This is an initial draft of my teaching philosophy statement, which will be part of my applications when I go on the job market in just a few weeks. The aim here is lay out, without jargon or jokes—my typical approach—the beliefs, values, and practices that underlie my pedagogy. Because today was my first time returning to the front of a class in a few years, I figured that it was as good a time as any to take a moment and reflect on what teaching means to me.
When I was an undergraduate there, St. Edward’s University had a slogan that the school used in its marketing materials at the time, promising that in their classrooms, students would “learn to think.” This motto, simple though it may be, ingrained itself in my mind at the time, and continues to impact how I understand the role of higher education today and shapes how I approach teaching rhetoric, writing, and theory at large. As opposed to believing education to be a practice of knowledge transfer, imagining students as empty heads that need filling with novel jargon and scrupulous facts—forgotten as quickly as they were learned, a hollow mind being a rather porous thing, after all—my pedagogy aims instead to teach students not what to think but what it means to think. What matters to me as a teacher and theoretician of rhetoric is to stoke an enthusiasm for critical thinking skills and a celebration of cerebration, encouraging students to look anew at their everyday symbolic practices and communicative environments, learning to better articulate, and in due course reevaluate, their unique assumptions, beliefs, and convictions.
This process necessarily entails understanding students to be so much more than vacant vessels eagerly awaiting their teachers to impart new knowledge; rather, my pedagogy is grounded on the recognition that the names on my roster are people first and students second, coming to the classroom with their own personal histories, singular sets of experiences and expectations, individual dreams and desires. First generation students without familial support either emotionally or financially, legacy students who come unawares from places of profound privilege, foreign exchange students struggling to get the hang of American norms and standard English: Even in my short time teaching so far, I have encountered students from a wide variety of backgrounds, challenging me to constantly adapt my own pedagogical practices and aspirations to meet these students where they academically already are, and not where a predesigned lesson plan or codified syllabus assumed they were. When I discovered one semester that not a single student in my first-year writing and argumentation course could (or felt confident enough in their own schooling to) name the three branches of American government, I immediately tabled whatever lesson plan I had devised for the day to address the needs of the class in that moment, letting their questions and uncertainties dictate the direction of our discussion.
At all turns, my pedagogy is driven by an ethic of listening and a belief that students are often much brighter, genuinely more creative, and more receptive than they are given credit for by traditional top-down didactic methods centered on a teacher’s expertise. Rather than end up limiting the curiosity of my students by confining classroom conversation to a strict script or by assigning them rubrics where they only would need to mirror back a set of tasks for a passing grade, it is frequently my goal as the instructor of record to sit back and let the students lead, to follow their diverse interests and concerns. In this sort of classroom free association, I conceive my job not as attempting to curb their enthusiasm or keep their inquisitiveness in check, but to assume the responsibility of tying the threads of their digression back to wider rhetorical themes while fostering their speaking and writing freely and openly. Hence when giving writing homework, I will urge students to approach the prompt creatively, to try and surprise me in a way that will set their work apart from their peers, often by using digital tools we have explored in class. Embracing this all too rare freedom, some students in the past have used animated reaction GIFs to provide peer review feedback, while others have used Twitter for discussion threads instead of platforms like Canvas or Blackboard.
In asking students to take ownership of their educational experience by reconsidering the course as an opportunity for creativity, for thinking differently, for finding ways to make the shared material matter to their personal interests, one further pedagogical goal that I am trying to achieve is to break students from the habit of unconsciously presuming that learning is reserved for a formal classroom environment. Like much of what I have already said above, this is a lesson I have learned in large part from research in psychoanalysis, which I believe has profound yet untapped insights into the processes by which minds (which is to say, psyches) are molded and changed, whether in the classroom or in the clinic. All too often, and rarely aware of it, students have been conditioned to assume that the work of critical deliberation and symbolic imagination occur only in the rarefied space and time of the class—which is tantamount to thinking thinking likewise only takes place when dealing with official academic business, while doing homework or while in class, but not at the bar over the weekend.
Against this attitude, my pedagogy works to help students realize that critical thought and rhetoric writ large are practices vital to both public and private life, that the time for deliberation happens not only when sequestered in a classroom, but that the wider world around them is ripe for rethinking, too. This posture is reflected in some of the assignments I give, which regularly prompt students to investigate their own ambient rhetorical situations, such as when my students must put together a scrupulous rhetorical analysis of their own social media presence based on the personalized advertisements in their digital feeds. The point here is that rhetoric, thinking, and learning can happen anywhere, at anytime, but above all, learning comes about when we least expect it or when we stop paying attention—just as, when trying to remember a word on the tip of the tongue, if we give up the effort of memory, the word often seems to magically appear—that is to say, when the defensive assumptions of the ego lay dormant and the symbolic imagination of the psyche is vulnerable.
Essential to the pedagogical comportment outlined above is the practice of composition, in all its diverse forms across different technologies and genres, which I attempt to make into an everyday exercise for students otherwise accustomed to seeing writing as stiflingly scholastic and reserved for official classroom activities. Whether my students are composing traditional argumentative essays, multimodal digital texts, or more plastic works of creative artistry like sound or visual collages—all assignments I have given to my classes at one point or another, to illustrate this point or that—my teaching positions the process of writing as part and parcel with the act of thinking. What I am trying to suggest in my pedagogy is that when we take up a habit of writing as something simultaneously commonplace and strange, when writing becomes not rarefied and resisted but rather routine, writing can become revolutionary for students, opening up themselves and the world to novel ways of knowing. By thinking through composition, by understanding writing as a process of invention and imagination rather than a polished or procedural product, by encouraging students to treat the blank page as a space for critical experimentation, play, and blameless failure, I always hope to help students cultivate their own idiosyncratic structures of thought and new rhetorical worlds.