This is my second teaching philosophy. The first was written when I had roughly two years of experience instructing students. It is fascinating to reflect again on how I approach this calling now that I have been heeding it for many years.
My approach to teaching derives from a place of inquiry. The human condition is one of constant questioning. As such, I find the best way to teach is with a modified Socratic method. “Modified” in the sense that I do not only speak in interrogatories. I recognize that ultimately there may come a time when first and second year students may legitimately not know the answer to a question through no lack of effort on their part. The detriment of not informing them outweighs the benefit of making them dig deeper themselves. Rather than leave them dangling as my Socratic law professors were fond of doing, I provide enough guidance to get them to the “light bulb” moment. Ineveitably, that leads to more questions and the cycle continues.
In addition to questioning students, nudging them towards logical conclusions, I also believe in maintaining a dynamic classroom environment. I don’t like to “lecture”. I prefer to have “conversations” with my (hopefully prepared) students. I suffered through many a course where the professor would stand at the front of the room and talk at us, not with us, day after day. Or worse, some would turn their back on the class and simply read a PowerPoint presentation aloud. Those courses were always the most likely to have students dozing in the desks. I am fortunate to teach subject matter that is by itself dynamic and popular with students, but that alone is not enough to keep them involved in the classroom. Subjects like copyright law and net neutrality can glaze over even the most inquisitive and bright-eyed of students.
In moments like that, the approach to the information is essential to the process of absorption for the students. In the world of web development and digital media, you ignore current events at your own peril. By weaving the latest and best media elements available into the discourse, students are able to see timely, relevant examples pertaining to the subject at hand, often torn from today’s headlines. Once, while teaching a morning and an afternoon section of the same course, I had to rewrite my lecture between classes because the law (and therefore the world) changed between my two sessions.
This dynamism isn’t common across the higher educational experience, but it is part of what makes teaching these subjects so exciting and challenging. By engaging them in conversation about events happening to all of us, students are forced to process that information enough to respond. This pushes their cognition into the next echelon.
The final element of my teaching philosophy is honesty. There are too many faculty out there who are unwilling to utter the phrase, “I don’t know.” I’m not one of them. I began this piece talking about questioning. That blade cuts both ways. As much as I question my students, they in turn question me. Not my authority, per se, but how the standards, history, laws, syntax, etc. came to be. This is as it should be. None of us is above reproach. I am the authority on the subject matter in my courses, but that does not mean that I know everything. The rewritten lecture scenario above illustrates just how easily my “authority” could have gone the other way. Had I taken a leisurely lunch that day, my later lecture would have been inaccurate. Embracing this humility is key to my presence in the classroom and is missing from too much of the academy.