Friday, September 14, 2012

My Teaching Philosophy - 2012

A few years ago, not long after I got my first full-time teaching job, a couple of college friends found the teaching philosophy I had composed in grad school and had posted on my faculty page. They rightly observed that it was so heady and pretentious that they could hardly make sense of it. In fact, they made fun of it (in that kind-hearted, stab-you-in-heart kind of way that college chums have ;-)  ).

I spent about thirty seconds feeling miffed that they mocked my well-intentioned effort to spell out what I was doing professionally. Then, realizing (with no small degree of chagrin) that they were right, I re-wrote my teaching philosophy from the ground up. I posted it to that faculty page and hoped that my friends might stumble across the new version. I'm not sure if they ever did (and it probably doesn't matter). 

Earlier today I was searching for the email address of a dear friend/teacher from college days and my web search led to me my teaching philosophy (in which I mentioned her name). Re-reading it today (some three or four years later), I realize that I still believe what I (re) wrote. 

Yesterday, I had a brief facebook exchange about teaching with a good friend from grad school days (though he wasn't in grad school with me per se-- though he gave me a different, just-as-needed education during that time of my life, for which I thank him). Wanting to present a defense of my life's chosen work, and hoping to honor my friends & teachers, I offer to them and to you, that teaching philosophy.

I teach because I was well taught.

Barbara Oberhansley showed me that school is about people and then about ideas.  Steve Evans told me to stop whining and do my best. Betty Griffin and Nancy Percival treated me as a peer. Wilfred Samuels invited me to join him in a dialogue about ideas outside of the classroom. Trix Dahl showed me that I spoke the language of the love of texts. Steve Adkison said “Your idea is better than my idea. Let’s go with yours.”

These names likely won’t mean much to you (though I’m sure you can name important, influential teachers of your own). Teachers don’t often get that kind of wide recognition or fame. They aren’t known beyond the classroom or the school. They matter, though. They matter a great deal. They matter to weak-kneed, self-conscious introverts who don’t yet know who they are or what they can be. They matter to arrogant, self-righteous know-it-alls who are coasting. They matter to eager, optimistic over-achievers who have no balance in their approach to ideas or to living. They give confidence, reality checks, and mentoring. They give lectures, both of the classroom kind and of the I’m-not-buying-your-baloney-excuses kind.

What they taught, I strive to teach.

I teach because everyone needs an advocate.

David Rose (not his real name) has been in four of my courses at CSI. When he settled in to his seat in English 102 I think I wrote him off. I should have known, of course, that dress, deportment, and grooming are poor indicators for performance, intent, or drive. David didn’t surprise me in any sudden or startling ways; he simply steadily and surely made his way into the course material and eventually into my confidence. Though he demonstrated top-tier ability and contributed tremendously to the classes in which he participated, he didn’t turn in every assignment, and he didn’t even finish the last of my courses he started. He wrote me recently, however, and said (I’m paraphrasing), “Don’t give up on me. I’m coming back and I’ll finish what I started. Thank you for believing in me and pushing me.”

What "David" needs, I strive to give.

I teach because ideas matter.

On a poem I wrote as an undergraduate, a graduate teaching assistant jotted, “I wish I’d written that.” On a brief critical essay I prepared about Cather and reader-response theory, Professor Brown penned, “This is a beautiful little piece of writing.” While I was deeply motivated by the praise these instructors gave my writing, I was just as interested in the ideas that prompted the writing. When Kant and Heidegger and Saussure and Barthes began to make sense to me, a part of me I had not known about came alive. Reading Faulkner or Stegner or Heaney and seeing the ways in which their predecessors influenced their writing and created a fabric of ideas—some in alignment, others in conflict with each other—helped me know that ideas and conversation matters. In talking (or writing) to one another we figure out what we think, what we know, and what we must do.

What people in diverse places and times have said and written, I strive to know and to teach.