Teaching Philosophy Statement

(I really have no good photos of myself teaching!)

Anyway, I was recently nominated for a teaching award thing and had to write

…an essay describing your teaching philosophy. The essay should be a statement of the philosophy, goals, and methods that guide your teaching. Please describe efforts you have made beyond your normal teaching responsibilities. From your own experiences as a student, please describe the attributes that you think the very best teachers should possess.

Format: The essays should be no more than two pages in length, double-spaced, one-inch margins, and 12-point font. Be sure to include your name, department and contact information.

This is tricky, because I’m not sure I can fit all of those things into two double-spaced pages. Nevertheless, I gave it a shot, and here’s the result:

The greatest teacher of all time – capable of igniting a fiery passion for any subject, no matter how esoteric or irrelevant, in the heart of the most apathetic student. With a single solemn glance, they impart crystal clear understanding of ideas so complex as to otherwise require decades of study to even begin to grasp. I am not this person. And in recognition of this, of my utter inferiority before some apotheosis of teaching perfection, I’m always looking for ways in which to improve my skills as an educator. From combing the education literature in search of empirically supported recommendations on how to increase student engagement (e.g. taking a midpoint break to stretch and refresh or incorporating multimedia and activities to vary the pace of class), to studying the principles of visual design and striking a balance between text, image, and negative space on lecture slides that optimally facilitates learning, to enabling students to easily provide anonymous feedback throughout the course and implementing their advice, most of my efforts in teaching are devoted to refining my teaching style and technique. That’s not to say I’m forever besotted by the latest fads and fashions in teaching theory, however. I do try to boldly experiment with new methods, but nevertheless largely ground my teaching in well-established practices and ruthlessly steal respectfully emulate the pedagogies used by several of the wonderful teachers I’ve been privileged to have in my own college and graduate careers.

This openness to growth applies not only to the delivery of information, but also to its content. I read a lot of the primary scientific literature in my day-to-day and try to incorporate the latest research into my talks. Of course, recent papers have only been vetted by peer review and not time (a much harsher critic), so I often urge restraint in interpreting new findings and discuss the limitations of whatever study or paper I cite.  I keep it fresh another way, too, by endeavoring to find ways in which the material is relevant to my students’ own lives and future careers. Paleoanthropology is really frickin’ cool, but some of the minutiae can be uninteresting or overwhelming, so I make sure everyone understands the big picture, punchline-y, take-home stuff and go into the most detail where students express interest – either explicitly, when they answer my request for suggestions on what to cover, or implicitly, by asking open-ended questions about topics explored briefly in our survey of human evolution. Sometimes these questions spurn a lengthy discussion, and other times, when we’re all completely stumped, I’ll do some research after class and fit the answers into the next day’s lecture. Where relevant, I also try to incorporate my own experiences into lecture – talking about the Neandertal dig site La Ferrassie, for example, I’ll recount how I spent a summer working the excavation there. Anatomy and functional morphology are even easier to make relevant through comparisons to athletics and Pythonesque physical demonstrations. And recognizing that my students are unique not only in their interests but in their circumstances leads me to exercise care and compassion in both teaching and assessment – when a student has work and can’t make it to office hours, we’ll find the time to sit down together and go over material they’ve special interest or difficulty with. When a student is injured or faces a family emergency, we’ll find the time to make sure they’re fully caught up and can make up any missed work according to their schedule. Unambiguously declaring my expectations for the course and its assessments plays into this, too, so that students know exactly what I’m looking for and what they should know (and why!) and don’t stress over trying to identify the magic criteria by which they’ll be judged. Those assessments, in turn, are designed to build useful life skills, like persuasive writing, public speaking, and critical thinking.

I am far from the greatest teacher of all time. But that doesn’t mean I can’t aspire for greatness and strive to embody creativity, dedication, adaptability, expertise, kindness, and humility in myself or thought-provoking awesomeness and personal relevance in my lectures, much like the excellent educators I’ve experienced on the other side of the red pen and podium.


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