Teaching philosophy

by Carl Dyke

I’m inclined to agree with Academic Cog, whose various statements about teaching I admire, that “teaching philosophies” as required for job applications and tenure/promotion files tend to be “vague, general, and dorky-sounding,” ranging from inane to robotic. I especially dislike the ones that respond to explicit or implicit questions about “innovative” teaching. I’ve seen and developed some pretty fancy ways to deliver lecture and discussion over the years, but until someone figures out a way to teach the humanities that isn’t a variation on lecture or discussion (knowledge pills? cortical implants?) —

— I may add some tricks to my bag but I’m holding fire on innovation cred.

Re: innovation (or not), here’s the statement from my introductory world history syllabus, under the heading “teaching/learning philosophy as I learned it from world history:”

“If I give a student one corner of a subject and he cannot find the other three, the lesson is not worth teaching.” — Confucius

“When we renounce learning we have no troubles… when there is abstinence from action, good order is universal.” — Laozi

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” — Walter Benjamin

“Now as a man is like this or like that, according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be: — a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad.” — the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices.” — William James

“I don’t believe in living in the past. The past is for cowards. If you live in the past, you die in the past.” — Mike Ditka

“And it may be that you dislike a thing which is good for you and that you like a thing which is bad for you. God knows but you do not know.” — the Qu’ran

“The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous.” — Shunryu Suzuki

These are not meant to be linear. My classes are ‘some assembly required’.

Insofar as I have anything like a formal teaching philosophy I fall into the general category of humanists who think learning is good and it’s possible, in principle, for every student to learn; and of pragmatists who think this is better accomplished actively than passively. As for specifics, they vary. I use my classrooms as teaching/learning laboratories, so I’m always trying out new (to me) strategies. I also do a lot of reading and reacting with particular students and groups of students, which means that the instancings of a general approach may be quite different even across sections of ‘the same’ class. Finally, I have noticed that just about any way of teaching will work pretty well if the teacher is excited about it and fall flat if they’re not. So I never teach ‘the same’ class twice because I use each class as an opportunity to learn new things and I periodically cycle out of even very successful teaching strategies to keep myself fresh. I think that teaching stops being about technique and starts being about feel and fit and mindful interaction pretty quickly.

Still, as a member of several search committees I have read some pretty inspiring teaching philosophies. Occasionally at the interview they even turn out to match the practices of their authors! But it’s practices we care about in the end, isn’t it? So perhaps we should ask for statements of teaching practice. As to that, I indicated in the previous post I think it’s important to think through what we actually want our students to learn in our classes and teach directly to those objectives. For my students the most important outcome is the ability and disposition to learn independently and to read, think and write critically. I reported out an example of how that looks in practice in my earlier post, Ninja Reading, which is currently my favorite teaching statement and not at all inane or robotic.

16 Comments to “Teaching philosophy”

  1. Funny that the “Possibly related Posts” should bring me here. Not surprising, but funny. IIRC, that post of mine which comes up as “Possibly related” wasn’t linked to a discussion with you, Carl. We hadn’t been introduced to one another, yet. But it did represent a good chunk of my teaching philosophy. So it’s interesting to see that Sphere thinks our two posts are related, since we’ve been talking about teaching, in the meantime. Chances are that Sphere uses preexisting links between blogs as part of the algorithm so it’s still not surprising. But funny.

    Just this afternoon, I was talking with a fellow anthro about Wesch’s work. One thing I’ve been saying fairly frequently, when Wesch is the topic of conversation, is that this Manitoba presentation is more representative of his work than his other YouTube videos, including the Library of Congress one. So I’m glad that you linked to this one. Though there are some aspects of Wesch’s approach to which I can’t relate that directly, I think he’s a rather good case of effective teaching practises. He also seems to be a great guy (according to conversations we’ve been having).

    Teaching philosophies can be difficult to write for several reasons, some of which you describe here. As it so happens, Concordia had a series of workshops on teaching portfolios this semester (Fall 2008) and they’ve been quite stimulating.
    One thing we did had to do with the Teaching Perspectives Index. Surprisingly useful. I’m not a big fan of tests but this one seemed rather appropriate. And it does refer directly to “actions, values, and beliefs.” One notion behind this test is that it might be used as a way to pinpoint discrepancies between practises and values. In my case, it mostly served as a way to reaffirm a number of things I had been thinking about my teaching. The coolest part of this specific workshop, in my case, is that we were teamed up based on a broad disciplinary affiliation and ended up being well-matched in terms of that TPI. Within minutes, we had developed an interesting bond and were able to do the exercises (some of which involved evaluating teaching philosophy statements) collaboratively.

