Sunday, October 30, 2011

Teaching Philosophy

The last few days I've participated in discussions about teaching both in person and online.  As I'm working on updating my teaching philosophy (or rather, writing a new one from scratch) for a teaching award, these discussions have been quite timely.  Once again, I feel quite grateful to have had the teaching prep at UT-K that I did--even if my pedagogy class was not my favorite thing I've ever done, having such a close cohort and so many different kinds of training before I was in charge of my own classroom prepared me for teaching so much better than I might have been at other places.

One aspect of teaching which continues to bother me is how much animosity there seems to be in the classroom.  Reading this today was quite synchronicity, after last night talking to friends about the rampant feelings of frustration felt by teachers which often seems to come out as lack of respect for students.  Certainly, it's frustrating to try to teach college students who often will send emails or write papers containing sentences so poorly spelled and constructed that sometimes I have to ask my husband for his best guess at what the writer intended.  And the plagiarism and excuses and half-assed work can certainly lead to suspicion, fatigue, and offense that students would actually think they could get away with some of the shenanigans they attempt.

(I started feeling myself getting curmudgeonly there, so I just decided to dive right into the curmudgeonliness with a word choice like "shenanigans.")

I also realize, though, that none of these things have to do with me personally.  When students try to cheat, or turn in poorly-executed assignments, I realize that they're not actually thinking, "That'll really piss off that bitch!" about me.  More likely, they're sleep-deprived, or freaked out about a relationship or a test or their job or any of a hundred other things.  In the middle of grading sixty-some assignments, though, or noticing someone texting in the middle of class, it can be easy to lose sight of.

With all of this in mind, I rewrote my teaching philosophy to submit for this award.  Suggestions?

In all of my classes, my ultimate goal is to engage my students in the material.  I begin from what scholar Kevin Porter describes as a pedagogy of charity, one which assumes that students are rational beings who come to the classroom with an intention to learn and be successful.  While I am not naïve enough to imagine that every student who enters a first year composition class is excited about writing an assigned position paper, I work to present material in myriad ways, so that students of differing learning methods will find ways to engage with the material. My fundamental commitments are to having a process-oriented and student-centered classroom, which means that I’m interested in my students’ expectations and needs, and I’m not afraid to change my methods in order to better meet my students needs.  At the same time, however, I expect a level of engagement and participation from my students which I feel is necessary for their own success.

As I teach composition and general education level courses, I realize that my students represent a variety of backgrounds, competence levels, as well as levels of interest, and I take it as a challenge to implement a variety of teaching methods to engage my students at whatever position they arrive at my classroom from.  I structure assignments to emphasize learning as a process: in this way, I’m not only ensuring that my students are never sitting the night before a major assignment is due staring at a blank page.  This also reinforces a more basic principle that academic success is best achieved through regular study and work, rather than last-minute cramming and all-nighters.  

Whether I’m teaching a composition class or a more content driven general education class, I ultimately want my students to learn the skills of analysis and research.  In the classroom, I use a combination of lecture (with PowerPoint presentations to highlight key terms) along with video presentations, classroom group work, and in-class writing and revision.  Even in larger general education class, participation counts for ten percent of students’ final grades; this reinforces the value I place upon student engagement in their own learning process.  Additionally, I encourage students to find research and writing topics about which they’re excited already—the best student writing occurs when students are excited about their writing.  And such excited translates into an interest and a willingness to expend the necessary effort to take their work to the next level.

Even in more content-driven general education classes, I work to make the material relevant to my students.  In every class, I begin the semester with a larger discussion of the purpose of the humanities in education, in order directly address the concerns or resentments of students who might be resistant to requirements which put, say, engineering majors into a poetry class.  I start classes by acknowledging that while not everyone may go into a class sharing a love of the content, the skills and content of such class do translate into a critical consciousness which is necessary not only for higher education in general, but educated citizenhood in general.   This not only provides an opportunity for students to vent their own frustration (and often their own passions about the subject, too), but it also gives my classes a foundation of honest communication.  I strive for transparency to my teaching methods and desire a reciprocal candor from my students, and have been generally pleased with the learning environment such openness can result in.

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