January, 2008


In a 2007 edition of Phi Beta Kappa’s American Scholar, William Deresiewicz published a provocative essay on the state of “Love on Campus.” Though aspects of the argument are problematic, the central thesis was particularly compelling and resonates well with my own teaching philosophy. Drawing on the Platonic dialogues, Deresiewicz argues that teaching is ultimately about relationships and that, at its best, the bond that develops between students and teachers can be described as a form of love. 

This language may seem melodramatic, but my own experience as both a student and teacher suggests that it is not altogether inappropriate. In my mind, the goals of education are best met when teachers are able to move beyond imparting information and training students to perform certain tasks. Liberal education becomes truly liberal when it is able to move students to reconsider their deepest convictions about themselves and their world in the face of new ideas and perspectives. Because these moments are most likely to arise in the context of relationships founded on trust and affection, I consider the development of these bonds to be my primary task as a teacher. 

There is no doubt that my areas of study have shaped my teaching philosophy in this regard. Indeed, the study of religion and morality seem to be unique in that they are intricately tied to the existential self-reflection that is the hallmark of a liberal education. Whether I like it or not, the material we discuss in my courses provokes my students to question many of their foundational beliefs. It is my task to help them explore these uncharted waters and this task is, at times, deeply personal. 

Many within our field are anxious about this style of teaching. Given the discipline’s complicated history with theological education, some worry that this approach might facilitate an all too easy slide from education into proselytization. These individuals argue that religious studies courses should be limited to the presentation of historical information, “bracketing” normative debate about the truth value of religious claims. Though this approach is well intentioned, it often reinforces an authoritative model of instruction that liberal education was designed to circumvent. When students are asked to memorize information presented by an instructor, traditional authorities are simply replaced with the authority of the academic expert. 

A truly liberal education, on the other hand, provides students the motivation, information, and tools necessary to “liberate” themselves from the dictates of authoritative truth—academic or otherwise. This means, incidentally, that I am just as concerned about avoiding proselytization as my colleagues. If my teaching philosophy prioritizes any values, they are the values that provide the foundation for intellectual diversity. Thus, the primary goal of normative debate in my classroom is to encourage students to learn how to think for themselves. In the end, they may accept the value of authority and continue to hold the positions they held when they entered the classroom. The hope, however, is that they will have secured better reasons for doing so. Put simply, my central concern is not what my students think, but whether and how they do so.

My belief that education involves nurturing relationships that will inspire students to think for themselves has a number of practical implications for my approach to teaching. First, and most importantly, this means that I devote a substantial amount of time to getting to know each of my students. I do my best to memorize their names before I step foot in the classroom and require that all students schedule an appointment to meet with me within the first two weeks of classes. I also make it a point to arrive early and stay late each class period to get to know students outside the formal context of the course. Finally, I make myself available to them in the context of their own social worlds (facebook, instant messenger, etc.) and occasionally invite them into mine by holding group study sessions in my home. Though building these relationships is certainly time consuming, the dividends it pays for students and teachers are more than worth the initial cost. When students sense you are invested in them, they immediately become invested in the course.

These relationships can also be nurtured within the classroom. Indeed, one of the most important implications of my teaching philosophy is that class periods are primarily used to engage students in conversations about the course material. Though minimal lecturing is sometimes necessary, I believe that students learn best when they are forced to articulate their understanding of the material and any questions or concerns they might have. As a result, class participation is a central requirement in all of my courses. Indeed, I often tell my students that the ideal class period is one in which I speak as little as possible. I never forfeit my control over the direction of the discussion, but I encourage students to respond to the questions and concerns raised by their classmates. If I sense that the conversation is moving in an unhelpful direction, I jump in as the devil’s advocate—pushing students to make better arguments for the claims they wish to defend.

Jettisoning the lecture format means that the amount of material I cover in each course is difficult to predict. The amount of time I spend on each issue is often correlated with student interest. At the same time, I do my best to ensure that certain basic material is covered on the theory that the actual course content is just as important as its delivery. To be sure, nothing is more painful than sitting through class discussions that have little to no substance or purpose. Hence, I take great care in selecting the material I cover in each course.

Insofar as no class or student is the same, I’ve discovered that a one-size-fits-all approach to course design is doomed to fail. As with course delivery, I do my best to adapt the material I assign to the unique abilities and interests of particular classes. I also try to ensure that the course material is pulled from a number of different genres: newspaper articles, videos, religious texts, literature, and academic essays. The hope is that this diversity will grab the attention of any students that might be underwhelmed by traditional academic texts. At the same time, I make an effort to reach out to students at advanced levels by suggesting optional reading and encouraging more sophisticated paper topics.

My teaching philosophy also has important implications for the way in which I design course assignments and assessments. If the students are going to experience the moments of self-reflection discussed at the beginning of this essay, it is imperative that they read and reflect on the course material outside of the classroom. In an effort to push them in this direction, I assign a series of take-home questions with each and every daily reading assignment. While rarely popular at the beginning of the term, these daily assignments are often praised in end-of-the-semester evaluations. They motivate students to read and help them to understand important components of complicated texts, allowing for lively in-class discussions. Writing assignments serve a similar function, but in a more extended fashion. As a result, I incorporate at least two significant writing assignments in my courses and set high standards for each. Though students are sometimes surprised by these standards, I find that they are more than willing and able to rise to the occasion when required to do so.

