Why: Teach?

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Joy Allison Burnett, July 2013

Approach and Practice


Creativity, curiosity, and accountability: these are three elements driving my personal and professional approach to college teaching in the English, American Studies, and Humanities classroom. Drawing my philosophy from experiences during 12 years of classroom teaching, I believe that a liberal education can provide students with skills to become better thinkers, students, workers, and citizens. This is particularly true of American Studies and writing courses I’ve taught at a state university and a private art college. The learning often supplements previous academic and professional training students have received in high school or at the community college level, as well as their own unique and varied life experiences.

Coming from a working-class background, and being one of the first members of my family to pursue post-secondary education, I believe in and personally understand the educational, professional, and personal opportunities available to students who choose to attend college. Coming from a blue-collar town, growing up during the economic boom times of the American 1990s, I made decisions that some would judge economically risky, in studying English and Art History as an undergraduate. I worked as a print journalist before returning to graduate school, and career opportunities for creatively driven “words and pictures” people did not seem as seriously in jeopardy as they do now. In the relatively safe economic atmosphere of graduate school, my classmates and I witnessed the crumbling of global economies in an era when we were working toward and planning so diligently for our own re-emergences into the workforce. Suddenly, pursuing the research and study of 19th century American literature seemed to some more of a luxury than it had in previous years. Rather than chasing us off from creative pursuits, my graduate school compadres and I were reinvigorated in our fearless pursuit of a liberal education, and the resulting teaching and research opportunities.

My love for studying and teaching art history and literature has not waned, despite challenging economic and professional times. As we’re emerging on what some believe is the other side of the American Great Recession (or Great Depression II, as some of my students liked to call it), I remain steadfast in my drive to foster valuable and creative learning experiences for college students. As did many of my predecessors and ancestors in difficult times – namely, the American Great Depression – I find that Humanities study and its more specific, related subjects is ever more important during tough economic times. Beyond working with students on stronger writing and thinking skills, and providing opportunities for philosophical inquiry, I also work under the assumption that a liberal education can offer students a higher degree of academic and personal balance. Research and essay writing, reading, and class discussion all are activities that carry with them reminders for students of their own precious humanity, their creative and curious spirits, and similar qualities in their forebears and contemporaries. The sense of community that I foster in my classrooms has resulted in much praise and positive feedback from my students over the years, and thanks to modern info-technology, is something that exists beyond time and space restraints of the traditional classroom.

My students also often approach their learning experiences with many life demands and priorities in tow: jobs, families, and other economic pressures can at times be a distraction from what can seem less pressing. Creativity and curiosity often can seem like luxuries to them, as they pursue requirements for Criminal Justice, Business, or Graphic Design degrees. My professional flexibility in light of this common belief was shaped by classroom experiences over the past decade, as Michigan’s economic and cultural landscape has continued to change with the times. The great diversity of students filling my classrooms has been a continual source of great delight and challenge. Many jobless or formerly retired students entered or re-entered studies at both Wayne State University and the College for Creative Studies. While this energy and adaptability resulted in a varied and motivated group of students, it also often signified personal and economic need.

These unfortunate realities of recent American times seeped their way into our classroom activities and discussions, enriching our studies of race, class, gender, and sexualities in ways that would not have been possible in a more optimistic era. Students’ experiences in their academic and professional fields became fascinating supplements to our own studies in Great Depression art and literature, in particular. The themes and issues we found so often repeated in works we studied reflected some of those we were all facing in our own professional and personal lives. A student battling for unemployment compensation would respond vocally and very emotionally to Studs Terkel interviews with unemployed workers of the 1930s. Indeed, Terkel’s collected stories in Hard Times were very enlightening for many of my students, as they found camaraderie and solace in those brave tales told. Performing close study of Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl photography became an exercise in analysis of current American media representation. Broad-ranging, difficult questions about artistic expression in a capitalistic democracy became daily fare. Discussion questions would range from “Do Americans need or want to see the kinds of harsh realities depicted by work such as that of Dust Bowl documentary photographers?” to “What are useful and valuable social roles for photography and other pictorial arts?” Often students would ask, “Is artistic expression best meant for entertainment or education?” The responses to such inquiries, when directed toward films, photography, writing, or other cultural products of their times, provided a rich and rewarding academic community over the semester and years in which I was lucky and thankful to play a central role.

