As I make the transition from being a graduate student to a professional scholar, I am quickly finding out that a career in academics carries its own homework assignments. The curriculum vitae (CV) and the syllabus are among them, especially if you’re applying for a faculty position at a university. Most colleges now require job applicants to provide both in order to be considered for a teaching position. And then there’s the teaching philosophy statement, which is also becoming increasingly common as some university employers do require one. A teaching philosophy statement is basically a description of what teaching and learning mean to me as an educator, and how I intend to put these concepts into practice. This statement is not only useful for job applications, but the main purpose is for the educator to act as a working outline, a guide, on their teaching values and practices. As I have been formally invited to become an adjunct professor at a community college next year, I have been working on my own philosophy. I’ve been told most statements never see the light of day once they’re written, and instead are kept in a desk drawer. While I expect mine will change with time and experience, I hope that making this statement publically accessible will create a conversation on the challenges of teaching in higher education.
My teaching philosophy is centered on the ideas of social justice and everyday activism. This statement is easy to say, and we say it all too often without critically thinking about what we mean by it and how we would put it into practice. Without conscious reflection, I can do injustice with the best of intentions. I can make progress backwards. I can give a voice to someone while silencing another in the process. I can do all of these things and worse still, I can teach others to do the same to their future students. That is the challenge, that is the danger of being an educator. Dangerous in the sense that teaching requires a mindful approach, to consider what exactly am I teaching and what my students are learning. The truth is that there are two sides to the danger: I can close minds as an educator but I can also open them beyond the scope of what is normally thought possible or even imaginable. In sociology, students are supposed to learn to become critical thinkers on real issues. I will uphold myself to the same standard in really knowing what I teach and also how I teach. For this reason, I am revising my initial statement of teaching philosophy to be: My philosophy is to teach dangerously.
In being dangerous, my goal is to provide students the tools and means to achieve their fullest potential as scholars; to give them space to become dangerously mindful as well. Yet this space will not be formatted in the traditional lecture-based structure, on the assumption that students are passive objects just waiting for me as the expert to fill them with the necessary knowledge. Students are already treated this way in broader society, particularly among those who are poor, of color, women, and queer. My students are already scholars and activists before they even come into the classroom, their marginalized experiences and positionalities informing them with knowledge that they can call their own. They have knowledge about power, how it is constructed, and how it should be addressed. Society silences these voices, their knowledge, with that same power grounded in “commonsense” and in everydayness.
My role as professor then is to create and facilitate the classroom as a space where they can produce knowledge and use it to inform traditional sociological knowledge. Students have social theories of their own, explanations for how the world works and how things make sense around them. It is important that students learn about sociological theory, but it can ring hollow and irrelevant without their own interpretative and creative spins to fill in the research and literature. Maybe then students will be able to see how they can really practice theory toward the goal of social justice and social action. Too often, activism is imagined as something big and unattainable at their current position as students and as emerging scholars. For this reason, my classroom sets on making their imaginations dangerous. I aspire to teach them that they can critique and practice change in their everydayness with their very own voices. Students in my classroom will be assigned projects and activities that often require them to bring in a “slice” of their everydayness (e.g., music, literature, a life story or experience, a cultural symbol, etc.). They will engage in critical talk with each other about what these slices mean to them and what they represent as everyday struggles.
Students will be working together collaboratively, presenting their findings and insights through the verbal word as well as the written. Oral and writing skills are highly sought after in academia and the job markets, allowing for greater participation in social justice work. Class assignments will be intensive in oral and writing skills as a result. Many students are understandably uncertain about their abilities in these skill sets, particularly for ESL learners. I want to emphasize to them that it is not so much voicing issues and experiences correctly, but rather clearly and authentically. They will learn through consistent practice in class with each other and with me about grammar and structure, as well as having the confidence to present themselves in their own creative and impressive styles.
Speaking and writing are essential to realizing not only in students’ reflections of class materials and their experiential knowledge, but also putting these reflections into practice. This element of practice is frequently forgotten and neglected, leaving it instead to the student’s responsibility without the tools to enact it outside the classroom. I will actively encourage students to take up the responsibility while upholding my own responsibility to them. My class will provide opportunities for students to participate in community projects and organizations. I realize that many students are working class and otherwise might not be able to afford to use these opportunities to their advantage academically and career-wise. I will be my students’ guide and sponsor in finding them opportunities flexible to their needs and responsibilities. I strive to provide them with meaningful community engagement, and not simply as free economic labor. Students will have a space in my class where their voices and their actions are appreciated for their dangerousness.
What is your teaching philosophy? What does teaching and learning mean to you? How should a class be organized and taught? Please leave your comments below!
If you would like to learn more about teaching philosophies and how to write them, take a look at the resources listed on our Professional Development page for more information.