Statement of Teaching Philosophy, Washington State University (2016)

Photo by Kate Watts

Photo by Kate Watts

As the child of deaf parents, my own access to language, communication, and public discourse was limited from an early age, and yet today I find myself in the role of an English professor. For me, the story of how I moved from a nonverbal child to a professor of English informs my teaching everyday. It’s a story that includes how I crossed paths with the talented daughter of two Michigan State University professors who insisted on pulling me alongside her, inviting me to join sports teams, including the Swimming and Diving team. With her support, I quickly moved from a fear of water to performing acrobatic feats off the diving board. I developed resilience every time I stepped back on to the diving board after a hazardous encounter with the water or the board itself. As I learned to control the revolutions and twists of my body in the air, I developed a new consciousness for embodied visual metaphors. These lessons accompanied me to the English classroom, where I developed a connection to the visual-spatial metaphors of poetry that provided me with a medium in which to communicate my inward life for the first time. I went from being a silent, shy, and indifferent student to one that had a point of view. Student success in my own academic history was facilitated by strong peer mentorship, extraordinary risk-taking, and a need to communicate. As a teacher, I aspire to build a community around my students that will empower them to practice emotional discipline and courage in their academic and extracurricular endeavors.

I work every day to inspire my students to reach higher and think more courageously, but I believe that students will succeed most when they develop a sense of purpose and realize that they have a point of view to contribute to the world. I draw upon a range of leadership studies and motivation research to connect students with a stronger sense of their personal history and affective experiences to help them identify their goals. In class, I experiment with a range of discovery mechanisms, from personal storytelling and wrong-handed sketching to multigenre freewrites and rule-breaking experiments. Students can find my approach unsettling at times, because they are so adamant about following rules in order to make the grade. In response, I have experimented with rubrics for response papers that measure “risk-taking” and “voice,” and more recently, I have moved to a portfolio system to encourage students to focus on their experimental engagement with course texts and ideas. The foundation I use to build up my students’ creativity and voice is the “finding your why” method, which draws up personal storytelling, narrative psychology, and literary analysis to help students define what core values move them to make a difference in their world. I draw upon this approach in every encounter I have with students to help them find the motivation they need to keep creating, writing, and revising.

While I value creativity, innovation, and rule-breaking, I also provide structures in which to help students grow. In my course on Women Writers, for example, I’ve interspersed our readings of 20th-century speculative novels with issue-driven weeks, on themes such as design issues in women’s fashion, stigmas surrounding women’s reproductive systems, and gender divides in education. Within a single week on an issue, I introduce various disciplinary perspectives, from architecture and science to creative writing and poetry. For example, during our exploration of design issues in women’s fashion, we examined recent articles on designing clothing for refugees, individuals with disabilities, and plus-sized women. We practiced human-centered design thinking in the following class period to illustrate a process for learning how to design for diverse populations. The final day in the sequence included a set of poems that featured historical and contemporary meditations on the anomalies of women’s clothing and a creative writing exercise. These integrative methods preceded our reading and study of Herland, a novel that envisions a world designed by women. Finally, students created a utopian or dystopian narrative of their own, which integrated creative writing, literature, and rhetoric into the design of the story, which they supported with research and literary influences in the form of extensive explanatory footnotes. As this careful scaffolding and integration of methods demonstrates, I provide ample multidisciplinary structures to build my students’ capacity for imagination, critical thinking, and information literacy.

