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My Teaching Philosophy

My Teaching Philosophy (circa, 1998)

Learning to teach at the highest levels of the academy is a never ending process.  It has been argued that the vast majority of professors lack basic communication skills, and we often use the classroom to enact rituals of control that are rooted in domination and the unjust exercise of power (bell hooks. Teaching to Transgress, p. 5).  I have spent much of my career trying to avoid this trap.  I want my classroom to be an exciting place where students feel safe to express themselves, for it is only then that we can achieve higher learning.  It is my goal to acknowledge everyone’s presence and I value everyone’s presence.

I am also acutely aware of the various and unique sensitivities that play out in classes that explore issues of race and gender.  We are a diverse group (race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, identity, etc.) and each of us has something to contribute to our community of learning.  I want you to be engaged and active participants.  In addition to class discussion, I create a wiki for each class I teach.  The class wiki can serve as a voice for student expression and the free exchange of ideas—a safe environment sans the fear of expressing ourselves in class.

I find that many students would prefer “more lectures” and “less discussion” in my classes.  I try to transgress traditional boundaries and to avoid “assembly-line” approaches to learning.  I want to engage students and I take some non-traditional risks when I teach.  As a research trained academic, I am always looking for answers.  We learn from each other.  For example, part of my teaching style is to bring narratives of my limited personal experiences into the classroom—not only to personalize the material but to also show how our individual experiences (both yours and mine) can illuminate and enhance our understanding and deconstruction of academic material.  Admittedly, I do most of the talking, but I want us to hear each other, to listen to each other, and to recognize that the work of learning and processing this material is different for each of us. 

Most research concludes there are two approaches to teaching constitutional law: (1) lectures and (2) the Socratic Method.  Traditional lectures are a popular and primary method of classroom instruction used in college today.  I find that the lecture method, if done well, is an efficient system for delivering information to students.  However, the lecture method of instruction has been widely criticized, “primarily on the grounds that it places students in a passive learning environment.  It may also be less effective in developing analytic skills.  The lecture method is weakest in helping students to develop their speaking abilities or critical thinking skills.”  But, lecturing is also the easiest way for professors to teach, it requires the least amount of knowledge, effort, risk; requires limited skill; and is extremely safe.  It works well in introductory classes like PolS 101.

An alternative to the lecture method is the Socratic Method.  This is a form of instruction that is popular—and probably predominant—in law school classes, and this method is also used in undergraduate classes, especially law courses.  “Professors use the Socratic Method in a wide variety of ways, varying from posing a series of friendly questions to an intense grilling of students with difficult questions and abstract queries.”  Debate exists in the political science literature over the benefits and disadvantages of the Socratic Method.  “The Socratic Method forces students to think on their feet and to articulate their ideas orally.  However, the Socratic Method may not be as efficient in transmitting basic knowledge as does the lecture method.”  In my classes and seminars, I try to utilize a modified Socratic Method in a low-threat/discussion manner that does not penalize or humble students for poor responses. 

However, even my low-threat Socratic Method can be frustrating if students have not read the assigned material, are not prepared for class, or do not attend class.  It is frustrating (1) for me; (2) for the students who are prepared for class and want to engage; and, (3) for students who are not prepared but who plan on taking detailed class notes to help them prepare for exams.  To avoid this frustration, students must come to class prepared!  Welcome to my class and I look forward to an exciting learning experience.

My Teaching Philosophy (circa, 2017)

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