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This article first appeared in The Teaching Professor (October 24, 2022).
We’ve all written them: the narratives or statements that frame our teaching for those reviewing our portfolios. Maybe the review is for a job; maybe it is for contract renewal, tenure, or promotion. But how many of us have had a clue about what this document is supposed to do? Provide an overview of our teaching philosophy? Highlight our use of active learning? Demonstrate our commitment to professional growth? Outline how we resolved an issue in our teaching? All the above? Like a student simply told to write an essay on a book they’ve studied, a person being reviewed is left to wonder what exactly they’re supposed to do.
I’ve heard many reviewers, when questioned about the purpose of the narrative, defend leaving it vague, claiming that how the reviewee approaches the task is telling. Certainly, there is value in the individuality someone brings to a narrative (e.g., sense of humor, degree of formality, preference for paragraphs versus bullet points), but if transparency reduces systemic inequities for students, it is also critical for equitable faculty evaluation.
Let’s take the contract renewal decision. Reviewers might be looking for evidence that someone is responsive to student concerns and able to problem solve when they encounter difficulties. The reviewee, however, choses to present a description of the courses they’ve taught and the chronological changes they’ve made to syllabi without explaining why those changes were made.
In this situation, does the reviewer have the evidence they need to make a judgment about the candidate’s suitability? Yes, if the reviewee received explicit guidelines for what the narrative should accomplish and instead chose a different path. No, if the reviewee had only a vague description, such as in an outdated faculty handbook, to guide their choices of what to include. It isn’t only novices who are vexed by the lack of transparency. I’ve also heard highly connected, mid-career faculty who’ve been turned down for a promotion say in response to feedback they received, “Well if I knew they were looking for that, I would have provided it.”
What can a candidate do? Sure, they can ask questions and find colleagues to provide advice on the narrative. But when expectations aren’t explicit, the quality of the narrative depends to a greater degree on factors such as previous familiarity with higher ed expectations, the extent of one’s social network, or the willingness of a department chair or other senior colleague to make time to mentor the candidate. Lack of transparency is an equity issue, especially given that there is no agreement in higher education about what constitutes teaching effectiveness (Mastrokoukou et al., 2022).
Similar scenarios arise when job candidates aren’t given clear instructions of what to include in their teaching statements. What a difference it would make to someone coming out of a graduate program or postdoc if, rather than being asked to craft a teaching statement, they were given a prompt to, for instance, reflect on their strengths and areas for growth or discuss a difficult teaching episode and what they would do differently. In these circumstances, the candidate has few options for getting clarification and the inequity can be amplified.
So, what is a possible solution for making the narrative more valuable and equitable as a piece of evidence for teaching effectiveness? My answer, you won’t be surprised, is to make the expectations of the narrative clear to candidates—for example, in the case of a job application, by providing a specific prompt. Different institutions obviously have different contexts, missions, and definitions of teaching effectiveness and the goals of the narrative should be tailored to those. But my experience suggests that there are underlying criteria regardless of the local context; those doing reviews typically look for intellectual skills such as whether the candidate can analyze the feedback they receive, can problem solve, and are adaptive and flexible in their approaches to teaching. My experience also suggests that this is not the framework pre-tenure fauclty have in mind when they begin writing their narrative.
In this case, even a few sentences describing the properties of a good narrrative would prompt them in the right direction. For instance:
Candidate narratives necessarily differ across individuals, departments, level of experience, and areas of expertise and responsibility. All narratives should, however, demonstrate the ability to reflect on one’s practice as a teacher, including analyzing evidence, solving problems, and adapting to diverse student needs as they relate to teaching and learning.
Even greater specificity could be provided by defining what is meant by analyzing, problem solving, and adapting. Below, I’ve unashamedly drawn phrases from AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics, specifically those on critical thinking, problem solving, global learning, and inquiry and analysis, to make my own thinking transparent.
So, how do we make teaching narratives less vexing and more equitable? If you are in the position of being a reviewer (e.g., committee member, dean, provost or department chair), you can argue for making instructions to candidates clearer given your context, mission, and expectations.
If you are the person being reviewed, what options do you have? Here are my suggestions.
Lastly, approach writing your teaching narrative not only as a necessary task but as an opportunity for significant reflection. That reflection should include analysis of the feedback you’ve received, consideration of multiple possible approaches to the difficulties that have emerged, and exploration of how your teaching can be adapted to match the diverse strengths and needs of your students. Not only will such reflection help you develop the skills that will enhance and enrich your teaching skill, but it will likely also rekindle your enthusiasm for the work you do on a daily basis.
Mastrokoukou, S., Kaliris, A., Donche, V., Chauliac, M., Karagiannopoulou, E., Christodoulides, P., & Longobardi, C. (2022, March). Rediscovering teaching in university: A scoping review of teacher effectiveness in higher education. Frontiers in Education, 7, Article 861458. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2022.861458 [open access]
Amy B. Mulnix, PhD, currently is the interim associate secretary in the national Phi Beta Kappa office. Prior to that, she served as founding director of the Faculty Center at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where she supported faculty across the arc of their careers and the scopes of their academic identities.