Wednesday, April 24, 2013

So Tell Us, What Is Your Teaching Philosophy?

I really don't like to tell prospective employers what my real teaching philosophy is. It just seems so trite, rather like one of those incredibly formulaic American sitcoms, particularly since it is not really something you can be forthright about. You can't really be honest in them because we academics live in a fairy tale world where we really want to believe the fictions about higher education we spin out about, for instance, the validity of the teacher evaluations on which promotion is based, about the holiness of the positivist grounded statistics we use to "analyse" so much in higher education, and about the sanctity of the liberal arts education. The fact of the matter, however, is that the teacher evaluations we use aren't fully valid, the statistics on which so much of the modern university is grounded are problematic, and the American liberal arts college is dying a slow and painful death, a slow and painful death most Americans could care less about, a slow and painful death most alumnae could care less about just as long as they have their college football and/or basketball teams to cheer for. If I was honest, forthright, and ballsy, and didn't want to play say the formulaic "right" things so you may be able to get a job, here is what I would tell prospective employers about my teaching philosophy. Here is how I would and now have cut my throat (the George Costanza way to influence people?).

When I teach whatever it is I teach—history, sociology, communications, media studies, cultural anthropology, the humanities, the social sciences—my “educational and teaching philosophy” in approaching whatever classes I teach, can, I think, be summed up briefly and succinctly: I think critical thinking, that critical ability to apply logic, theory, and evidence to distinguish what is rot from not rot should be at the heart of liberal arts education and I am a strong proponent of a classical liberal arts education.

How do I try to do this? In the classes I teach I emphasise the substance of the course I am teaching whether that course is a history of the US since 1877, a history of television course, an environmental history course, a course on the basics of communication studies, a course on how the modern world came to be, whatever the course happens to be. At the same time I also emphasise how social scientists and practitioners of the humanities approach the substance of whatever class I teach. I introduce students to the economic perspectives that the social sciences and humanities look at empirical evidence through, the political perspectives they look at empirical evidence through, the cultural perspectives they look at empirical evidence through, the geographical perspectives they look at empirical evidence through, and the demographic perspectives they look at empirical evidence through. All these perspectives have been at the heart of the social sciences and humanities since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They will be at the heart of the social sciences and humanities until the world comes to an end. As such they are a short hand way into the stuff of the social sciences and humanities.

Unfortunately, the ideal of a liberal education (an ideal I am not sure was ever fully instantiated anywhere for obvious reasons) has been replaced by the education must be practical so I can get a job and If I can’t figure out what good a liberal arts education is in helping me to do that I don’t like it, the, in other words, retail model of education. I don’t think this retail model of education is a good thing for the liberal arts and I think it is corrupting how students understand the purposes and functions of a liberal arts education.

I think it is also increasingly corrupting colleges themselves. I am not, as you probably have already guessed, a big fan of the Michelle Rhee School of teacher evaluations by the numbers, aka, the retail model of teacher evaluation. Statistics are a summary of what is at a particular moment in time. They are all surface and no depth, contextual or theoretical (one of the reasons some number crunchers I know prefer mathematical modeling). They tell us “what” perceptions are at a particular moment in time. They tell us nothing about how those “what” came to be, nothing about the economic, political, and cultural (ideological) factors that “what” is impacted by, nor whether or not that “what” reflects the competencies or lack of competencies of retail consumers for whatever reasons. Personally, I think there are real questions that can be raised about the analytical skills of many consumers and thus about their evaluative competencies. And then there is the additional problem that far too many students no longer really read or refer to the syllabus anymore, the same syllabus where the educational powers that be have mandated that we put the objectives for our class. If students are not reading or referring to the syllabus how can they judge on evaluations whether these objectives have been met during the course of the class?

In closing let me confess to several things, first, if I could wave a magic wand and create an education system from scratch (which I can’t of course), I would prefer to have an education system based on the Oxbridge model or an adapted version of the Oxbridge model of education rather than the German model we have now. In order for me to help you understand why I would like to wave this magic want I need to tell you a story. Once upon a time I taught three sections of History 120, the Making of the Modern World at SUNY Oneonta. What I discovered after these classes had finished was that the class with the least number of students in it, nine to be specific, the others had 38 and 24 respectively, all had grades of C and above. When I looked closer at the data I discovered that all students in the 3 pm class had 13’s and above on their discussion grades, well above the average in the 1 pm and 2 pm classes (there was a total of 20 possible discussion points during the course of the term). Students in the smaller class completed extra credit assignments at greater levels than those in other classes (I allow students to earn 10 extra points by watching approved documentaries). Five of the nine students did extra credit assignments in the small 3:00 pm class. Explanations? Students were better able to engage in class discussion as a result of small class size? Students in the smallest class were better able to interact with me, the professor? Students were more energized due to this small class size and engaged in discussions at greater levels? Or were these students more motivated before they entered class? I suspect, as many educators have before me, that smaller class size, better faculty-student ratios, and, as a result, more hands on teaching, do matter. This is all very suggestive, at least to me, about how we can improve education and student grades. It is costly, however. And that makes it a non-starter in a neoliberal America with its hefty dose of good old time anti-intellectualism and anti-academicism.

Second, here I am moving into historian mode, I have increasingly come to recognise that national histories are inherently parochial. They are, in the final analysis, inherently nationalist and inherently ideological in their proclamations of exceptionalism. While national histories may introduce us to the specific facts, often without broader contexts, of specific nation-states, it fails fatally, in my humble opinion, to show us the broad patterns of human society, human culture, and human life, and that is what all the social sciences and humanities should strive for. By the way, this would seem an appropriate place to note that I don’t teach civics masquerading as history or theology masquerading as history.

Finally, education, to me, is not and has never been a commodity. It is, when it is critical, a “good” in and of itself and as such it has no inherent monetary value The value of education, particularly a humanities and social science education, is something, to me, that is absolutely essential in today’s world if we want a world in which citizens can look critically at our world, human and non-human, and gain a critical understanding of it and of ourselves, things that themselves seem to me to be inherently “good”. Call me a dinosaur.

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