Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Teaching Philosophy

The fatigue I feel at the end of the semester makes me impatient. And while I try to have patience with my impatience--realizing that when something sets me off, that perhaps I might be over-reacting and might need a nap or a hike or to plant something in dirt--I think it's also useful to observe what sets me off, as it might be instructive.

One thing that's irked me for years now is when someone questions my credentials or ability to teach something. As someone who works on southern women writers, I've had my ability to teach America literature questioned. As someone whose PhD is in literary studies (as well as women's & gender studies), I've had my ability to teach composition questioned. And as someone who includes literature in composition classes, I've had my pedagogical strategies, motivations, and intentions questioned.

Part of the problem is that, regardless of your research interests, if you go to graduate school in anything vaguely English-related, you're going to teach composition. And in many places, teaching composition is not the most enjoyable teaching. It's grading-intensive, and as it often is a first year, core curriculum class, it often ends up being as much about how to do college as it is about how to determine rhetorical strategies. So, in graduate school, we get the message loud and clear that teaching comp is low status work that we should try to get out of.

However, that's not the only reason that grad students try to get out of teaching comp. An important reason to try to get other teaching experience is the realities of the job market. If you are an American literature person, and you want an American literature position, you need to have on your CV that you've taught American literature. Which then perpetuates the low status of comp classes, as grad students feel that they must compete in order to earn the privilege of teaching literature classes. Composition is for losers.*

Because grad students--regardless of their research focus--are expected to teach composition, that is what they're trained in. In both of my graduate programs, there was extensive focus on composition pedagogy. When it comes to teaching literature, however, pedagogical training was nearly non-existent.

I think there are a number of reasons for this. First, a lot of pedagogical philosophy is transferable between disciplines. Regardless of what I'm teaching, my pedagogical first principles are analysis and engagement. Classroom management, academic research, scaffolded student collaborations--these are priorities in all of my classes.

More importantly, however, is the scarcity of literature classes available for grad students. If anyone admitted doubt about knowing how to teach a literature class, there are plenty of people who would claim to be able to do so. Having been a student in so many undergraduate and graduate literature classes, surely it's easy to go from being a student to being a teacher?

I don't think so. I've spent a lot of time reading what I have found on teaching literature (which hasn't seemed nearly as prolific a field as that about teaching composition) and consulting with colleagues about their own best practices. For me, I've articulated for myself the differences between teaching literature in a FYC class versus in a literature class (which will be the topic of a future blog (spoiler alert: the key is "outcomes")).

I'm writing this and posting this in part to jump-start my blog-writing again, as well as to start thinking through and reflecting in writing what I have learned about teaching, especially the last two years as a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow. One primary goal this summer is to re-write my teaching philosophy, and I plan to use this blog as a place to work that out. I hope some people will follow along and even chime in with ideas and feedback along the way.

*This isn't my actual opinion--particularly in the postdoctoral program I'm currently in, which is  focused on multimodal composition, digital pedagogy, and encourages experimentation and collaboration both in and out of the classroom, I have found that teaching composition can be a challenging, rewarding, and enjoyable (more on that coming soon, too).

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