My approach to digital studies largely draws upon the culture of digital environments and how they can disrupt or enhance embodied spaces, as Douglas Rushkoff argues in Program or Be Programmed. I prioritize engagement with the body, its sensory experiences, and its spatial movements, and I often assign digital projects that require physical and social interaction around campus. To teach my students the limitations and affordances of data, for example, I ask them to examine one moment of time from two perspectives: one is digital—e.g. they look at the #oneSecond project’s collection and archive of one second on Twitter in 4500 pages; the other is sensory and cognitive—for e.g. they record all the sounds, tastes, sensations, thoughts, and memories they experience in a single minute. On the one hand, students learn the affordances of big data collection, and on the other, they experience what will forever be the limitation of digital culture—the perfect simulation of a multisensory, embodied, and cognitive human experience. Such lessons are supported by reading brief excerpts from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, to illustrate the depths of tunneling into multiple characters’ memories and streams of consciousness, and episodes from the British science fiction series Black Mirror, including “The Entire History of You,” which simulates the affordances and limitations of a camera embedded in the human eye to record and play back every life experience. My hope is that my students leave my class feeling more aware of their lived experiences amid a digital world than ever before.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy, Georgia Tech (2011)

Many students, when it comes to coursework, suffer from a general lack of spontaneity, unwillingness to fail, and inability to imagine the impossible. My goal as an educator is to interrupt these patterns. As a teacher, I encourage students to become active participants in their own learning, and in this capacity I create projects and activities that empower students to become experts in selected fields. At the same time, I create environments in which students can be creative, collaborative, and experimental.

Creativity often finds its outlet in activities not directly related to traditional forms of reading and writing. I often ask students, as early as week one, to collaborate and produce an artifact, skit, or narrative, and to deliver their product to the class within a single period. As such, the activity takes on the character of free writing. Yet it moves beyond free writing to encourage a creative process that is physical, interactive, and multi-dimensional, taking full advantage of the material space of the classroom. Class activities particularly steeped in nonverbal communication can have a remarkable impact on students’ understanding of reading and writing texts. The process of coding and decoding a narrative composed of body language and facial expressions activates the right side of the brain. When we reflect on the skits afterwards, we discuss the challenges of “writing” in nonverbal language and the adjustments our minds need to make to “read” a nonverbal skit. The activity itself takes up no more than a single class period, but the way students think about reading, writing, and communication becomes fundamentally altered.

For some students, reading and writing alone is challenge enough, including students who are non-traditional, at-risk, or learning disabled. I recently co-taught a course designed for incoming student-athletes at Georgia Tech. These students were chosen for their athletic ability, not academic talent. In order to bridge this gap, this course sought to teach athletes how to behave and succeed as students at Georgia Tech. What do successful students look like while sitting in class? What kinds of questions do they ask during class lectures? We modeled this behavior, and also captured their existing behavior on film for analysis. The real outcome of the course revealed itself in the semester’s final project. The student-athletes produced children’s narratives on the theme “How I Became an Athlete.” At their public symposium, over forty members of the Athletic Association appeared, who consistently remarked “how impressed they were with how confident our student-athletes were standing in front of their finished product.” For many of the student-athletes, this symposium was the first time they felt confident in an academic setting.

For English majors and advanced students, a class in British literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries becomes an opportunity to explore interdisciplinary terrain in identity politics, social economics, and human relationships.  When studying Victorian literature, we also study the economics of the marriage market, the political landscape of factories, design reform in the British Empire, and the reckless speculation in railways. Because these complex social and political histories are often unfamiliar to undergraduates, opportunities abound for students to conduct research and teaching presentations. For example, in our study of Dickens’s Hard Times in a class on architecture and design in Victorian literature, one student group takes responsibility for the topic “Science & Technology: The Factory,” equipped with primary and secondary research. The group organizes all of this research into a web presentation that includes historical backgrounds, textual summaries, and discussion questions, and, with my guidance, they convert this research into an interactive hour-long teaching presentation. As experts and collaborators, the students become active participants in their interdisciplinary analysis of Victorian literature.

I strive to guide my students into becoming strong communicators, innovators, and leaders in the 21st century. I identify as an innovator and curator of creative and critical thinking, and I consistently challenge my students to produce more radical, more invigorating, more passionate forms of reading and writing.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy, Georgia Tech (2010)

As a teacher, I am inspired to develop methods that encourage students to become active participants in their own learning. Moreover, I am committed to devising multimodal projects that not only enhance student learning, but also prepare students for professional life and public service. Finally, I engage with digital technologies to maximize and diversify approaches to writing and communication both in and out of the classroom.

