Talking About Teaching

What follow are a few thoughts triggered by my struggle to draft a “Statement of Teaching Philosophy.” Why is it, I wonder, that so many educators are better at doing the pragmatic work of teaching than they are at articulating the philosophy behind their teaching? Is the gulf between our practice and our theory something to worry about?

I want to suggest that this gulf derives at least in part from the fact that our teaching goals are not only multifarious but frequently contradictory. Yet I’d also like to submit — by way of example — that more often than not those seemingly incongruous goals exist in productive tension.

• On the one hand, good teachers want to provide students with the knowledge and skills that will eventually enable them to become equal partners in disciplinary conversations. On the other hand, we want to model forms of democratic discussion premised on the presumption of equality in the present.

• On the one hand, good teachers try to reward students who exhibit the cool-headed composure characteristic of rational thinkers. On the other hand, we seek to encourage students to cultivate the passionate attachments that motivate innovative thinking and persuasive argumentation.

• On the one hand, good teachers endeavor to help students learn to think critically about literature, cultural materials, and the problems facing our world today. On the other hand, we seek to expose our students to cultural materials that they can feel good about: materials that provide models of a better world, and that function as mooring posts for their optimism, curiosity, and generosity.

Having any one “hand” in the absence of its “counter-hand” would lead to a lopsided pedagogy. I’d venture that the best teachers practice an ambidextrous pedagogy, in full recognition that the benefits of each hand realize themselves only in and through those of the other.

Because my teaching goals are multiple, the classroom formats and teaching methods that I employ in the classroom are likewise multiple. That is, I employ what, in her book Teaching Literature, Elaine Showalter describes as the “eclectic approach” to the classroom. On any given day, I might open class with a thought experiment, or a group brainstorm, or student read-arounds. Then, turning to the texts they’ve read for that day, I engage students with open-ended questions pertaining to the issues raised by those texts. By the end of class, the room is inevitably buzzing with intellectual energy.

In my view, the best teachers make use of eclectic methods to accomplish goals which are not only multiple but often apparently contradictory. And it’s a good thing, too!

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