Teaching Philosophy

No matter what course I am teaching, my number one goal as an instructor is to get my students to think critically about the world around them. It sounds like such a simple goal, especially when talking about upper division classes. “Critical thinking” is one of those skills we are supposed to check off early in our education, is it not? I do not think of it as a skill, however, but a way of being in the world, and, as such, it is something we can deepen and develop throughout our lives. That is what I want to encourage my students to do.

For a moment, here, I am going to engage in a media studies based metaphor, borrowing from Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding model of communication:

Too often we picture the college classroom as another arena of reception studies, if you will. We, the instructors, have a message, sometimes encoded, that we broadcast to our students and ask them to decode properly. “This is what writing is.” “This is how to read this poem.” But pedagogical research has repeatedly shown that this is not the most effective strategy for student learning. The best learning happens when students are actively engaged. Therefore, I seek to teach my students the various ways a text can be decoded—and to encourage them to find their own reading of the material.

Thus, instead of passive receptors, I want to turn my students into a participatory audience. I want them to do what media fans do—take the material, deconstruct it, analyze it, and then put it together in their own ways, ways which illuminate the facet of the work they find most engaging. Then I ask them to examine the construction of the text they have made, and ask them why they read the text, or wrote the essay, that way. I encourage them to not just make sense of the material we cover, but to seek to make sense of themselves, to understand their biases, their influences, their assumptions. Then we see about taking those apart, as well. I demand reflexivity from my students in their work, from narrative essays to blog posts to critical interpretations of a television show.

In reading the texts, I encourage my students explore different ways of decoding it. We easily come up with the dominant decoding, what the text is literally talking about. Then I ask who sees another meaning, another way of reading it. Inevitably someone will have gotten something different out of it, and we work our way through negotiated decodings and, when we are lucky, someone has an oppositional decoding that really forces us to reflect back on the hegemonic message. This lets me introduce them to various aspects of critical theory, without giving it the weight of theory which tends to make them lose interest. By situating the discourse in a space that feels risky, or resistant, I find they stay far more engaged with the material.

Practically, then, my classes can often echo my law school days and the Socratic method so beloved by my professors there. When discussing a piece of literature, I make sure to give them the context they need to know, but I refrain from offering my own interpretive or critical thoughts until they have offered theirs. I ask questions, lots of questions. When they think they have answered it, I will ask another, challenging them to go deeper, to examine why they think what they do. “Why?” is one of the most powerful questions, I have found, when engaging in critical interpretation—it can lead to all sorts of delightful places. “Why?” also forces students to back up their interpretations from the text, from the world and from what we have learned in the class.

Because I believe that each student has a valuable contribution and insight to bring to the classroom, I routinely assign work that requires collaboration and negotiation. In my Advanced Writing class, for instance, instead of just assigning a persuasive paper, I have students partner up and work together to write both sides of an issue they care about, then follow that up with a debate. This draws the shyer students out and helps them be able to talk through opposing ideas and learn to work with those of differing beliefs. However, because I know that stronger students can sometimes end up doing most of the work, each student is still graded individually on his or her work, as they turn the project into me step-by-step. I have found that this encourages the weaker students to step up their game, and keeps the stronger students from feeling taken advantage of.

I am consistently seeking to grow as a teacher and to refine my methods of teaching through regular attendance at workshops and seminars through the Center for Teaching Excellence. My work through the program there has helped me discover how to use technology more effectively in the classroom, as well as having given me practical breakdowns of strategically managing different forms of assignments to enhance the learning goals and potential. Through the Center, I have been able to delve more deeply into pedagogy and gained a better understanding of how the minds of today’s college students work. Likewise, through my own epistemology classes, I have been able to expand my goals in helping my students learn and feel as if they have mastered something crucial at the end of the semester.

When students leave my class, I want them to feel as if they have not just received a lot of facts about writing or television shows or 19th century British poetry (though, of course, I hope they have done this, as well). I want them to feel as if they have the wherewithal to engage with any text critically, to examine it, its culture and themselves through various critical lenses and make meaning from that examination. I want them to have a deeper understanding of how the subject matter of the class—be it writing the personal narrative, vampire literature or folklore—functions in the world: the purposes it serves, the way it affects those who engage with it, the messages within it. If I can make them challenge their own beliefs and be open to the multiplicity around them, then I feel as if I have succeeded as their teacher.