This is the first of a two part series on teaching statements. In this entry, I focus on my own expectations as a reader of teaching statements; in a future installment, I’ll present similar expectations from colleagues at other institutions.
My general sense of teaching statements as part of the job application process is that they’re principally used to separate the wheat from the chaff — that is, they’re used to disqualify job seekers on the basis of having little or no actual teaching experience, which can often be seen in teaching statements that include phrases like: ‘I embrace the Socratic method’ or ‘I believe that research papers are important in every class.’ Those are clear red flags that the author of the statement has spent little or no time in a university classroom, and might not be the best person for the job.
That all being said, I do think there are some key things to cover in a teaching statement, and they are (in no particular order): 1) how you would approach teaching a ‘service’ course, 2) the curriculum that you bring with you (including courses on the books that you’re prepared to teach), 3) examples of your actual classroom practice, and 4) your approach to research or mentoring experiences. I don’t think they necessarily need to appear in that order — it should be organic in its presentation — but as a reader, that’s the stuff I would want to see.
So, to explicate a bit:
Service classes are things like Intro to Your Discipline, Methods, Theory, and maybe Intro to Your Area or Subfield. Every department offers these classes, and they’re often the staples of the curriculum. Seeing that a job applicant has taken the time to think about their approach to one of these classes shows that the applicant has thought about one of the likely courses they’ll be facing in the short term; it also serves as a good way to see what makes a job applicant characteristic in their thought. For example (and please forgive the italics):
I’m committed to teaching Anthropological Theory, which, as I teach it, focuses on the relationship of imperial centers of thought and the colonies; as much as I find it necessary to include canonical figures and topics, I also include a number of thinkers from the postcolonies — anthropologists and not — in an effort to make evident to students how anthropological theory arises in dialogue with local forms of thought and expertise. Rather than organize the course historically, with theory progressing from Boas to the present, I instead structure the class around current ethnographies to make evident how anthropologists both produce and engage with anthropological — and cultural — theory. For example, I’ve recently begun teaching Elizabeth Povinelli’s Empire of Love as a way to approach ideas about globalization, postcoloniality, and indigenous rights. Alongside Povinelli’s work, we read pieces from Walter Mignolo, Achille Mbembe, Franz Fanon, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gayatri Spivak, and anthropologists George Marcus, Aiwha Ong, and Anna Tsing. Students are asked to stage debates between anthropologists and their interlocutors, and, to do so, are tasked with uncovering and explaining the theoretical underpinnings to their arguments.
A paragraph like that lets your reader know that you’re willing to tackle a service class, and that you’re able to bend it to your own strengths. Moreover, it also gives your reader a sense of your perspectives as a teacher, which may vary significantly from your presentation of yourself as a researcher. For instance, I don’t think my commitment to global knowledge production is necessarily apparent in my description of my own work (which is largely U.S.-based, and pretty Continental in its theoretical influences). That being said, being honest about my approach might not make me friends among faculty who think that Anthropological Theory begins with Boas and ends with Sahlins…
On the subject of your perspective as a teacher, it’s worth thinking about what 3-4 classes you could offer a department on a two year cycle. Most departments will expect faculty to teach 1-2 service classes each year (or more), but also give you some flexibility about upper level courses, particularly tied to your training and interests. For example, although I’m tasked with teaching Intro to Medical Anthropology every other year (as well as another service class) at UCSC, I also offer at least two classes that are directly keyed to my research. So, I often teach a course entitled The Biology of Everyday Life as well as a class on Medicine and Colonialism. It’s worth including a sentence or two about each of the classes.
In addition to teaching Intro to Cultural Anthropology, Ethnographic Methods, and Anthropological Theory, I am also interested in regularly offering classes related to medical anthropology and science studies. My Intro to Medical Anthropology is structured around four ethnographies, one each on Western biomedicine, Indian Ayurveda, African ‘folk’ medicine, and Traditional Chinese Medicine. My interest in exposing students to these four traditions is to unsettle their ideas about the lack of history of Western medicine and the naturalness of non-Western practices. I find that students often naively assume that non-Western practices are more authentic, and also, paradoxically, acultural. Situating these four traditions alongside one another exposes how each is historical, cultural and influenced by contemporary politics and concerns. I follow some of the concerns presented in this Introduction in Medicine and Colonialism, in which I focus the class on the use of colonies as a space for experimenting with medicine, subjectivity and governance. My Biology of Everyday Life class allows me to teach content related to my research on sleep, but put into a broader theoretical context regarding how basic biological functions — reproduction, eating, defecation, breathing — become the basis for subjection and politics across societies and history. Additionally, I regularly offer topically focused seminars in medical anthropology and science studies; over the last five years, they have focused on ‘risk and insurance,’ ‘chronic illness,’ and ‘the brain.’
