Writing in the February 19, 2010 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kevin Haggerty of the University of Alberta takes on the college teaching statement as a useful source of information about teaching and pronounces the entire genre “bunk.” The essay and the ensuing comments make a very interesting read and I particularly recommend them both to anyone who has recently or is about to enter the academic job market.
Haggerty’s cynicism about teaching statements aside, he does make some useful points, as do several of those who have added comments to the article online. Perhaps the best is when Haggerty says, “Instructors couldn’t just say they encourage collaborative learning. Instead, they need to say, specifically, how that is accomplished.” As the reader of literally hundreds of such statements over the past decade or so, I too wish for more specifics.
But I think Haggerty’s essay also misleads, because it focuses too much on teaching as craft as opposed to an intellectual exercise–one that engages the mind of the instructor just as he/she hopes the consequences of teaching engage the minds of students.
To try to get at teaching as intellectual work when meeting job candidates, I have stolen an idea from my friend and colleague Lendol Calder. I don’t know if Lendol words it exactly this way, but the question I now ask is “What is the most interesting intellectual problem you have confronted in your teaching recently?” For some candidates that question is a stumper. For others, it elicits very thoughtful answers…answers that give me and colleagues on the search committee much more insight into just how the person we’re interviewing thinks about the central issues in teaching her/his subject.
So in addition to more specifics in teaching statements, I’d also like to see more thinking about thinking.