I create projects that empower students to become “experts” on selected subjects. In 2009, I introduced a group project on “Contexts in American Literature,” in which students become experts on one specific historical, literary, or cultural theme in American literature. As experts, the students led one class period for which they assigned the reading, gave a lecture, and generated class discussion. In 2010, I assigned a group blogging project, in which each group chose an area of expertise related to consumerism, such as sustainability, debt, poverty, community engagement, or social media. As experts, the students published blog entries with an air of confidence I had never witnessed in freshman composition. A “panel of experts” often led class discussion, and I found that this change in the power dynamics of the classroom empowered some of the most reserved students to speak at length on critical issues.

To prepare students for increasing demands for innovation in academia and the workplace, I ask students to create projects in various modalities. In service learning projects, for example, students conduct surveys and interviews, create web sites and pamphlets, and produce videos and other visual presentations. In teaching presentations, students select suitable reading material for their classmates, provide a visually stimulating lecture, and create a thoughtful line of questioning to gear class discussion toward a specific objective. Most recently, I asked students to create a nonprofit organization that will promote sharing and collaboration on college campuses. Students designed viable sharing networks hosted on a website that they created, and they promoted their network through advertising and a public symposium held on campus.

As students join a world that is increasingly communicating through online technologies, I have developed classroom activities that experiment with different forms of interaction. For many years, I have optimized the capabilities offered by Learning Management Systems to collect and grade student work. I have also used the discussion forums for students to compile multiple drafts of their work, accompanied by peer reviews. With peer review taking place in an open discussion forum, I am able to provide constructive critique on the reviewing process. I have also used the course wiki for compiling student responses to reading prompts, and a personal blog for conducting in-class writing. I have facilitated discussions in online chat rooms, introduced my students to collaborative writing on GoogleDocs, and provided resources for reading and commenting upon digital texts.

Overall, I am committed to making the classroom a space in which students develop confidence and engage with technologies and modalities that will enhance their ability to communicate effectively in an increasingly digital world.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy, University of Florida (2008)

One of the greatest obstacles I have found that students face in their writing is how to appeal to varying audience beliefs and values, especially when those beliefs differ so dramatically from their own. In response, I have constructed writing tasks and service learning projects that ask students to engage with communities unfamiliar to them. By inhabiting a space they might not find comfortable, whether it be a tattoo parlor, a religious service, a community protest, or a group fitness class, students learn more about cultural differences and, ultimately, themselves. As an extension of these writing tasks, I assign a service project that asks students to advocate a cause of their choice—which might range from creating a greener campus to increasing patriotism in the community—with specific emphasis on creating appeals to audiences with opposing viewpoints. This project enables students to experience rhetoric in action by giving them a sense of purpose with a real audience and real outcomes.

As students join a world that is increasingly communicating through online technologies, I have constructed hybrid classroom environments to experiment with different forms of class interaction. For example, all of my assignments since 2007 have been paperless. Online grading and peer reviewing not only offer more flexibility for students, they also provide a platform for more detailed and lasting feedback from instructors and peers. With peer review taking place in an open discussion forum, I am also able to provide constructive critique on the reviewing process. In addition to using classroom management programs, I have adopted social networking sites that allow educators to create closed networks for classroom use. Such a space facilitates the growth of an academic community beyond the traditional classroom. Most importantly, these digital interfaces provide an arena in which students can develop professional online identities that they can build upon throughout their lives.

