Part of the requirements for the Learning and Teaching Development Programme (LTDP) I’m obliged to take as a PhD student is the submission of a teaching portfolio, the centerpiece of which is a statement of one’s teaching philosophy. Below is what I wrote.
“Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.”
– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, translated by Myra Bergman Ramos (1970)
What is the university for?
In a 2003 essay for Times Higher Education, then Brunel University Vice-Chancellor Steven Schwartz reflects on the “higher purpose” of the university and concludes, “By providing avenues for social mobility, universities make it possible for students from deprived backgrounds not only to move up to better jobs but also to participate more fully in society. … [Thus] universities can do more than almost any other institution to improve social mobility and justice … [making our society] a more open, more just and fairer place to live.”
Several factors seem to belie this optimistic claim: the inaccessibility of higher education in many parts of the world is one, and the scarcity and precariousness of academic jobs is another. And then there are the difficulties of doing locally relevant, collaborative, and socially engaged research in the context of the professionalized, commercialized, and metricized structures of academia in the age of globalization and informationalism. Many institutions struggle with the demands of global competition, research productivity, and operational excellence vis-a-vis a lack of public funding, physical facilities, technological infrastructure, and ideological support. Meanwhile, the incessant pressure on untenured faculty to “publish or perish” or to teach over a hundred students per semester without job security dampens enthusiasm and energy for intellectual work.
Even so, the possibility of contributing to greater social justice through knowledge production, teaching, and public service continues to spur young scholars into academic careers. Professors persist in forging spaces of criticality and interdisciplinarity, activism and care, in their classrooms and educational institutions, with the aim of teaching individuals not only to become competent professionals, but also ethical citizens—aware of the networks of power, violence, and dispossession underlying their social positions, active in public life.
The moral role that Steven Schwartz ascribes to the university—that of propelling national economic development as well as promoting responsible citizenship and social inclusivity—may sound romantic, comfortable, even naive, but it expresses some of the hopes that animate my teaching philosophy and practice.
What teaching means to me
I found myself teaching because learning lends meaning, wonder, and value to my life, and teaching allows me to make a living by learning endlessly. What I have come to realize, though, since I faced my first class years ago, is that not a lot of people feel this way, and so, part of my role as a teacher-learner is to make students feel like all the time that they have to spend sitting in classrooms, poring over texts, and stressing over grades is for something more than just landing a nice-paying job.
Economic survival is, of course, a fundamental concern. Nevertheless, to think of an education as just another requirement for homo economicus to get over with so s/he can go into the proper business of earning money is to do learning and our manifold human potential a great disservice. Learning—thus, also teaching—ought to be transformative: it should transform the self, it should transform relations, it should transform society. Figuring out in what ways and for what ends these transformations must occur is why we learn and teach and learn—in context and in concert, seeking to imagine and shape futurity while remaining conscious of history.
To Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I owe much of my understanding of what emancipatory teaching consists in: self-reflexivity, dialogical inquiry, moments of cognition, mutual humanization.
How I teach
As a teaching assistant, I defer to my research supervisor’s instructions: start the class exactly on time, take attendance—this fosters discipline. Spend ten to twenty minutes revising the previous lecture to aid in recall and scaffolding. Spend the next hour listening to the students’ presentations, and the last thirty minutes moderating discussions about them. About midway through the class, take a short break—attention is limited, and so is the urinary bladder’s capacity. Try to ensure that student participation is more or less evenly distributed; don’t talk with just two or three articulate people. Ask the students if they have questions. If they do, answer them. Be prepared to stay beyond the official class time, should they need further clarification.
To these practices I add: having everyone (myself included) sit in a circle in the classroom, and asking each student to pose a question or problem about the subject at hand. This is a strategy I got from my favorite professor in philosophy, who believes that students learn best when they are encouraged to pursue their own inquiries. From that professor I also learned how a circle evokes both community and governmentality, for it is a form of mutual surveillance, but also of mutual engagement and accountability.
A circle looks democratic, non-confrontational. It is a balanced shape. The teacher is but one part of this formation, and though she may initiate and integrate various interactions within the circle, she does not stand apart of or above everyone else. The teacher is also a student, and each student, as a link in a circular chain, is integral to the collaborative activity of knowledge-building and problem-solving.
