Teaching Philosophies, Debts, and Good Teachers

Posted by Natalie Strobach on January 30, 2014
Teaching, The Profession / No Comments

Fastnet ArchivingThis is actually more of a question than the  tutorial I thought it would be. Well, it’s actually more of a very long overdue thank-you note. Bear with me.

I started working on my teaching philosophy three years ago. I sent the drafts to professors I was working with at the time and I got some pretty solid feedback, but in the three years since I haven’t felt like it was a document I could put to rest. And in all that time, I’ve been able to scrounge up one tenure track faculty member’s teaching philosophy from a recent hire at UC Davis. I think most of the tenured faculty I’ve worked with just didn’t have to ever write one. I’ve been able to Google a few other snippets and samples, but they definitely fell short of the one sample I have.

The absence of samples actually reminds me a lot of writing a dissertation prospectus; evidently those are deleted the minute they are approved because getting people to share samples is like recovering burnt scrolls from the Library of Alexandria. I found some wonderful advice over at The Professor is In where she goes over the eight main pitfalls she sees in client drafts. You should read the post. For sure. She boils it all down to this:

teaching statement advice


I feel like my statement meets all of these marks–except for being “not emotional.” My teaching philosophy almost gets me choked up, for Pete’s sake! But what am I to do? I wish I could hear a bit more from faculty from low-income, first-generation, and under-represented backgrounds like myself. As the daughter of an immigrant, for whom a high school diploma was not even an option, teaching is a terribly emotional thing; I am a very real example of the result of great teachers. If anyone actually wants my teaching philosophy, the foundation of what I bring to the classroom, well, it’s a lot of heart; it’s emotional. I think it should be able to be such without feeling like I’m a hysterical job applicant. The statement I currently have does sell. It does highlight my two teaching awards (both student nominated). It does show and not tell an accurate depiction of a multimedia, well organized, and provocative classroom. But, it also makes the reader very much aware that I walk into that classroom knowing a class, any class, any day, could make or break a student’s education. It even does this all in the one recommended, single spaced, page. Is that wrong? 

If this is indeed still a new and unclear genre then might we be better off not letting it be so hollow? Is the eschewing of emotion the leading cause of them all looking the same – or as The Professor puts it:

 …do you understand that the search committee is reading something like 200 of these? And do you realize that of those 200, approximately 185 are going to say that the writer “cares passionately about teaching,”  “uses a variety of multimedia materials,” “promotes discussion” and “strives to educate students for the 21st century/information society”? Seriously, do you really think those sentiments are original at this point in time?They aren’t.

Of course, you’re dealing with a population of people smart enough to know what to say but in some cases not compassionate enough to actually act on it. Still, I am really glad teaching philosophies have become a thing. We need excellent teachers–not just people who understand the subject matter to the fullest extent, but people who understand their students–especially the future of the student body across the country. Universities are becoming more diverse and multicultural than ever. These students, like myself, will be faced with much adversity.

When I first enrolled as an undergraduate, I did not know about study abroad opportunities. I did not know how financial aid worked. I did not know what expectations were of a university student. I did exceedingly well in my studies because of the excellent faculty in my undergraduate institution, New Mexico State University, who put in the extra effort  to provide a syllabus that was clear and purposeful, give paper comments that were thorough and instructive (as opposed to thoroughly chastising), and make themselves available for walks across campus and office hours. I was at an enormous research university but I never felt lost amongst the crowds. That’s good teaching. A teacher took the time to hand out a McNair Scholars flier and say, “Hey, did you hear about this program? Check it out.” It took five seconds and it actually changed my entire life by giving me the tools and funding to pursue graduate studies. That’s good teaching.

I had an extraordinary French professor who I am still very close to today. She said “Hey, here is an application for a study abroad program. Fill it out. I’ll help check the materials are translated right and such. We can talk about funding.” I ended up spending over a year in Paris having one of the most extraordinary times of my life. I got to take a class with my beloved Cixous where Derrida guest lectured some of his last seminars before his death in 2004. I even spent a year teaching for a Parisian lycée and ended up going to graduate school with some pretty darn tight language skills. Not to mention, that French salary is all I had to live on. It gave me life. Plus, it gave me my first teaching experience—difficult, exhausting, but priceless. That’s the result of good teaching. My teaching philosophy is emotional because I have an enormous debt to the extraordinary teachers in my life. It’s also why I have an entire second career’s worth of experience in student outreach and advising. It’s because the extra does not go unnoticed.