    One issue with all of these processes, trying to communicate ideas about teaching to others who may not know us, is that a lot of it can sound rather trite outside of its context. I personally enjoy your quotes and can relate to several of them. I also perceive how they can work in your courses. But, to some people, these quotes may sound more like “buzzphrases” than like accurate statements about your teaching. It all depends on “who’s on the committee.”
    In my case, it may even sound worse since many of the things about which I care are, in fact, buzzphrases. “Lifelong learning” is one, and I’ve been using your “planting landmines” idea to explain it (which compounds the problem but gets people thinking). “Constructivism” is another, and I struggle with having to show what I really mean. Overall, I can easily sound like someone who’s “just using buzzwords.”
    Unless I provide evidence of my teaching effectiveness. Which is something with which these teaching portfolio workshops provided a lot of which.

    One personal issue I tend to have is this tendency to perceive teaching effectiveness through “measurements.” Learning isn’t too difficult to assess but it’s difficult to “prove through numbers.” And there’s an embedded discrepancy between what I perceive to be appropriate teaching strategies and this tendency to evaluate every single aspect of teaching at every step of the way.

    Sometimes, I just wish we could understand learning in a broader way. And I start idealizing the Ancient Greek models for “academia.”

  2. Back when I was teaching seminars on advertising and marketing, I sometimes began by discussing two different types of courses. In one, the subject is presented as a jigsaw puzzle; the picture already exists, and the students’ job is to acquire as many pieces as possible and put them in the right places. This sort of course is easy to grade and appropriate when established bodies of knowledge need to be learned as efficiently as possible—intro to calculus or basic accounting for example. In the other, the subject is presented as a blank canvas on which the student is expected to produce his or her own picture. As in an art studio, the instructor’s task is to provide examples and tips and to judge if the work produced is good. Grading is hard and, inevitably, subjective. This sort of course is, however, a much better simulation than the other of the world in which the students were considering pursuing careers. I was thinking, in particular, of advertising and marketing when I told them, “I have never, in over two decades in the industry, seen anyone make big bucks by reproducing what others have already done.” The explanation may be crass, but the principle, I suggest, applies to any knowledge-worker career that our students may be wanting to pursue. Whether its money, fame, power or successfully doing good, they will have to think for themselves; they will have to take risks; they will have to learn to deal with competition, rejection, and, sometimes, yes, success. “But I did what you told me to” won’t cut it.

  3. @Enkerli, I was struck by that ‘related post’ connection as well, and pleased because our posts articulate so nicely. Glad to be associated with you in any way, of course!

    I agree that this Wesch video is more representative than his shorter ones, which are more like commercials. In particular, I’m bemused by what a traditional lecture with a-v bells and whistles his Manitoba presentation was. I think that’s an approach that would be interesting to unpack in terms of how he’s constructed his audiences and professional personae. That said, I think he’s doing very good work using technology to achieve a discursive learning environment, especially in relation to the larger student populations he’s working with. Since my classes are much smaller I feel much less urgency about this, but I have begun to think about how to use course-sites to add a layer of interactivity even to smaller courses that are already intensely interactive. Context mattering some.

    The ‘buzzword’ thing is tough, and it’s a lot of what Academic Cog was reacting to. I think for those of us who experience teaching as a dense relationship with other humans it can be odd and unsatisfying to try to boil the ethnography down into a few phrases. Good readers will know how to decode those, of course, but there’s always signal loss with that kind of compression.

    @John, you’re right. My example of type 1 is carburetor/fuel injector repair. Only one way to do it right, no point lingering on strategies of venturi interpretation, and “I did what you told me” will totally cut it. (Although even here, mechanics who have a holistic understanding of systems and can think their way through a diagnosis are worth their weight in gold.)

    In the teaching context the problem with thinking and taking risks is that epic fails lurk in there. The way to avoid them looks like turning teaching and learning into lockstep procedures. And that does work, but at the expense of the big transformative successes.

  4. My trick for addressing the issue in your last paragraph is that I also make it clear that to get a B, all students have to do is act like students. Do the assignments competently and get them in on time. But to get an A they have to impress me and that requires taking a risk. In a marketing course, they can get a B by analyzing a product or service and doing presentations on each of the classic four Ps (Product, Price, Placement, and Promotion). To get an A they have to identify the one most pressing issue confronting their product or service in the Japanese market and come up with a compelling strategy for addressing that problem. Every year I taught this course, I had three or four students (in a class of 10-12) who would absolutely knock my socks off, plus at least one disgruntled because, while they did excellent research and prepared beautiful presentations, they hadn’t taken that risk.

  5. Hey, look, it’s me! I was wondering why everyone was clicking through from here.

    I had thought it was too late in the year for this, but everyone is searching for sample statements of teaching philosophies and getting to that post of mine.

