Sharing another post in our new semi-regular series, “Missives from the Editing Trenches” written by long-time TPII editors. They are the real MVPs, working in the trenches to catch you in all your job document pitfalls — from the self-deprecating to the self-aggrandizing. They’ve seen it all and are happy to share their knowledge and give you concrete tips on how to make your documents shine.
Today’s post is by Dr. Maggie Levantovskaya.
In our last installment, Verena talked in depth about one particular teaching statement cliche. But there are plenty of others. Fortunately, we have advice on identifying and rooting them out! The following are some duds that I see over and over (and over) again in teaching philosophy docs. This, of course, means that search committee members also see them (over and over again) and the last thing they want to be is bored. Remember, you’re swimming in a deep sea of applicants. At that very initial vetting stage, they’re looking to reject and they’re going to reject anyone who doesn’t pop out of the water shouting “Me, me, me! I’m the original one!” But it’s no use to actually shout this. A core principle of TPII is the same one you’ll hear in every writing classroom – show, don’t tell!
What the following examples of teaching duds have in common is that they probably seem like good ideas but are in fact unoriginal, corny and vague. The important thing is that they can also be treated as springboards for creating memorable moments in your teaching statements.
- The Paulo Freire quote. In editing TPII documents, I have read many, many, many Freire quotes. When I encounter one I just want to shout “leave Paulo Freire alone!” Why? Think of it from a committee member’s perspective. Is it really that pleasant or surprising to read so many quotes by the same thinker? Also, starting an essay with a quote (and a teaching statement is an essay) has a pretty undergrad vibe. It’s also a cop-out because it prevents you from articulating your philosophy. How you teach is indeed informed by the theorists and practitioners who came before you, but surely they were many and the one-page teaching statement is not a place where you can give credit to them all. So give the committee members what they want – one or three sentences that distill what’s most important to you, right now, for teaching your particular subject. What are the stakes? What are the learning objectives? Think of a phrase that spells out exactly what your philosophy is, not Freire’s.
- The “relating material to students’ lives” thing. Not a bad objective! The problem is the repetitiveness of this phrase across job docs and its general vagueness. Again, think of it from the committee members’ perspective. Reading twenty different teaching philosophies that declare “I relate course material to students’ lives,” as if their authors were the first to do so (and as if all students had the same lives!), can make one want to scream. The solutions: be specific. Express the same idea by describing exactly what you’re doing – “when teaching logical fallacies, we listen to excerpts from the previous evening’s political debate to identify candidates’ fallacious claims. This activity helps students see fallacies in action and more critically evaluate the candidates currently running for office.”
- The Tweeting and the Youtubing. Social media can be very useful for teaching, but how candidates incorporate it into their classroom can come off as unnecessary, a thing to do for the sake of saying “Hey, I’m totally a 21st century professor!” Again, keep in mind, that many professors use social media in their classrooms so it’s important to not portray yourself as the first to screen Youtube clips or have students tweet during lectures. You also need to have a compelling reason to use social media (and not some other tool). To use the previous example, you want to discuss candidates’ fallacies and it makes much more sense to show a clip of them speaking during the previous night’s debate than to cut excerpts out of newspapers (as teachers used to do!). Sidebar: I often see some version of the following phrase: “I have students tweet during my lecture and this allows shy students to participate.” Here, I want to note that referring to members of your course as “shy students” is something worth re-examining. The phrase suggests that these are permanent features of a person, attributing static properties to someone you barely know. Rather than categorizing certain students as “shy” or “introverts” simply talk about what you do to make ALL of them assume active roles.
- The talking about what you’re not doing in your teaching. I’ll regularly see candidates say something like “instead of lecturing…” or “I don’t just have students repeat back the material…” or “while others start this course by doing X, I do Y…” None of this language does much to a teaching statement. And that’s just because the committee cares little about what you don’t do. Also, what if you poo poo lecturing and one of your committee members primarily lectures in their course? In general, it’s a good idea to make positive statement. Take ownership of what you do and don’t waste time putting down other approaches. You only have one page. Every line on it needs to spell out who you are by showing what you do.
So to recap: Avoid these common pitfalls to pop out of that treacherous sea of applicants. Leave Paolo Freire alone!