I don’t have a teaching philosophy

Today was the last meeting of my graduate student teaching colloquium, a one-credit, one-hour-per-week course that I try to teach each Spring, in order to explore issues of teaching and learning in a structured but flexible sort of way.  Each Friday at noon we hear from a different guest speaker.  Some of our guests are faculty and staff who teach courses relating to the broad themes of information and communication in society, in varying modes such as large lecture/discussion courses, online courses, and hands-on laboratory courses.  Our other guests are drawn from all levels of university administration, from department advisers to the Director of the Writing-Across-the-Curriculum program, to help us understand the context of teaching and learning — not to mention working and living — that undergraduates at a top midwestern research university in the early 21st century navigate every day.  It’s a fun class and I learn a lot each time I teach it.  (You can read more about it at our course web site.)

Anyway, there was one final question that I refused to answer for my students today.  Maybe that’s not the best way to model quality teaching, but in my defense, I attempted to answer it on our blog instead.  I found the exercise useful and maybe you will, too.

The background: One of the four assignments in this teaching colloquium is for each student to attempt to articulate their own teaching philosophy:

For your final assignment, you will write a one-page single-spaced “philosophy of teaching” that makes claims about the kinds of teaching and learning goals and practices which matter most to you.  Besides turning a copy of this teaching philosophy into the instructor for credit, deliver a copy to your faculty thesis adviser (if you have one) for their feedback.

My students quite naturally asked me about my own teaching philosophy and I wasn’t sure what to tell them.  After stalling a bit, I replied that rather than coming to one singular, permanent philosophy of teaching, we should each constantly strive to articulate and then interrogate our own teaching philosophies, making sure that as institutional contexts, political-economic conditions, and our own understandings of the human condition all change and adapt, so should our approach to teaching and learning. In such a way we can demonstrate to ourselves, to our students, to our stakeholders, and to each other that we are serious and careful about adding value to people’s lives and to the life of the community through our educational efforts.

So, since they all saw through that dodge, I offered them a consolation prize: two examples of my own attempts to articulate a teaching philosophy. The first is from 1999, when I was leaving graduate school and attempting to land my first assistant professor job — which turned out to be here at UW-Madison. The second is from 2006, when I was going up for tenure as an assistant professor in order to convince UW-Madison to keep me. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to compare and contrast. (The only conclusion I came to is that seven years in academia made me much, much more verbose.)

My 1999 statement of teaching, for the assistant professor job search:

After being a student myself in various settings, from undergraduate to graduate, corporate training to continuing studies, I have developed a philosophy of pedagogy which puts emphasis on learning how to learn. My training has been an interdisciplinary mix of historical and geographical methods, built on a foundation of engineering practice. Instead of “disciplines” or “fields,” I prefer to think of history, geography and engineering as “toolkits” for understanding. Thus I try to begin my classes by showing students how a set of basic concepts and frameworks can help them to analyze any situation, any problem, or any text more systematically and thoroughly. Before one can reach a useful conclusion, one must form many hypotheses; and before one can form a useful hypothesis, one must ask many questions. I see my graduate studies as training in how to ask better questions, and that is what I’d like to impart to my students.

Before pursuing my doctorate, I worked as a computer analyst and was the lead developer on two educational “learning by doing” multimedia environments, created at the Institute for Learning Sciences at Northwestern University. During my graduate studies, I created several academic and non-profit web sites and successfully integrated “Geographical Information Systems” map-making software into an undergraduate Introduction to Geography course.

My teaching philosophy is rooted in a history of experiences in both designing courseware and instructing students. As part of my previous corporate career, I trained business professionals on computer hardware and software, both formally and informally. As part of my graduate studies, I have instructed university students in various subjects of history and geography, in both lecture and discussion settings, for the past five years. I am very comfortable with teaching interdisciplinary subjects, and with using a variety of education tools, from films and slides to web sites and software. But I feel that nothing substitutes for the process of careful reading, independent written analysis, and supportive group discussion of a text.

My 2006 statement of teaching, for promotion to associate professor with tenure (get ready):

In my experience, the practice of teaching at the university level — whether for undergraduates or graduate students, in liberal arts courses or professional skills courses — involves five intertwined ideals: (1) wrestling with both primary and secondary sources; (2) thinking geographically as well as historically; (3) innovating with appropriate technology; (4) engaging students as teachers; and (5) instilling a critical and normative stance.

Wrestling with both primary and secondary sources. Especially when introducing a new subject to students, professors face a strong temptation to assign ready-made secondary sources in the classroom — textbooks, or trade summaries of difficult material. I have found, however, that introducing students to a customized menu of both primary and secondary sources offers a chance for students not only to analyze and evaluate the arguments of experts in a given field, but also to engage to some extent in the same analytic practice of those experts, whether that means poring over statistical data, reading through historical documents, or identifying patterns on a map.

Consider J201, the 400-student undergraduate “Introduction to mass communication” survey course that I teach for the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication. Rather than using one of the many textbooks readily available on the market for such a class, I instituted a new practice of assembling a customized reader of both primary and secondary journal articles, news reports, and practitioner essays. I complement these pieces with lecture notes that point student to real-world web-based providers of data on the mass media industry — professional organizations, marketing firms, and activist groups. And in an ongoing class weblog, I direct students to up-to-the-minute national and international press articles which relate to the themes of our course.

Thinking geographically as well as historically. Trained as I was in the discipline of history, it is not surprising that each of my classes incorporates a solid historical grounding — for example, my “new media” class on “Cyberspace, hypermedia, and society” starts with the notion that, in its day, even the telegraph was considered revolutionary. This historical grounding involves teaching students that they must historicize terms, periodize eras of change and continuity, and recognize how different historical actors are privileged under different theories of social action.