If it hasn’t already been covered, it’s also useful to explain how your classrooms are organized and what kinds of expectations you have of students:
My classes are highly regimented, and through a combination of reading questions (that ask students to identify key concepts in the readings and provide examples from other class readings) and reading guides (a set of questions designed to help students identify an author’s thesis, evidence, and theoretical commitments) I help students work through difficult empirical and theoretical texts. Because the courses I teach are often very theoretically focused, I regularly quiz students and rely on extensive exams to assess their knowledge of the course material. Students who take multiple classes with me and excel in them are offered the opportunity to write a research paper instead of taking quizzes and tests, and I ask them to write ethnological papers, relying in part on HRAF. Across my classes, I work to include documentaries, podcasts, and other multimedia learning experiences; between these media exercises and the format of my classes, I am able to engage students from diverse backgrounds and with varied learning styles.
Reading that paragraph makes it apparent that I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the classroom and that I know what my teaching style is. Near the beginning of your teaching career, it’s difficult to be so succinct and honest; instead, it might be best to take a look at syllabuses from faculty you’ve worked with. See what kinds of assignments they use, and, if you can, see how their assignments and classroom policies have changed over time. Often, by the time someone has taught for a decade, their teaching becomes fairly stable — so try and find an early associate or late assistant professor and take a look at their syllabuses for a few years of classes. And, if you can, look at some of their exams and other assignments to get a sense of what they actually ask students to do.
Finally, you should have a paragraph about your research opportunities for students, as well as your mentoring style. For primarily undergraduate institutions, the former is more important; for institutions where you’re be interacting with graduate students, the latter is more important (to the degree that you might cut any discussion of undergrads).
Much of my mentoring at UCSC has been designed around the problems that many students experience, and my own recent memory of being a graduate student. Broadly, I provide students with ongoing, direct intellectual support, as well as professional development opportunities, with the intent being that by the time they have earned their Ph.D. they will have published one or more articles, and they will have begun to work on a variety of individual and collaborative projects. In the category of intellectual support, I offer a monthly reading seminar for my graduate students, wherein we read an article or excerpts from a book of mutual interest, and use this as a centerpiece for our conversation; we then segue into conversations about individual work, and the status of writing projects. Along similar lines, I offer a professionalization seminar that runs fortnightly over the course of the school year, offering from 15 meetings. We cover topics such as writing job letters and preparing curriculum vitae to dealing with problem students and syllabus development, to writing articles and planning publishing trajectories. It’s a demanding seminar, but the students who participate find their anxieties about the transition from student to professional to be much less stressful through my demystification efforts.
Taken together, the document should be 1-2 single spaced pages. If the institution asks for ‘evidence of teaching effectiveness’ or has some other way to ask about teaching evaluations, it’s better to summarize what you have in a page or two (included representative comments from students) than it is to include copies of evaluations (which can vary significantly from institution to institution). Ultimately, it shouldn’t be too long, and, like a job letter, should not overstay its welcome.
Questions, comments, experiences? Post them in the comment section.
One of the challenges that academic job seekers confront is conceptualizing a second project to engage in after the completion of their dissertations. Some brief description of a second project is always part of job letters, but it’s even more important in conversation with potential colleagues during interviews. Broadly, it seems like they can be reduced to pragmatic and ideal projects. But, in either case, they need to convince your potential colleagues of your intellectual (and work) trajectory.
Pragmatic projects directly stem from dissertation projects, and consist of work that develops a dissertation project into a marketable book project. Basically, this kind of project is described in terms that convince readers that you have a sense of what it will take for you to get tenure at their institution; it might mean returning to your original fieldsite, some comparative fieldsite (either locally or abroad), or some other kind of research (archival, textual, etc.). I don’t think it’s an admission of inadequacy to suggest that your dissertation project needs more work to be publishable as a book — everyone’s dissertation needs work to be a book. Instead, it makes it apparent to your reader that you know that there’s still work to be done, and that you know what needs to be attended to.
Ideal projects, on the other hand, are the sequels to dissertation projects. Whatever you feel about your dissertation, your ideal second project should build upon it in some fashion and convince your reader that you have some kind of intellectual commitment. At the time I was sending out my first job applications, I was pretty convinced that my second project was going to be about the idea of ‘public health’ as it touched down in postcolonial India and China, especially around ideas about breathing. Because my dissertation was so rooted in the U.S., I really felt the need to work internationally; I also wanted to work on the transmission of particular ideas about the body outside of the U.S. And, most importantly, I wanted to continue working on everyday biology. I abandoned this project as a second project (traipsing to India and China, and developing research partnerships in both places, was too much to ask of myself pre-tenure), but I’ll get around to it eventually… But what it indexed to my readers was my interest in everyday biology and how it gets caught up in medical and scientific thought and practice — it showed my readers that I had a ‘research agenda.’ And that seems to be key in thinking through a second project: what are you planning on working on — in your research, in your teaching — for the next decade, if not your entire career? If you can index it by pairing your current and future projects, it will give your readers and interviewers a clear sense that you have a plan and know what you’re about. Even if there are some bumps in the road.
