Teaching Philosophy

In describing my teaching, I used to reach for the standard teaching-goal verbs—inspire, motivate, empower—but the longer I teach, the more inadequate they seem. In the world of Standard Teaching Verbs, there are no unprepared or confused students, and there are no questions from the back of the classroom that throw your own assumptions about the text (and about your students) into disarray.

There are only faces shining eagerly up from desks, freshly sharpened pencils, and—unless the teacher is speaking—perfect silence. Like the natives in some colonial fantasy, students in Standard Teaching Verbs are only grateful vessels waiting to be filled by a benevolent leader who holds all the answers that they lack.

Therefore, these verbs don’t do justice to the complex people we, and, more importantly, our students are. They barely hint at the daily work of engaging students with just the right balance of familiar and unfamiliar knowledge, sensing what they already understand and what they don’t, and thinking of how you can combine the two to reach your goal by the end of that classroom day. They suggest the true goal of teaching—helping students become independent, flexible, and savvy writers and thinkers—in only the gauziest way.

Therefore, I describe my own goals with two interrelated Teaching Verbs that I redefine and question every day: destabilize and rebuild. They aren’t what I do to students—they are what I help students do with their own assumptions, ideas, and skills.

Good discussion classes depend on taking students seriously by acknowledging the individual perspectives they bring to the classroom. They also require asking students to challenge, consider, and question those perspectives from the first day of the course.

A student who’s unsettled by her encounter with new texts or ideas is a student who’s ready to revise her assumptions, revisit her previous knowledge, and rebuild new structures of understanding around it. Growth requires at least a little uncertainty.