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September 7, 2013 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

The Mysterious Teaching Statement, Part 1

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.

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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.

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