My approach to teaching involves making connections with a student’s experience and helping students learn from each other in a supportive learning environment. I do not have a teaching philosophy so much as a set of teaching beliefs and practices that are continuous with the pragmatic strategies I have developed as a student and learner. My teaching is consequently guided by two core principles: (1) students are producers of knowledge, not just consumers; (2) students should develop skills beyond the consumption of content, including textual and digital literacy as well as methodological skills.
Although I appreciate the value of a traditional lecture, I intersperse lectures with small low-risk assignments. Other learning tools I have adopted to engage my students include impromptu quizzes, requiring students to identify a social problem based on a video clip, or a subculture based on an image. I also use charts, lists, outlines, and other items to jumpstart discussion and reflection. I recognize that not all learners enjoy or benefit from group work. Consequently, before assigning exercises I give students alternative options such as think-pair-share.
Storytelling and debate are central to my current attempts to integrate student knowledge with established knowledge as presented in readings or other course content. For example, at the beginning of each class, I ask students if they have any anecdotes related to a given topic, and I encourage them to share these stories with their peers, either in-class, over e-mail, or in discussion forums. My other classroom exercises push students towards “light bulb” moments by giving them agency beyond their typical experiences participating in classroom environments. For example, while teaching a section on 1960s activism, I had the class analyze the song lyrics to Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” in pairs or groups. Their observations and the conversations that followed replaced a formal lecture on the important role that music played in the lives of activists both past and present.
Concerning higher-risk assignments, I give students several opportunities for experiential learning ranging from the traditional (such as preparing a research proposal) to the unusual (creating a new religious movement based on course concepts). One of the more well-received assignments I gave students involved performing a non-intrusive breaching experiment. One student proselytized for veganism on campus while wearing an “animal libération” t-shirt. Another designed a “free hug” sign and video recorded her experiences in high-traffic areas. This fieldwork, perhaps merely entertaining to students, nevertheless paid off in the quality of their final papers and their broader engagement with course material.
My current and future goals for instruction involve attending to the needs of beginners while also satisfying the expectations of high-achieving students. I am sympathetic to test anxiety and how self-reported test-taking issues can affect both groups. One solution that accommodates diverse learners has to do with how I present my multiple-choice questions. I give students an opportunity to explain their answers below each question. If the explanation is sound, I will give them partial credit even if they picked a plausible but incorrect distractor. I also encourage high-achievers to participate in conferences and apply for essay awards.
I teach the way I do because I care most about skills development in my courses. Content is critical, of course, but I find the best way for students to discover and innovate in their responses to course material is by having them do something that gives them a sense of accomplishment beyond retaining information. I do not believe in a single approach to teaching that works best. For this reason, I am continually learning from my students and experimenting with innovative teaching practices.