Teaching Philosophy

My fourteen years of undergraduate teaching have given me a broad and deep range of experiences in the classroom, and these experiences have richly shaped my philosophy about teaching. I consider myself a “professor” in the etymological sense of one who “affirms,” and my teaching philosophy is a statement of those affirmations. Crucially, I do not see myself professing a specific discipline, such as medieval studies, but rather I profess teaching.

At the core of my affirmations is authenticity. In the case of the classroom, I employ authentic pedagogy, defined broadly as an emphasis on connectedness to real world application. I do not see the classroom as a separate, isolated sphere away from the world at large–a sphere where students speak to an audience of twenty-four and write to an audience of one, a sphere where students are graded on a scale of 0-100 for their participation in it–but rather one that sees the classroom as part of the world, as much as the lunch room table or social media realms are. Thus, I hope that how students engage in the classroom is exactly how they do so outside of it.

This pedagogical approach is embedded in a number of ways in my courses. My writing assignments are largely informed by John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas, which calls on professors to ground their writing assignments in real-world audiences to better engage critical thinking. For instance, in the binary thinking unit of my Composition courses, I assign students to read a real Congressional bill and ask how they would vote on it. Students have to wrestle with several competing values (perhaps the bill supports their stance on abortion but cuts higher education funding), and I ask them to defend their choices to those students who voted opposite of them. I also ask students to provide texts to rhetorically analyze from their own lives, such as ads they encounter, television shows they watch, or posts they find on their social media. As part of their Composition final exam, I ask students to reflect on their textbook’s title Everything’s an Argument once again and apply its assertion that everything is an argument to their own lives. Students must write a thesis for their life (what does their life persuade others of?) and then provide evidence in support. This assignment serves as a powerful reflection on the ways in which our course discussions transcend the four walls of the classroom.

My specialization in disability studies has largely informed my second affirmation, accessibility. Beyond implementing approaches such as universal design for learning (UDL) and differentiated instruction, I approach each text and assignment by finding points of contact between them and students. Then I fill in the gaps to build bridges between the two. One of my strengths as a professor is taking medieval and early modern texts, which by their nature are often opaque to students, and making them not only accessible but enjoyable. A common refrain in my student evaluations is that students initially didn’t like or couldn’t understand Shakespeare, Milton, Augustine, and others but that after my course, they love the material and can critically analyze it.

My third affirmation is curiosity, which studies have shown to be one of our most basic qualities and perhaps the essential component all learning shares. Working off of Susan Engel’s The Hungry Mind, my classroom allows space for curiosity to thrive through silence, thinking out loud, being wrong, and dialoguing over what is right. When curiosity is combined with authentic, accessible problems, students excel. My most successful iteration of this philosophy has been with my History of the English Language (HEL) students. As part of my involvement with the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages, I was solicited to complete an entry for the society’s Medieval Disability Glossary. I passed this research opportunity along to my HEL students as a way of encouraging undergraduate research. In order to complete the entry, students would need to use half a dozen complex digital tools in the medieval studies field as well as sift through texts in three languages, two of which they couldn’t read fluently. They also needed to perform research up to the standards of peer review in the discipline. I scaffolded the assignment by having the various language portions due during the weeks we covered the relevant material, and I framed the entire project as an authentic research question to spark curiosity. I emphasized to students that I didn’t know the answer to the question and that they were responsible for finding it. Students more than rose to the challenge, and I published about their experiences in Studies on Medieval and Renaissance Teaching. I also replicated the assignment two years later for a second word, to even greater success. Both entries are currently published, with my students listed as contributors, in the Medieval Disability Glossary.

My fourth, and my most important, affirmation is empathy. Informed by thinkers like Parker Palmer and studies like Google’s Project Oxygen, I make empathy central to the classroom by extending empathy to students and asking them to employ empathy to others through the texts we read. My piece “Re: Your Recent Email to your Professor,” in Inside Higher Ed, demonstrates this empathetic approach by taking the subject of student emails and guiding, rather than degrading, students who might not know the conventions of writing a professor or who might not fully consider the impact their emails might have. Inside the classroom, I encourage students to empathize by inviting them to consider the role and voices of Others [sic] in the text, such as my British Literature I assignment that asks students to rewrite a course text from the perspective of an Othered character.

These affirmations form the cornerstones of my courses, and I employ several high-impact practices (as found by the National Survey of Student Engagement) to build on them, such as undergraduate research, field experiences, study abroad, and collaborative learning. Besides the glossary assignment discussed above, I have fostered undergraduate research with a number of students. I co-wrote an article on Milton’s revision to the Book I Paradise Lost manuscript with an Honors student that is currently under consideration with a peer-reviewed journal in the field. The research for that article required the student and me to work with the manuscript in person at the Morgan Library in New York. I worked closely with another Honors student as my research assistant, completing field research at Toronto’s Festival of Early Drama as well as at the Trinity Library in Dublin. That student went on to complete her Honors thesis on medieval drama, inspired by her first-hand experiences.

I have also facilitated a field experience trip to Washington D.C., where students explored Shakespearean performances, artifacts, and primary documents first-hand. Over the course of six days over Spring Break, we saw four Shakespearean productions, attended two lectures and two talk-backs associated with the productions, and toured the American Shakespeare Center (a replica of Shakespeare’s original Blackfriars Theatre). I also arranged for two private tours of the Folger Library and its Shakespearean collections, crafted a medieval- and early modern-themed scavenger hunt at the National Gallery, and facilitated attending traditional services at a Franciscan monastery, a Basilica, and the National Cathedral. Additionally, I led a study abroad trip to England, where students spent two weeks immersed in culture and history of London and the British countryside. As part of my Shakespeare course, students are required to produce and perform in a scene from a Shakespeare play. In order to introduce them to how meaning is crafted through the material aspects of a scene and to equip them for the project, I hire two actors to spend a week workshopping a scene with my students as directors. By the end of the week, the class has collectively made interpretive choices (documented in the prompt book) and directed a live performance. Then they work together in groups for the remainder of the semester to produce and perform their own scenes.

I emphasize to students that my courses are as much about composition, or literature, or Shakespeare as they are about learning to learn; and learning to learn invariably relies on authenticity, accessibility, curiosity, and empathy. To best teach learning, I employ a flipped classroom model, as flipped classrooms demonstrate greater learning gains because they relegate lower-order thinking skills to outside the classroom and use class time for higher-order, collaborative work, a model that promotes learning rather than retention.

While my affirmations of authenticity, accessibility, curiosity, and empathy are rooted in evidence-based research, they are even more informed by my years of teaching experience. As I continue to grow as a professor, and continue to profess, I look forward to learning to learn more myself.