    Now, I just had a mock interview and was totally stumped by the “what are some of your weaknesses as a teacher” question, because it seems that answering that truthfully can lose you the job; there’s some sort of hidden “right answer” like how the question about your weaknesses as an employee is that you work too hard. Hmm. will go ponder.

  6. How about, just a thought, “I know X, therefore Y,” where X is an excusable flaw and Y a plausible solution: shows honest, self-reflection, proactive solution seeking. E.g., for me, “I tend to be long-winded, so I have been putting more effort into breaking up what I say into smaller bites.”

  7. Hi Sis, it’s great to see you. I love your work.

    I was thinking much the same as John. If the question is a serious one, they’re probing for evidence of self-reflection, active responsibility and a touch of humility: that sweet spot between clueless or defensive arrogance and flailing self-doubt where actual learning and growth is possible. These are the folks we want as our colleagues. Even if they’re not being thoughtful like that, an answer along those lines may kick them into a higher mode.

    If you have ample evidence that they’re incurable knuckleheads, however, and you’ll get those, you’re in a different pickle. The interview’s a ritual and they’re seeing how well you perform it; you’re being measured against a standard of usness. (Well, that’s true in the first case too, isn’t it. You actually have to read your interviewers for what kind of ‘us’ they [think they] are.)

    So in the knucklehead case you should probably go with your idea of the weakness-that’s-really-a-strength. “Sometimes I care too much” at a teaching college, “I sometimes forget to eat when I’m contemplating the categorical imperative’s relations to foundationalism in [my work]” at an R1, which is the stock answer to that question. It’s important to play entry rituals pretty straight. Any signs of irony will be fatal.

    Here’s where the wise oldsters say “Maybe you don’t need this job that much,” but of course they’re thinking of a different job market. I once got a wonderful piece of advice from a colleague as I headed out for an interview. She said “Don’t worry, Carl, you’re great. Just be yourself.” And I said, “Which myself is that?” And she laughed and said, “Exactly.” I didn’t get that job, but I did end up getting one with people I like a lot.

  8. I tend to overeat while contemplating the categorical imperative – is that odd?

  9. Silly Mikhail, that’s the fategorical imperative. Which is a priori, whilst the scategorical imperative is a posteriori.

  10. Too bad WordPress.com doesn’t (yet) provide notifications of new comments. Ah, well…

    It’s most likely because of the end of the semester but there seems to be a lot of thinking about teaching methods, styles, effectiveness, etc.

    On the “flaw” question, these portfolio workshops were quite clear as to the importance of saying what you’re improving in your teaching and why. Self-awareness and honesty but also the simple thought that you’re “growing” as a teacher. Of course, we’re talking about English-speaking meritocracies.

    One thing which seems to appear a lot in discussions, these days, is the notion of what “a good teacher” is like. Malcolm Gladwell recently published a New Yorker article about this, as well as a blog supplement. David Brooks also focused on this point in his NYT review of Gladwell’s book. The mailing-list for the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE-L) is abuzz with threads about effective teaching. And a part of the Quebec blogosphere is now focused on this issue of teaching effectiveness.
    To be honest, I have a hard time relating to the basic idea that teachers can be put on a linear scale from excellent to awful. I even have a hard time getting how much trust people put in this basic principle of linear evaluation. Most of the people I recently read argue that it’s difficult to evaluate teacher (“teaching has a quarterback problem”) but I hear few voices claiming that the very idea of putting teachers on a linear scale is probably misleading in the first place.
    In this context, I interpret Carl’s earlier “10 ways” post (which used to appear as “Possibly Related”) as a statement against linear evaluations.
    Sure, I’m a “born holist” (and that’s probably why I became an ethnographer). But I don’t think it’s just me. There’s something strange going on when you rate teachers with percentiles. That’s not the way I perceive students and I don’t know why I would be perceived like this.
    (For the record, I seem to have a pretty decent reputation as a teacher and I have a good “track record” overall. Some courses didn’t go well at all but some of my courses were nonqualified successes, IMHO. I have my own methods to assess success but external evaluation of my teaching is usually quite positive. I still don’t perceive myself as being on a scale.)

    Possibly the simplest argument against linear evaluations is the importance of context. It’s so commonsensical that people don’t even mention it. After all, everybody understands that the “best English teacher” can be a “lousy teacher of physics” and we perceive large differences between an elementary school teacher and a university professor in charge of a research lab.
    But my sense is that people perceive this “relativism” as a “factor in the equation” for teacher rating, instead of designing other models of teaching effectiveness. As teachers, we can say that the same methods may not work across different groups of learners. “It only means that good teachers are those who can adapt,” you say? Well, no, I don’t think it only means this. And I don’t think there are practical ways to assess the degree to which a teacher is able to adapt to her/his students during a semester.
    Then there’s the issue of teacher performance through time. Some of the best-rated teachers are unlikely to sustain this “level of excellence” throughout their teaching careers. Burnouts are quite frequent among teachers and disillusion often sets in. Is an excellent teacher like a maple tree you tap until the sap runs out?

