Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Towards a philosophy of teaching

Promotional comic on teaching
from Marvel and Office Max

As I apply for teaching jobs for spring quarter and fall semester, I am given to reexamine the parts of that application.
There are the usual: cover letters, CVs, recommendations, and in the case of studio courses, work samples.
When applying for some positions, such as a Visiting Scholar position, it's also mandated to supply a statement of your teaching philosophy.
This can be daunting.
First, you have to have thought about what your teaching philosophy actually IS. The first time I was posed this question, I thought that I didn't have one, and immediately realized that I did.
The funny thing is that I had the same  reaction when someone first told me they liked my art style!
While teaching is a skill, a craft, a discipline and a philosophy, much of it is learned by doing. And as Kierkegaard notes, we live life forwards and understand it backwards. So a teaching philosophy evolves out of classroom experience, which in turn involves the balance between the pragmatic aspects of dealing with  student issues coupled with administrative concerns.
Let's face it. This can be a daunting profession. So when summarizing your philosophy on your work, it's crucial to, as the song says, accentuate the positive. If your teaching philosophy rambles on about the inability of students to construct an argument, or the difficulties of budget limitations, not only will you not get the position, but you probably shouldn't get it!
Teaching is an art. Like any art form, its material rewards are sometimes low. You have to get something else out of it to make it rewarding beyond the paycheck.
What else do you get?
That's where your teaching philosophy comes in.
I'm currently rewriting mine. I was surprised to discover how it's evolved from its initial core position to its current one.
Initially, I simply held that we can't really teach students anything, that all we can do show them things and that it's up to them to learn from them.
There's truth in that, but there's much more to it.
It relates to the larger issue of measuring achievement vs. retained and applied knowledge as goals for students. It also relates to the issue of pedagogy, a necessary but problematic dance in which teaching risks becoming performance as an end in itself, rather than a means to the larger end of expanding the student's knowledge base and world view as related to the material taught.
And if your teaching philosophy is not all about the students and their needs, it's about the administration, or worse, about you.
Teaching is for the students, above all else. It has to be.
I'll table this discussion  for the moment and give my man Harry the last word.
The risks of bad teaching are made apparent in this Harry Chapin song, a longtime favorite. Please note that the subject in question is art, arguably the most powerful force in shaping a mind, body and spirit.

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