Sunday, September 16, 2007

Philosophy 101

Time to rewrite my teaching philosophy.

Or at least give it a good ol' tweak.

I was just renominated for a teaching award, and they're asking for a copy, so's they can have a record of how I claim to teach in my classes. (I'm happy to claim that my theory and my practice follow convergent paths, but I'm realistic enough to realize that teaching philosophies are typically highly idealized documents which record not so much the way one acts as the way one would like to act; it would be hypocritical of me to claim that I'm above hypocrisy.)

The "official" philosophy I've circulated as my own is roughly six years old now, first written for the sake of my first academic job hunt, begun that long ago. (Apology to the morbidly curious: I no longer have this document posted on my website, I'll likely remedy that oversight once it's rewritten.)

I find it interesting that despite the six pedagogically pregnant years that have passed since I wrote it, my philosophy still reflects my beliefs and my practices with a good deal of accuracy, all without the benefit of more than a slight rewording now and then. The most recent retooling came a year ago, the last time I was nominated for a teaching award, and, I may as well say now, as it's now pretty broadly known, at the outset of an abortive new job search.

"Interdisciplinarianism" is the keynote struck in the first paragraph, and subsequent paragraphs build on that theme by making impassioned calls for "relevance" and "holism." I then indicate a need for well-articulated course goals, and follow this exhortation with a long paragraph giving lip service to a diverse array of teaching paradigms (lecture ["used effectively and not exclusively"], discussion, group activities), all of which I'd used extensively by the time of the philosophy's initial writing, and all of which I'd implemented quite effectively, but none of which I'd truly understood or reflected on until very recently.

After this comes a couple of brief paragraphs on assessment, with a laundry list of assessment tools used to keep track of both my students' progress and my own. There's the obligatory spiel, included no doubt to appease hiring committees, on teaching with technology. I then end with a paragraph on the nurturing of round-the-clock learning experiences and a bland reassertion of the primacy of pedagogical diversity.

I'd give my own philosophy, as it stands, a B: it says a lot, and it says it articulately, but incoherently. Rather than writing to inform, I often get the sense that I'm writing to impress. (But who's to say the latter infinitive isn't the true goal of this document?) More than anything else, I feel it shows that I know how to teach well, but not that I know just why it is that teaching in the manner prescribed can be construed as teaching well. In the terms of my soon-to-be-posted writing rubric, it's correct and well-composed, but not incredibly clear or complete.

What is to be said? asks the revolutionary in me.

I don't have all of the answers in front of me (and likely never will), but there are a few words and phrases that ought to appear and don't at present: "problem-based" comes to mind. "Discovery learning" is another. Beyond the buzzwords, more needs to be said about the nurturing of the student's sense of authority, about encouraging the student's nascent autonomy.

I'll probably work on that philosophy a bit this afternoon, so you might get me checking in again later with running commentary on the process.

I'd also like to begin working with my colleagues here in the UNCA Math Department to craft a coherent department-wide teaching philosophy; I suspect there's a high degree of agreement between most of us on a number of salient points, though there may be a few holdouts.

Topic for another post: I've been kicking around ways of making my Calc I course (the last stand of somewhat traditionally-structured courses) more problem-based and student-centered. What better time than in their first semester of college to introduce students to discovery learning?

More on that later, too.

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