I think of all of the classes I teach as extended conversations. As the instructor, I adopt the role of facilitator of these conversations, engaging students as equal partners in the unfolding course dialogue. I believe all students have something valuable to contribute to the discussion and I encourage all to contribute, highlighting that diversity in background and experience are necessary for the conversations to be successful. Ultimately, these conversations have three goals.
First, and foremost, I recognize that I have a responsibility to ensure that the course conversations reflect the material that is central to the course and necessary to meet the course’s objectives. While I am mindful that conversation digressions and tangents can enhance learning and understanding, these conversations must ultimately help prepare students for the next steps in their respective academic endeavors. Second, I view the classroom experience as an opportunity for students to develop a public voice, both in writing and speech, with which they may clearly and thoughtfully formulate their ideas. Integral to this process is being respectful and listening to the voices and viewpoints of others involved in the conversation. Today, students see few models of mutual dialogue. Instead they see participants either speaking past or ignoring others. This leads to my third goal. I hope to assist students in gaining a certain level of distance from their existing perspectives and experiences, while gaining a better appreciation and understanding of the experiences of others. I see each of these goals as contributing to my ultimate concern, which is not dictating what students think, but instead encouraging them to think in a respectful, open, and self-critical fashion.
Whatever success I have had in the classroom has relied less on my pedagogical sophistication than on the commitment and hard work of my students. I have had the opportunity to use my commitment to dialogue and self-critical reflection to aid students in applying to graduate schools and presenting work at undergraduate research conferences. For these students, the writing and oral presentation skills they developed and honed in my courses helped prepare them for the difficult task of presenting complex ideas to an interested audience. Whether or not these students further pursue additional educational opportunities in the humanities, they nonetheless have enhanced skills that will prove valuable in any number of social or professional contexts they might encounter in the future.
In the end, I believe students learn best when they are engaged co-creators of their learning environment. Since my courses generally focus on difficult questions of religious, national, racial, and sexual identity, this means they must be allowed to develop a voice (both in speaking and in writing) that allows them to contribute to an evolving set of difficult questions that are posed by their fellow students and myself. I attempt to achieve this goal with a mix of easy-going humor and a carefully guided classroom environment. In this setting, students are eager to contribute, rarely notice or feel constricted by the structure of the class, and develop strategies for learning and critical thinking that they can explicitly articulate via both writing and oral communication.