To prepare students for increasing demands for innovation in academia and the workplace, I offer assignments that ask students to create projects in various modalities. In service learning projects, for example, students conduct surveys and interviews, create web sites and pamphlets, and produce videos and other visual presentations. In teaching presentations, students select suitable reading material for their classmates, provide a visually stimulating lecture, and create a thoughtful line of questioning to gear class discussion toward a specific objective. My teaching encourages students to step outside their assumptions about literature, writing, and culture, and I have found that experimentation with service learning projects, hybrid classrooms, and multi-modal presentations entreats students to invest in their literary education.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy, University of Florida (2005)

The ideological debate has become a hot topic on college campuses across the U.S. as partisanship extends beyond the divisive political climate to the recent brouhaha over remarks issued by President Lawrence H. Summers of Harvard. Prior to teaching at the University of Florida, I participated in what I experienced to be a uniformly liberal environment at a culturally diverse university in south Florida; during my residence in Gainesville, I have found that another sensitive source of diversity among students resides in their ideological backgrounds. Partly as a result from my interaction with these students, my teaching philosophy has evolved to undertake responsibility for stimulating and scrutinizing both liberal and conservative discourses.

In the writing classroom, I underscore the presence of preprogrammed categories of thought as we assemble our own arguments or analyze those of authors in the materials we read. Correspondingly, I promote multiple avenues of discourse in my classroom and encourage students to reflect on the ideological assertions underlying the judgments we make. The writing classroom immediately lends itself to a Freirean approach to problem-posing education, in which knowledge is constructed through dialogue between teacher and students rather than through unidirectional deposits of information. Yet, this dialogic process would be unrealistic if I did not sincerely respect the intellectual capacities of my students to the degree that I do.

In response to my own development as a writer, I have adopted what David Bartholomae describes as the “pedagogy of difficulty.” In a critical writing class, difficulty emerges when students struggle to express complex ideas, and one way I effectively kindle this process is to assign dense reading materials and request conceptually rigorous writing tasks in response. Accordingly, student writing must adjust and evolve in order for it to cooperate with their cognitive task. As students vigorously confront the difficulties of language, they begin to acquire the means for breaking down the boundaries that structure intellectual space.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy, Florida Atlantic University (2004)

In order for a writing teacher to be effective, she should acknowledge the malleable nature of writing and adjust writing tactics, classroom activities, and reading habits in response to student work and/or changes in pedagogies. Moreover, in recognition of the pliable nature of writing and thinking, an effective teacher will engage in epistemologies that encourage students to expand and challenge their worn writing habits. A writing teacher, as all teachers should, needs to open the pathways of communication, so that students feel confident taking risks with their ideas and writing–the classroom should operate analogous to the uninhibited nature of free-writing that enables a radical generation of ideas. At the same time, teachers need to function as a structural tool, guiding students in the stretching and molding of their writing so that they view composition as a technology in and of itself, one that can be mastered and upgraded.

I have taught College Writing for two years with the textbook Ways of Reading, edited by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, and have found that one of the ways a teacher can move students beyond linguistic and conceptual hurdles is to work with complex ideas. Bartholomae and Petrosky propose a pedagogy based on “difficulty” and for this reason their textbook contains challenging reading for college freshman and proposes complex ways of reading the essays. Students become disoriented with the work and must devise new methods of reading and writing in order achieve success with the texts; the automatic habits they developed in high school will fall short of their needs. As a result, students do not simply write good prose about what they already know, but rather, they grapple with the texts as they reach for the expression of more complex ideas, and they ultimately discover that writing is a form of creating knowledge.

Along these lines, an effective writing teacher will continually poise questions in class discussion that incommode students’ habits of thinking and rigorously encourage students to step beyond the boxes of conformity in their writing. The teacher should, to a certain extent, exercise Paulo Freire’s problem-posing approach to education and engage students in dialogical relations that enable them to question the ideas of authorities, beginning with the teacher and aiming at the authors of the course materials. In this way, reading and writing are poised as cognizable acts rather than depositing acts. This approach extends to student writing, so that writing also involves processes in mediating complex concepts.

Ultimately, students learn to write when they learn that writing is synonymous with revising–they are not two separate acts. Writing is a technology that enables us to store ideas so that we can re-visit them, refine them, and accelerate their complexity. An effective writing teacher will not only require students to regularly revise their work as part of the course requirements, but also provide students with the tools that motivate revision.

