Teaching Philosophy

I love those light bulbs that go off over someone’s head in a cartoon. I’ve seen it happen in my classroom every semester. Those light bulbs signify moments when my writers are succeeding. Maybe they’re getting in touch with an idea, or figuring out why it’s important to consider “audience.” Maybe it’s just the moment when they first look into a poem and are able to draw meaning that goes beyond the surface. Regardless, suddenly something makes sense to them. “Writing is good,” I can almost hear them say. “Thinking is good.”

Those light bulbs have become my drug. I taught as a young man because it was a profession I respected. I had some terrific professors in college, and I admired their commitment to writing, both that of their own and of others. But it wasn’t until after years of teaching that I discovered the real rewards. I get to help eager students develop their critical and creative skills. As I say, my students become better thinkers and communicators. In the end, it’s my only real goal. All other agendas are secondary.

I believe that empowerment is the first step. My courses are designed in such a way that the student has ultimate control of the topics and ideas with which he or she will spend time. Whether it’s a freshman writer sorting through his or her beliefs on a campus issue, a sophomore lit student explaining where he or she finds the true essence of a poem, or a beginning poet shepherding words and phrases for the first time, I always stand back as much as possible so that the student can fumble toward meaning. Of course, there is help given, both by the other writers and me. But a lot of the work that goes on is in that dynamic that occurs between the writers and their words.

Regardless of the course, I think we have to offer our writers a multi-disciplinary experience. We should open their minds to texts and ideas from a variety of sources—not just multicultural, but also multi-generational, multi-modal, etc. We can separate the good from the bad, the truthful from the false, the well intentioned from the mean-spirited, but in order to learn they have to be exposed to texts and ideas of all kinds. To that end, I include readings in my composition classes from a wide variety of disciplines. I’ve taught texts as diverse as famed scientist B.F. Skinner’sWalden Two (about a utopian community), and Robert Pirsig’s long psychological meditation, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. If a student is struggling with the notion of his or her own spirituality, I get out the Diamond Sutra. If a writer wonders about his or her own free will, I get out some William James. Thankfully, I went to school when it was still okay to stumble around from major to major. I trekked through Philosophy, Psychology, and Sociology on my way to English and the Liberal Arts. It was a great trip, and I try to help my writers and thinkers do something similar, even those who are in strict programs that don’t allow much wandering.

They need to read, think, discuss, and write. And they need to be in an environment that welcomes all of it. In all of my writing courses, regular workshopping and conferencing are keys. I want my writers to understand that their texts come at the end of a process. We discuss topics, set about our tasks, but keep coming back to a developing set of readers for help. On my own, in conferencing, I can help focus each writer on his/her words, the things already accomplished, the things still in need of help.

At some point, the semester ends and the students leave. I don’t care if they remember me, but I hope they remember the experience. I hope they remember the opportunities I gave them, and the encouragement I offered. I hope that the next time they have to interact with the world, whether it is in the real world, or elsewhere in the academy, they’ll be better prepared to handle the exhilarating but sometimes confusing world of communicating. “What do I believe? How do I say it so others will understand? What does this mean? How can I make manifest my own understanding of these texts and ideas?”

I don’t watch with sadness as they go. I know there is a new group, and I am ready for them.