Sunday, January 26, 2014

My Real Teaching Philosophy

I've now made it through my first MLA season on the job market--no interviews, alas, but I still have over twenty applications for jobs, fellowships, and postdocs outstanding. The uncertainty about the next year is difficult for me, but I'm trying to think of becoming comfortable with uncertainty as a strategy for personal growth.***

A big part of this whole process has been writing, revising, and workshopping all of those job documents, the various pieces of writing required by various applications. Some of these have been really helpful--while writing a dissertation abstract before the dissertation is complete is rather odd, writing and revising it has ultimately helped clarify my thinking about my dissertation. It was a very rewarding writing experience.

However, in all aspects of my life, I need to have a nemesis. Job docs are apparently no different: I have discovered that my teaching philosophy is the James Franco of my job docs. I'm not sure why I have such a block against it--it just seems so fake to me. Perhaps it's because it's difficult not to sound like every other teaching philosophy--of course my classroom is student-centered. Of course I care about student engagement and analytical skills. I was quite cheered by this Chronicle column, which echoes quite a few of my problems with the teaching philosophy--I'm much more in favor of the annotated syllabus that the author suggests, as that seems like it would be much clearer than an essay.

Part of my problem with my teaching philosophy is just that--while I certainly have larger, more abstract principles which guide my teaching (engagement and analytical skills actually being my biggest priorities in the classroom)--if I were going to talk to other teachers about my day-to-day priorities, they're rather different from what my formal teaching philosophy is. Here, now, is my actual working teaching philosophy:

*Keep up with grading
We kvetch about it on social media, we dread it and procrastinate, but ultimately, I'm curious as to why this isn't taken more seriously. Do you know what many of my students have said they most appreciate in a teacher? Those who keep up their gradebooks on Moodle and Blackboard. And I admit, keeping up with my gradebook on Moodle has actually had an enormously positive effect on my relationships with students--reducing the number of frantic student emails about their grades (not eliminating them, mind you, but greatly reducing them) has actually enhanced my quality of life. So does not having grading hanging over my head. Getting into the habit of keeping up with grading is yet another habit that I'm not always successful at, but when I do, it's such a feeling of accomplishment. This weekend's Monday Motivator from the NCFDD talks about how teaching has built-in, daily accountability: there are live people we see several times a week who hold us accountable for lesson plans and grading. However, it is these very eyeballs which make us feel immediately bad when we do fall behind grading.

*Make sure you're wearing pants
Well, not literally. I tend to wear more skirts than pants. But I do put a lot of thought into my appearance in the classroom--not only on what kind of authority I'm projecting with what I'm wearing (Are pink tights too much? Is this jacket too much?), but on the practicality of what I'm wearing. I know I'm prone to spilling coffee, so dark colors are good. If I'm teaching in Tureaud Hall, I'm going to burn up on the walk to class and freeze once I'm inside.

*Wear comfortable shoes
There are people who disagree with me about this--many young women feel that the sound of high heels projects an air of authority. If that works for you, awesome. But again, I think it's important to think about the physical experience of teaching--what do my feet feel like at the end of a class period? What kind of space do I have to teach in--will this long skirt get caught on things? Will these long cuffs start annoying me if I'm writing on the board.

*Bring your own chalk
It is rare when a classroom I'm teaching English or Women's and Gender Studies in has plenty of chalk or dry erase markers, so I always make sure I have extra with me. However, I always point out to my students when I do so--I think it's crucial that students (and parents) are aware when there's a paucity of resources on campus. My first day of class last semester, I had neither internet access nor enough desks for my students nor chalk. I rolled with it--I pulled in chairs from my office down the hall, and I used my phone as a hotspot so that I could pull up the syllabus online, and I had my own stash of chalk--but I made sure that students were aware of these shortages.

*And finally, have a good playlist before class
I have a number of go-to songs I listen to in headphones before class--"Pretty in Pink," "Fight the Power," and the Human League's "Fascination" are just a few. All of these get me energized in various ways to go teach class. And while not everyone requires 80s music to get in the mood to teach, I do think it's important to have some time before class to center and get into a good head space to teach.

Having spelled all of this out now, I'm struck by how teacher-centered these points are. Perhaps that's what's missing from my formal teaching philosophy--in all of my focus on "student-centeredness," often times what falls out is the actual teacher in the teacher philosophy. Self-care as pedagogy--radical, perhaps, but important.

***Trying, not necessarily succeeding. Uncertainty is a pretty big challenge for me.