Teaching Statement

“I hate students. I’d love teaching if it wasn’t for them.”
Attributed to a ‘Ms. Goldsmith’, DeVry University

How should the “teaching statement” of a college junior (tenure-track) faculty candidate read ? It is not difficult to find plenty of opinions on this subject, all over the web. A discussion at Incoherenly Scattered Ponderings has rehashed some of the most commonly debated points, and has prompted me to exhume my own “teaching statement” from the ashes of my postdoctoral past, ended over eleven years ago.
In those days, the job market for a wannabe academic physicist was arguably bleaker than it is now. Positions at research universities or national laboratories were few and far between. Thus, for those of us who would rather not have worked in industry, broadening our search to include institutions whose primary goal was not scientific research but teaching, became a matter of survival.

Even though my desire had always been that of working as a physics faculty at a research university, I was also comfortable with the notion of teaching at a four year college (or in any case working at an institution placing more emphasis in classroom teaching than in research — which is, incidentally, precisely where I eventually ended up); after all, I have always been interested in teaching.
But, how would I make myself palatable as a prospective teacher, given my limited teaching portfolio ? I did teach as a postdoc, including a large section of an introductory physics course for engineering majors. Would that by itself make me a stronger contender for teaching jobs ? Based on my subsequent observation, having served in numerous search committees, I think I can fairly confidently state: No, it does not.

The typical junior applicant, who has gone through research-based graduate and postdoctoral training, does not possess anything that could be meaningfully regarded as substantive teaching experience. Having taught as a teaching assistant or as a postdoc, even having been in charge of one or two full courses, does not really give anyone a serious edge over someone else who has never stood before a classroom. Teaching is an art in many respects, one that is continually perfected during the years; and of course, some are better at it than others. Communicating effectively and capturing the attention of students undoubtedly requires talent. Experience plays an important role, of course, but that kind of experience is not something that one can acquire in just one semester or two worth of practice.
Still, a credible teaching statement is an indispensable part of one’s application. Although more emphasis is given to a candidate’s teaching potential in some institutions than in others, I do not think that there is a substantial difference between the statement that would impress a search committee member at a four-year college, or at an institution that places teaching ahead of research, and a full-fledge research university.
But what should that statement say, then ?

My own opinion is based on my experience both as applicant and recruiter, and on the positive feedback that I received on my own teaching statement. Members of search committees, attempting to assess the potential of a candidate to be an effective classroom teacher based on the person’s teaching statement, will typically be favorably impressed if the statement succeeds at conveying a sense of genuine interest, enthusiasm toward teaching on the part of the applicant. It is not whether the person has already done it (for one reason or another); it is whether (s)he is eager to do it.
Obviously, this does not amount to peppering one’s text with generic, “boiler-plate” expressions of enthusiasm, or desire for teaching, especially over-the-top ones, which may come across as insincere.
The litmus test for someone’s enthusiasm with respect to teaching boils down to determining whether the person has spent some time thinking about teaching, and has some ideas of her own on how to do it. This is where the emphasis should be placed, in one’s teaching statement.

Is there anything in the way undergraduate physics courses are taught which you think could be changed ? How would you go about teaching that specific subject ? What is it that in your opinion college professors (of physics or other disciplines) do not do enough or too much ? How would you teach Statistical Mechanics ? How about Electricity and Magnetism ? What is your favorite subject to teach ?

Quoting from my own statement (1997):
“It is my opinion that […] physics classes ought to include, whenever possible, numerical exercises as an integral part. This is particularly important in courses such as Quantum Mechanics, or Electricity and Magnetism, where there exists only a relatively limited set of problems that lend themselves to a simple and exact analytical treatment, something that physics graduates often do not appreciate. […] Understanding the structure of a computer algorithm that translates abstract formulae and procedures into a quantitative calculation effectively stresses the fundamental physical concepts and helps bridge the gap between the simple, highly idealized physical situations described in textbook problems and those encountered in real-life applications. Numerical exercises emphasize concepts, such as order of magnitude, as well as relative importance of different contributions to a given physical quantity, that often remain hidden in standard textbook problems.”

These considerations largely reflected my own experience in graduate school, and the positive impression that the course of Electricity and Magnetism (including numerical exercises) had left on me. I think that I realized back then, while taking that course, what type of physics I enjoy doing. But, never mind whether you agree with the above remarks or not; it is the simple fact that a person has thought of it, and has some ideas on how to go about it, that suggests that his/her heart is in the right place.
I do not think that an applicant should worry too much about proposing new ideas or methodologies that may seem too radical, or possibly controversial. In this field, new ideas are badly needed. Obviously things have to be done within reason and using common sense, but the statement of someone eager to try something new is the one which will stand out.

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5 Responses to “Teaching Statement”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Some good advice can be found here:

    http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/2003/03/2003032702c.htm

    Mark

  2. fascinet Says:

    One interviewer positively sneered at me, saying “I’m glad you’ve thought about teaching.” We were just talking about Randy Knight’s Five Easy Lessions, and I couldn’t figure out what nerve I might have touched.

    I took it as a condemnation of my teaching background. In that case, though, why give me an interview at all?

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      In that case, though, why give me an interview at all?

      Well, maybe you were just talking to the one committee member who had a favorite candidate (other than you) and was simply trying to make it clear to you that
      a) (s)he would do anything for you not to get the job
      b) if you should get the job, you may count him/her among your enemies from the very start.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    transientreporter.wordpress.com

    Having sat on several faculty search committees at my (teaching-intensive) school, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no substitute for real teaching experience. You the applicant has to convince the search committee that you have not only the CAPACITY to teach, but that you WANT to teach. The last thing a department wants is to hire someone who gets fed up with teaching and leaves after a year.

    Experience as a TA or a lab assistant etc counts for absolutely nothing – in my experience. You need to find a community college somewhere and teach a full course.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Re: transientreporter.wordpress.com

      Hmmm…. look, I have heard that from many people, and it is a respectable opinion but …. I am not sure I buy it. All I can say from experience is:
      0) I agree that “Experience as a TA or a lab assistant etc counts for absolutely nothing”, but based on what I have experienced myself in community colleges, I would count next to nothing the experience matured in that way as well — especially if we are talking one or two courses.
      1) You can get fed up with research just as easily as you get fed up with teaching. In many respects you take equally big a chance when you hire someone who has never gone through the process of writing a proposal, running a group, generating original research projects, advising students…
      2) Teaching is different depending on where you do it, what kind of institution. what kind of students and what kind of administration you are dealing with. Someone who makes a great community college teacher may not make a good university teacher and vice versa.
      3) I don’t think it is reasonable to exclude from competition those who focused on research during their postdoctoral training, trying to build the strongest possible research portfolio, did not do any teaching, and ultimately find themselves opting, for a number of valid reasons, for a different professional path, with greater emphasis on teaching

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