However, since I was also trained as a geographer, I bring to my students not only a sense of time, but a sense of space as well. For example, in my class on “Digital divides and differences,” besides exploring how various digital appliances, infrastructures, and applications have evolved over time along with the waxing and waning of interest in the “information gap,” I show my students how any definition of a “divide” inevitably involves some sort of spatial claim. Early 1990s federal data conceptualized the “computer gap” at the household scale, but late 1990s federal data on the “online gap” was collected and interpreted at the individual level. Schemes to create “wired cities” work at the scale of the interurban “space of flows” in a new global economy; but schemes to wire schools, libraries, and community centers are focused at a much smaller scale of neighborhood and social group. My class on “Mapping information agencies and communities” takes these ideas one step further, teaching students how to engage with computer-based Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in pursuit of answers to these questions.

Innovating with appropriate technology. My ability to mobilize complicated GIS software for my students — not only training them to work with it, but teaching them when not to rely on it — is a good example of my general attitude toward technology in the classroom. I believe that innovating with new tools and techniques is an essential duty of university educators, but that our ultimate responsibility is to decide which tools and techniques represent “appropriate technologies” that serve our teaching goals while avoiding the uncritical fetishization of commodities in our own classrooms.

The most productive examples of classroom technology that I have used in recent years have been web-based syllabi (which I design myself without the aid of prepackaged courseware) and web-based discussions (which I manage through the use of a publicly-available weblog system). My web-based syllabi (four examples enclosed) incorporate not only a week-by-week course schedule, but course requirements, explanation of assignments, lists of readings, and supplemental resources all on a single, easily navigable (and printable) web page. For classes where I lecture using presentation software, all of my lecture notes are made available online (after the lecture has occurred). For classes where I include supplemental readings, as many as possible are linked in “portable document” (PDF) format directly from the web site.

But while each web site remains relatively static throughout the semester, each weblog is a constantly-changing narrative of what’s happening in class that week. On all of my weblogs, I take a proactive role in bringing outside press articles and research reports to the students “just-in-time”. But more than that, students are expected to contribute to the weblogs as well, posting reading summaries and questions which then precipitate online discussions with their peers. I do stress to the students, however, that online communication can only complement, never substitute for, classroom communication. To this end I even force students to hold a “virtual discussion session” once per semester, and then analyze all of the failings and frustrations that come with online-only education.

Engaging students as teachers. The demands that I make of my students as weblog participants illustrate my belief that university education should involve as much peer-to-peer teaching as possible. In my seminar classes and small lecture-discussion classes, student presentations are a regular component of instruction. In my large mass communication lecture course — which happens to be a “Comm B” writing-intensive course as well — I instruct my teaching assistants to hold group peer-review sessions with their undergraduates, since productively critiquing someone else’s writing is one of the best ways to learn how to improve one’s own writing. And in some cases I even coordinate assignments between two classes that I teach simultaneously, such as when I have student authors trade personal weblogs in order to think through how we represent ourselves — bodies and identities, hobbies and politics — through textual descriptions on the World Wide Web.

Instilling a critical and normative stance. Finally, a core part of my teaching philosophy involves pushing students to be critical information consumers, not only with respect to the primary and secondary sources I have them work through, but in terms of the overall instruction which I offer. In the current climate for public universities in the US, with numerous state legislatures considering an “Academic Bill of Rights” mandating the “balancing” of political and philosophical worldviews both in the classroom and among the faculty, it is paradoxically quite difficult to convince students that the research they consume (and produce) is inevitably bound up with normative claims about society. Too often our students have been trained to see information either as “biased,” and therefore unworthy of consideration, or “objective,” and therefore divorced from any critical political, economic, or social claims. Instead, I try to help students understand the twin ideas that “biased” arguments in favor of one cause or another aren’t necessarily worthless (especially if the partisan nature of those arguments is acknowledged up front) and that “objective” data inevitably emerges from social contexts in which conflicting actors pursue partisan projects.

One example of this in practice was a course I co-taught together with Jamie Peck of the UW-Madison Geography department and two colleagues from the University of Minnesota: an innovative, cross-university graduate seminar on “Contested urban futures.” Here I brought my training in geography to bear on the media- and information-centric problems of informational, economic, social, and policy networks as the new scale of action for urban social justice movements. This class was instrumental in the dissertation work of my Ph.D. student, Larry Wright, and his thesis on the “Free-Net” movement.

The recent global debate and unrest over twelve cartoons dealing with Mohammed, Islam, and terrorism which were published by the Danish Jyllands-Posten provides another example. Rather than shy away from this contentious issue, I prepared a special lecture for my 400 undergraduate J201 students that happened to coincide with the local Badger Herald editorial decision to republish one of the cartoons “in support of free speech.” My lecture, however, argued that any viewing of the cartoons was meaningless without a deep understanding of the context in which these cartoons were originally produced, circulated, and consumed — from the increasingly anti-Muslim and anti-Arab polices and political parties of Western Europe to the various global sites of both democracy and repression in the Muslim and Arab world. This lecture brought forth a sincere but civil debate on our course weblog, and elicited half-a-dozen appreciative emails from students (materials attached).

As a researcher who studies the “information labor” present at various levels of power in the knowledge-production process, I feel that I owe it to my students to reveal how power is implicated in the production of the very knowledge that they are trying to grapple with in their classes. But at the same time, I encourage my students to recognize their own positions of power — whether as university undergraduates, professional practitioners, or global citizens — and to be clear in their own minds what kinds of knowledge-claims they are using their own education and training to make.

I figure I’m about due for another iteration of this.  Stay tuned.