I'm re-drafting all of my job application documents as this year's job cycle gets underway, and now that I've cranked out a shiny new cover letter and the CV is almost done, I need to start thinking about the dreaded teaching statement. As long-time readers of this blog know, I have been banging my head against pedagogical techniques and approaches for a while now, since I keep bouncing around to different schools with different institutional cultures, and I am still working out my personal philosophy of how to deal with students who may be unmotivated or even recalcitrant to put forth what I consider essential effort. I figure the thing to do is to start with the writing exercise of writing exactly what I mean to say, then revising that into something smoother and more diplomatic. How does this look?
Dr. Koshary's Philosophy of Teaching
I teach by making my students read stuff outside of class, and then we talk about that stuff in class. I do this because it has worked for the last 5,000 years or so, or however long it's been since classes began to focus on written texts rather than memorized orally transmitted texts. Human beings seem to have worked out how to have a conversation many tens of thousands of years ago, and I am fond of the idea "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
I am told that one must demonstrate a unique and innovative pedagogical approach in order to obtain a job in today's academic market, even though what I describe above is actually what 99.99% of social science classes still are. That being the case, I consider my pedagogical approach unique and innovative, because I said so. There, I used those two stupid words. Are you assholes happy now? Good.
I have always adhered to a firm standard of doing whatever your institutional culture demands of me, as long as it doesn't make me want to drive a stake through my heart. Please give me a frank heads-up beforehand so that I know if a student who does not produce even satisfactory effort, much less results, should earn a C, an F, a B, or whatever other grade you are used to assigning in such cases. In the absence of other marching orders, I may give Ds for shoddily written bullshit that doesn't contain any clear ideas at all. Don't get on my tits about that, just because those students have been conditioned to think everything they do deserves plaudits. But if you feel that children from wealthy families need to be encouraged to give alumni donations by earning Cs for anything better than setting fire to the classroom, then just tell me so I don't have to think harder about my rubric.
My grading rubric is magically unique and innovative, too. For realz. I'm thinking of replacing my number/letter grading system with a twelve-sided die a la Dungeons and Dragons, with each side bearing an image of a different fruit or nut — say, a jalapeño or an almond. I would roll the die for each paper, and assign the result of the roll. The student would then interpret that image however they desired. For ease of reconciliation with the registrar's grading system, I would employ a second twelve-sided die with ordinary Arabic numerals that can be entered on a spreadsheet. The student would not know any of these numbers that I roll until final grades come in. I think you will agree with me that this system is unique and highly innovative. It's also kind of stupid, but then again, so is using the first five letters of our alphabet to evaluate the quality of someone's subjective effort to comprehend the world around us. (And wouldn't you rather have gotten three bananas, a chili pepper, and a walnut in that intro class you took, instead of that C+ average that you couldn't rise above?)
I am aware that the old-fashioned lecture format has some genuine pedagogical weaknesses, and that even using the word in a job interview is like using the word 'vagina' in front of a Republican legislator. Rest assured that I avoid lecturing as often as possible, except when students need to acquire a set of unfamiliar facts in order to analyze material. A few facts in near-isolation are easy enough to bring out in open discussion, but if you are foolish enough to insist that I teach a quantitative course in spite of my clearly defined areas of expertise, I am going to lecture as often as I think necessary, and you will shut the fuck up about it. Similarly, we all know that, once one can number the students enrolled in a course in the dozens or even hundreds, it is utter nonsense to discuss any other pedagogical format than the lecture. I have little love for such a learning environment, so I'll gladly avoid this situation if you will. However, if you actually advertise this position as a research professor in a big R1 institution who would teach an intro lecture whose enrollment is capped in the hundreds as well as grad classes, I will regard that as acknowledgment that you don't really give a fuck how I teach undergrads, and I will laugh at you openly if you dare to discuss my unique and innovative pedagogy.
Back on classroom discussions. I am always
stealing good ideas incorporating new strategies to goose along conversation, since of course most students are a bit hesitant to speak and a minority are always champing at the bit to dominate the discussion. But for fuck's sake, people, do you really, truly care which little games and stratagems I use? Of course you don't. You understand that I'm having an open-ended conversation with my students, right? Don't you have over 300 of these applications to plow through? Just trust me when I tell you that my pedagogy works, and students learn stuff. Many of them even enjoy it! Oh yeah, and it's all magical and unique and innovative and shit.
If you are a small liberal arts college, then I shall draw your attention to the ways in which my classroom interactions with students subtly influence not only the way I write books and articles (which is absolutely true) but also shapes the research projects I take on so as to accommodate undergraduates' research conveniently (which is totally bullshit). Have no doubt that I will devote all of my waking energy to thinking of new stuff to do in class and new assignments to grade, rather than work on any of the publications that you will later privilege in your assessment of whether or not to fire me. If you are intent on hiring someone who can oversee undergrads' research projects conducted on and around campus, then you may not be terribly interested in a pseudologist like me who needs expensive airfares and a living stipend in order to conduct my research far, far away from your institution. But if you bring me in for an interview, be honest with yourselves about what you're doing: don't annoy me or yourselves with stupid questions about how I would involve students in my research, because I won't, and because you're not really that interested in overseeing student research anyway.
(Except for that one guy, right? And he doesn't actually want to do it, does he? He just made a fuss about it during the committee discussions about the posting, even though he's about to go on sabbatical/retirement/death and this committee is the first service he's done since the McKinley administration, right? Yeah, I thought so.)
If you are a large R1 institution at which faculty live and die by their publication records, and you expect me to present an icy demeanor toward everything except publishing more books and articles and winning grants, please disregard every word above about undergraduate research. Just ignore it all. Instead, focus on the $250,000 death ray that I will require as part of my start-up costs so I can vaporize every unfortunate soul who tries to gain entrance to my office outside of my formal office hours. Seriously, I'll melt a motherfucker.
(If you are a SLAC, please disregard that last paragraph, thanks.)
In closing, I will sacrifice all that I hold dear for my (pick one) students/research, since this teaching philosophy statement is ultimately a statement of my seriousness of purpose and dedication to the mission of the (pick ONLY one) university/college/department as a first-rate (pick one or two, but be honest!) scholar/teacher. If I had any choice in the matter – and I know that I don't – I would be very good at both and understand that I will probably not be either the nationwide Teacher of the Year or the most productive dues-paying member of the Big Giant Pseudology Association. If this floats your boat, then you should bring me in for an interview and prepare for blinding awesomeness! If you are firmly in one camp or another, though, you should bring me in for an interview and give me a discreet signal which way to lean. I am a man of firm principles, but I can always change those if it's convenient.
Finally: unique and innovative.