Teaching is a complex and intuitive process that is difficult to put into words. For me, so much goes into teaching, including mentoring, support, validation, challenge, feedback, creativity, compassion, self-reflection, and humility. In this section, I attempt to summarize some of my philosophies related to teaching and provide some examples of those philosophies in action.
Recently, I read a blog post written by a doctoral student who expressed his frustration about the lack of intentionality he perceived in some of his coursework and curriculum. He described confusion about some of the requirements and he decided that because no one offered a perspective on why certain things were required, he would just go with the flow, and not question the small stuff. I felt saddened by his post. As a field, we must do better! We must be able to articulate to students the rationale for our decisions and if we can’t, we should reconsider why we’re doing what we’re doing! My response to this student’s post helped me to sum up my teaching philosophy in one word: intentionality.
I strive to make clear the purpose for every reading, activity, and assignment I include in my courses. I spend hours reorganizing and rewriting my syllabi every semester, even when I have taught the class multiple times. I include articles on current events and strive to create assignments that provide opportunities for students to engage in clear theory to practice related to what we’re discussing in class.
Teaching How, not What, to Think
My teaching philosophy also stems from my belief that bodies of knowledge are fluid and dynamic, not static. While I certainly value "foundational" knowledge as important part of the learning process, my philosophy in teaching foundational theories, ideas, and perspectives is for students to consider how to build off of them, not to consider them as universal truths or ways of thinking. Too often, especially in student development theories, students focus heavily on memorizing and "using" theory in their work. I attempt to guide students through this, focusing on the importance of understanding the history and context of developmental theories rather than the specific stages, statuses, or vectors. By understanding the context in which the theories were written, including the significant flaws and populations excluded in their development, students will have a better understanding of the importance of gathering additional information relevant to their contexts to improve their practice as student affairs professionals. This demonstrates the importance of teaching how, not what, to think.
I intentionally create classroom activities to build inclusive learning environments, striving to include as many voices and perspectives as possible in the discussion. I work to find a balance between structure and fluidity, trying to create as many opportunities as possible for students to engage in learning activities that have the most meaning for them. In addition to bringing material to life, these assignments and activities also facilitate the process of students discovering and using their own voices. Included here are several examples of my attempts to do this:
With Dr. Ginny Jones (Michigan State University), I taught a course called Campus Ecology and we integrated cogenerative dialogues into the course. I learned about cogen through the work of Dr. Stephanie Bondi. The purpose of cogenerative dialogues is for students to co-generate the process of learning in the classroom. While we as the instructors were primarily responsible for providing the content to the students, the students take some responsibility for the process of learning. Each week after class, a group of four students meet to discuss what they noticed about the learning environment and what they can do to enhance their learning in the space. Even a few weeks in, we noticed students changing their behavior in the classroom based on these conversations. Some students stepped up their verbal engagement in class; other students stepped back. Some students intentionally chose to sit with classmates they did not typically interact with and others worked on sharing their thoughts about the course materials with their classmates, rather than focusing their responses toward the instructors in the course.
Class Generation of Assignments
In addition to engaging cogenerative dialogues for students to reflect on their learning experiences, we also integrated an opportunity for students to be involved with creating the assignments for the course. Students generated a list of potential Theory to Practice assignments from which to choose for two assignments in the course. Additionally, for the major research project, students were responsible for designing their own research proposal to gather information about the ways particular campus groups experience campus environments. In the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion course that I teach, students are responsible for developing their own Action Project as the final assignment in the course. Some students develop workshops or course curriculum; other students engage in activism or awareness raising campaigns (#CiteASista and #UndocumentedSyallbus)
I also strive to integrate current events in all of my classes to facilitate the process of bringing the material to life. We do this in multiple ways in my classes. In some classes, I start each week with a centering activity- a news clip, spoken word piece, or quote - that helps to focus us on the topic for the day. In other classes, I employ a “theory in everyday life” section. Students bring examples of things they are managing in their jobs or assistantships to the classroom and we discuss how it is related to the concepts we’re discussing in class. Sometimes students just share examples and how they thought about theory as they were addressing a situation; other times students bring a conundrum to the class to ask for feedback and suggestions based on the theory we’re discussing in the class. The other strategy for bringing current events in the classroom is to engage social media for the course. I use a Twitter hashtag for each course and we post articles that are relevant to the course discussion on Twitter using that hashtag. Some classes utilize this more than others and some classes engage other forms of social media completely on their own. For example, the Campus Ecology students have been posting pictures on Instagram using the same class hashtag, resulting in great discussions both in and out of class about related topics.
Embracing Technology and Creativity
In addition to using social media to engage students in and out of the classroom, I also embrace technology in classrooms. We often break into small groups in class and I assign a news story or video clip as a case study for a discussion, encouraging the use of electronic devices in class. Additionally, I have begun to require students to learn to utilize various technologies in their assignments through digital story-telling, infographics, and video presentations. While students are sometimes resistant to this at the beginning, by the end of the assignment, most students are grateful for the opportunity to challenge themselves to learn a new skill and to have an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in a unique way. Some examples of this assignment include video presentations about an institutional type, an autobiography in the format of a digital story, and reflections in the form of YouTube videos.