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.