then don’t include student feedback in your letter.

In point of fact, I do not endorse including student feedback in your job letter because I think that it’s generally seen as exceptionally self-serving.  But when clients give me drafts that have a single student response that really stands out as original and compelling, I let it stay.

But claiming that you give helpful feedback does not qualify as original or compelling. Neither does going out of your way to claim that you stimulate informative class discussions.

These are both so weak as teaching achievements that the fact that you went out of your way to mention them does little but cast a wide doubt on your classroom abilities.

Again, I encourage you to simply describe your teaching in the teaching paragraph, and possibly include a single mean teaching evaluation score if you wish (I’m ambivalent about that as well, though—I don’t like to see numbers intrude on a good paragraph).  But feedback from students is treacherous, because undergrads are usually painfully inarticulate, if not indifferent, and you don’t want your case resting on their faint and unfocused  words.

[This applies to interviews too].

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Damning Yourself With Faint Praise–Teaching Edition — 3 Comments

  1. I think the inarticulateness of undergrads on evaluations tends to be a function of inarticulate evaluation questions. At my institution, we have two blanks for instructors to provide evaluation questions for students to answer; I’ve gotten some very articulate responses when I asked students to tell me which class activities they found most memorable and what they learned from them, and which assignments helped them learn the most about the subject material. What my students said were my best teaching moments became the examples I focused on in my teaching paragraph (even when I don’t actually mention the student responses).

  2. Does this apply to the longer teaching philosophy as well? So many rules about what NOT to do. Feels overwhelming to know what to say that doesn’t break some rule, or risk sounding just like everyone else’s canned responses.

    • In my view it does apply to the longer doc as well, for all the same reasons. Be sure and read the blog post, The Dreaded TEaching Statement: 8 Pitfalls. Which does, of course, focus on what NOT to do. But if you focus on what you actually DO, with substance and evidence, and without cheap rhetorical flourishes or excessive emotionalism (epidemic in Teaching Statements), you’ll do fine.

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