In my experience, students are willing to work hard in courses if they sense that their instructors are willing to work hard for them. Thus, it is equally important to set high standards for myself in terms of preparing and designing my courses. Apart from individual class periods, I spend a great deal of time designing the “back-end” of each of my courses. I try to make my syllabi as thorough and clear as possible and work hard to clarify my standards for each assignment in the form of grading rubrics. I have also taken advantage of numerous technological tools to organize the course and communicate with students. Most notably, my familiarity with web design has allowed me to create independent websites for each of my courses (for examples, see links to the right). In general, my attitude is that I should never be putting in fewer hours than I expect my students to spend preparing for each class.

The most important part of preparation, however, is learning from one’s mistakes. Thus, I am continually engaged in a process of trial and error and make it a point to reflect on my successes and failures after each class period. Beyond this self reflection, I often solicit the advice of colleagues and invite them to observe my courses and provide constructive criticism. In many ways, my course design and teaching philosophy are hybrids of insights gained from these friends and co-workers. Moreover, I’ve learned a great deal from the formal student evaluations I’ve received and just as much, if not more, from the mid-semester evaluations I design and administer on my own. I also make it a point to request conversational feedback throughout the semester. Finally, the most honest feedback comes in the form of student performance. If students are not performing well, it is usually a signal that readjustments are in order. By the same token, significant improvement means that something is going right. These are the moments that teachers cherish.

Before concluding, it is important to say a few words about the role of research within my teaching philosophy. Though I believe strong research and teaching agendas can contribute to one another, much depends on the nature of one’s research and teaching goals. In my case, I’ve made an explicit effort to specialize in research areas that contribute to my teaching. By working within the field of comparative ethics, I’m better able to teach the broad, comparative introductory courses that provide the foundation of a liberal education. Moreover, my specialization in Islam has allowed me to teach courses that are politically and existentially relevant to today’s students. Thus, it is not unrealistic to argue that my teaching will improve if I actively pursue these research goals.

Yet, I also think that humanities scholars can make a more interesting argument about the connection between these two projects. Whereas everyone understands that research can improve teaching, I would argue that the influence can (and should) move in the opposite direction as well. Indeed, the entire project of humanities scholarship seems to involve a mission that is, at heart, educational. For the most part, humanities scholars are not in the business of discovering new phenomena or testing new scientific theories (though we sometimes do). Instead, our primary task is to analyze and synthesize texts to help our readers better understand relationships between arguments and the way in which these arguments impact our world. As a comparative ethicist, this task is particularly important. When I write about the relationships between Christianity and Islam, I am ultimately motivated by a desire to introduce my readers to ideas and arguments that are often overlooked. As a result, my work inside and outside the classroom is seamlessly united in the service of one larger educational mission. My research succeeds when it contributes to the same goals I set for my teaching: moving my readers to “reconsider their deepest convictions about themselves and their world in the face of new ideas and perspectives.”


January, 2014


Learning as Means, not End

I am not exactly sure when it became fashionable to introduce all conversations about teaching with the phrase “the purpose of teaching is learning,” but I can report that I was embarrassingly late to the party. I had often argued that everything else we seem to worry about when we teach—how hard our assignments are; the distribution of grades; how many students are smiling or texting in class, etc.—is unimportant if our students aren’t changed by our teaching, but it had never occurred to me to frame this argument in terms of learning. It was, however, hard to deny the effectiveness of such an elegantly simple expression.  So I, like many others, began using the phrase as often as possible.

Yet, the more I’ve reflected on its use, the more I’ve realized it can only be one part of a fully coherent teaching philosophy. For implicit within this principle is the idea that good teaching happens wherever learning happens. What this ignores, however, is the extent to which the craft of teaching also involves the ability to discern what our students should learn and when that learning is most appropriate. Though learning is most certainly the goal of teaching, this purpose is merely proximate; to have a true sense of our purpose as teachers, we must think, as well, about the purposes of learning.

And in my mind, the telos of education extends beyond imparting information and training students to perform basic academic tasks. These are important—even necessary—goals, but liberal education becomes truly liberal when it provides students the motivation, information, and tools necessary to “liberate” themselves from the dictates of authoritative truth and received wisdom. Put differently, collegiate education should transform students into adults who can seek out and engage ideas that move them to reconsider their deepest convictions about themselves, their world, and their obligations to both. On this model, the art of teaching moves beyond altering what students think, or developing what they can do, to transforming who they are.

This philosophy, when combined with what we know about how students learn, has a number of practical implications for my approach to teaching. Of these, three are worth noting. Active Engagement


ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT

The first principle that guides my teaching is one well established in the literature on teaching and learning: students learn best when they are actively engaged. And while this seems to be true for all forms of learning, it is especially true when the learning goals are skills that must be practiced to be mastered. Because I want my students to improve their ability to interrogate newly encountered ideas, I try to create as many opportunities as possible for them to apply these new skills.

