The Weepy Teaching Statement: Just Say No

An expanded and updated version of this post can now be found in Chapter  25 of my new book, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. I am keeping a shortened version here, but for the complete discussion including examples of major pitfalls in the teaching statement, please do purchase the book, which compiles all my major job market posts along with 50% entirely new material.

A while back I wrote a post called “The Worst Job Letter Ever Written (Not Really).”  Today I want to share with you a similarly awful teaching statement (with kind permission of the writer, discipline obscured.)  I don’t call it “the worst teaching statement,” however, because nearly all first drafts of teaching statements are so uniformly awful that it is difficult to employ the superlative in this context.  But this one is very bad indeed, and bad in a way that reflects the single most common error of the genre, especially when written by women—hyper-emotionalism.

I have italicized all the words that invoke emotion and the kind of yearning and striving that is endemic to this genre, and I have bolded adjectives (there is quite a bit of overlap between the categories however). The combination of emotionalism, striving, and adjectives make this TS a maelstrom of redundant feeling-talk in place of crisp, specific, and memorable substance.

The same principles apply to the TS that apply to all other professional documents:  facts over emotions, showing over telling, substance over claims, nouns (and effective verbs) over adjectives.

I am happy to say that the client’s new TS bears absolutely no resemblance to this draft.  Thank you, client, for being willing to share.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Teaching [my discipline] provides many opportunities to stimulate students’ thinking about xx and xx. Students are more likely to learn when they are comfortable in the classroom, and when they are engaged with the material. To this end, I strive to give students individualized attention and to foster an understanding of the world around them through interactive learning.

[First para mostly pointless verbiage that states the obvious, and provides little substantive content, none of it memorable]

When students know their teachers care about them, they are more attentive to and more enthusiastic about their studies. Each quarter, I invest time and effort into building long-lasting relationships with students. I learn their names, interests, and motivations for taking the course. I also design activities that encourage students to attend office hours, and I invite students to visit with me at cafes and restaurants during extended “office hours.” In addition, I make myself available through email, instant messaging, and social networking sites. Like my colleagues, I have boundaries for office hours and availability online, but I make sure that students never feel hesitant to contact me. I appreciate that students have other needs and concerns, and I recognize that personal problems and learning disabilities can impede their studies. It is also my experience that many students do not ask for help. Therefore, I take the initiative to contact students who seem uninterested or unresponsive, and I take note when I notice a sudden change in a student’s behavior. Showing a little concern can go a long way.

[This paragraph is totally enmeshed in “chick-talk”*–all emotion, caring, striving, nurturing and poor boundaries (despite the weird disavowal).  It overuses I-sentences, and is repetitive, taking nine sentences to make a single substantive point (I make myself available to students) that could be encapsulated in one. It sends a massive red flag to the committee that the candidate’s priorities are skewed and she will not get her writing done for tenure.  In sum it presents the candidate as a perennial adjunct rather than tenure-track material. ].

Students are also more enthusiastic about their studies when they are engaged with the material. In the classroom, I make every effort to create a supportive and collegial environment, in which students feel comfortable to share their ideas and to approach me for help. I begin each class with a fun and engaging

 

[…]

In sum, through all of these techniques, this candidate renders herself, with the best of intentions, as an adjunct with poor boundaries and questionable emotional distance from her students, who is fundamentally not tenure-track material.

*I am of course aware that this is a sexist term.  However, as I’ve said before, the Professor Is In blog is not devoted to what I, a lifelong feminist, want to be true in the world, but to what I believe IS true in the world, which in this case is that women are perceived as excessively emotional and that women are socialized in America to do the lion’s share of emotion-talk and emotion-work.  Any professional document by a woman that deploys emotion in conspicuous ways is going to associate the writer with those biases and sabotage her professional chances.  There are men who write weepy teaching statements, although less often, and when I encounter these I make the same critiques and edits, and tell them that their writing sounds feminized.


Comments

The Weepy Teaching Statement: Just Say No — 21 Comments

  1. I appreciate that this TS is too emotional – as you say. I have been applying for jobs for a few years and I now have a TS written with the help of Karen. I am impressed with my new TS but I get upset when I have been rejected for a job and the person appointed has a TS like this – some academics post their TSs online. There does not seem to be a consistent standard across the board (as in all things relating to the academic job market).

    • Ah, yes, Ally, this is true. I am also aware that sometimes people with TSs just like this do get hired. The TS is the most variable of all genres and so the criteria being used by any individual search comm member are impossible to predict. My advice is always based on playing the odds, and I’ve found that odds are much better when you do a factual TS rather than an emotional one. But unfortunately it’s not an exact science. It’s frustrating.

  2. I find it odd that so many first drafts are so bad in the same way — not so much the hyper-emotionalism but the lack of evidence. All academic fields require the interpretation of evidence; why would teaching statements be different? Moreover, I’ve seen a fair number of teaching statements and all have included more evidence/examples than this one. I’m wondering about selection bias in the samples you see versus what’s out there in general. (This is not to downplay your excellent analysis of the problems here and the solid advice for improvement, but it’s a little hard for me to imagine that so many are this vague.)

  3. Thank you for your blunt, pointed critique. I am a well paid RN who is considering returning to health educator or instructor positions at a lower contract pay. Thank you for stopping me before I made a fool of myself since I was prepared to promote myself with some of the same type of verbage. I will reevaluate my positions for substance, outcome standards, logical progression from plans to performance and my own strengths and weaknesses. Thank you.

  4. thanks to both you and the writer for sharing this! it is really helpful.
    I question the wisdom of talking to students about their personal problems. my university has excellent mental health resources, and the therapists are much better at listening to students’ non-academic problems than I am.

