home | classes | research | publications | c. v. | contact | site map

Teaching Philosophy: Helping Students to Find Their Own Paths

When I first started teaching, nine years ago, I was most concerned that my students learned the things I thought they needed to know, whether those were political themes in Shakespeare, how to write persuasively, or the ins and outs of library research. Whether I was teaching skills or content, I believed my first responsibility was communicating information that I had already chosen.

Over the years I experienced a series of realizations, some prompted by my students, others by circumstance, which have led me to my current approach to teaching. For example, in one of my first writing classes, a frustrated young art student questioned devoting time and energy to writing when "the kind of thinking she needed to do to complete writing assignments made it much harder to do her art work, work required not only by her major, but her vocation." Just as I was learning that many of my professors founded their research on personal enthusiasms, I also realized that my students would have to find their own reasons and approaches, in their own lives, to pursue scholarship. Without this personal motivation and individual approach, no information I present, no skills I model will be of any use to them. I began to focus on communicating my own enthusiasm to my students, so that even if they did not absorb every detail I presented during class, they would be interested enough to work with me on finding the best learning process and to keep learning on their own.

The pedagogical challenge of helping each student make an individual connection to writing is at the root of my three main interests: Multiple Intelligence Theory, Web-supported Instruction, and Inter-cultural communication. Multiple Intelligence (MI) theory posits that a student's preferred medium for thinking and communicating is the best through which to introduce new skills and concepts, and it tries to determine how teachers might identify and then use that medium in the classroom. Computer technology can make non-textual material far easier to bring into a class, both for students and teachers, and its use has helped us see how MI theory might be applied. This technology can further allow students to pursue their studies more independently, setting their own pace and choosing their own path. My interest in intercultural-communication shifts the focus from media to message, to how authors communicate unfamiliar ideas to readers; how they convey the personal and sometimes intangible essence of culture. At the heart of any communication across cultures lie ideas and experiences that may be particular to the writer's culture, and so description and explanation cannot rely on readers' familiarity with those concepts or events for understanding. As teachers we are often faced with the similar task of teaching students to think in ways and about ideas they’ve never considered, and our task grows more complex as our classes become more diverse. Thus I am interested in challenges both to the medium, and to the message, that we must deal with in teaching effectively to all of our students.

Now, when I teach, I try not just to impart information and skills, but also enthusiasm for the subject and the process of studying. I aim to make my students aware that the challenges facing me as the teacher also face them when they write, or speak, or otherwise communicate in our class and in general. Taking this approach has led to more productive discussions and feedback in class because the students and I talk explicitly about what I am trying to teach them and how that relates to the choices I've made in presenting material, creating assignments, and figuring grades. Talking about how an assignment is supposed to work and what skills it should help polish leads students to be more conscious of their own learning process. Students are then better able to identify their own difficulties with an assignment and suggest solutions. I also talk to students about why I teach certain ways of writing, or choose certain topics for assignments, so that they can see the context of an academic community in which they write. Every community has a system of discourse that has rules that have developed out of a particular social and historical context. In considering this, students become aware of the rhetorical aspects of communication, and are then better able to decide how to negotiate the complex communicative tasks they may face. The students further learn that we all make choices when communicating, and we all make interpretations when listening or viewing; they become active participants in learning and thus more invested in the outcome, and in continuing beyond the end of any one class.

In sum, I try to teach each student as an individual, because each will have different needs in writing based in their own unique situation, and these are shaped by "intelligences," by cultural background, by the major they choose, and countless other factors. There is no one right approach for me to take as a teacher, or for them to take as writers. Instead, I focus on helping students identify and understand their own particular writing needs, and to find the best way in which to meet those needs.