Teaching Philosophy

Note: certain aspects of this narrative concerning information literacy were first developed as a proposal that was accepted for presentation at the 44th Annual Conference of the International Society for Exploring Teaching and Learning and later were published in the The Exchange.

Short philosophy: Students Are People Too.

Teaching is about more than walking into a classroom, imparting information, and grading students’ efforts; indeed, at its very core, teaching involves allowing students the opportunities to develop skills that will enrich their future academic, professional, and personal lives. Courses go beyond the content; they should address skills and habits of mind that students can transfer among courses and into other life experiences beyond the classroom. My instructional methods take into consideration the individual needs of each class and employ the diversity inherent in every group of students in order to develop a rich academic environment.

The crucial objective in English courses, in my opinion, is the establishment of students’ voices. A vital issue for many college students, especially freshmen, that often stands in the way of their progress is the residual effects of their secondary school experiences. In high school writing and reading – and thinking, for that matter – students are accustomed to mimicking other voices and parroting their teachers’ analyses of texts, which is, of course, a useful starting exercise. They, however, frequently expect to continue this process in their college courses. We generally must convince them that their own ideas and thoughts are as valid as those of their colleagues and instructors, as long as they are able to provide clear evidence for them and are able to communicate them effectively. Thus, it is essential that we present them with conflicting viewpoints so they can identify their own beliefs and that we stress the importance of never accepting any idea at face value. As students are exposed to multiple, even contradictory, approaches to and readings of texts, the myth of there being “one correct meaning” is dispelled, and they become confident in expressing their own interpretations of a text or assignment. As an example of presenting students with conflicting voices, in teaching the beginning of Beowulf, I introduce students to the idea of translation, using the multiple scholarly and poetic translations of the first word of Beowulf – “hwæt” to demonstrate how multiple interpretations can affect our reading of literary texts and how we must carefully analyze the choices others make with language, rather than blindly accepting these choices. Ideally, students begin to engage with their fellow students in interactive discussion and reasoned debate, in which I am a participant and guide rather than simply an authoritative figure.

These principles of encouraging students to find their own voices and to make deliberate decisions about what they read also frame how I guide students to engage with the steps of the research process and become familiar with the complexities and potential of information literacy, which is essential both to their academic activities and to their futures as professionals and citizens. The major impediments to student competency in information literacy, as with other impediments to learning, often lie in the structure of assignments. The strategy that I use to overcome some of these issues is the development of activities and/or checkpoints over time that emphasize process, rather than production. As an illustration of this strategy, in British Literature I, my students and I progress through a series of information literacy exercises I call “scavenger hunts” (see sample instructional materials for guidelines to the following exercises and assignments), which reflect the learning outcome in the course that students will be able to “identify the steps of the research process and apply information literacy skills in a variety of contexts” (see example British Literature I syllabus).

In the first of this series, the “Citation Scavenger Hunt,” the goal is to bring students’ attention to the fact that a citation is not simply something they “must do.” It has meaning, and it is filled with valuable information that can kick start research by itself. We address citation mining, beginning by exploring examples of citations and, as a class, discovering what information we can learn by using only what can be found in those citations. After that, students break into groups, providing information as asked for in a series of questions, first using the citations and then using any resource available to them. The second exercise is the “Library Scavenger Hunt,” an in-library activity. This exercise developed out of my realization that one of the problems students have is that information is abstract to them – stand-alone PDF’s or out-of-context bits they glean from brief internet searches. When my students meet in the library, they form groups and complete different challenges that send them to various locations, including the archive, the reference section (particularly for concordances and dictionaries), the periodicals, and the stacks in general. When a group finishes a challenge completely and are able to provide responses to questions about their findings, they receive their next one. The purposes of this activity, which is aided and abetted by the reference librarians, is to 1) get students into the physical library; 2) introduce them to services of the library they might not know about; 3) allow them physically to touch and see sources and how they are related to each other (i.e. the books on the shelf next to the one that you were looking for, the sources within the bibliographies of other sources, etc.); 4) let them see you can indeed have fun with information literacy! In the third exercise, the “Course Research Scavenger Hunt,” an assessed assignment, students must engage in, document, and cite their research processes by choosing one source related to the student’s final project topic and compile an abstract, a critique, a search log, a MLA citation, and a paragraph describing their project. Of all of these requirements, I have found in particular that the search log can be one of the most useful ways to peer into a student’s process and approach to information literacy as it illuminates search strategies, tools, and decisions that otherwise would not be apparent in other ways. By requiring this work prior to their final project, I can give feedback that students can use to improve their research and, thus, ultimately, their writing.

The first exercise described above, the “Citation Scavenger Hunt,” is facilitated on my course wiki. My teaching in general is characterized by a deliberate crafting of course schedules and lesson plans that integrate resources from different disciplines, allowing me to contextualize texts for students both culturally and historically, while still maintaining a commitment to close readings. This interest in an interdisciplinary classroom is most deliberately facilitated by my use of current technology and most specifically by my use of wikis. I continually develop the use of wikis in my courses, and this interest has led me to incorporate them into my classes with the principles of active and blended learning in mind (see the link to an example wiki). The online, collaborative platform provides a framework for the course material as well as allows me to create an ongoing class environment that is not limited by our face-to-face time, as important as the latter is. It also creates a central repository on which I can provide resources – for instance, information literacy links, writing tools, rubrics, etc. – for students to use throughout the course, either independently or in various contexts in class. To a certain extent, I engage in a type of blended learning, a pedagogical style that is the subject of much current research. I am continually finding and testing new ways to use wikis in my classes, whether through embeddable tools (ranging from GoogleMaps to Readlists to YouTube), active learning activities, collaborative projects, etc. Student feedback is key in this development. For instance, due to responses from a student focus group, I switched platforms from Blackboard to Wikispaces, a public wiki site which is more user-friendly and more flexible. The response to these wikis is, with a few exceptions, positive. Students have remarked that it is a “good way to get students involved in the material that [is] different from writing papers or other assignments that you see a lot in courses.” They also comment that it “improve[s] [their] engagement” and inspires “more insight” into the material. This work with wikis has led to several professional projects, in particular publications that are forthcoming and in progress.

My dedication to these basic ideas is what inspires me to create new frameworks, assignments, and themes for my courses. By allowing students to explore their individuality and exposing them to varying opinions, critical traditions, and writing strategies through a combination of interdisciplinary approaches as well as providing active opportunities to discover and express their views, I strive to encourage my students’ development – as informed readers, as writers, as information seekers, and as members of the academic and broader community. To continue to improve my teaching and my ability to design courses, activities, and assignments to reach the above-mentioned goals, I am committed to faculty professional development. My position as the Director for the Center for Teaching and Learning has reinforced my belief that university faculty have a responsibility to continue to reevaluate their teaching. Ken Bain, in What the Best College Teachers Do, remarks that “a teacher should think about teaching (in a single session or an entire course) as a serious intellectual act, a kind of scholarship, a creation” (2004, p. 169). To enact this principle, I bring the same rigorous process to my teaching as I do to my discipline-specific research, developing theories to test and refine. To help with this process, in addition to beginning the Certificate in College Teaching, I have previously presented at and attended several higher education teaching conferences, and I am scheduled to present at and attend additional ones in the next year. I find these opportunities to collaborate with others invaluable to the process of constant reflection on and improvement of my techniques, demonstrating in my own work the same habits of mind I hope to instill in my students.