There are a couple other things to consider as you think about second projects. None of this needs to be covered in a job letter or during an interview, but it is worth keeping in mind as your career develops.
It’s not a contract between you and your potential employer. That is, if you’re hired by an academic institution, you don’t have to produce the second project you said you would. Things come up, both in life and through writing and teaching, and what seemed like a good second project when you were finishing your dissertation may not be quite so compelling a few years later. And, realistically, if you spend time applying for funding for your second project, and no one is coming through with funding, it might be worth abandoning for something more fundable.
Be realistic. Starting a new academic job (tenure track or not) comes with a lot of work commitments — faculty meetings, meetings with students, service, publishing, new course preps, etc. — and having the time to develop and carry out a robust second project can be slight. This can be seen with a lot of more senior academics, who often develop local or historical projects. It can be worth looking around a potential employer to see what, if any, resources or sites might exist that could provide fertile ground for developing a new project.
Other thoughts, experiences or questions? Post them in the comments.
One of the most important academic practices to learn is that of peer review — both producing peer reviews of other people’s work, and learning how to read peer reviews productively. And yet, we’re rarely taught how to write generative peer reviews, and even more rarely are we taught how to read peer reviews to improve our work. So, here’s a first stab.
Preparing Peer Reviews
At the outset, I should say that many journals have peer review expectations, and these are embedded in forms that they ask peer reviewers to fill out at the time they submit their peer reviews to the editors. At the most basic, they ask reviewers to evaluate the submission in terms of its ability to be published (e.g. publish without revisions, publish with revisions, revise and resubmit, do not publish). Beyond that, though, most peer reviews are rather free form and are left up to peer reviewers to do with it what they will. That being said, useful peer reviews tend to share some qualities:
Make sure that throughout your review to flag what the author needs to address and what she or he may choose to address. More than anything else, this can really help make the difference between a useful review and one that’s not so useful…
Start with a summary of the author’s argument, as you understand it. This is a pretty good index to the author as to whether or not he or she is conveying their argument, and what, if any, interpretive problems are happening on the reviewer’s end. If the reviewers just aren’t getting it, then there’s a big problem. Or if the reviewers are missing a nuance in the argument, that’s important to see too. This summary needn’t be long, but it should paraphrase the thesis and then cover the argumentation (i.e. the argument is X, which is followed in the paper by discussions of A, B and C). If there are logical inconsistencies in the argumentation, this is the place to point that out. If there are argumentative problems, this section can be much longer — upwards of two pages. But if it stretches beyond that, it needs to be broken into subsections to help the author interpret what to do and where specific problems lie.
The middle section of a peer review usually falls into the realm of free association, which is where the reviewer can spend some time discussing the relative merits and shortfalls of the paper, the paper’s linkage to other existing scholarship, and the overall consistency of the paper. Throughout, it’s important to flag which comments need to be addressed by the author and which are not so critical: it’s fine to go on for a paragraph or two about a pet peeve or some flight of fancy, but if it has little bearing on how the author should be rewriting his or her paper, make sure to flag that (e.g. ‘The author might be interested in…’ rather than ‘The author needs to address…’).
In the middle section of the peer review, it’s worth taking the time to discuss each of the sections of the paper (as the author has it broken down), including a brief description of the section along with some evaluative language (does it work or doesn’t it?). If there are parts of the paper that just don’t work or parts of the paper that really do work, this is the place to point them out. Praising things about the paper is just as important as saying critical things: if one reviewer really likes a section and others do not, it’s helpful to see why that’s the case.
Connecting the article to existing literature that hasn’t been discussed by the author also usually falls into this middle section. Again, it’s important to flag what needs to be addressed and what might be addressed. If an author is making vague references to a body of theoretical literature and would really do well to spell out her or his assumptions more directly, point that out; if an author has a huge blind spot in his or her discussion of relevant literature, point that out too. But if there’s some tangentially related literature that you know but the author doesn’t — and it won’t really have any bearing on the article anyway — make sure to mention that citing that work isn’t consequential, but might be interesting to the author.