Do you know I once had a professor singlehandedly end my battle with grammar? I had a Creative Writing class with the wonderfully talented Robert Boswell and he liked my story; he saw something in it despite its terrible grammar (grammar that went way beyond creative), and so he rewrote sentence after incorrect sentence. It was a 15-page short story and he gave me back over ten pages of his corrections. It was the first time in my life someone didn’t just write “syntax error” or something else that might as well be written in Klingon. I went home a little wounded but even more hopeful. That night I read Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English and Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. I handed in my next paper, clean as a whistle. That was good teaching (that was actually some pretty damn amazing teaching). It changed my life. It actually even changed my socio-economic development; it leveled the playing field, much like having a job in Paris did. It actually helped my family in ways that teacher could perhaps even never imagine because of the ways I have been able to write for others, to write for my father during his green card application and so on. Good teaching has legs.

So I guess in some ways, I just had my teaching philosophy out with you. However, I really truly want to know what your approach is to this wily teaching philosophy.

Do any of you (heroes, successful in the tenure track world) want to share yours on the site as a resource to others?

Do you agree that it ought not be emotional?

If you’re one of the fine folks doing the hiring, why do you want this document? What is your ideal teaching philosophy? How much weight do you even give it? Should we give it even more weight?

I know that my teaching success has very much mirrored my research success. Even in undergraduate courses I have been able to explore complex ideas for/from my dissertation and for my much dreamed about second book. I need students as much as they need me. So, what’s the best way to go at this in one page?

A big ol’ hug goes out to The Game Changers referenced above and the ones who I didn’t get to name: Professor Mary Wolf, Professor Brian Rourke, Professor Connie Voisine, Professor Elizabeth Schirmer, Professor Robert Boswell, and the late Professor Kay West. I’m sure there are many more… love you guys!


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Site Maintenance: Self Maintenance

Posted by Natalie Strobach on January 13, 2013
Teaching / No Comments

I haven’t posted in a bit, but I was busy utilizing the first quarter of my fellowship and delving into my research. As we turn the corner into 2013 and the requests to revise the personal statements of former students begin to fade, I’m wondering how to capitalize on this new year. What patterns should change? What should remain?  I had a curious experience recently when my computer screen went in for repairs–at first I was utterly panicked. How could I write? How far behind would I fall? So on and so forth… Then suddenly, I just felt relief. The Apple Store inadvertently gave me two weeks to regroup and crave writing again. It’s so cliche, but once I couldn’t do my work–it was all I wanted. With any projects that we have (seminar papers, application essays, home repair) our focus can become smaller and smaller until it is nearly suffocating.

I’ve found over and over again in graduate school that neither my colleagues nor my students have any way to tell the days of the week–aside from which classroom they should be sitting in or job they are working. Everything becomes a bit too rhythmic. So, I want you to be still for a moment in the early part of this quarter or semester–before you’ve committed your schedule to memory–and schedule more breaks (or computer repairs as the case may be).

When I work with incoming transfer students for McNair, I give them all a new planner at orientation. Very quickly, they all scribble in their classes and jobs. Then they carve out time for helping their parents babysit or getting a friend moved to a new apartment. No one ever just carves out a few days for fun and rest. You need to. For the sake of your sanity, you absolutely need to. Even after years and years of talking to students about prioritizing and scheduling, I still sometimes forget to schedule my own me time. I came across a fashion blogger who mentioned that in January you should schedule all of your hair appointments and manicures and whatnot–well, I’m not sure about all of that, but I thought yes–just schedule down time.

I immediately went on line and registered for four 5ks spaced out across the spring. This was a perfect option for me; it helped me meet fitness goals, it brought me away from the computer and work, and it will help me de-stress. Having this scheduled off time always makes it so much easier to stick to the scheduled work. When the students I mentor have a hike or a trip to the movies jotted down for Saturday afternoon, they are a lot less likely to get frustrated Thursday, go out late with friends, and skip class Thursday. Those with scheduled down time know they are only 48 hours from relaxation; they know they can make it. Make sure you have that.

Just start small and schedule a monthly or bi-weekly break (after all, you don’t want a daily yoga class to become yet another thing you HAVE to do). As a first-generation student and having mentored disadvantaged students for years, I’ve seen such a pattern of self denial. My students never think they deserve a vacation–they have often never taken a vacation. Let us, in the new year, break this pattern. The love for your craft, as for any love, will grow with a smidgin of distance. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive–it could be as simple as penciling in an old RomCom on a Saturday–but it does have to happen.

