Taking stock

We’re about half-way through the term and, with reading week next week, I have a bit of room to breathe and take stock of how things are going.

Before this term, I had about three years of teaching experience: one year as a TA at Durham and two years teaching at Roehampton. As a TA, I think I achieved an ok balance between promoting discussion and providing information, but I was probably a little prone to assuming the position of the ‘subject supposed to know’. The insecurities of PhD research left me all too ready to jump in and provide the answer. At Roehampton, for the first year and a half I did PowerPoint based lectures, spiced up with fairly frequent questions to the class. At the end of that period, though, I was frustrated. While there was some class discussion, it tended to be too brief and usually took the form of students trying to figure out the answer to a question I had asked. It was much rarer for the students to question the text themselves (at least out loud).

This approach to teaching is problematic. Following Freire, I’m opposed to the ‘banking’ model of education. As he explains, this model installs the teacher as a person with authority dispensing knowledge to be stored and returned. This method presents two issues. First, we grade students against rubrics that privilege critical analysis. If class is spent explaining a text, with some time devoted to historical critiques (or even my own critical analysis), I’m effectively expecting students to pick up the tools of critical thinking without over providing a space for them to offer their own analysis of the text. Even when I gave reading questions and started sessions off with small group discussions, when we came back as a group it tended to be my own ideas that directed the conversation. Then, come the end of term, I’d mark essays and wonder why the work was so descriptive.

Second, most of my students don’t need to know much about Descartes’ Meditations. They’ll go on to a variety of careers, very few of which will involve critiquing the trademark argument. I certainly think that their lives can be enriched by reading the Meditations and thinking about how Descartes influenced subsequent philosophy, but this requires actively engaging with his ideas. The point is not to learn about Descartes, but to think with Descartes. Put another way, as has become my little motto, we’re not here just to study philosophers, but to think philosophically.

My last semester at Roehampton I switched to using a SMART Board and putting key quotations on PowerPoint slides. This improved things a bit. I still found that the PowerPoint dictated our discussion, though. So when I started at Chichester I decided to work with the following rules: there will be no lectures and no PowerPoint; students will dictate the questions we discuss; and essay questions should make it virtually impossible to write a descriptive piece of work.

In each of our classes, we begin by discussing our reactions to the text. What were the major themes? What are the major components of the argument? What questions does it raise? Are their obvious weaknesses? I make a list of the questions and critiques and we work our way through the text trying to answer them as best we can.

At this point in the term, I feel like it’s working pretty well. I find this approach both more stressful and more rewarding. Students talk a lot more, but it can be tricky if we’ve read a particularly difficult text. In sessions on Aquinas and Spinoza I had to slip into lecturing mode, but was able (I think) to bring it back to a decent conversation. I find that I spend about the same amount of time on teaching prep, but this time is almost entirely reading. That’s great – I like reading. I used to spend hours preparing lectures and PowerPoint presents. It also means that the conversation is more likely to veer into areas beyond my ‘expertise’. No matter how much Ranciere I’ve read, it’s hard to tell students that I just don’t know the answer. Finally, I have to trust the students will show up having done the reading and ready to discuss the text. I could probably wing it for half a class, but it wouldn’t be a very productive session. So far I’ve been impressed with the degree to which students are doing the primary reading, the supplemental reading I provide and even seeking out their own resources.

All in all, this different approach has allowed me to enjoy teaching even more and have lots of interesting discussions around the issues that the students raise. They have an opportunity to think critically in class and push one another to question their assumptions and beliefs. Hopefully I don’t find out that I’ve been deluding myself when they fill out module evaluations…