Teaching philosophy

As a university professor, I'm employed both for my work as a researcher but also as a teacher/mentor. As much as I thoroughly enjoy my research (when I can get to it), teaching is one of my great joys in life which is why it meant a great deal to receive the 2007 "Distinguished Teaching Award" when I was at the University of Washington. At the time, I was asked to sum up what I liked about teaching; this is some of what I said:

What I really enjoy are the "theatrics" and the "politics" of pedagogy; in other words, the live interaction and relationship with students as well as the potential to change the way we think about the world around us. I see it as my public and professional responsibility to help create opportunities for students to discover different ways of thinking and new ways of being critical. And being critical means more than simply identifying the pros and cons; it means searching for "hidden agendas", interrogating the taken-for-granted and doubting anyone who tells us something's good for us. So, my job as a teacher - whether in the classroom or in my mentoring - is not just to pump knowledge into students but to challenge them, and to help them challenge others. One of the best things about this pedagogical approach is that I too am challenged and I also get to grow from the process of building new "learning communities". Together, we are producers and creators of knowledge rather than simply passive recipients or objects of knowledge. Knowledge really is power, but it's pointless without action.

I stand by these words and especially the notion of the learning community for which I am indebted to an exchange between two mindful, inspirational teacher-scholars discussing things in bell hooks' (1994) book "Teaching to Transgress":

bell hooks: When I enter a classroom at the beginning of the semester the weight is on me to establish that our purpose is to be, for however brief a time, a community of learners together. It positions me as a learner. But I am also not suggesting that I don't have more power. And I'm not trying to say we're all equal here. I'm trying to say that we are all equal here to the extent that we are equally committed to creating a learning environment.

Ron Scapp: That's right. That returns us to the issue of respect. Sure, it's bad faith to pretend that we're all the same because the teacher's the one who ultimately is going to grade. In traditional terms that is the source of power, and judging is something we all do as students and teachers. That's not really the source of power in the successful classroom. The power of the liberatory classroom is in fact the power of the learning process, the work we do to establish a community.


Although I didn't mention this when receiving the teaching award, I have always found the following notion very informative in my teaching/mentoring; it's something I often like to share with my students. It's the doubting game and believing game which I came across in my very first semester teaching "Introduction to Communication" to a lecture class of 450 students at the University of Washington. Borrowing the idea themselves from Peter Elbow's (1973) book "Writing without Teachers", here's how Rob Anderson and Veronica Ross (2002: 8-9) explain things in their book "Questions of Communication":

Any significant learning ultimately depends on the willingness to play both the doubting and believing games. ... When you "play" the doubting game, you look for errors, find faults, and try to pick apart whatever you're looking at so you can see what's wrong. The object of the believing game is not to disprove but to support and clarify, [assuming] a willingness to suspend doubt, argumentation, and premature conclusions in favour of momentarily accepting the plausibility of another person's position.