Statements of teaching philosophy have long been standard documents for academic employment and promotion dossiers. These statements explain in a page or two how and why we teach. (Guides on how to write a good one proliferate—the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching links many of them here). In addition to articulating our principles to others, however, working from a teaching philosophy can animate us in the classroom. Our values can inspire us to be responsive to the historical conditions that shape our institutions, our experiences, and our students, leading us to update our practices.
Most recently, COVID-19 has produced those conditions, and the pandemic continues to put pressure on higher ed. Even though many faculty have returned to the classroom, the headlines remain dire—“You’ve Burned Out. Now What?” and “Faculty Burnout: How to Rekindle the Flame for Teaching in Higher Education” and “It’s Not Just You: Burnout & Higher Education.” Students, likewise, continue to struggle with learning losses and institutional challenges that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. In 2022, students in my first-year seminar at a nearby institution—many of them first-generation, all of them new to campus—were struggling to come to class, to take notes, and to hand in assignments after years of remote and hybrid instruction, crisis, and stress.
I needed new strategies for engaging students. In this context, I returned to the critical and democratic pedagogies that have always inspired my teaching philosophy. Activist intellectuals like bell hooks frame teaching as an exercise in freedom, which has to grow out of the particular conditions students and instructors face. (The Faculty Center, the Office of Equity & Inclusion, and the Women’s and Gender Studies Department are convening a Professional Learning Community around hooks’s Teaching to Transgress this semester. Find out more in the Bulletin.)
With this in mind, I decided to design a project-based unit that focused on the pandemic itself through a generational lens. I wanted to invite students to reflect on and make something out of their own experiences, at the same time guiding them to develop critical literacy and communication skills they could take with them into different majors. Using the multimedia storytelling archive, Generation Pandemic, as a model, I invited students to photograph and interview a member of Gen Z about their pandemic experiences. (SUNY Oneonta has its own important pandemic archive, with lots of resources to support student contributions to it.) I also asked students to reflect on the stories they collected and to put them in larger historical context via a research-based introduction. As students began to find their way into this project, they seemed more engaged in the work of the course, and in the community we were building. Returning to the values that ground my teaching philosophy led me to develop new curriculum, and students bought in.
If you’re finding yourself ready to discover new ways to enact (or revise) your established values in the classroom, resources abound. Do you believe collaboration is vital to student learning? Learning with Others: Collaboration as a Pathway to College Student Success, by Clifton Conrad and Todd Lundberg, outlines practical strategies for fostering an environment of cooperation over competition. Is social justice or anti-racism a motivating commitment for you? Check out The Handbook of Social Justice in Education or Columbia University’s introductory resources on anti-racist pedagogy. Still masking in the classroom and hoping to develop and maintain connections in a safe, inclusive community? Harvard’s Teaching and Learning Lab posts some basic considerations. I hope you’ll come back, too, to this series, which will circle back to foundations in teaching and learning, focusing on big ideas and small practices alike.