Teaching Statements Are Bunk

February 19, 2010

Although I am well along in my academic career and have regularly taught graduate and undergraduate courses, a series of professional idiosyncrasies have meant that until last year I had never written a teaching statement.

As a faculty member at a research university, I was certainly acquainted with the ostensible purposes of those documents. For reasons that will become apparent, however, it had been some time since I could work up the enthusiasm to read one from beginning to end.

A preliminary clarification is in order. When I disparage "teaching philosophies" or "teaching statements," I am referring to those accounts that faculty members and job candidates are expected to produce to detail their approach to teaching. The statements are typically demanded at key moments in our professional lives, such as when we apply for jobs, tenure, or promotion. So I am concerned here with formal institutional documents, not self-motivated reflections about teaching.

When informed I had to produce a teaching statement in order to apply for promotion to full professor, I did my research. I scrutinized the dossiers of applicants and read a cross section of sample teaching philosophies posted on the Web sites of disciplinary societies. Along the way I learned a few new things and had some suspicions reinforced.

The first insight was that, as a literary genre, these documents are as drab as they are predictable. The majority are dominated by abstract appeals to unobjectionable ambitions. They ritualistically invoke a desire to teach "critical thinking," but offer little concrete guidance as to how that might be accomplished. Their authors disavow assuming the status of "expert." They appeal to collaborative learning, embrace "diverse learning styles," bring their own research into the classroom, disdain established canons, incorporate marginalized voices, recount personal teaching epiphanies, and acknowledge personal mentors, most of whom would be unknown to the committee members reading the file.

In five minutes, anyone who has spent time in academe could compile a comparable list of such platitudes, the worst of which veer toward sentimental treacle. The themes are so generic that I flirted with simply passing off someone else's teaching philosophy as my own. Who would notice? Indeed, many sample statements are explicitly presented as models for others to "emulate."

The first suspicion that there is something insincere about teaching statements derives from the fact that almost every author professes to love teaching. Cumulatively, this pandemic of instructional ardor strikes a dissonant note when compared with the routine activities of academics, many of whom spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to secure release time from teaching. That is, when they're not complaining about the petty hassles of coordinating teaching assistants, dealing with "grade grubbers," writing reference letters for undergraduates they could barely identify in a police lineup, evaluating essays, ordering textbooks, completing copyright permission forms, revising syllabi, learning the latest instructional software, and worrying about the time all of that takes away from other academic pursuits. Such grumblings dominate the hallway conversations of most faculty members I know.

Teaching statements are justified as a mechanism to evaluate classroom ability but are poorly suited for that purpose. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how someone could ever get one wrong. How horrible would a teaching philosophy have to be for it to be a principal factor in precluding an applicant from securing a job or being promoted?

The most intractable problem with teaching philosophies is that they are literary exercises, and it is an open question as to whether someone who writes an inspiring one is actually a good teacher. Authors of impressive statements have demonstrated that they are good at the keyboard, not necessarily in the classroom.

In the interest of honesty it is best to acknowledge that teaching statements are an opportunity—both an invitation and a compulsion—for academics to speak for their institution. Teaching philosophies are a performance, a ritualized symbolic moment in which professors are expected to articulate the university's proclaimed values in its preferred rhetoric.

Such ceremonies are commonplace in academe. This year, for example, I attended a meeting at which our unit was discussing our self-study report. We had included a statement identifying our commitment to "participatory learning." Someone asked what that actually meant, while others chatted about whether nonparticipatory learning was even possible. None of the approximately 18 academics assembled admitted having a clue as to what the concept entailed. But we were informed that our university publicly endorses "participatory learning," and that we would be wise to align ourselves accordingly.

Most complex organizations contain comparable rituals, when members are expected to speak for their institutions. If anything is unique about universities in that regard it is that academics often pride themselves on their antiestablishment orientation and profess to see such bureaucratic dictates for what they are. How is it, then, that so many smart and often intractable people fall into lock step and produce barely distinguishable teaching statements?

