A Dialogical Statement of Teaching Philosophy
Jeffrey W. Murray Assistant Professor, Department of Focused Inquiry - Virginia Commonwealth University As I began compiling materials to apply for promotion last summer, I thought to include a statement of teaching philosophy. I began by inspecting the statement I’d written when applying for my current position almost ten years ago. To my mild horror, it seemed not only out-of-date with respect to my evolved approach to teaching, but alternatively vague and trite. What exactly is my teaching philosophy? After pondering this question, I was struck by the fact that I didn’t really have one. I was asking the wrong question. For the last ten years, I have collaborated closely with colleagues teaching Focused Inquiry—Virginia Commonwealth University’s two-semester general-education seminar for first-year students—sharing best practices and engaging in daily discussions of pedagogy, student engagement, and learner-centered teaching. I realized that I should be asking “What is the shared teaching philosophy of my community of instructors and how do we engage in continually revising and improving that shared and co-constructed philosophy?” The result was “A Dialogical Statement of Teaching Philosophy”—excerpted below—which I hope will inspire you to either (a) develop your own non-traditional dialogical statement of teaching philosophy or (b) use this process to reexamine and re-articulate your own teaching philosophy. The four excerpts below begin with my original (monological) statement of teaching philosophy, followed by my conversation with colleague Mary Shelden, to whom I am indebted. Although the entire dialogue contains many more discussion points, the following provides a sample of the conversation. Original Statement: My approach to teaching has always concentrated upon two things: first, to focus as much on the development of critical thinking skills as on specific course content, and second, to work diligently to get students to truly engage course content, to interact with one another in and out of the classroom, and to recognize the applicability of course content to their own lives. Murray: Well that all sounds marvelous. But do we really get students to interact with one another outside of the classroom, for example? These are lofty goals, but how do we actually achieve them? What are our best practices? I have much better strategies now, thanks to my colleagues in the department and my undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs). Shelden: I’m wondering what strategies you have in mind, Jeff, and how you now gauge whether these outside-the-classroom connections are being made, because it’s not a given, and I sense that you know this. How do you go about gauging student application of knowledge outside of class? Murray: Regarding personal connections outside the classroom, assigning group projects that require students to collaborate meaningfully outside of class is an effective tool. An undergraduate teaching assistant, Kyle Vernon, helped me appreciate that. And regarding knowledge application outside of class, I believe maintaining focus on generalizable skills helps. I get a lot of anecdotal evidence that these things are happening. Students create Facebook accounts for their group project and forge strong friendships, and students indicate that they use what they learn in my classes again in other courses. Original Statement: First, both in my home discipline of communication studies and across the humanities, I believe strongly that a central goal of higher education is to simultaneously heighten each student’s awareness of their own assumptions, biases, and underlying values and each student’s awareness of and respect for the competing interpretive viewpoints that constitute public life. Murray: Sounds great, though a bit cliché. I would suggest now that higher education’s central goal is student empowerment …giving them the skills and knowledge necessary for more control over their own learning, careers, and lives. Critical thinking plays a huge role in that, but simple things like better time management skills are important too. And one should also acquire a heightened moral awareness of the world in which one resides. Shelden: Yes—agreed. Though again, this can be challenging. How do we teach ethical frameworks without merely imposing our own moral conclusions on our students? How do we help foster our students’ moral awareness of their context, their community, their world? Murray: We must focus on the skill and activity of critical thinking. If we give “lectures” in moral theory, the danger of sermonizing is greater. We can provide ethical frameworks (plural) as tools rather than providing a framework (singular) as the “solution.” Give them a variety of tools and let them work the problem. Put students in groups and let them show each other that moral questions are complicated. Original Statement: In teaching Public Speaking, I have implemented two strategies for developing critical thinking skills. The first is an emphasis on aspects of communication that foster an appreciation for the complexity of issues and the multiplicity of perspectives, including careful attention to the composition of one’s audience. The second is the incorporation of specific assignments that encourage students to account for competing viewpoints and to question their own assumptions and perspective. Students deliver a “counter-point” speech, for