    • Exactly! I care about my students (seriously, I do, they are the reason I have a job) but I also care about my own sanity, and for that reason…off to student health they go.

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  6. Karen,
    Do you have any extra tips for writing teaching statements when you’ve got no prior experience of teaching (save for rare guest lectures)? And tips of writing research statements when your role has been more in monitoring and software development, and limited to supporting the research of others? I am being encouraged to apply for an Assistant Professor post, and part of this role will be to build the (discipline-specific) computational infrastructure – my strong suite. But how to come up with reasonable teaching and research statements given my background?

    • In truth, you should probably work with me directly. Meanwhile, read the blog posts, The Dreaded Teaching Statement: 8 Pitfalls, and Dr. Karen’s Rules of the Research Statement.

  7. I agree I probably should work with you directly. Alas I came across your profoundly useful website on the eve of the application deadline. This is the 11th hour, and I have to send in what I have, and it’s awful. If I get any further in this process, I’ll be in touch!

    I thought the other answer you might give is, “forget it – you’re wasting you’re time!”.

  8. Let me open by saying that this is a helpful blog and that the Professor is usefully pointing out the pitfalls of making one’s teaching statement overly emotional and thus reducing its effectiveness.

    However, I find it unfortunate that the “weepy” statement is characterized as “feminine.” To say that it is overly emotional is fine, and to say that because of socialized pressures, women are especially prone to write overly emotional teaching statements is also fine. To call the overly emotional statement “chick-talk” and “feminized writing,” on the other hand, conflates the two and creates the impression that it is more than socialized pressures which make women statistically more likely to write overly emotional teaching statements. Such wording suggests that something about the nature of women makes them intrinsically overly emotional, and that the solution is for women to “masculinize” themselves and their writing. I strongly disagree. There is nothing intrinsically feminine about the weepy teaching statement. It is up to all of us lifelong feminists to demolish such notions, even as we acknowledge that society would like to peg women as overly emotional and does exert pressures to make us so. The teaching statement is self-sabotaging – sure. Women, because of social pressures, may be prone to self-sabotage – OK. But it is not “female self-sabotage,” because there is nothing essentially female about self-sabotage. Otherwise we’d be stuck with it, and we’re not. Let’s not talk as if the solution is to stop being women – it’s to stop being what society thinks of women.

    • “Such wording suggests that something about the nature of women makes them intrinsically overly emotional, and that the solution is for women to “masculinize” themselves and their writing.”
      I agree with you completely, Upstairs Woman. Though I find Karen’s advice on writing a TS illuminating and incredibly helpful, I’m also bothered by the claim seemingly implicit in this post: that women are intrinsically too emotional and should stop being that way — i.e., that they should start acting, and sounding, ‘more like men,’ not only because this will help their careers, but also because it’s just plain wrong to be a touchy-feely ninny.

  9. You assert that this teaching statement is bad, but is it? Teaching is fundamentally a socio-emotional activity and “mini-lecture” is a standard term in the pedagogical literature. I’d likely hire this person, although I have doubts about some of the “cutesy” teaching methods like Jeopardy review games.

  10. I’ve been on the math faculty of a land-grant R1 for over 20 years, and over this period served on a number of hiring committees. I can’t recall ever reading the teaching statement of a TT applicant, and it was never even mentioned in committee meetings. I am led to conclude that (for schools like mine) they’re a mere formality, in service of the “teaching as important as research” PC myth.

    On the other hand, I’m on the job market (a long shot at my age), so last year I had to compose a teaching statement. (I applied also for junior positions, also at SLACs). I read the sample above, then went back and read my teaching letter, and was horrified: interspersed with the concrete accomplishments were a smattering of blood-curling feel-good platitudes. They seem impossible to avoid.

    Part of the difficulty of writing one is that I have no idea who reads them (if anyone), or what role they play in hiring (if any). Maybe somebody read my teaching statement and got a few laughs out of it. I’m wondering if anyone reading this comment can give me an idea: who reads these things, and what makes a teaching statement help or hinder an application? (I doubt anyone writes “I joined this profession for love of research; teaching is what I do to pay the bills.”)

    • As i write somewhere else–i think on the post, The Dreaded Teaching Statement: 8 Pitfalls– the point is to show that you are an effective, reasonably innovative teacher wth good methods under your belt, who will be able to teach both basic courses and some specialized seminars with a minimum of fuss and bother, so that nobody has to think about your teaching ever again.

      • Thanks, Karen. I found your “Eight Pitfalls” post, and looking at my statement again I haven’t broken any of those rules. There is a single general cliche’ sentence, which maybe is OK.

        Maybe the point is to give someone a chance to highlight concrete accomplishments, when those exist (which is seldom the case for early-career people). Unlike a research statement, which can be backed up by publications and research LORs, the claims made in teaching statements are difficult to verify. It’s no wonder the “teaching letters” for assistant prof searches emphasize student evaluations and reports of class visits.

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  12. Hi Karen,
    you’re observations here are excellent, and I have to admit to having fallen into these pitfalls myself on a number of occasions—it is, unfortunately very easy to do. However, it would be a valuable addition to this discussion, if you could give some examples of wording that you consider to be particularly on point—not in the sense of providing a copy and paste response, but more to give a better sense of that line between being accurate and comprehensive, and being overblown or pleading.

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  14. Some tenure-track job adverts mention that the RS, TS, DS etc. are optional. Does adding these materials gives me an advantage or can I save some time by not submitting them?

    Sample requirements for an Assistant Professorship:
    Curriculum Vitae, Cover Letter (Optional), Statement of Research (Optional), Statement of Teaching (Optional), Teaching Evaluations (Optional), Statement of Contributions to Diversity (Optional).

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