Teaching is the most important thing that happens at a university. Doing it well, however, is not easy. It wasn’t easy before COVID-19, and it isn’t easy now. And, yet, regardless of the format or setting, there are several guidelines that I’ve found to be particularly useful for clarifying my purpose as a teacher. These may not work for everyone, but they have helped me to make teaching a more deeply gratifying part of my professional life.
I’ve grouped my guidelines into principles, goals, and course design. Principles are the bedrock ideas on which all of my teaching is built. Goals refer to the core purpose of any given teaching endeavor, whether it be a course, workshop, independent study, or so on. Course Design includes several guideposts that ward me away from bad tendencies when devising syllabi.
1. Teaching is making.
When we teach, we make things with our students, always. We build relationships. We form questions. We devise frameworks and habits that allow us to understand one another. Sometimes we even make things that are useful for our schools, for strangers, for our neighbors. The durability of these things, and their persistence beyond the classroom, is the measure of good teaching. Making students aware, early on, of this active making—and their stake in it—increases the likelihood that the things we make together will last.
2. Teach people, not courses.
Every course is a conversation among people, and because the people are always different, so are the conversations. I am responsible for hosting thoughtful conversations wherein everyone can participate. That responsibility does not give me license, however, to compel students with mobility challenges to endure endless fieldwork, or to retraumatize people who may have sought out my classroom as a refuge from trauma. Regardless of what the business of education would have us believe, we teach people, not courses, and so wherever possible, I will query students about the feasibility of various learning possibilities BEFORE designing a course.
3. Modeling inquiry, NOT delivering information, should be the chief aim of teaching.
My value as a teacher is not bound up with what I know so much as it is an index of how I respond to the much larger universe of things that I do not know. In this regard, all teachers always model inquiry. Responding to the unknown with fear and derision (e.g. feigning expertise, belittling other ways of knowing, ignoring the moment) models habits of mind that reinforce privilege and exclusivity. Beginning rather with what we don’t know, and marshaling what tools we have to explore it, models habits of mind that promote calm, kindness, and confidence in times of uncertainty.
4. Teaching is the curation of experience.
A good course is an intentional sequence of discrete experiences (e.g. reading, lectures, discussions, assignments, encounters, trips, etc.) that reveal to each student new knowledge about themselves and about the topic they’ve chosen to study. My capacity to teach well resides not primarily in my content expertise, important though that is, but rather in my ability to pick, choose, and create learning experiences that together are greater than the sum of their parts. I am a deejay, and I succeed so long as my students keep dancing.
5. Assume the best.
In almost every instance, teachers must take students at their word, no questions asked. It is true that, from time to time, we will be deceived. It may be that a student misses class or performs poorly or acts out for reasons that we cannot or need not know. And that’s o.k., SO LONG AS:
- the student is not in danger or endangering others;
- the student’s actions are not intended to exploit the vulnerabilities of others; and,
- the teacher has created a learning experience wherein fairness of evaluation does not require that everyone perform equally in all instances.
Teaching is hard. Learning is hard. Life is hard. We can’t ever expect to know or understand all the challenges our students confront. I pledge to be a teacher, not a gatekeeper. Confusing the two promotes fear, misunderstanding, and inequity.
1. Promote wonder.
Wonder is the wellspring of learning. In order to learn, we must first believe in the possibility of being amazed by ourselves, by others, and by the world around us. A good course provides all of its students with the tools necessary to harness wonder, and to witness it in ourselves. This is to say, a good course should change each student AND provide each student with the tools necessary to recognize how they have changed.
2. Slow down.
Coverage is a myth of profit. The notion that there are a particular number of topics, or themes, or decades, or datum that must be “covered” during any given course is born of the tendency to standardize education, to mechanize it so that its costs and profits can be routinized. Yes, I have learning goals. Yes, some courses are conceived of primarily as surveys. Yes, our time is valuable. And yet, because every course is different, so is its relationship to time. Wherever possible, I will set our pace according to the particularities of the topic, the needs of my students, and the exigencies of the moment. In all cases, it is my goal to slow down and protect students from the contrivances of time and profit.
