:: He really hit his pace when we got to Wallace Stevens. “This isn’t some stiff telling you what happened at the dance,” he said about “Life is Motion.” “You’re there, your human spirit merges with the human spirit in the poem.”
As academics we have to write this thing called a “teaching philosophy statement” to send off with job applications. The initials of such a document are quite funny (TPS), and many authors of TPSs view them as a waste of time. Surely no one reads them, right?
I decided, shortly before giving up on the academic job hunt entirely, to write a rather strange TPS. I’m sharing it with you now; otherwise, no one would ever get to see it.
Katie Rose Guest Pryal: Statement of Teaching Philosophy
Many of us became teachers because we had great teachers; I am a teacher because of my high school English teacher, Andy. Teacher Andy held a Ph.D. from Chicago and settled at our Quaker school, Westtown, tucked into the green hills outside of Philadelphia. He taught resistant teens about (opaque) T.S. Eliot and (dreary) Melville, (gruesome) Macbeth and (baffling) Hamlet. Although I pretended otherwise, I hung on his every word. In fact, his lectures were so dazzling that I started transcribing.
He really hit his pace when we got to Wallace Stevens. “This isn’t some stiff telling you what happened at the dance,” he said about “Life is Motion.” “You’re there, your human spirit merges with the human spirit in the poem.” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” really got him going: “This is better than sweet sounding birds. That’s dead. Modern poets are not interested in some mythic bird that’s gonna knock their socks off.” Despite his enthusiasm, his eagerness to have us see beneath and beyond the words on the page, we—even I as I scribbled his words—stared at him blankly. We did not know what mythic bird he was talking about. He said, by way of explanation: “Westtown is a Cartesian environment. Very interested in things it can see and touch. Not things like Wallace Stevens. Therefore it is important that we read it. There are thousands of people my age that can’t read a poem without going to the library and reading what other people think about it.” He paused, then shouted, “We have power!” Students stared. He said, throwing his hands in the air—“I don’t know what to say to you people.” He laughed, softening his words, saying, “It’s great to be alive.”
Andy’s words reveal a philosophy of teaching that I strive to emulate. First, although he was a demanding teacher, he believed in the ability of every student to learn. He had to believe, dropping “Cartesian” on fifteen-year-olds like he did. Second, he felt comfortable sharing classroom authority with students. He would not have chosen a Quaker school if this were not the case—a place where faculty and students sit in circles, eat dinner together family style, and call each other by their first names. Lastly, Andy gave his knowledge freely, because he believed learning is a universal endowment of every human being. These three principles—belief in students, sharing of authority, and open knowledge—inform my teaching practices.
I teach courses in rhetoric, writing, and law, and usually a combination of these. My interdisciplinary freshman composition course immerses first year students in legal discourse. They learn to recognize genres and language conventions, to effectively persuade an audience, and to support claims with evidence. Some colleagues have expressed and doubts in response to my choice of judicial opinions as texts; after all, few discourses are more opaque than that of lawyers. I encourage other teachers to use legal texts in their courses, to believe in their students’ ability to forge an understanding—one that works for them—of the texts, vocabulary, and styles of law. In class, when we talk about Brown v. Board of Education, a case that most students are familiar with, even if they have not read it, we write the issue of the case on the board: “Does segregation of school children on the basis of race violate the Equal Protection Clause?” Every single year, without any guidance from me, students invariably locate the most persuasive word in that sentence. It is not “segregation,” or “race,” or even “Equal Protection.” The word is children—the pathos at the center of the case—and they spot it every time. Legal discourse may be full of jargon and at times opaque, but if you believe in your students, in yourself, and in Aristotle, you and your students can find a place where language intersects with law and changes the world. When you all reach that place, you’re there, your human spirit merges with the human spirit in law and language.
Sharing authority with students is a practical matter. For example, workshops are central to my teaching practice. We use an online document collaboration software—this semester it was Google Docs—to write and revise together in class. Each group of students can watch, in real time, as writers make changes to a text. There are a few workshop rules students must follow, such as vigilant timekeeping. And, before students can ask me a question, they must ask their group-mates first. Collaborating in this fashion, they learn to listen to each other, to trust each other, and by doing so, to listen to and trust themselves. Sharing authority is not a teaching style, it is a teaching imperative. With luck, they leave my class thinking, We have power.
Teacher Andy taught me that great teachers share knowledge freely with students because they believe knowledge belongs to everyone. Great teachers also recognize that knowledge comes in many forms and arrives from many places; therefore, they are not afraid to learn from students. In my upper-level law and rhetoric seminar, my students write research papers in the genre of the law journal article. Toward the end of the semester, they submit their papers for publication in peer-reviewed journals. There is a moment in the semester, shortly before they send off their papers, when they realize that they are the experts in their area of research, and that their work is worthy of publication. And—this blows them away—they realize that they know more than their teacher about their topic. When that realization hits, as a teacher I think to myself, It’s great to be alive.