Grammar

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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