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My Philosophy of Teaching

Three weeks into my college teaching career, right in the middle of a perfectly scintillating explanation of how to avoid comma splices—a topic imposed by the common syllabus that all of us new teachers of composition were forced to use—Lee Thundercloud, a young Native American sitting in the front row of my class, suddenly and powerfully brought teaching vs. knowing into focus for me. With great energy and contempt, he shattered the thin patina of my academic “authority” with a riveting question: “Gregory, do you know what the shit you’re talking about?”

Lee Thundercloud got my attention. I knew that I knew about comma splices, and I knew that Lee Thundercloud knew that I knew about comma splices, but I also knew that Lee Thundercloud wasn’t asking me about comma splices. He was asking me if I had any idea why I was doing what I was doing and if I knew whether it served any larger purposes than the proper use of semi-colons. He was, in short, asking me if I knew what I was doing as a teacher, not as a scholar with some specialty (it wasn’t composition) that graduate school had trained me to ply. Although he nearly finished me off with a heart attack only three weeks into my career, I have remained grateful to Lee Thundercloud over the decades, because he jump started for me a long train of reflection about teaching that still engages me to this day.  (See “Teaching Narrative” in Change Magazine of Higher Education.)

In my view teaching is the heart of the academic enterprise. It is not the only academic mission, of course, but the separation of teaching and knowledge dulls each. For me, the compelling part of knowledge is the sharing of it, the refinement of it, the exploration of its limits and its strengths, and the discovery of its connections. These are activities that I prefer doing in the presence of student minds that expand and open during this communal process.

Student minds, however, do not expand and open automatically or easily. Taking in new facts, theories, and views that compete with previously held notions is—for all of us, not just for students—often threatening and unsettling. At the very least it is hard work. Understanding comes hard. But it is precisely this challenge—helping students to achieve understanding, not just survival and certainly not just fat paychecks—that gets me up in the morning and sends me down the hall each day fully expecting that this is the day it will happen. This is the day real understanding will light up my students’ eyes, animate their responses, pump up their heart rate. Sometimes I’m wrong and sometimes I’m right—teaching is an unpredictable and emergent activity, not a predictable application of mechanical forces—but its very unpredictability is part of its compelling attraction. Furthermore, as I teach I learn, and the incorporation of teaching as a persistent part of my own, ongoing education has allowed me to stay fresh and vital in the classroom for more than thirty years. (See “Introductory Courses” in Journal of College Teaching.)

Teaching obviously carries great professional and academic responsibilities, but, less obviously, it also carries great moral and ethical responsibilities, and I’m not talking merely about teachers’ obligations to avoid dishonesty or abuse. I mean something more subtle. I think most teachers would accept the proposition that what human beings are as moral agents is in large part a consequence of what they know and how they understand what they know. If this is true, then what follows is the realization that when students open the rooms of their minds and allow teachers to come in and start rearranging the interior and relaying students’ intellectual floor-plans, they are not just teaching knowledge but influencing character. (See “Pedagogy and Teacherly Ethos” in Pedagogy.)

Teaching is not ethical in the sense that we directly proselytize students to believe this or that specific doctrine. Most teachers not only avoid but deplore such a crude “conversion model” of pedagogy. Teaching is ethical in the more subtle, scarier, deeper, and unavoidable sense that when we help students learn how to think, how to imagine, how to criticize, how to compute, how to appreciate, how to measure, how to hypothesize, how to listen, how to communicate, or how to create, we are influencing the shape of their character, their ethos. When we help students install in their minds the pictures and arrangements and fabrics of what we call the best theories, ideas, facts, formulas, views, and so on, it cannot be the case that we operate merely as morally neutral conduits of information. Teachers teach students not just things to know, but in the process of doing so—in changing, developing, and expanding what students know, how they know it, and what they do with it—we cannot avoid changing who they are as well. (See “Pedagogical Disjunctions” in Journal of Cognitive and Affective Learning.)

Some of the problems raised by teaching cannot be solved by knowledge alone. Like students learning how to learn, teachers must learn how to teach, in part, by deploying the deep resources of their character. They must know within themselves where to find, and how to activate, for example, that sensitivity which lets them know when a student is in trouble, that kindness which allows them to be supportive and not just critical, that generosity that shows them how to temper justice with mercy, that honesty which invites them to admit their own limitations, that courage always to insist on making students do their best work, and that empathy that lets them see in the students before them the young persons they once were as students themselves. When we learn to teach from ourselves as well as from our disciplines, we can hope to become, someday, teachers and learners in the finest sense. (See "Professional Models, Ethical Concerns" in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning.)

© 2005 Copyright Marshall Gregory