I will never forget my first day of teaching. Fresh faced after less than a week of teacher training, I walked into my Introduction to Women’s Studies class at The Ohio State University. I was filled with passion, hope, and to be honest, a little bit of terror. That was 1996. As I enter a classroom now I am still filled with hope and passion (and enough terror to keep me honest), but a fourth element has entered into the picture: experience. In the nearly twenty years since that first day of class, I have not only taught at a large public institution and both a small and medium sized private institution, I have also had the privilege to work with and through the scholarship of teaching and learning as a faculty developer. It is through this complementary training that I have become the teacher I am today. My teaching philosophy is based on three interrelated tenets: intellectual accessibility, teaching beyond the classroom, and learning with a focus on social awareness. While these values have developed organically throughout my teaching, they have also been directly informed by specific pedagogical discourse. This discourse helps me give names to the practices that already exist within my classroom in some form. It has also assists me in refining and sometimes redefining what I find to be useful teaching strategies.
Every classroom should be intellectually accessible. The key to a successful classroom is meeting students where they are ideologically. For many undergraduates, critical thinking and writing can be intimidating. When creating my syllabus, I structure my assignments in ways that introduce skills and techniques, and then slowly build upon them. I assign “low stakes” writing that is extemporaneous and un-graded alongside graded “high stakes” writing that may go through a draft process. I vary my teaching styles with lecture, discussion, and group work in an effort to connect with all types of learners. Lastly, I encourage students to become more excited and invested in their work by giving them a stake in their own learning process. For most assignments, I provide students with a list of potential paper/project topics to choose from with the option of creating their own topic. This gives students an opportunity to write and develop projects about the themes and concepts that interest them.
Teaching and learning must take place beyond the classroom. Throughout my courses, I help students to engage texts so that that they will have meaning and utility for them inside and outside the classroom. I also encourage students to use their critical thinking skills in their everyday life. Early on in my teacher career, this might have meant encouraging my students to talk with relatives about the Vietnam War while we read Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried. More recently, I have worked to develop community partnerships with organizations and schools in the greater Atlanta community so that my students not only learn the content of my course but also valuable (and marketable) life skills like collaboration, flexibility, and community engagement. I also have at least one public scholarship assignment in my courses. This could be as simple as creating a class blog (WordPress) that is open to the public in which my student engage with the texts of the course, engage with one another, and sometimes, engage with public readers. Other public scholarship assignments I have used are digital timelines (Dipity), interactive maps (Google Earth), infographics (Piktochart), and public service announcements (iMovie & You Tube).
The classroom should be a place of social engagement and transformation. A socially aware classroom not only investigates the way power circulates in our society, it also suggests ways that we as individuals are connected to that larger social system. Early on in a course, I create a fair, safe, and respectful environment for teacher and students to dialogue openly about the texts assigned. I remind students that we all come to the texts with very different educational backgrounds and life experiences and therefore we all must practice patience and understanding. I also emphasize that as a class, we will not agree on everything we talk about and our discussions may make some uncomfortable or unhappy. This discomfort and disagreement is often a marker of transformation and engagement with the work, two of my desired outcomes. Creating a socially engaged classroom requires diligence and presence from all participants, but results in a more transformative teaching and learning experience.
In her book Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks explains, “education is what happens when someone is teaching and someone is learning” (9). Central to my teaching philosophy is the belief that teachers and students both learn and teach in the classroom. Through this collective effort, we achieve a complete education. By maintaining an accessible classroom environment, and remaining cognizant of power dynamics, students and teacher are enabled and empowered to utilize their knowledge both inside and outside of the classroom.