3. Resist the classroom.
A learning space, such as a classroom and all of its contents, constitutes a theory of education. It is an organizing principle that silently maps onto us ideas about learning that often originate in the ledger sheets of corporate architects, furniture manufacturers, paint vendors, courseware firms, and no end of others for whom education is secondary to profit. In all instances, I will resist the classroom’s tendency to define my pedagogy. My capacity to teach well need not reside in a lectern or within any other topography of power. We will insist that ideas be our guide even when—especially when—those ideas conflict with what we are encouraged to accept as the normal landscape of learning.
4. Learn about by learning how.
Course expectations are too frequently infused with the veiled language of productivity and privilege. Formulations such as skills training, vocational education, hard/soft skills, life of the mind, and theory/practice all serve to reinforce the notion that thinking and doing exist on either end of a spectrum along which humans must stake their identity. My pedagogy is committed to demonstrating that thinking and doing are, in fact, one in the same. By jettisoning the old binaries, we learn to discover nuance where none seemed to exist. I aim to learn how to do something new, with my students, each time I teach.
5. Create safety; encourage risk.
To the best of my ability, I will strive to create learning spaces wherein it is possible for everyone to grapple with big ideas free of the anxieties associated with economic pressure, time pressure, corporate learning outcomes, health concerns, or fear that others might insist that any single characteristic of one’s self be forced to stand in for one’s whole self. I will rarely succeed in achieving this goal fully, but constantly challenging myself to do so will ensure that I always value all of my students, above all, as humans. By working together to create a safe learning space, we will empower ourselves to take intellectual risks.
6. Revel in ourselves; respect our neighbors.
In learning together we discover strength in difference. It is the mingling of our various identities, beliefs, goals, and aspirations that promotes self-awareness and sparks discovery. In learning, then, we celebrate ourselves. And yet, we must not forget that we learn together in the presence of everyone whose lives intersect in our lessons, including our neighbors and the multitudes of people whose labor makes this moment possible. We will strive to honor them by making our time together serve others beyond ourselves.
1. Ideas, not lectures
Organize each class session around the exploration of an idea. Devise several experiences, but not too many, that prompt students to consider the idea from different perspectives. My “lecture” is the narration that binds those experiences together and that provides just enough context to make them meaningful. Imagine that each session yields a sentence, and that by stringing each sentence together over the course of a semester, I will have written a paragraph that reveals to readers a new way of knowing.
Every aspect of teaching is meaningful insomuch as students infer meaning from everything a teacher does, even if it is not intentional. It is therefore necessary to be honest and forthright in all instances about teaching goals, expectations, and the rationale underlying every class session. Assigning work that is not immediately relevant to the purpose at hand undermines credibility. Recycling ideas and experiences from previous courses without regard to the exigencies of the moment undermines credibility. Be present; be intentional.
3. Course correction
A course is called a “course” because it promises passage through a sequence of ideas. Don’t mistake a course for a map. Maps are fixed. Courses shift to accommodate obstacles and opportunities. My syllabus, therefore, though it must be clear about the duration of the voyage and its goals, need not guarantee any particular route. Set a course at the outset, but don’t be afraid to correct it early and often, and—most importantly—in conversation with your crew.
Strive always to make students aware of their accumulation of knowledge over time. Create assignments, for instance, that are iterative over the entire semester, wherein one idea leads to another, and for which each accomplishment is a necessary precondition for the next. Reveal to students how knowledge accretes through successive and purposeful acts of learning. Allow my evaluation of their success to also accrete over time.
5. Maximize feedback; minimize grades.
Chicken eggs are graded. Cuts of meat are graded. Lumber, steel, and plastics are graded. Grading is a technology devised to establish hierarchies among objects for which physical characteristics determine value. Students are humans. Grading humans is unethical. Presuming that grading a student’s work is somehow different than grading the student constitutes a category mistake (see Goal 4). When required to assign grades to students, I will do so primarily by gauging the completeness of a student’s body of work. Students will receive the real substance of my evaluation by way of written and spoken feedback, and in conversation with peers and project partners who will all have a hand in helping us understand the value of our work together.