Tip: If you’re enjoying those bi-weekly or monthly breaks, then move on to more frequent breaks. Avoid cram sessions by regularly scheduling two or three hours of straight studying daily with an hour of internet browsing or meditation. Just let yourself trust that you can achieve goals and get rest.




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A Very Quick Tip for Personal Statements

Posted by Natalie Strobach on July 11, 2012
Teaching / No Comments

I have been teaching for the McNair Scholars Program at UC Davis for five years (that’s every quarter and every summer without a break). I run through everything from basic essay writing to writing for the GRE to the much-feared personal statement for graduate school applications. The McNair Scholars program is a federally-funded two-year long research internship (paid!) that helps low-income, under-represented, first-generation college students prepare for doctoral study. It’s am amazing program; I myself was a McNair Scholar.

The summer after the junior year is the most intense time in the program and this week my students are scratching out their personal statements. Some will also have to write letters of intent. We try to shoot for about 500-1000 words and I try to emphasize flexibility since every program will want something slightly different. It’s probably the most difficult essay my “McNuggets” will write. I give them a heads up that they will probably cry. Hell, sometimes I cry. I’ve worked with students writing about escaping ethnic cleansing, Sierra Leone diamond minds, and unbearable poverty. They are also students who are in 15 clubs, honors programs, volunteer groups, and all while taking graduate courses as undergraduates. They are pretty much the best students you will find and they can’t really fit it in to 500-1000 words. So when we get started I share my own personal statement. (No, I’m not sharing it here! Daughter of a German immigrant, first-generation to college, etc. It still makes me cry!) You can Google myriad samples in any number of fields. They need to have a general idea of how it 1) explains how your experience made you a Comparatist/Sociologist/Immunologist (your academic history), then it 2) explains what you will continue to contribute to your field (specializations, lab work to be done, discourses to enter into, etc). Then, I tell them to list the top ten things their graduate school programs need to know about them.

This little list is key to conquering this monster of an essay. Nothing on the list is to be longer than one brief sentence (they will try to write entire paragraphs otherwise).

The next point is key–arrange the ten points in order from 1 being the most important to 10 being the least important. This step will take a ridiculously long time (20-30 minutes). I think they sense what comes next…

Cut the bottom five. Cut them and plan on not being able to mention them in your personal statement at all.
It is truly like making them cut their limbs off–I assuage their fears by assuring them that most of these things will appear in their C.V.

Getting down to the five most academically-important things about you is pretty amazing. It absolutely bars them from the parent-centered personal statement (the personal statement focused on how much they overcame–through their parent’s immigration, while never actually explaining anything they’ve done, which might just leave your graduate school wishing mom and dad had applied instead of you). It keeps them from wandering aimlessly from achievement to achievement like it’s a long-form C.V. It helps them find the next most important thing–the frame to their stories.

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Notes on Using and Building Rubrics

Posted by Natalie Strobach on June 08, 2012
Teaching / No Comments

At last, the rubric post! I have been meaning to get to this forever. A while back I was working with the Center for Excellent in Teaching and Learning (CETL, formerly the Teaching Resource Center) at UC Davis, where I was a researcher for the Spencer and Teagle Foundations Visual Literacy grant through Duke University. One of my tasks was to research how faculty at UC Davis incorporated the visual into their teaching (use of overheads, PowerPoints, etc) and the other task was to create models for evaluating visually-oriented student work (anything from student in-class presentations to a geology student’s engagement with fieldwork). It was a really interesting project that eventually spun into a comparative analysis of UC Davis models for measuring student work—rubrics (read as yet another aspect of visual learning for its ability to visualize a student’s performance).

Here is an excerpt that outlines the goals of the grant:

Schools will be drawn from the American members of the Association of American Universities and will be selected to participate through a competitive RFP. Each participating institution will be granted up to $100,000 to undertake one or two campus-based projects over three years that evaluate and experiment with various pedagogical approaches focused on the development of two core intellectual skills: writing and critical thinking / analytical reasoning. The campus projects will employ a basic A-B-C design for a specific, well-defined experiment. (The A condition is the first step in which the experiment is undertaken and the learning outcome assessed. The B condition is the second step in which modifications of the A condition are made and the learning outcome is again evaluated. The C condition is a modification of the B initiative based on the evaluation of the B condition.)

