Who Are You?

This post is about thinking through and crafting your teaching philosophy. You may be in a discipline where this is a common practice, but even if you are an old hand, please feel free to read what I have to say and leave your comments so that we can learn.

My discipline, anthropology, is not one where it is common. I did not learn about writing Teaching Philosophy Statements until I needed one for a job application (http://chronicle.com/article/How-to-Write-a-Statement-of/45133).

Since then, I have revised mine several times, and find the activity useful for structuring the underlying logic of your teaching practice. Once you know ‘who you are’ as a teacher, then it is easier to make decisions regarding hands on teaching issues like classroom management, grade disputes, late work, and make-up exams.

The first aspect to tackle, especially for folks new to the podium, is one of classroom persona (http://chronicle.com/article/Constructing-Your-In-Class/45186).  We all have one, whether we acknowledge it or not. We all ‘edit’ ourselves for pedagogical consumption, or we should: unless we live extraordinarily bland and uneventful lives; which does not describe the adjunct population I know!  This persona may be, as in my case, a little bit sterner than is my wont among friends, or maybe you work hard on being your most compassionate self, but whichever it is, this persona will be a key piece of evidence in identifying the underpinnings of your own teaching philosophy.

So, why am I not the lovable cut-up in the classroom that I am around my oldest pals?  Because the core goal I have as a professor turns out to be ‘fairness’ and seeking this quality in the classroom has helped me construct the parameters for my courses.  Being fair means quashing signs of favoritism. Students are extremely sensitive to signs that one person is getting more attention from the professor than they are, one reason that I call on people regularly, using my attendance sheet to help me at the outset until I learn their names. This helps distribute the onus of participation, rather than either allowing a few students to dominate the discussion or conversely, placing the burden for carrying the conversation on a few students’ shoulders.

In another example, fairness means that I serve different learning styles (http://people.usd.edu/~bwjames/tut/learning-style/styleres.html), interspersing lectures with videos, playing music, having students do deep breathing, and hands-on activities like pottery or drawing.  I often joke about my classes, “Come for the tamales, but stay for the drum circle”  because in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class, students read “Why Migrant Women Feed their Husbands Tamales: Foodways as a Basis for a Revisionist View of Tejano Family Life” by Brett Williams, they bring in tamales to share, and discuss regionalism, recipes, and oral and family histories.  Meanwhile, in my Native Californians class, we have had guest speakers/singers, fieldtrips, and a day where we made pottery and decorated it using traditional Chumash designs.

Fairness means providing several pathways to success in my course.  Some students will be great on exams, but poor on attendance, while others will be present and accounted for, working hard, turning everything in, but still fail to make headway on objective exams. Weighting assignments and exams such that neither student-type has an outsized advantage over the other; you can get a decent grade either way, while an outstanding grade requires that a student manage all aspects of the course competently.

Fairness sometimes means making tough calls in order to make sure all students get the same chances – holding all students to the same standard, and expectations, even when it makes you look like a hard-case.  A classic example means requiring paper backup for stories of hospitalizations, funerals, and traffic tickets before allowing make up exams, or extensions on papers.  People who legitimately have these problems will have no issue with you asking for proof, quite the opposite as they can see you are applying campus/syllabus rules to everyone, equally, all of the time. 

Besides, asking for paperwork can provide you with moments of unintentional comedy. Like the time a student came in with five minutes remaining on a quiz claiming he was unfairly stopped for a traffic violation outside the parking lot.  Did he have the ticket? Oh, not on him? I’ll wait while he gets it from the car. Oh, you can’t find the ticket you were just given? This quiz aside, you’re going to need that for traffic school, you know.

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