I have for some time been working on revising my teaching philosophy from an earlier statement sent out as part of the many job applications I have written since 2012. Some months ago, I stumbled into a brief version of the text appearing below (the first two paragraphs), and I have been using it since. It did not seem to me to be enough, however; the brief version does not address the teaching I have done inside and outside the classroom. Hence the version appearing below.
I will doubtlessly return to it in the future, of course. As I teach more classes, I will have additional paragraphs to write. As I teach more of the same classes and work with more tutees, my attitudes and techniques will change, and the text will need to change to reflect those changes.
My experience of higher education and life following it has not been unlike what Donna Dunbar-Odom describes in Defying the Odds. Both of my parents attended college without completing it; my father has worked in building trades throughout my life, and my mother (who has since returned to college) has worked in grocery stores and tax offices for as long as I can remember. They prize education, and they encouraged me to pursue it, but they do so and did so out of the belief that education leads to better jobs—that is jobs with less manual labor and higher pay than theirs. When I went to college, therefore, I went under the burden of ignorance Gerald Graff describes in his 2007 Profession piece, “Our Undemocratic Curriculum.” I did not have the kinds of connections that allowed me prior knowledge of what college would be like, and I made them only belatedly and with much difficulty. The burden shifted again when I went to graduate school and was necessarily more immersed in the political life of my home department; I had not the background to be able to negotiate office politics, coming from a home where work was less about relations with coworkers and more about relations with customers and physical manipulation of materials. It shifted again when I entered the academic workforce more fully, and with the shift, I found myself again off-balance, not entirely sure what I should be doing or how it ought to be done.
Many of the students I have taught have been in similar situations. Some have been the first in their families to attend college, or if they are not, they have been the first to have a chance at completing it. Many have been immigrants or the children of immigrants, struggling to negotiate the demands of cultures and languages not yet their own in the hopes of somehow making things better, even if they are unsure what that “better” can be. They have been pushed to go to college by the credentialing demands of the workforce, and they are constrained to enter the workforce because of the financial burden increasingly imposed by college study, so that a self-reinforcing cycle develops. Problems accrue to such a vision of education, of course; it tends to the collapsing of the intellectual endeavor to mechanistic task-completion and the reconceptualization of the instructor at any level as an automaton—a teacher-bot, as I recall quipping at one point, churning out replaceable student-cogs to maintain the devices of current productivity culture. But even in such a reductivist vision, there are unfamiliar demands made upon students but seldom or never clarified, rarely if ever made explicit. As I have completed a long course of formal study and reflected at great length on the many mistakes I made in doing so, I entertain the conceit that I have some idea of how to negotiate those demands. Conveying that understanding is no less important than conveying the content knowledge and thought-models of my courses; it does much to inform the mindsets of the disciplines I study and teach. Increasingly, I am called to pass along what I have learned about the academic environment in the hope that others will have an easier time making their own transitions and negotiating the tensions between the collegiate enterprise and their backgrounds.
How I answer the call depends in large part on the kind of class I teach. For college-preparatory and developmental coursework (and I resist the term “remedial” as indicating there is something wrong with the students in the class; they need to learn, certainly, but so do we all), in which students enroll who have been academically underserved or who have been away from schooling for many years, much opportunity to do so presents itself. Providing materials that treat the history and development of educational structures and patterns as the samples from which the students in college-preparatory courses develop their interpretive skills not only offers them the practice in reading and writing which such courses typically expect, but also offers them access to the context in which those expectations are developed and to understanding the structures to the service of which those expectations are directed. Each is something to be valued and prized, and each is something that the students I have taught in such classes have indicated appreciating. Improving not only the skills themselves but also the understanding and awareness of the contexts in which those skills are developed helps the students in college-preparatory classes develop agency with their own academic endeavors, increasing their chances of later success in their formal educations and in their lives afterwards. Passing along what I know helps them.
In first-year courses, such as the composition courses that can serve as synecdoche for the collegiate experience (per Timothy L. Carens in a 2010 College English piece, “Serpents in the Garden: English Professors in Contemporary Film and Television”) or the public speaking courses that inform no few majors, some opportunities similar to those developmental courses present emerge. In them, I can still present materials explicitly treating the history and development of academia, with much the same benefits for first-year students as for their more junior peers. That the students in such classes are presumed to be more familiar with the traditions of academia than their more junior peers offers the opportunity for such classes to more deeply explore those traditions and to interrogate them, questioning their emergence and endurance and arguing for their maintenance, adjustment, or elimination. I encourage that exploration through focusing series of writing assignments in such classes on issues of the students’ curricula, interrogating the standards that are in place and the reasons for them. Students are given more agency in their educations thereby, helping them not only to have better understandings of the structures into which they are entering but also to have more perception of authority to question and, at need, push back against those structures. My own lessons in the ability and need to resist and struggle against seemingly evident and inflexible demands were not entirely comfortable. While my classrooms may become sites of the discomfort associated with the development of new understanding, they are so only insofar as they serve to help students learn to negotiate the tensions of their backgrounds and academic establishments where they suffer minimal or no consequence for errors made in the course of that learning—something I did not have and so am called to offer to my students in turn.