Interesting, isn’t it? I hadn’t really put much thought into rubrics prior to this project. When I was learning how to grade students I relied on my TA training and on norming sessions. I also often went through my own undergraduate papers and tried to model the excellent feedback I was given. Honestly, my own undergraduate professors always blew me away with the thoroughness and usefulness of their comments; I was rather fortunate in this regard. I had one professor who always included about 3/4ths of a typed page of comments along with a score breakdown for Style, Argument, Grammar, and Support.  I even had one professor, the creative writer Robert Boswell, who gave me 10 single-spaced pages of comments back for one 20-page short story. They were amazing comments–he would take certain characters and rework them five or ten different ways, re-arrange scenes, etc. It was brilliant. The effort of these professors impacted me so positively in my own grading, and when working with Spencer and Teagle, I searched for a way to combine this unique amount of effort with an efficient model for student evaluation.

In our undergraduate Comparative Literature courses where revision is a key element in instruction, useful comments are essential to student success.  UC Davis’ English Department has a similar interest in revision and also had a very strong rubric that had been circulating about, which I took as my starting point. It’s strange, but I can’t find a link to this original at UC Davis (I do hope it’s still in circulation!). I did however find an altered version at another University: here.

This is the version with changes for Comparative Literature: (Essay Grading Rubric)

You can see that one of the major changes was to include a percentage for each sub-category. I like to alter the weight of certain things throughout the quarter to keep the students pushing for new improvements and to allow students to test a new technique out after a writing instruction day (something for another post, but just a quick note–I’m a firm believer in integrating writing instruction within literature courses). It’s very encouraging if students can do well on a paper that is weighted heavily on ideas–this builds a certain level of confidence and as the distribution begins to change, they begin to see what is needed to complement a great idea. Style is of course a much more tricky category for a student to address—many new literature students seem wholly unaware that they have a style until we reach the peer revision stage, so that category usually does not carry much weight until midway through the quarter.

From this rubric, I moved into designing the follow other rubrics:

Visual Text Analysis Rubric:

Multimedia Presentation Rubric:

General In-Class Presentation Rubric:

Online Discussion Section Participation Rubric:

And a sample rubric for a Biology field experiment:

I hope you’ll be able to use these or any combination of these to design your own rubric. I would also like to share a little recipe for rubric design in the event you would like to start from scratch.

10-Minute Recipe for a Rubric

  1. Brainstorm ways to divide your subject into major categories (such as: style, content, field work, or argumentation).
  2.  For each of these categories, come up with a one-sentence description of the requirements for an A, B, C, D, or F grade in that category.
  3. Review the list of grade requirements for each category. Are they descriptive enough and distinct enough for one another that students will be able to understand each grade?
  4.  Measure the grading criteria for each grade against other categories. For example, is it considerably harder to get an B in field work than it is to get a B in reporting?
  5. Arrange those descriptions on a grid with categories on the vertical and letter grades on the horizontal axis.

Final step! Decide whether you wish to weight the categories differently and if so, how much weight each category should be given. For example, if fieldwork is more important, then you may wish to make fieldwork worth 40% of the final grade and reporting 20%. It is always helpful for your students to be aware of this type of distribution!

Please feel free to comment and share any other tips you have for using rubric. I want to end with one last note: I love rubrics, I think it’s a great way for students to evaluate their progress and understand their grades, but I also think it’s crucial that these rubrics act as a complement to our written comments, not a replacement. As a general rule, I try to make 3-5 smaller comments per page along with a half a page of longer comments. This might include anything from ideas on how to re-work the thesis to a brief lesson on run-on sentences (where I’m always careful to include examples). As a literature or writing teacher, you’re one of the few stops left in their life where they can improve their writing and even fall in love with writing–it’s a huge responsibility and it can be enormously successful!


UC Davis Graduate Student Spotlight…Featuring Me!

Posted by Natalie Strobach on June 06, 2012
Teaching / No Comments

I’m really excited about an interview I had with graduate studies at UC Davis. One of the undergraduate students I mentor through the UC Davis Graduate Academic Achievement and Advocacy Program (GAAAP) recommended me for a graduate student spotlight. It focused on my interests and experiences teaching and mentoring. Here is a link!