The last section of peer reviews usually focuses much more on very specific things that need to be addressed by the author: are there specific awkward or vague sentences, missing citations, bibliographic errors, etc.? This isn’t to say that a peer review’s job is to find syntactical or grammatical problems, but if there are writing issues that interfere with the ability of the paper to be read, these problems need to be pointed out to the author.
The final paragraph of the review should succinctly restate your overall assessment of the paper and outline the major things (if any) that need attention on the part of the author.
It may seem paradoxical, but a really good review can actually be a bad review for an author. I’ve received reviews that say things along the lines of ‘This paper is ready to be published; the author shouldn’t change anything.’ (Usually only after already having passed through peer review multiple times, mind you…) But if the other reviewers are highly critical of parts of the paper, such a blanket positive peer review doesn’t help much. Instead, working through the positives of the paper is more helpful for the author, so that she or he can see why you like sections or the paper as much as you do — if you like things that others do not, it’s vital to see why that is. And, if there’s an editor involved, they’re more likely to be swayed by articulate, negative appraisals than a blanket and vague positive one.
Interpreting Peer Reviews
If you’re an author and have peer reviews that look roughly like what I’ve outline here, there should be very little problem in interpreting them. But, more likely, you’ll have peer reviews that don’t strictly (or even closely) follow this format. The best way to tackle reviews is to read through them and identify those things that reviewers think need to be changed (and thereby isolating them from less pertinent critiques). Often, the best way to do this is to see if there is convergence between readers: are people having similar problems with the paper? If they are, that’s fairly easy to see and address. If they’re having wildly different kinds of problems, it’s worth writing down the criticisms and seeing what the problem lies: is it that they really understand your argument differently? Are they coming from very different interpretive traditions? Sometimes you can address these problems; sometimes, it’s just the luck of the draw. And the important thing here is to isolate what you actually need to address and what you don’t. In not addressing some concerns, it’s important to point out why — sometimes in the body of the paper itself (which may be a way to get your argument more precise).
If you’re preparing to resubmit a paper after peer review, editors will often ask that you enumerate the changes that you’ve made to the text — and which changes you haven’t made and explanations as to why. If you have a list of requested changes, this is a fairly easy document to prepare, as you can list which changes you’ve made, how the criticism has been addressed, and where the change appears in the paper. Doing this can be helpful both for the editor and for peer reviewers, who often want to see that you’ve made the changes that they’ve suggested.
You may have come across an advertisement for my book, The Slumbering Masses, in your favorite magazine or heard me on the radio — or maybe you just stumbled across it in your local bookstore or received it as a gift. It’s an odd beast: it was written as an academic book, but my editor and press wanted it to have the potential to ‘cross over’ — to have a more widespread appeal. And I did too, which is why I spend a fair amount of time doing radio interviews, blogging for Psychology Today, and working to publicize the book. As dense as it can be in parts, it also has a lot of material that most readers can read with little furrowing of brows or scratching of head. So, if you have picked up a copy of The Slumbering Masses and are finding it sleep-inducing, try this reading strategy:
Read the Preface, skip the Introduction and Chapters 1-3, and then really start with Chapter 4. The Preface will give you a general sense of the book’s scope, and Chapter 4 will get you right to the heart of the matter with a series of case studies of people and families struggling with disorderly sleep. The chapters that pick up from there in Part 2 are all pretty quick — usually just about 15 pages, and mostly case focused. You can read them in any order. From there you can either move forward into Part 3 or go back to Part 1.
In Part 1, Chapter 3 is probably the most reader friendly — it’s based in a sleep clinic and shows how doctors go about diagnosing sleep problems. Chapter 2 looks at the history of sleep and sleep medicine, but unless you really like historical detail, you can skip the last section of it. And the Introduction and Chapter 1 can generally be ignored. The Introduction is really just for academics and does a lot of theoretical work, which, for most readers, is obtuse; but you might read the last few pages of it for overviews of all the chapters. Chapter 1 does some stage dressing, but, again, it isn’t strictly necessary for the general reader.
Part 3 is more case oriented, and has some pretty compelling stuff — military experiments, extreme sports, and sleepwalking murders. The conclusions of the first two chapters might be skipped, but the heart of them should be relatively straightforward. The Conclusion to the book is a big overview of it and makes an argument about ‘multibiologism’ — or thinking about human variation without recourse to pathology. It works through a number of cases, and is pretty readable.
This is all pretty much to say: skip the Introduction and maybe Chapter 1. They’re really written for academics, and don’t add much for the general reader. You can always go back to them later, and for non-academics, reading the Introduction as the conclusion might make the most sense (however paradoxical that may sound)…
If you have questions about the book or other ideas on how people might approach reading it, feel free to post them in the comments below.