In my second year at FAU, I’m currently working with students on devising a thesis and sense of purpose, employing strategic methods of composition, and revising with a clear objective. In order to carry out these tasks, I’m framing the act of writing as a process of discovery and have provided them with concrete methods for approaching a critical paper in response to an essay. Sometimes we begin with a general topic or thesis and whittle down our ideas through examining specific moments in the text. An alternative route is to begin with a single line or passage from the text and work outward, examining literal, figurative, contextual, and conceptual meanings. In both approaches, the process often reveals nuances in the text that were previously ignored and ultimately we discover we can create a provocative thesis as we juxtapose specific textual details with larger conceptual interpretations. By outlining a clear method of composition, students clearly see when and why the need for revision arises. These methods only succeed when students have a sense of purpose in writing that drives them to seek apt expression of their meanings.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy, Florida Atlantic University (2003)

I have discovered that as a teacher in the writing classroom there are (for now) at least three tasks I must achieve in order to produce creative-thinking, 19-year-old offspring: (1) teach them the fine art of infinitely close textual analyses; (2) teach them the skill of unearthing specific details in their own writing; and (3) teach them the pleasures of detecting and discussing the ambiguities of a critical argument in class discussions of the essays.

In working through critical reading skills, I, as David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky advise, regularly guide my students through various levels of language analysis, which range from studies of the individual nuances of word choice to the structure of an argument within the context of not only the essay itself, but the sequence of essays under investigation. In order to accomplish these tasks with the anthology Ways of Reading, I encourage students to engage with figurative language and deconstruct metaphors in dense texts, such as Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” This focus on language (also with the help of OED online) forces students to slow down the reading and pay attention to pivotal images and passages they would otherwise gloss over. They discover that they can use language as a lens for interpreting the critical arguments in an essay, and also, they develop an understanding of the value of language in their own writing. Throughout the semester we liberally travel across the spectrum of textual analyses, moving from dense passages to issues unique to the sequence of essays.

As a result of their increasing sophistication of reading critical essays, I am able to promote productive writings “against the grain” and deepen their level of originality in their essays. I ask them to fully engage with their individual responses to the text and produce an essay that swims in specific examples from the text, based on the skills they have acquired in the various levels of textual analyses we’ve engaged in. Toward the end of the Spring 2003 semester, I am finally reading student essays that so fully engage in the details of the text that I’m forced to draw some students back out into the strategic context, but was so pleased to read one student’s paper on Walker that occupies the entire 750-words with deconstructing her challenge to Jean Toomer’s description of black women as “exquisite butterflies trapped in an evil honey, toiling away their lives in an era, a century that did not acknowledge them, except as ‘the mule of the world.’” The entire essay weighs each piece of the language and how it fits into Walker’s counterargument, rather than simply quoting it, paraphrasing it, and moving on to additional “add-on” topics.

In class discussion, I train students to engage openly with one another and with myself, allowing and oftentimes posing problematic and controversial issues related to the course materials. Sometimes, however, I become engulfed in the essays I’m teaching, such as Adrienne Rich’s “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” and I fail to acknowledge counterviews on her essay. My students, however, instinctively remind me of the necessity to engage in Freire’s “problem-posing” pedagogy; as a result, I uncover student resistance to the “angry tone” of Adrienne Rich’s essay, or how we can turn Rich’s argument against herself and our readings of her poems. I welcome all these challenges and they come in droves as I make every effort to create an atmosphere that encourages students to raise their voices, question me after class, or as many students do, make frequent friendly visits to my office to openly discuss the material and their papers. I do not wish to be seen as an authority figure (despite the counterintuitive need to assert myself as an “authority figure” during my first year of teaching); rather, I wish to accelerate the roads of open communication between myself and my students, letting down my guard just enough so that they too can piece together original perspectives, which in turn inform my own critical perspectives (as much as it may surprise me).