Norming and the Digital World

Posted by Natalie Strobach on June 04, 2012
Teaching / No Comments

Dr. Robert Goddard at Clark University

I’ve been mulling over a few posts in The Chronical of Higher Education on the problem of grade inflation. One of the articles, “Too Many A’s? U. of Minnesota Professor’s Plan Would Give Grades More Context” by Dan Berrett discusses the use of statistics on transcripts.

“If, for example, one student out of a class of 20 received a B and it was the highest grade, the transcript would read, “B, 95 to 100.” And, if in another class of the same size, every student received an A, it would read, “A, 0 to 100.”

Sure, there are some problems with this; I’m sure some will be concerned overall by any sort of grade-obsessed evaluation model or the possibility of a student’s success being discredited because they happen to be in a class with several other successful, hardworking students. But those issues aside, I am really intrigued by this idea–especially on the heels of the other Chronicle article on the subject: “A Professor at Louisiana State is Flunked Because of Her Grades” by David Glenn which covers the story of a long-tenured biology professor who was removed from her course (mid-semester) because 60% of her students were failing and there were no As. Certainly it’s a form of a weed course–something we don’t see as much of in the humanities, but to what extent is this an indicator of failed instruction? Right off the bat I should also say that the removal of this professor–with no notice–is appalling.

This certainly could have been a collaborative learning experience for her as well (as it sounds like this course was new to her). I think a more productive approach would have been to bring other faculty in to collaborate on models for a stronger course and better evaluation of the remaining examinations. There are several other options that should have been explored before such measures were taken. I also worry that the department itself will have done little to ensure that this problem will not reemerge at another time–even with another professor. That’s just an unfortunate result of an ill-thought-out and shortsighted solution.

Portrait Parle class, France (LOC)

It’s an interesting problem to address because I see so much support for new graduate student instructors (speaking of my Comparative Literature Department at UC Davis), but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of training updates for professors (and I certainly could just not be on the email list serve for such a thing). Do you have such a thing at your university? I know that professors entering large-lectures for the first time will often observe their colleagues course the quarter before. This is clearly beneficial–and, who wouldn’t want to do that?

Your first year to two years as a UC Davis TA is spent running two discussion sections for these large (150+) lectures and faculty are always involved in norming sessions to make sure that the multiple sections are holding to the same standards. In addition to all the benefits to the students, it is a major stress relief for the obsessive graduate student spending days on end grading their first batch of essays. By the time you have your own course in your third year, you’re well-trained in the standards of your department and the abilities of the UC Davis undergraduate. (There is a slew of other support nestled in between all of this–workshops on difficult texts, TA training between new and advanced TAs, major online database of previous TA materials, etc.)

I know several other schools are working with and building on these same resources and that’s excellent–it certainly made my graduate career significantly more enjoyable. However, are senior faculty supported in this same way? When I think of pedagogical improvements, I always think back to a teaching awards ceremony a few years ago where one of my fellow awardees (a senior faculty member in a STEM field) said that he is adamant about beginning every course by asking how he can improve (even if evals are excellent, even if he has taught it 100 times over 30 years). Such passion for teaching is so motivational! Every time I design a syllabus I now take this moment right when I think its finished to ask myself–what is just one thing I can do to make this even better? I always find a way and that little thought keeps me on my toes.

Will social media (blogging, Twitter, course Facebook pages, etc) help build a stronger network of support for Professors (and TAs alike?). To return to where I began this article–grade inflation–could social media and stronger collaboration help avoid the problem of grade inflation by reenforcing certain standards across not only departments but entire fields–a form of norming on steroids? In a bit, I’m going to post on some tips for designing grading rubrics along with some examples of rubrics. I’ve always had a really ideal grade breakdown and I think these rubrics have been a part of that success. Certainly inflating grades makes work easier for a teacher–you could give a B paper an A grade and a student isn’t going to pester you about that need to have an A for med school, you don’t *need* as many comments to convince them of the grade, but that’s definitely no way for the teacher or the student to live. A rubric can keep a standard while also making it easier to articulate, firmly, why a paper is an 89 and not an A. I find it cuts down on grade complaints while also doing the most important thing–concretely educating a student on how they can improve in their future work. In the follow up post, I’ll talk a bit too about how rubrics can work for more than just essay grading.

In the mean time, please do share your thoughts on those Chronicle articles, on your department’s training techniques, or social media as a norming tool. Thanks!