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Pedagogy 5.1 (2005) 157-161
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Changing the Contexts for Documenting Our Teaching
Jane Mathison Fife
The title of this collection can be misleading. The focus is not composition research about pedagogy and teaching in the traditional sense. Instead, this book examines how we document, evaluate, and value teaching in the college setting. The editors and many contributors explicitly argue that teaching is an important form of scholarship and should be valued as such. The essays focus on teaching portfolios and other documents and statements teachers write to represent our own teaching as well as institutional contexts and uses for these texts. The book also has a companion Web site with samples of some of the documents described by the contributors. Although composition is mentioned in the title, the discussions about teaching documents are applicable to all college-level teachers, not just teachers of writing. Graduate students and junior faculty would find this collection especially enlightening because although college teachers must document our teaching regularly, we're often given no instruction about how to do it.
As I read this collection, I kept thinking about a story that illustrates how little value can be placed on these representations of teaching. A friend recently told me that she won't put her teaching philosophy on her Web page [End Page 157] because she knew someone in graduate school who had plagiarized (completely) a teaching philosophy statement he'd found on the Web during his job search. Now, I'm certainly not suggesting that this practice is widespread, but I was shocked that anyone in academia would do something like that. I could see why some of our students who don't share our concepts of intellectual property and academic honesty might do such a thing—but a teacher? But the more I read these essays about how we represent our teaching, I began to understand that several factors surrounding our production and use of these documents could culminate in such a disregard for the intellectual work that goes into composing such a statement. These kinds of texts are required for anyone who wants to get and keep a college teaching job, so they are high stakes—they matter. Yet they aren't generally regarded as serious intellectual products and so aren't on the same tier as published scholarship. Additionally, these documents are usually written and read as a part of hiring or continuance decisions about individuals, so their context for circulation is privatized with no public audience beyond the evaluators, as Stephen Fox emphasizes in this collection.
The context for the production and circulation of these teaching documents greatly resembles the context for most of our students' texts. These texts are required to demonstrate enough competence to pass the class and eventually to earn the degree. They are assigned by the teacher, who is the ultimate evaluator and often the only reader. While produced within academic communities, they are not seen as "real" scholarship and rarely have a "public" audience or contribute to ongoing conversations. So in important ways these texts matter (because they are required to prove academic competence), but in other important ways they don't. The ways these student texts don't seem to matter—not having a public audience or contributing to ongoing scholarly conversations—devalue them within the hierarchy of academic writing. When a text lacks this kind of regard for its worth yet still is required to show competence, the writer might be more tempted to plagiarize. And while most college teachers have so thoroughly accepted the academic value system that they would never consider plagiarizing a teaching statement, because of the way these texts are read, evaluated, and valued, I can see how a few teachers might be tempted. I'm not condoning that kind of attitude. But when I think about that plagiarized teaching statement now, I focus less on an unethical individual and more on the context that devalues and privatizes these texts about...