In literature surveys, commonly offered at the sophomore level, answering the call to convey what I know of the academic environment is somewhat eased by the nature of the courses themselves. Many such courses concern themselves with putting across a sense of canonical works of writing, rightly or wrongly seeking to offer guiding ideas of what literature has been and can be. General literature surveys, taught under such titles as “Introduction to Literature,” often seek to ground students in basic literary criticism and close reading, working within traditional conceptions of the overarching genres of prose, poetry, and drama. Period- and nation-specific surveys taught under such names as “Survey of British Literature I” and “American Literature” often frame themselves as presenting the “great” works of their times’ or countries’ writings—usually chronologically in an attempt to portray an overall narrative of development and improvement. Genre- and sub-genre-specific courses such as surveys of poetry or introductions to fantasy literature function similarly, laying out what purport to be representative groups of works to foster fundamental understandings of what the (sub-) genres are. While there are fraught questions surrounding canonicity, and engaging them is vital, there is some value in presenting and informing a common frame of reference; if nothing else, the “great” works receive much attention and inform references, so that unfamiliarity with them hinders understanding of other writings yet. Consequently, teaching such classes presents me an opportunity to explicitly engage with presumptions of common understandings and the fulfillment of them, as well as the ethical questions associated with such presumptions; I can use the works of literature and the anthologies in which they typically appear as means to express at least some of the major cultural underpinnings of the academic world in which students work.
In more advanced writing classes, such as technical writing and advanced exposition, fewer overt opportunities to answer the call to convey useful information about how to negotiate backgrounds and the collegiate enterprise present themselves. Students in such classes are years into their collegiate careers, already steeped in understandings of how higher education works—at least at the undergraduate level. Many in such classes, however, are considering graduate school, the experience of which is wholly different from the undergraduate. In many senses, in fact, students who come from backgrounds like mine are more familiar with the kinds of demands graduate school makes than are many others; the mentor-mentee relationship at work for those pursuing masters and doctoral degrees is not unlike the apprenticeship model still prevalent in many building trades and skilled crafts. Pointing out such similarities to students has proven illuminating for many I have taught, helping some to approach their applications for graduate and professional education with better understandings and greater awareness of the rhetorical situations involved. Others, who mean to enter professions rather than continuing their formal education, perhaps benefit less directly from the comparison, but the realization of the similar contexts at work between higher levels of higher education and the working world so often considered in opposition to academia does help them to transition forward from their formal educations—and many have younger siblings who might benefit from the advice, in turn.
In private tutorial work, whether directed towards non-native speakers of English working on graduate degrees or former classroom students seeking to advance their writing and research careers, how I answer the call to address the structures of academia varies. With one tutee, one completing a doctorate and moving both into conferencing and onto the job market, I did much to relate my own experience in both arenas, not only reviewing scholarship and CV, but also noting potential problems and complications of conference presentations and job interviews. The tutee was commended at several conferences and was able to secure a faculty appointment, suggesting the value of the advice given for negotiating expectations formed from a life overseas and the demands of another aspect of the collegiate environment. Another tutee sought help adapting a paper written for a literature class I taught for presentation at an international conference—something with which the tutee, coming from a rural working-class background, was unfamiliar but at which the tutee ultimately succeeded. That tutee has since worked to write papers independently, immersing himself in an aspect of the academic environment for which his familial background offers no precedent and bespeaking a successful negotiation of the tensions between upbringing and acculturation; it is something I seek to continue doing for others as I continue to teach.
How I will answer the call to pass on what I know of the academic environment to those who seek to enter it from backgrounds that have not exposed them to it as much as others in other situations yet is unclear to me; I have not yet encountered them, so I cannot speak to them. I can, however, reassert that I will work to answer that call throughout my teaching, and that I will do so in such a way as works against a mechanistic view of education and towards one that embodies and pushes forward a love of learning I have found to be sustaining for many years.
This statement was updated 13 March 2016. The update refined treatment of first-year composition classes.