Some observant readers will surely argue that it is far too soon for me to articulate my philosophy of teaching, after only about three decades of teaching experience. They are probably correct, but I thought that even at this early stage it is useful to spell out some basic thoughts in response to four statements central to teaching.
“Nothing is sacred and everything must be questioned.” Many university professors express agreement with this idea, but then proceed to treat the assumptions of their own discipline as sacred. We scholars often criticize religious fundamentalists, but then adopt fundamentalist views toward the constructed norms of our own disciplines. We mock the unshakable faith of religious believers, but fail to see that our own practices reflect unshakable faith in what actually prove to be passing trends in our own research specialties. We study conformity, but often fail to recognize that we have become conformists ourselves in our academic activities, including research and teaching. My goal in teaching is to help students understand that the theories and research we discuss represent the best possibilities for looking at the world at present, but will no doubt be replaced by alternative possibilities in the future. Thus, a very strong historical and critical dimension must be integral to my course, and this is part of what makes university teaching unique.
“Teaching at a university is different from teaching at a high school.” This is another statement that many university professors agree with, but there is disagreement about what exactly is special about teaching in higher education. For me, the key to university teaching is that the professor must be able and willing to present a distinct interpretation of the subject matter (although a very small number of exceptional high school teachers achieve this also, I would not require this at the high school level). Indeed, professors might have foundational disagreements about what, exactly, the subject matter is. A central reason for the necessity of academic freedom is to enable university teachers to present their alternative views of the assets and limitations of the different ways of knowing things. Consequently, taking even introductory physics or philosophy or biology or psychology with different professors might well lead to different interpretations of what exactly is the subject matter, as well as the appropriate methods and even ‘basic facts’, in these disciplines. Professors have both the right and the duty to give their ‘take’ on their disciplines. And, most importantly students should be encouraged to explore things for themselves; this may often be the details of a subject covered only broadly in the formal curriculum.
“There should be a standard curriculum for each course”. I strongly disagree with this idea, for reasons that are both academic and political. First, as an academic I see it as my duty to present my interpretation of a course, and such interpretations will be reflected by the topics I cover and the teaching materials I use. I am duty bound to question and re-question even the most basic assumptions of the subject matter I teach. A ‘standard curriculum’ is anathema to such an approach. Second, the idea of a ‘standard curriculum’ opens up the strong possibility of top-down influence, so that various academic (e.g., senior professors), university administration (e.g., department chairs, deans), as well as business and governmental authorities (sources of research funding) would directly and indirectly shape course curricula in ways that impede open inquiry and academic freedom.
Differences in perspective within a course are more likely to exist when there is a high level of interaction between faculty and students. Similarly, sameness or standardization is more likely to exist in courses subject to mass instruction. The spread of MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) and other instruments of mass instruction increase this danger by simultaneously increasing the pressure for standard courses and decreasing the level of interaction between faculty and students. MOOCS can play a constructive role in the transfer of basic information, but this is only a very limited part of the education process. Some may view the development of mass instruction as a better business model but I consider it a danger to two fundamentals of higher education – critical enquiry and faculty autonomy. These address the true ‘business’ of higher education.
The stultifying effect of a standard curriculum is not only a barrier to students acquiring critical expertise, but in the long run it filters down into the way research is undertaken as one’s students themselves become part of the educational effort. This leads to the final statement I use as a point of departure for discussion.
“University professors find themselves torn between the requirements of research and teaching”. Unfortunately, at present university faculty often do find themselves torn between the requirements of research and teaching, exactly because 21st century academic culture has come to see research and teaching as being in competition and non-overlapping. This is precisely what we should expect from the increasing standardization of instruction, when courses are taught according to standard curricula, with standard texts and examination materials, leaving too little room for innovations and fresh insights. Newly minted assistant professors learn to view the ‘teaching load’ and the teaching of standardized courses as burdensome, and as activities far away from creativity and originality. ‘Smart’ faculty find ways to lower their ‘teaching load’, to ‘buy out’ and spend more time on research.
It is by viewing each course as an opportunity for faculty to develop and teach their own interpretation of a subject matter that we bridge research and teaching, making them inseparable. Teachers must enter each class discussion with a view to not only critically reviewing a body of knowledge, but also presenting their own interpretation of the topics being discussed. This requires research and teaching to progress hand in hand. It also requires the practice of academic freedom. Of course, with this practice, there is always a danger that new forms of fundamentalism might emerge. However, if we operate a free and open academic marketplace, then the best ideas will win the day and less sound research fashions and ‘bandwagons’ will have less influence.
This is my belief, this is my philosophy of teaching.