As the American and global economy continued to struggle over the years, we found challenge and comfort in our class discussions, writing assignments, and research projects. The collaborative and active approach that I foster in the classroom results in enriching and thought-provoking work by students of many different approaches, experiences and life philosophies. The level of diversity and pluralism that I found so wonderful in Humanities and American Studies work was represented by the student body in a very unique and special way. The societal and economic challenges we met guided and shaped my work in the college Humanities classroom in the sense that the need for relevant, intelligent leadership and instruction is ever greater as other demands in modern human existence battle for precedence.

My teaching style and approach has grown and changed to better meet the needs of an often beleaguered and worried student body, working toward degrees of many majors, and facing tough job prospects in what seems to be an ever-narrowing world of opportunities. This never allows me or my students to simplify or dumb down our discussions and studies; rather, the serious need for critical thinking and reflection becomes ever more important as professional and personal challenges persist. I am very transparent with my goals and approach to college teaching, as I will discuss with the students big questions like “Why do the Humanities matter when we’re facing foreclosure, or looking for a job?” and “How can stronger critical thinking skills and creativity help us with tools we need to succeed in difficult times?” As they learn through our studies that the work of artists, writers, filmmakers and scholars often addresses similar questions, we find together a learning community and creative inspiration that transcends any particular historical time period, or geographical place. This learning and sharing of experiences through humanistic expression is what has most driven and motivated me throughout the first segment of my academic and professional career. This desire for critical inquiry and exploration will continue to lead me to future educational experiences I will be privileged to find and share with students in my English, American Studies, and Humanities classrooms.

Cover Letters Don’t Have to Suck, Redux

Another rather touchy-feely cover letter. I debated the tone, but it just feels right. Totally sincere and honest, heartfelt. Just trying to come up with ways to stand out of the crowd, beyond experience and qualifications and all that.

Comments and suggestions, please. This is such a challenging and fascinating process.


To:       UM School of Music, Theatre and Dance

RE:       Facilities Assistant Position

Dear Hiring Committee:

I’m writing to you with great enthusiasm for the posted Facilities Assistant position. With my current academic and teaching track in Detroit coming to a close, I am excited at the timing and prospect of a professional position related to my first loves of music and theater, returning to Ann Arbor, and the university’s beautiful north campus as a Facilities Assistant.

My relationship with and love for the SMTD dates back to 1992, when I entered the university as a freshman. Robert Cindric, the Milan High School choral director and my voice coach, encouraged me to audition as a soprano for the vocal performance program. I was proud to make the waitlist, but my other studies led me instead to pursue a B.A. in English and Art History (1996). I sang soprano for one performance of Handel’s Messiah with the Choral Union, under Dr. Jerry Blackstone. Currently, I’m singing with the Belleville Community Chorus, under Susan Hiser (who also has worked with Dr. Blackstone). I’ve kept abreast of university happenings through regular visits, and updates from my personal friend and former museum colleague, Todd Gerring (Education/Outreach Coordinator at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology). After working at several writing and editing jobs, leaving Ann Arbor to pursue graduate studies, teaching college classes, and finding too little time for music and theatre, I’m ready and eager to return home. And by “home,” I mean Ann Arbor, the university, and hopefully – the School of Music, Theatre and Dance.

While I do understand that seeing “Instructor” on the first two entries on a CV might not seem to advertise the most desirable candidate for this position, please consider how 12 years of college teaching prepared me to meet the ever-changing demands and challenges of eclectic groups of students, faculty and staff. With weekly deadlines and regular assignments, personalities galore and new challenges every day, I found that classroom coordination and teaching constantly improved the speed, accuracy, and responsiveness of my work. In addition, my former journalism experience, and the interpersonal and communication skills required, would be a valuable asset if I were asked to fill this position. Through my academic and professional experience, I’ve grown into a responsible, personable, and detail-oriented employee that would be ready and willing to excel in support of the SMTD and its extensive and varied programs.

Thank you for your time and consideration. Please review my attached CV, and feel free to contact me at ______________, or __________.


DSC_1941Monday afternoon at Dominick’s. Fantastic.

