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Teaching Philosophy Statement12/23/2007 15:38:16
In the process of applying for teaching jobs in New York, I've had to come up with a statement on my teaching philosophy. Here goes. Comments desperately welcome!
The best philosophy of teaching I know is teaching philosophy—literally, love (philia) for knowing (sophia). “Love” here means both desire (for knowing) and a relationship between people, among students and teachers (that enables us to fulfill desire). “Knowing” I phrase purposely as a verb (the original is a noun) because it is not an accomplishment but a process. It is an exchange through which the learning relationship built on desire becomes a community, and student joins teacher as a citizen within it.
For me teaching begins with understanding my own desire, with reconstructing what enables me to learn, or with reinventing it. I do all I can to love the material and show the students what it looks like to do so. My syllabus for a class on American religions began with funny pictures I’d taken on trips visiting roadside religious sites. Tedious exercises like standardized tests, increasingly common today, should be no exception; ways can be found to desire even them. I learned this from a teacher in high school who taught us to treasure difficult test problems, not resent them. When I recently had to prepare college freshmen for a research paper that required detailed citations, I studied the style manual alongside a historical essay on the subject. I came to appreciate for myself how important citations have been in the history of scholarship. With that, I was able to to ornament the details of proper formatting with stories dramatizing its significance. Making notes and bibliographies became something the students could take pride in, not just a task to be done.
All the bureaucracy and technocracy of modern education notwithstanding, learning depends on human relationships. The weight given to standardized tests and grade point averages portrays education as a quantifiable commodity, even while overlooking the basic experience of teaching and learning—a thing done among people, different at every occasion. Students often internalize this mistake, and they end up working in school for the commodity of grades alone. I believe in using grades as a pedagogical tool, but the teacher must always be present to give them context. When a student comes to me with a complaint about a grade, for instance, I guide the conversation to the learning process of which grades are only a part. The grade is my response to the student’s work, and as part of the relationship, I expect the student to respond to the grade by trying to improve.
The reason we enter into the teacher-student relationship in the first place is to build communities bound by shared knowing for the future. Students aren’t meant to be students forever. My best experiences as a student were always those that challenged me to be more than just a student: a philosophy teacher who taught us to take on life’s biggest questions for ourselves, or a high school teacher who asked me to chair a committee of parents, teachers, and other students. I always make room in my classes for students to take charge. Recently, in a course filled with details to be memorized, I insisted that everyone prepare examples of “adventuresome thinking” for our meetings—reflections, opinions, and questions about what they’d read. At the end of each hour I would leave time to share and discuss these, giving students the chance to take possession of the material for themselves above and beyond the regular expectations. Afterward, many of them told me that these conversations were a highlight of the course.
One reason I enjoy teaching so much is because of the joy I saw in my own teachers, which I learned to emulate. Their philosophy, their love for knowing, rubbed off on me. Then when I started teaching on my own I found that in practice, no philosophy of teaching holds together perfectly. There are too many surprises and challenges to vindicate a couple pages of theorizing. So I can only begin with myself, with my own desire and love of learning, then with how I share it with my students, and finally with how I leave them to make their own beginnings.