    Yes, I know, Gladwell and others are aware of these issues. But my perception is that they don’t tend to go very far in terms of the implications of these issues.
    Now, I haven’t read Outliers and I don’t necessarily have any intention to do so in the near future. My perception is probably skewed. But I’m puzzled by what I’ve been reading, in different places, about this notion of what a good teacher is.

    And I don’t think it’s the toll of this past semester. I actually had a very stimulating semester.

  11. Use of a single linear scale for teaching is, I agree, patent nonsense. It fails to answer the marketer’s first question, “Good for whom?” My best teachers were, in retrospect, not the kind you’d expect to be popular. They were fierce, judgmental, demanding, not inclined to take fools lightly. For me that was great. They knocked me down, but I rose to the challenge. On the other hand, I took some classes from very popular teachers who were, I kid you not, nothing more than talented shuck-and-jive artists. They had a formula for what they were teaching that was easy to grasp and easy to swallow. But their classes were like what used to be said about Chinese food–an hour after you ate some your stomach felt empty again. Still, if you were to go by class sizes and student reputation, they were top tier.

  12. @John Your marketer approach is quite appropriate, IMHO. As I take some steps into private-sector ethnography, I get to think quite a bit about what effective marketing may mean, in terms of insight. In this case, people tend to have an absolutist notion of what “quality education” might represent yet teachers are part of a much more complex “marketplace” of skills and knowledge.
    Some my analogies come from food and drinks: “Champagne isn’t so good with breakfast cereal,” “you would tire of filet mignon if you ate it everyday,” “lobster used to be for poor folks”…
    And I still like the gym analogy, meant to be about student engagement. When you pay for membership in a gym, your expectation is that you’re responsible for the improvement in your fitness. Students have a similar responsibility in terms of learning.

    But an issue this line of reasoning made me think about and which goes well with the marketer’s point is that of student choice of teacher. This choice is never completely free, of course, and university students have a lot more say in the matter than children sent to a public elementary school. But thinking about student choice of teacher makes us think about how awkward it is to have teachers assigned to students with no attention paid to the fit between learning and teaching methods.
    Of course, many students tend to choose teachers based on criteria which have little to do with the quality of the overall learning experience. But it might be important to look at these issues.

    And, in the end, what gets me about all this talk is that it merely pays lipservice to the large amount of work which has been done in educational fields in the last several decades.

    What gives me pause as to my own reaction is that part of it may come from my background. I was enculturated into thinking that learning is a collaborative experience which cannot be measured through a single linear scale. For this reason, I tend to relate to Ken Robinson’s question about whether or not schools kill creativity.

  13. Nothing to add about teaching. But since you mention private-sector ethnography, allow me to recommend Patricia L. Sunderland and Rita M. Denny (2007) Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research. It’s terrific.

    P.S. If I seem to disappear, fear not. Ruth and I leave Japan tomorrow to spend a white Christmas with geysers in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. No Internet, no cell phones, no TV. It will be our first solid week offline since our daughter talked us into trying to climb Kilimanjaro back in 1998.

  14. Hey John, that sounds great! Have a time.

    Thanks for this conversation. So much I want to say here but I’ve got to run this morning. Maybe I can shake loose a couple of minutes this afternoon.

  15. @Enkerli, thanks for pointing back to those earlier posts of mine. I’ve got narcissistic links buried in this one, along with one to Undine’s nice discussion of Gladwell.

    Linear evaluations work great for linear outcomes. If you want students to know how to r & r a transmission or solve for X, those are pretty determinate little teaching/learning systems. Transmissions lend themselves well to reduction – they work or don’t work according to engineering principles, so if you’re ‘interpreting’ them it means you’ve failed to discover all the relevant variables. Human relations are not reducible in this way. Interpretation is built into them, so quite apart from all the variables there are also legitimate differences about what they mean. Standards may legitimately address whether a particular interpretive schema has been followed accurately, or whether a selected interpretation has been well articulated. This is the ‘good for whom’ John points at, and as he says it’s barely Human Systems 101, which makes for lots of frustration for those of us moderately well-educated in the construction of knowledge in relation to naive objectivity-seeking.

  16. @John Thanks for the Sunderland and Denny reference. I’ll take a look. Been meaning to get into private-sector ethnography for a while and now is the appropriate time for me to do so. (I’ll soon sign my first contract and I’m hoping I’ll get other contracts.)

    @Carl Good point about linear outcomes. I tend to forget about these because they’re quite foreign to my teaching experience. But, again, “transmission” and “apprenticeship” are my lowest scores on the Teaching Perspectives Index.

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