example, which takes an oppositional position to their own previous speech. Murray: The counter-point speech sounds like a good idea, but what else? How do we achieve the first goal of facilitating appreciation for complexity and diversity? I’ve developed, adopted, and adapted numerous assignments aimed at developing critical thinking skills. I developed one of my favorite activities after observing how our colleague Peter Henry creates moments of cognitive dissonance in his classroom. In my activity, students rank the moral complicity of various stakeholders, then describe that complicity and name it, after which they rank those named moral infractions only to find that the ranking of the respective sins doesn’t match their original ranking—sometimes it’s the reverse order, and that leaves them thinking. Shelden: I really like the sound of both the counter-point speech and the moral complicity rankings. The latter especially sounds like it would be a good way to help get students thinking critically about ethical questions and maybe even putting skills to work in environments outside of class. What are some examples of how this went for a particular student or students? Murray: I recall how one former student gasped at the end of ranking activity and commented that he understood how I had “tricked” him. He was totally dumbfounded. The activity had gotten him to corner himself and to reveal the internal contradictions of his own thinking. A similar effect often happens with my Day One activity, inspired by our colleague Stan Kustesky’s innovative approach to the first day of class. When I start reading a children’s story to the class, they’re totally destabilized. By the end, when we’ve exposed the internal logic and implications of the book, they walk away no longer knowing what to expect from college; realizing that they’ll actually do some thinking. Many come to us complacent, expecting to go through college on autopilot. Sorry. We know they have potential for brilliance as well as mediocrity. Let’s try to bring out the brilliance. Original Statement: Finally, my concern with student engagement reflects my more general philosophy concerning the role of the teacher. The most pressing challenge is to continually ensure that one’s teaching is not only relevant but made relevant through the facilitation of each student’s engagement with the material, integration of the material into his or her own life, and appreciation for the value of that education for his or her career development, personal maturation, and moral growth. Murray: That is a tall order! I first learned of “intentional lesson planning” from our colleague Mike Abelson. The point is ensuring that each assignment and classroom activity has a clear purpose and contributes to the course’s overall learning objectives. But we also need to think about transparency and critical reflection. Being transparent with students can often go a long way. Discuss with students why what they’re doing matters, and how it might be relevant to their lives. If we can’t do that, maybe it isn’t. And have students reflect periodically on what they’re doing and what they’re learning to reinforce the course learning objectives. A little metacognition can go a long way too. Shelden: Yes—transparency. A game we play in my classroom is, “Why is Professor Shelden making us do this?” I also have an agreement with my students that, at any moment, they may ask me, “why are we doing this?” and I should be able to respond in terms of course learning objectives. This is the “no busywork” agreement. It seems fitting to let Professor Shelden have the last word. After all, this isn’t MY Statement of Teaching Philosophy. This course is a collective effort. Core education is a collective effort. Higher education is a collective effort. But let me agree that transparency is important, for communicating course goals and for building a relationship of mutual trust. Professor Shelden’s “no busywork” agreement holds her accountable, as the syllabus holds her students accountable. That’s a smart way to establish reciprocity and to demonstrate, rather than just pronouncing, that learning is a collaborative effort. As stated at the outset, the purpose of this dialogue was to better understand my community’s teaching philosophy and the ways in which we continually revise and improve our shared and co-constructed pedagogy. I hope that this will inspire you to either (a) develop your own dialogical statement of teaching philosophy or (b) use this process to reexamine and rearticulate your own teaching philosophy. While such a non-traditional statement of teaching philosophy may not be embraced at any particular institution (for purposes of hiring or promotion), I am confident that the process of engaging in an actual dialogue about your own—or your community’s—teaching philosophy will prove beneficial, whether you are applying for a teaching position or promotion or taking the opportunity to reflect upon and improve your teaching. Good luck! Resources Lang, James M. “4 Steps to a Memorable Teaching Philosophy.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 29 August 2010. Montel, Gabriela. “How to Write a Statement of Teaching Philosophy.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 March 3003. O’Neal, Chris, Deborah Meizlish, and Matthew Kaplan. “Writing a Statement of Teaching Philosophy for the Academic Job Search.” CRLT Occasional Papers. University of Michigan, 2007.