The circle’s cyclical movement says: questioning can be never-ending, for every answer births new inquiries. We can stop our investigations at a point designated by necessity (due to limitations of time, of energy), but not necessarily with finality. This isn’t arithmetic, or a multiple-choice test; the questions we ask need not be answered once and for all. What matters is the questioning—and, afterwards, how we act, armed with our facts and interpretations, our inferences and judgments, our desires and our doubts about our continually shifting realities.
That is not to say that all classes should run as a free-flowing community of inquiry, concerned only with the exercise of imagination and analytical thought. Often, a more rigorous structure, a definite outcome is required; yet, one can design an architecture for learning that still asks of all participants to play an active role.
On the first day of classes, I show the students my course outline (including the schedule, readings, requirements, rubrics for assessment, and house rules), and ask them if they would like to change anything, short of violating university regulations and prescribed class objectives. I tell them, the syllabus is a contract, so I want to ensure that all of us know what we’re getting into, that the terms of our agreement are negotiated and accepted, and that we all cooperate to uphold what we agreed upon. Seldom do the students recommend substantial changes to the syllabus, but by inviting them to participate in agenda-setting, I aim to make them feel more involved.
Most of the classes I’ve taught are general education (GE) courses for freshmen and sophomores. As my colleagues and I like to joke, teaching GE is janitorial work—a great part of our duty as teachers is to help students clean up all the dirty learning habits they might have developed in high school. For example, a propensity for plagiarism, done out of ignorance or laziness or lack of foresight. Other common problems: not reading the readings, spacing out or texting their friends instead of participating in class discussions, cramming for exams, believing that grades are the ultimate gauge of capability. The list goes on. I like to append study tips to my syllabuses, to set a certain tone for the class and to clarify expectations.
I see the classroom as a space for critical inquiry, connection, and meaningful dialogue. The students’ readiness and willingness to participate in thoughtful and dynamic conversations about the readings are of paramount importance in my classes, so I enjoin them to come prepared, keep focused, and behave with courtesy. This means, among other things: listening when someone is talking, not checking WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram; being thoughtful and sensitive about giving feedback, especially during writing workshops; not chatting at length with one another about matters unrelated to the class.
I begin my classes with questions, either from the students or from myself, about the assigned readings, which I assume everyone has read. We spend much of the class time on discussions of the readings, individual and small-group activities (such as writing exercises, focused group discussions, debates, games), and workshops. These activities, which are spread throughout the semester and are thematically and procedurally linked, build on each other and culminate in paper and poster presentations in a mini-conference I organize with students at the end of the course.
In all these activities, I try to take the role of facilitator rather than present myself as the source of knowledge. Youthfulness can be an asset in this regard: I find that students are more likely to critically assess and interrogate your pronouncements (and thus think independently) if you do not look like an esteemed and wizened scholar.
Why I teach the way I do
I believe in discipline and consistent (even if slow) work, in the value of that which is hard-won. I see no contradiction between self-discipline and the practice of freedom; I think discipline enables freedom.
I always tell my students that in the world outside their CVs, high grades, certificates, and titles are meaningless if they hardly have the knowledge, skills, and personal convictions to show for them. That there is no other way to develop knowledge and skills and convictions but in practice, in questioning and trying to make sense of things, in thinking and trying and trying again on their own and with each other, in seeking challenging experiences, in the constant striving to grow. This is why my approach to teaching and learning is process- rather than product-oriented. Though final exams, papers, and projects constitute a significant part of their grades, much of the work of knowledge-building happens when students prepare for every class, annotate the readings, participate in discussions, write rough drafts, and give feedback to their peers during workshops.
When it comes to learning—as in other matters of import, from effecting social change, to cultivating lasting and meaningful relationships, to honing competencies and building character—there are no shortcuts, no quick and easy purchase. I tell my students, You get out of your education only as much as what you put into it.
So I make them put a lot of work into it, hoping that in the process of asking difficult questions and looking for answers, after weekends spent on writing, shooting films with groupmates, or marching in mass protests, they find the Something More that they feel is worth striving for.
Ultimately, what I wish for students (and myself) is for us to gain confidence in our capacities to understand ourselves, our relations with other people, and our life-worlds, so that we may act with ethical intention and a sense of meaningfulness and social responsibility on the basis of such understanding.