Teaching Philosophy

On this page, I pretend to know what a 'teaching philosophy' is. The term very strongly appears to be a buzzword, perhaps meant to throw job applicants off, and so I've been very slow to develop this page.

In general, I am not terribly enamored with teaching theories.1 I was exposed to a number of them when, in the course of my Master's program, I took a class in teaching public speaking and another class intended to prepare 'graduate writing associates' for a Writing Across the Curriculum program. I am skeptical of much in the latter approach: I do not believe it is feasible to expect professors in non-English classes to devote class time to instruction on writing2 (at California State University, East Bay, at least, to be administered by writing associates). If memory serves, this was in fact a point made by my then-favorite professor at CSUEB, Robert Terrell, who, at least at the time, complained that the program seemed intended to get non-English professors to do the English program's work (even more than they already do).

More generally among the pedagogies now in fashion, I worry that the distribution of effort in group work may not be fair, that some students inevitably will profit from the harder work of others within their groups (this was another point Terrell made). I love lecture for all the reasons that Molly Worthen advocates it,3 but also recognize the problems of an authoritarian 'bank deposit' style of pedagogy.4 Worthen, I think, errs in patronizing her students. She believes that "[a]bsorbing a long, complex argument [in a proper lecture] is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen,"5 which is certainly true but assumes a certain motivation on the part of her students to do that hard work. Education is better in Paulo Freire's model, in which we—expressly including the alleged instructor—are all co-learners, learning what is interesting and important to us.6

That said, there is a point in Writing Across the Curriculum I very strongly agree with: "Quite simply, writing is both a process of doing critical thinking and a product communicating the results of critical thinking."7 For me, this entirely understates the matter. Writing is a means of pulling ideas together, making them logical, and arriving at conclusions. It is, in fact, a method of inquiry.8 And I find no other medium nearly as effective in exposing one's thinking.

'Critical thinking,' of course, is another one of those buzzwords, demeaned further when employers allege they value critical thinking skills, identifying "critical thinking/problem-solving" as a top missing skill among job applicants.9 In fact, given a prevailing attitude that attributes all competence to managers, denies that workers might have any insights on how to improve performance,10 seemingly seeks control even more than profit,11 and seeks to preserve elite privileges and positions as a distinction from 'common' people,12 'critical thinking' might appear as a euphemism for a deferential appeasement of supervisors and elites.

Such is not what I mean by critical thinking. My notion of critical thinking draws on critical theory and is exemplified in Freire's notion of conscientização, roughly understood as critical consciousness.13 "[C]ritical thinking [is rooted] in the students' engagement with a problem,"14 but not just a problem, but rather the problem in a context, often socially constructed, often in a web of power relationships, and almost always demanding challenges to assumptions, paradigms, and even foundational premises.15

I can think of no better argument for pursuing an academic degree than the notion that an economist has difficulty seeing its value. The main benefits of a degree are difficult to quantify, but the point is certainly not to prepare students for some sort of economic activity per se. The point of education in the liberal arts is to increase students’ ability to cope with the new, the ambiguous, the alien—that which challenges our dearly held beliefs. I can think of no greater skill that a young person can acquire through education, especially at this political moment, than the ability to argue without becoming angry, to disagree without rancor, and to find in differences with others new possibilities about how to live, think, and approach life. This is a crucial function of citizenship not often on display in the U.S. these days, and it is understandably difficult to see if one reduces life to numbers or commerce.16

I think a liberal education facilitates that challenge and so I very strongly advocate liberal education as preparation for citizenship in a world that very badly needs citizenship and an educated citizenry. I am not interested in the reduction of education to job training.17 Indeed, the notion of education as job training is a notion of education as preparation for subservience; it thus contributes to the diminution of critical thinking and is contrary to the requirements of citizenship.

