I haven’t read too many teaching philosophy statements, but I have to put one together for an application I’m submitting in a few days. I’ve been working on this one for a while. Suggestions/critiques welcome!
“Is this some sort of test?”
This was one reaction the first time I invited my freshmen composition students to critique my teaching and their learning and to suggest better methods for the rest of the semester. Despite some initial confusion, a half-semester of built-up trust convinced them to participate in this difficult discussion (often known as a Midterm Chat), and the class benefited from the frank self-appraisal that resulted. As a new teacher, this was a terrifying project to undertake. Now, after several years of using this method in both composition and technical communication courses, I know that periodic critiques of class progress are highly valuable. I make space for these kinds of discussions at several points—and at any point students desire—throughout every semester, and these critiques have become an important part of the proactive pedagogy I strive to enact.
By proactive, I mean that I invite students to be aware of my pedagogy and the implications of my authority in the classroom. Others have used the term transparent to this end, but I believe proactive is a more accurate term because true transparency is impossible to achieve; using the term proactive acknowledges this without sacrificing the goals of transparency. This distinction is often helpful to students who are unsure what I’m asking of them. I want students to see the underlying structures by which the class is governed, and I want them to understand why those structures exist and what they mean. This proactive approach dovetails nicely with my research and investment in feminist and decolonial theories, which I use to enrich my classroom practices.
Universities set up the teacher as the ultimate authority, which runs against the grain for some feminist and decolonial scholars who wish to promote a common movement among their students. However, this provides an excellent text for students’ perusal. In order for them to see the authority-based structure they are working within in a critical light, I try to break through their “trained incapacity,” which is to submit wordlessly to the configuration of the traditional classroom (Burke). As the oppressed parties, they “have adapted to the structure of domination in which they are immersed, and have become resigned to it,” and thus “are inhibited from waging the struggle for freedom so long as they feel incapable of running the risks it requires” (Freire 29). My goal is to show students that there is a struggle for freedom that can be waged—by being rhetorically informed, they can influence how they are perceived, addressed, and even assessed—and to provide as many opportunities for them to engage in this manner as I can.
As the semester progresses, students begin to understand why I call such an approach critical and proactive. This method serves as an ideal vehicle for introducing feminist, decolonial, and other critical methodologies to students who might otherwise be intimidated by or resistant to such terms. Specifically, I model feminist approaches by using the classroom structure as a meta-text for students’ investigation. Not only does this help demystify feminism for students in ways that often are highly productive, but it also makes for an organic transition when I invite students to perform similar critical research on their chosen subjects. Having learned what a critical approach looks like first-hand through my critique of traditional classroom structures, students then find it much easier to apply critical theory to the subjects of their own research. The importance of a transition to this sort of practical application is paramount for undergraduate students.
I have learned to use this sort of practical approach based on enthusiastic response from students when they see that they can choose their own texts and can interact with the world outside academe; I often encourage students to do this sort of critique through social media as a means to also engage technology. We then develop together a deeper understanding of societal and technological influences on composing and communication processes. In the same vein, I encourage community involvement as a means to promote citizenship and social awareness. In my experience, successful community-oriented classrooms provide new experiences for students as well as promoting goodwill, increased learning, and enthusiasm for future studies.
In one recent course, I asked students to study the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and to enter some sort of public discourse about that text. Many of them posted questions on their Facebook profiles, several of which sparked heated debates. My students were excited to share these debates in class, and they spontaneously began to critically analyze the political perspectives of the debaters.
This successful lesson for my students also was a learning experience for me. My pedagogy now consistently incorporates spaces for this sort of application, and these spaces come with their own set of goals. By utilizing such methods, I encourage students to use their critical awareness to become savvier citizens, to develop enthusiasm for social learning, and to apply their learning to their lives through public discourse.
This lesson also lead my students (and me) to a deeper understanding of societal influences on the composing process. This same group of students later undertook a class project in which they studied social media outlets and how users’ communications were shaped by those outlets. Besides being intensely interesting in terms of content, this project reinforced the value of community work for my students. Although students often groan at the introduction of group work, class members in this case told me that the social media project was an unusual, educational, and enjoyable experience.
These are a just a few of the lessons my students have taught me over the years. I now begin each semester with an explanation of my proactive, practical, critical, community-oriented pedagogy. Whether or not students care about this presentation on the first day of class is hard to judge, but they seem to be invested in it once they start working within it. I believe my students benefit greatly from this model, and I continue to learn from their successes.
Burke, Kenneth. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. Third ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Print.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Tran. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1968. Print.
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