A Pedagogy’s Punctuated Equilibrium

The first time I wrote a statement of teaching philosophy, I had just entered a doctoral program and was participating in a mandatory professional-development workshop. We read a handful of model statements by faculty members in the department and then set out to write our own. The form was clear and straightforward: Lead with general but enthusiastic statements about the teaching mission, introduce some of the complicating pedagogical issues specific to the field, find one or two opportunities to describe specific classroom successes, and conclude with a summary expression of how exciting it is to see students achieve under your direction.

Additionally, it seemed, one should note that this was a philosophy in progress. Every statement we saw included that point, and, after all, some in the workshop were teaching their first courses even as we attempted to define our practice. I’m quite certain, though, that I didn’t fully appreciate what that continuing development entailed.

Regardless, my essay mimicked the form competently enough, and over the last couple of years, with some significant revisions, it has been part of a handful of successful applications.

This summer, however, as I prepare to re-enter the job market, I’m planning to throw my previous statements out and start from scratch. What’s more, instead of dreading the document and its complicated dance with an imaginary search committee, I now find myself legitimately excited about organizing my thoughts on teaching.

To put it simply: For the first time I believe I have a pedagogical philosophy to state.

Last week’s graduation marked the end of my sixth year of teaching. During that time I have worked at five universities (two where I was pursuing graduate degrees, one as an adjunct, and now another pair where I’ve held post-degree teaching fellowships). Surely some of my growth as a teacher has been a function of my personal maturation (I taught my first undergraduate course as the instructor of record when I was 24).

That said, my recent growth feels more like punctuated equilibrium—the evolutionary-biology theory that, much simplified, describes moments of abrupt change after long periods of stasis—than the steady drive of experience. I think the crucial factor has been my participation this past year in a weekly interdisciplinary colloquium in which a central topic of discussion was pedagogical theory and practice. In preparation for those discussions and then because our conversations sparked my interest, I’ve been reading books like Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do, Stephen Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher, Susan VanZanten’s Joining the Mission, and others.

In short, I am convinced, as Bain writes, that “good teaching can be learned” and I’ve become an increasingly active student of pedagogy.

I can’t help but attribute that study to my feeling that I am coming off my best semester yet as a professor. And as I sit down now to rewrite my teaching statement, one of my first thoughts is that my philosophy no longer fits neatly on two or three pages. With that in mind, I’d like to share some of the issues I’ve been thinking through in a series of future posts on a junior faculty member’s evolving pedagogy in hopes that The Chronicle’s readers will help me interrogate that development.

Perhaps I might begin by asking if others have had an experience like the one I describe here. Was there a time when you made a stark transition in the classroom from scholar of your subject to pedagogically thoughtful teacher? What precipitated that change, and how did you pursue it?

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