Posts tagged ‘philosophy’

December 15, 2008

Teaching philosophy

by Carl Dyke

I’m inclined to agree with Academic Cog, whose various statements about teaching I admire, that “teaching philosophies” as required for job applications and tenure/promotion files tend to be “vague, general, and dorky-sounding,” ranging from inane to robotic. I especially dislike the ones that respond to explicit or implicit questions about “innovative” teaching. I’ve seen and developed some pretty fancy ways to deliver lecture and discussion over the years, but until someone figures out a way to teach the humanities that isn’t a variation on lecture or discussion (knowledge pills? cortical implants?) —

— I may add some tricks to my bag but I’m holding fire on innovation cred.

Re: innovation (or not), here’s the statement from my introductory world history syllabus, under the heading “teaching/learning philosophy as I learned it from world history:”

“If I give a student one corner of a subject and he cannot find the other three, the lesson is not worth teaching.” — Confucius

“When we renounce learning we have no troubles… when there is abstinence from action, good order is universal.” — Laozi

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” — Walter Benjamin

“Now as a man is like this or like that, according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be: — a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad.” — the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices.” — William James

“I don’t believe in living in the past. The past is for cowards. If you live in the past, you die in the past.” — Mike Ditka

“And it may be that you dislike a thing which is good for you and that you like a thing which is bad for you. God knows but you do not know.” — the Qu’ran

“The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous.” — Shunryu Suzuki

These are not meant to be linear. My classes are ‘some assembly required’.

Insofar as I have anything like a formal teaching philosophy I fall into the general category of humanists who think learning is good and it’s possible, in principle, for every student to learn; and of pragmatists who think this is better accomplished actively than passively. As for specifics, they vary. I use my classrooms as teaching/learning laboratories, so I’m always trying out new (to me) strategies. I also do a lot of reading and reacting with particular students and groups of students, which means that the instancings of a general approach may be quite different even across sections of ‘the same’ class. Finally, I have noticed that just about any way of teaching will work pretty well if the teacher is excited about it and fall flat if they’re not. So I never teach ‘the same’ class twice because I use each class as an opportunity to learn new things and I periodically cycle out of even very successful teaching strategies to keep myself fresh. I think that teaching stops being about technique and starts being about feel and fit and mindful interaction pretty quickly.

Still, as a member of several search committees I have read some pretty inspiring teaching philosophies. Occasionally at the interview they even turn out to match the practices of their authors! But it’s practices we care about in the end, isn’t it? So perhaps we should ask for statements of teaching practice. As to that, I indicated in the previous post I think it’s important to think through what we actually want our students to learn in our classes and teach directly to those objectives. For my students the most important outcome is the ability and disposition to learn independently and to read, think and write critically. I reported out an example of how that looks in practice in my earlier post, Ninja Reading, which is currently my favorite teaching statement and not at all inane or robotic.