20 years this summer, I’ve been coming to this Ann Arbor classic. And I love it more than ever. Just feels like it never changes. Same sangria, same cracked floor and lack of air conditioning, same scattered and awesome mix-and-match pasta menu. Handwritten on chalkboards, of course.

And hey, as you can appreciate on a 95-degree day: at least there are some squeaky ceiling fans. Makes it feel like an old mafia hangout or something (which is addressed by a joke sign on the wall, saying as much – or maybe it’s not a joke?).

I usually sit in the back garden, but today is blazing hot. Wouldn’t usually stop me, as mosquitoes and a little sweat equity are par for the summer Dominick’s course. But today is not a drinking in the back garden kind of a day. It’s a sandwich, Gardetto’s, and a half-pint of sangria, and duck off to the library kind of day. Time later this week, after Ann Arbor Art Fair starts, to come back and savor a quart of my favorite local summer drink.

This cozy block is legend to me, as I’m sure it is to thousands who’ve passed through Ann Arbor in the last 53 years. 812 Monroe Street (the address even reads like an old Little Italy mafia hangout) sits just across from the Law Quad on the University of Michigan campus. The Quad is arguably the most photographed location in Ann Arbor, and site of one of my favorite, most romantic evenings three summers ago. Second day of Art Fair that year. It’s always felt like a magical season to me, ever since that first post-freshman summer here, back in 1993.

And this season, at least on this small block, is fed by Dominick’s sangria and pizza bread, bocconcini sandwiches and basil pesto penne, year after year.

I’m happy and lucky to be here again, today. Such a treat for a Monday. But my half-pint of sangria is now spent. And it’s time to get to work.

‘Til next time, Dominick’s. Soon.

So, It’s Been a Week

A holiday, a fireworks show.

A trip to Detroit’s Eastern Market.

A big fat check in the mail, from a grading gig I did in June.

A concert with the Belleville Community Chorus.

Hours spent searching for jobs.

Hours spent flipping through record store bins.

Minutes spent worrying about my direction,

And more minutes spent soothing those thoughts back down.

A late-night screening of Grease at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival.

An early-morning phone chat over coffee with a beloved aunt.

Three major job applications in, and surprisingly little thought given to it,

Beyond, besides.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Too little writing time,

Addicted reading time,

Gallons of coffee,

Quarts of mojitos and sangria,

And a Signature Custard Chess pie.

A scary good pork loin roast barbecued on the grill,

With my true love.

Lots of puppy kisses.

That was a week.

And a pretty good one,



focus(1) Free time is wonderful.
(2) Free time is terrible.

What is “free” time anyway? I’ve been thinking about that question quite a bit lately. Time is only “free” if we can’t think of anything good  with which to fill it. Never seems to be my problem.

More vexing, instead, is the question of WHAT exactly I should be spending my time doing, when there’s not really someone or something dictating it. This is wonderful, yes. Would be MORE wonderful without the wolf at the door, come September after a frugal and paying-job-less summer. But for now, I am trying to enjoy it all and make the best of it.

This damned Midwestern work ethic seems to dictate, to my surprise, that I DO feel like I need to accomplish something useful almost every day. At least on weekdays. When money hasn’t been an issue, I’ve tried to fight that urge. Or, being an English/Humanities professor, I follow Richard Linklater (one of my favorite writer/film directors) down the path of “watching three movies and reading books all day” is work. Yes indeed, a good life if you can get it.

I have to pull myself back to today, however. Today with a midweek holiday looming (YES) and two pending job applications, my to-do list feels scrambled and messy. I know what’s important, I know what I feel like doing, and I know what I wish I had time to do. The sun’s finally out after what feels like weeks of overcast, rainy days. I’m meeting my love and dogs later tonight for holiday fireworks over Lake Erie.

Until then, however, I’ll fill my time:

(1) finishing job apps – teaching statement and cover letters

(2) this somewhat zen-like post

(3) scrubbing up and posting more writing on joyofzen – old academic samples, creative writing, misc.

And all else? A visit to the garden, biking, hiking, kayaking?

At least I have energy. Ambition. At this crucial, changing point in my life, I guess I have that going for me.

A poor sense of time? What, exactly, can really fill the limited hours in a day?


But, at least. What my focus might lack, my interest and energy can repair.

Too much good stuff to do, too little time.

Prioritize and make choices. Do what you choose to do, and do it well.


Off I go.