Part of the answer pertains to the fact that the documents are demanded only when academics are evaluated for jobs or career advancement. People in such contexts naturally tend to be risk averse. Moments of high-stakes decision making produce a built-in incentive for applicants to reproduce familiar ways of saying unobjectionable things. If a candidate's file is otherwise acceptable, why court disaster by straying from the teaching-philosophy script? That tendency makes the documents both uncontroversial and innocuous.

Another reason that teaching statements err on the side of homogeneity is that they are more important to the institution than to the individual. At a time when administrators face increased consumerist pressures, the simple existence of a requirement that instructors produce teaching statements is fundamentally important. Administrators can point to the documents as further evidence that their university takes teaching seriously. Thus, a key purpose of the statements is performed long before any faculty member sits down to write one.

Still, teaching statements could provide an opportunity for instructors to formally reflect on their aims, strategies, and tactics in the classroom. They could conceivably tell us a good deal about each individual while also providing pragmatic tips that could be used by other instructors.

Unfortunately, the abstraction that predominates in teaching statements works against their being more useful. The abstraction could flow from their being characterized as a "philosophy," or it might simply reflect tendencies in the social sciences and humanities more generally. Either way, all of the decontextualized claims about the aims and nature of teaching point us in the wrong direction. Implicit in writing these statements is the assumption that we can ruminate on the truths and ideal forms of teaching from the confines of our offices, and that once we have solved teaching as an intellectual puzzle, we can go forth into the real world to make our philosophy real.

But the inescapable fact is that teaching is a highly contextual and increasingly constrained activity.

There are too many constraints to list them all here, but some examples will make the point. University teaching is constrained by tables bolted to classroom floors; hundreds of students in a classroom; the need to evaluate students, and for them to evaluate us; unrelenting grade escalation; official requirements to produce increasingly formal, legalistic, and binding course outlines; increasing numbers of students who also hold paying jobs; research-ethics protocols that make it more difficult for students to conduct self-directed research on topics they find personally interesting; a sense that it has become anathema to fail students; exasperating appeal procedures for students caught cheating; and the fact that teaching is only one thing for which professors are evaluated.

I am not making a naïve, anarchic appeal here to remove all factors that structure how we teach. I'm making a plea to put such factors in the foreground, to take them seriously when thinking about university teaching. These are the real-world contexts in which teaching occurs. They are what instructors work with, around, and sometimes against.

Rather than write statements that offer unobjectionable but not very useful bromides, why not start to recognize the craftlike attributes of teaching? This promises to be a more useful strategy because the knowledge possessed by artisans is knowledge in practice. Artisans must think concretely about how to work with assorted textures, forces, and tensions inherent in their materials, deploying skills developed through repeated practice and working with tools designed with specific uses in mind.

As instructors, what tools and materials are at our disposal? Which tactics are useful, when, and why? Instructors couldn't just say they encourage collaborative learning. Instead, they need to say, specifically, how that is accomplished. What mix of moral suasion, coercion, personal demeanor, clock management, spatial arrangements, and so on allow an instructor to make collaboration work, for both our wide-eyed and deeply cynical students?

This, then, is a plea for greater specificity in reflections on the techniques and tactics used in teaching. I have learned almost nothing useful from the smattering of statements that I have read, but my students and I have benefited enormously from pragmatic lessons that colleagues have passed along about how they coordinate assignments over the course of a term, train teaching assistants, craft course outlines, remember students' names, and organize online resources.

As to my own predilections, I will not profess to love teaching. Teaching is something that only the most Panglossian can love tout court. It is a multidimensional activity comprised of countless diverse tasks. Some of those undertakings I enjoy immensely, others are tedium defined, and still others produce what I fear will be life-shortening aggravation.

My hope is that we can reduce one such aggravation by transforming the empty "teaching philosophy" ritual into an evolving set of useful, nitty-gritty reflections on how to best teach university students. Such a change could make one instance of academic busywork a genuinely meaningful exercise.

Kevin D. Haggerty is a professor of criminology and sociology at the University of Alberta.