Given this principle, I rarely—if ever—lecture in my classroom. In the mode of the flipped classroom that has been standard practice in the humanities for many years, first exposure to the material in my course happens at home, via texts, podcasts, or videos. I then spend most of my time in class engaging students via the Socratic method. Moving beyond the nebulous “beach ball” mode of class discussion, this method allows me to turn participation into mini-exercises of critical thinking skills. By calling upon students to articulate, defend, and improve their responses to my questions, I give them practice engaging new ideas, and help them to understand themselves in the process. 

I’ve also integrated assignments that are more directly active. In my freshmen writing seminars, for example, I’ve had the class work together on a wiki giving one another (and future classes) advice about the writing process. I’ve also used Poll Everywhere to get anonymous student feedback prior to conversations about sensitive topics like pornography or rape. And this semester students spent multiple class periods sitting on the floor mapping out the logical structure of their arguments with color-coded index cards and poster board. 


CREATION OF COMMUNITY

I also make it an explicit goal of every course I teach to turn our class into an intellectual community. This prepares students to engage ideas later in life by helping them see that learning is most likely to occur in the context of communities. But it also improves their learning in the course by facilitating cooperation with other students. When students teach one another, three things happen.  More than one student can experience individualized instruction at the same time; introverts are given more opportunities to participate; and each student reinforces their own knowledge of the material by having to teach it to others. Yet, these moments will only arise when students are willing to work with one another. By building community, student resistance to
“group work” melts away; when they’re helping their friends, it doesn’t seem like work at all.

The primary way I create community in my courses is by making use of the group pages feature in Facebook. Though I also encourage community within the classroom, and reinforce that community through informal out-of-class meetings, nothing has fostered the bonds of friendship among my students more than their active participation on our social networking page. Since I began using these groups in 2011, students have spent hours studying for exams together, posted parts of their writing assignments to ask for feedback, joked about popular culture related to our course, and organized their own social events. And once these bonds have been formed, they are more than happy to engage one another’s arguments in class, participate in pair and share activities, or take on the serious work of peer review.  


The Personal is Pedagogical

Finally, given my interest in transforming persons (and the years I spent studying Jesuit theologians), it should come as no surprise that my approach to teaching is also indebted to the Jesuit ideal of cura personalis. According to this principle, transformative education depends upon teachers caring for students in their complete and unique personhood. As a result, I believe I cannot—indeed should not—avoid the personal in my interactions with students. And this personalism cuts both ways. I am not simply committed to engaging my students as persons; I am also committed to revealing parts of my person.

In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jon Malesic echoes this sentiment when he argues that “to educate anyone fully … teachers and students must be present to each other.”[1] And more provocatively, William Deresiewicz has drawn on the Platonic dialogues to argue that teaching is ultimately about relationships and that, at its best, the bond that develops between students and teachers can be described as a form of love.[2] This language may seem melodramatic, but if the goal of liberal education is transformation, it is not altogether inappropriate. When I ask my students to reconsider their deepest convictions about themselves and their world, I am often asking them to explore uncharted waters. It is my task to guide them through these waters and this task is, at times, deeply personal.

It is no accident that students are more likely to take this journey in the context of relationships founded on trust and affection, and for this reason, developing these bonds is one of my primary goals each semester. I do my best to memorize their names before I step foot in the classroom and require all students to meet with me during the first two weeks of classes. I then follow up with further meetings throughout the semester. Though most of these meetings are formal course requirements, others are informal meetings over coffee or lunch. I am also an active participant on the course Facebook page, allowing me to reach beyond the classroom to engage students in the context of their own social worlds.

If the only purpose of building these relationships was to create a safe context for critical self-reflection, the time commitment might not be worth the return. Yet one of the benefits of personal pedagogy is that it has a number of equally important, and far more direct, effects on student learning. I know, for example, that when I express a personal interest in my students, their engagement in my course increases. And when I address their lives outside of the classroom, I help them to think about their education as deeply relevant to their personal, as well as intellectual, development.  Getting to know each individual student also helps me to understand his or her unique needs and adapt my pedagogy accordingly.

On the flip side, opening ourselves up to students—being present to them—can also increase their engagement. In a famous study sponsored by the AAHE, student-faculty contact comes first on a list of variables that contribute to student success.3  And it is not difficult to understand why.  If I spend more time with students, I am able to give them more feedback on their work. There are also few activities more likely to increase critical thinking skills than hours of individualized conversation with a professor.  Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the more I am present to my students, the more I am able employ one of the most effective teaching strategies we have: modeling.  And if my goal is to transform persons, what better way to do that than to model that personal transformation myself? 

 

[1] Malesic, Jonathan. “A Catholic Case Against MOOCs.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (September 16, 2013). 
[2] Deresiewicz, William. “Love on Campus.” The American Scholar. Summer (2007).   
[3] Chickering, Arthur, and Zelda Gamson. "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education." AAHEBulletin 39.7 (1987): 3-7.