Do Our Students Need Our Teaching Philosophies?

7 Apr

I’m back in the classroom this quarter after an absence of many months. I’m teaching outside of my own department (religious studies) for another department (Classics) whose Greek Mythology course was utterly overwhelmed by eager students. We had to turn them away by the dozen, which is both sad, painful, and frustrating to all parties. The opportunity to lead discussion and train that particular teaching faculty (facilitator) has me thinking a lot about the course I’ll be teaching this summer. I’ve already said a bit about curriculum development, but what about classroom philosophy? Let me give it a quick go and see where I get to today.

The application package for a faculty position that looms in my future will inevitably call for a highfalutin document known as a teaching philosophy. As a formal statement that narrates your personal teaching values, this object is rather odd because the people it is most deeply concerned with (students) are not its intended recipients. As a student I’ve never been privy to the statement of teaching philosophy of one of my teachers, even though this is a document I would read with considerable interest. It is an insiders-only affair. We often speak of these statements when we talk about applications for jobs or grants, but we rarely use them pedagogically in our own classrooms.

I suppose there’s an implicit distinction that I’m drawing here between the document teachers prepare for other teachers or administrators and the kind of document (or verbal explanations) we might share with our students. I suppose you could accuse me of splitting hairs, but I think there’s a reason that the audience of teaching philosophies should be our students and not our colleagues. Or at the very least we should aim to meet them both and split the difference.

My logic goes something like this: We’re asking students to play a game with us in the classroom. We articulate (or let our students identify) incentives to playing the game well and there are some basic rules we all play by that define the boundaries of the game. What’s challenging about the classroom is that there are actually another significant number of unspoken or advanced rules and a vast sea of conventions and strategies. We’d like to think we’re all on the same page, playing the same game with similar understandings of what’s going on, but that’s a gross and dangerous mis-reading of the situation. Our priorities are not our students’ priorities and we aren’t making the case for when and why they should coincide. When we fail to sufficiently explain the motivation and logic of our classroom and lessons we have also failed to prepare our students to play the game to the best of their abilities (and to our exacting expectations).

If the college classroom was like college basketball, we can be assured that our students know that there are two halves of 20 minutes played by two teams of five players and that the object of the game was to score more points than the other team by putting a ball through a hoop. We wouldn’t expect them to know the principle of the five second call or what makes an screen illegal or the conventions for TV timeouts. They’d learn these things as they played more and more, but they wouldn’t start out knowing them. Moreover, they wouldn’t understand right away about zone defense or the motion offense or the benefits of dribble penetration.

This extended analogy suggests a few important things. If we’re the coach (of the classroom), we are expected not only to manage our players when they play the game, but we also have the duty of teaching them the rules, explaining the rewards of hard work, and dealing with both the highs of success and the the lows of failure. We’re obligated to manage the entire affair from start to finish, however messy and complicated that may be. And while we may do many of these things implicitly or second-hand, I’d wager most classrooms fail to “sell” these rewards as discrete parts of a philosophy that extends beyond the subject at hand to the merits of teaching and learning. Our students (and American culture generally it seems) don’t know why they’re in the classroom playing the academic game and so they seem increasingly to care less about playing it well or by the rules.

If the basic problem is that students (and observers) don’t see the rewards clearly and the classroom often fails to spell them out, then one solution, as a mentor of mine told me, is to “always say why you’re doing what you’re doing.” For him it often becomes a classroom joke–the students have caught on to his philosophy at such a basic level that they egg him on to say it about every new task and poke fun at him when he has neglected to do so. In other words, he turned his philosophy of teaching into an essential classroom apparatus where its application was integrated with student awareness of its application. It’s brilliant because once it is embedded into the routine it cannot be extracted again. You can’t ignore his philosophy once you know it lies behind everything he does.

I don’t know that this would work for everyone’s views on teaching, but for me it satisfyingly jives with my desire to have my students explicitly understand why  they should want to do what the course asks them to and be sufficiently motivated to make a good faith effort to do those things. Assigned reading is not optional. Quizzes are not pointless hurdles. Discussions are not sleepy daydream time. I persist in my belief that if I can sufficiently explain my methods, reasoning, and the rewards to my students then they’ll help me realize my goals for the classroom. I’m not blind to my students’ goals either, which is all the more reason to not obscure my philosophy. I’d rather find a middle ground than let a competition fester between two unspoken and potentially grating positions.

Our teaching philosophies matter a great deal because not only are they the logic behind why we play the game and why our students should want to play the game with us, but they are also, in no small measure, the game itself. If the teaching philosophy is not a basic defense of the academy, its methods, and its rewards, then what else can it be? It is by its very nature our modus operandi, our joie de vivre, and our raison d’etre all wrapped into one. And if it is these things, then I also want to actively include my students in my life-long journey of developing and realizing and, yes, modifying, that philosophy. I think, since they’re taking the journey with me, that they at least deserve a chance to recognize and respond to their role as my companions.

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