This is what a terrible teaching statement looks like

Last month I offered some advice about how to write a terrible teaching statement – or, more usefully, how not to.  The post was inspired by many years of serving on search committees (not, I will point out again, by any particular applicant’s example).  But in researching an upcoming blog post, I stumbled across a copy of my own teaching statement, from the last time I was on the job market.  And guess what?  It was terrible in many of the very ways I mentioned.

I could, of course, have promptly closed the file folder, shoved it back in the file drawer, and kept my big mouth shut.  But experience has shown that readers of Scientist Sees Squirrel quite enjoy stories about dumb things that I’ve done.  So in that spirit, and as a good illustration of things to avoid if you’re writing a teaching statement of your own, here’s an abbreviated version of my old teaching statement – with a few comments as footnotes.  Please use the Replies to add your own criticism – and don’t hold back.

Teaching Statement – Stephen B. Heard [from 2001*1]

Teaching is a key component of our mission as faculty members.  I find teaching at all levels rewarding, especially when students from my classes go on to careers that incorporate what they’ve learned from me – whether their careers are in ecology or some other field.  My teaching evaluations over the last half dozen years (by my students and by my peers) show that I am an effective teacher.  Copies of evaluations are available on request.

Although I’ve taught a variety of courses, I have a few universal themes*2 to my teaching:

  • I am uninterested in teaching lists of facts; rather, I seek to foster conceptual understanding and critical thinking.
  • I consider it as important to teach the process of science as it is to teach the results of that process.
  • Not all (not even most) of my students will go on to careers in ecology, and so I believe it is critical to show students why and how their understanding of ecology will matter to their lives, their businesses, their communities, and their descendants.
  • I believe no discipline can prosper, or be understood, in a vacuum. I work to convey to my students the connections between ecology and other fields – among them business, economics, law, medicine, and politics.

Effective teaching requires much more than simply showing up with a bundle of lecture notes.  I have worked hard to keep lecture materials current*3; to be approachable, helpful, and interactive both in the classroom and out of it; to incorporate data published by scientists of both genders (so that all my students will have role models); and to motivate my students to want to learn.  I have involved new technologies in my teaching*4, but I have not let technologies co-opt the design of my teaching.  Most importantly, I have tried to infect my students with my own enthusiasm for scholarship, for breadth in education, and for the importance of original research*5.

Lecture courses

  • Ecology (2:134). This course has been my major teaching responsibility; I have taught it yearly since 1995, with enrolments between 40 and 92. I’ve let the enrolment rise because demand is heavy, but I’d be very happy to be able to interact more closely with a smaller class*6. [Further course description followed.]
  • Advanced Lectures in Ecology (2:235). This is a new lecture course for advanced undergraduates and graduate students, co-taught with [name].  Our approach was to offer in-depth reviews of 4 currently “hot” topics in ecology and evolution.  [Further course description followed.]

Seminars (for advanced undergraduates and graduates)

I have taught 3 advanced seminars (2:233 Seminar in Ecology and Evolution): one alone, and two in collaboration with [names].  I am co-teaching a 4th (12:225 Paleontology Seminar) in Fall 2000 with [name] of our Department of Geosciences.  These have been similar in overall organization and philosophy.  My most important goal in teaching seminars is to help students make the transition from passive to active ways of thinking and learning*7.  Most importantly, this means learning not to simply amass and recite information, but rather to synthesize, evaluate, and (most importantly) argue with it. [Further course description followed.]

Future teaching interests

Two new courses are in my immediate future.  In summer 2001, I will offer a course in “Field Ecology”, focusing on methods for insect population and community ecology”.  Some time later, I will offer a course in “Ecological Genetics” (I’ve started the wheels in motion, but new course approvals are slow here).

A move to a new department will involve fitting my teaching contribution to a new curriculum and set of colleagues.  Of course, I would be pleased to continue teaching the courses I’ve already developed.  Otherwise, I consider myself well equipped to teach courses in invertebrate zoology, ecology or evolution at any level.  Among more specialized courses I’d enjoy would be entomology, insect ecology and evolution, the ecology of macroevolution, or conservation ecology.  I could certainly also contribute to introductory biology courses or teach biostatistics.  I look forward to discussing these and other possibilities*8.

Isn’t that terrible? Gah.

© Stephen Heard ( January 9, 2017

*1^Here’s the embarrassing part: this is from my second time on the job market, after I’d already been a prof for 6 years and had read many terrible teaching statements while serving on several search committees.  You’d think I’d have known better, wouldn’t you?

*2^None of which, you’ll notice, is illustrated by any concrete example, either from my own teaching or anyone else’s.  But look at all those nice buzzwords!

*3^Now that’s a low bar, isn’t it?

*4^By which I think I meant my course had a web page. Wow.

*5^OK, I actually like this sentence – or at least, I would if it was followed by some kind of concrete example of how I’d tried this, or of how I know I’d succeeded. But I had nothing.

*6^Yep, I actually said I’d rather teach small classes. Did I think this made me unusual, a special catch that some lucky university could reel in?

*7^Did you catch the clear implication that this is not my goal in lecture courses? Ugh.

*8^Apparently it didn’t occur to me to look at the course calendar for the university I was applying to, so I could refer to particular courses they offer, or (better) to gaps in their offerings. Instead, I went with a rather generic (and rather broad) list of things I could imagine myself teaching. After all, it’s all about me, right?


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