And when I say 'citizenship,' I do not mean the usually accidental allegiance of humans to the states in which they are born, but an engagement beyond individualism with our social system and its problems that reaches deeply into causes, that seeks understanding of not only our shared experiences but of other people's and peoples' experiences, that will challenge even the most basic tenets of that social system in a never-to-be-abandoned to do better.18

Unfortunately, under neoliberalism, higher education has largely gone the other way: We layer quantitative metrics on top of quantitative metrics in the name of "accountability;" we see the word "entrepreneurship," a word that should never be used in the context of education, emblazoned across Ivy League university web sites as they promote their job training programs; academic departments retreat from funding cuts by reinforcing the high walls around their intellectual silos; positivism (or post-positivism, if you insist) ascends not on its own merit but in an emphasis on a naïve view of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); all while low-paid adjuncts enable ever richer university administrations. As Christian Smith puts it, "[t]he manure has piled up so deep in the hallways, classrooms, and administration buildings . . . that," he writes, "I am not sure how much longer I can wade through it and retain my sanity and integrity." Smith and I share an ideal of what the university is supposed to be. He laments "our crisis of faith in truth, reality, reason, evidence, argument, civility, and our common humanity."19 But given a choice he has and I seem not to, (I'm pretty sure he and) I would be nowhere else.

I want my students to be broadly educated, to think critically, to be citizens (even when citizenship demands action not traditionally associated with citizenship), and to be concerned for our fellow humans and for social justice. For any given course, I design a curriculum that combines the development of citizens with the course objectives. And in every class, I look at where my students are relative to where they need to be in line with those objectives. From there, I do whatever it takes to get my students to where they need to be.

  • 1. Molly Worthen takes on the notion of 'active learning' in "Lecture Me. Really," New York Times, October 17, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/opinion/sunday/lecture-me-really.html
  • 2. John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).
  • 3. Molly Worthen, "Lecture Me. Really," New York Times, October 17, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/opinion/sunday/lecture-me-really.html
  • 4. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (New York: Continuum, 2006).
  • 5. Molly Worthen, "Lecture Me. Really," New York Times, October 17, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/opinion/sunday/lecture-me-really.html
  • 6. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (New York: Continuum, 2006).
  • 7. John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 3.
  • 8. Laurel Richardson and Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre, "Writing: A Method of Inquiry," Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials, eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 473-499.
  • 9. Leslie Stevens-Huffman, "Wanted: Problem-Solving and Communications Skills," Dice, December 16, 2011, http://insights.dice.com/2011/12/16/problem-solving-hiring/
  • 10. Chip Conley, Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007); Gary Heil, Warren Bennis, and Deborah C. Stephens, Douglas McGregor Revisited: Managing the Human Side of the Enterprise (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2000); Marvin R. Weisbord, Productive Workplaces: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012)
  • 11. Art Kleiner, The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008); Marvin R. Weisbord, Productive Workplaces: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012)
  • 12. Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000).
  • 13. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (New York: Continuum, 2006).
  • 14. John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 2.
  • 15. In their treatment of restorative justice, Wanda D. McCaslin and Denise C. Breton detail a lot of what I mean with this kind of exploration as they explore what it means to truly remedy injustice in "Justice as Healing: Going Outside the Colonizers' Cage," in Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, eds. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 511-529.
  • 16. James K. Foster, [letter to the editor], Atlantic, March 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/the-conversation/550943/
  • 17. Peter Cappelli, “What employers really want? Workers they don’t have to train,” Washington Post, September 5, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-leadership/wp/2014/09/05/what-employers-really-want-workers-they-dont-have-to-train/; Eric Johnson, “Business Can Pay to Train Its Own Work Force,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 22, 2016, http://chronicle.com/article/Business-Can-Pay-to-Train-Its/231015/
  • 18. Wanda D. McCaslin and Denise C. Breton, "Justice as Healing: Going Outside the Colonizers' Cage," in Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, eds. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 511-529. I think here also of Richard Shapiro's citation (in lectures I attended at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, California, in spring 2011) of rabbis who described justice as a goal never to be achieved but never to be abandoned, who understood justice not as an end but as a quest, who declared that anyone who presumed to have 'done' justice had in fact failed at precisely that.
  • 19. Christian Smith, "Higher Education Is Drowning in BS," Chronicle of Higher Education, January 9, 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Higher-Education-Is-Drowning/242195