Teaching Philosophy

So, I was working on the teaching philosophy statement, and thought it would be fun to copy-paste it onto my blog. Someone I know thought the first paragraph and main analogy of the essay might be offensive to Christians. I feel it’s just an interesting analogy, approached from a secular perspective. What do you think?

The goal of a teacher is to be the advocate of his or her students, to come alongside them, to guide them toward fulfilling their dreams. As intercessors between future employees and their prospective employers, instructors must be well-respected by both students and industry leaders alike. In almost paradoxical contrast to the rigorous requirements and great responsibility of their role, teachers’ day-to-day tasks and compensation are often unassuming. Their success is measured by the success of their students. I believe that while teachers must certainly be recognized experts in their field, the best teachers are not motivated by research fame and personal ambition. In my own education, I have experienced the negative results of professors who view teaching as a “necessary evil” in their path to scientific stardom. Conversely, I have seen that the best teachers view themselves as parallel and active resources for help and learning rather than as Oracles who graciously let slip the gems of truth.

As a teaching assistant, I have had the opportunity to apply this teaching philosophy in a variety of settings for a number of years. During my first lecture, I told the students that I needed their help in knowing how best to serve them. I encouraged them to speak up, not only with questions, but also with suggestions about my teaching style. At first, students were hesitant — but over the course of the semester, and with some coaxing on my part, the students became comfortable enough to be giving me valuable feedback on my presentation and content almost every week. Since that time, I have been able to develop a teaching style that incorporates a good mix of in-class exercises, “big picture” discussion, and theoretical explanations. I still find consistent student feedback crucial because it allows me to adjust my teaching to the needs of each particular class. My philosophy of coming alongside students, rather than talking down to them has been particularly helpful in obtaining this feedback.

Even in grading, I embrace my role as an advocate for students. In addition to professors who care little for teaching, another problem that I have observed in higher education is the attitude that students are like bottles to be filled with knowledge or shapeless bits of clay to be molded into something useful. While the belief that every student should be shaped into an “A student” may seem harmless at first, I believe that this attitude can lead to unintentional grade inflation and other dangerous oversights. By seeking to maintain a parallel relationship with my students, I gain insights into their own goals and expectations from the course — and can tailor the lectures and office hours to address those specific goals. One of my favorite professors as an undergraduate really inspired me by incorporating into his lectures experiences that he had discussed with my classmates and previous students. I also remember being very struck by his bold approach to grading. It was a difficult course, and he mentioned one time that not everyone should shoot for an “A”. He encouraged us to personally evaluate the level of understanding our goals required, and to work toward that, rather than a particular grade.

As a TA, I try to implement this idea by reminding my students that they are essentially paying me for two completely separate tasks. First, to serve as a resource they can use to gain mastery of a particular set of skills and concepts. Second, to provide an objective assessment of their abilities to future employers. To this end, I make an effort to design a rubric that both accurately reflects the student’s ability to apply the associated set of concepts in the “real world,” and provides a vehicle for me to communicate to the students specific areas of concern. My preference is to assign many homeworks, with relatively low weights in order to provide students with a mechanism to self-assess how well they are learning the concepts they set out to learn; and to assign a large weight to a comprehensive final exam, and final project.

In the many computer science courses I have taken, the mode of instruction that has most benefited me personally has always been the “project.” To me, computer science theory is often much like a scaffold. One of its richest beauties is in its versatility of application. I believe that when students are allowed the freedom to choose an application that interests them, they learn to better navigate the theoretical scaffolding provided by the course. As a part of my philosophy of helping students succeed at their own career goals, it is my hope to design and incorporate at least one such student-directed “capstone” project into each of the courses I teach. As an instructor, it is my greatest desire to guide my students toward fulfilling the destiny that they desire.

Edited, as per Gregg’s advice. 🙂

Catching flies.

For me, that’s often the most profitable use of opening my mouth.  However, by popular request, I’m forcing myself to recall some of my recent additions to the world’s collective body of unnecessary sound waves:

Situation 1:

A.K.A. “Hal does further damage to human kind.”

It is officially listed as reaching level 6.3 of 10 in Josiah’s Annals of Awkwardness.  The time was 10:20 am, ten minutes before class.  The place was room 112 Macbride Hall, the University of Iowa.  My disposition?  Garrulous.

I said good morning to the student next to me.  Not suspecting my powers of miscommunication, she allowed a dialog to ensue.  In the course of the conversation, something mysterious and inexplicably evil was mentioned.  I, of course, immediately thought this deeply analogous to the large black obelisk in 2001, a Space Odyssey.  “Yes, like the obelisk in that one movie!” I said, not recalling the name of the infamous classic.  I received a quizzical expression.  Surprised that the analogy was not clear, I explained further: “You know, the obelisk that shows up when something learns to kill.”  Further confusion.  “Don’t you remember?  The apes and Hal?”  She still didn’t know what movie I was referring to.  After a spirited description of the film complete with a badly-hummed rendition of Also sprach Zarathustra, I recalled the film’s title.  “Never heard of it.”  We both stared at the empty chalk board at the front of the room.

The clock said that there were only two minutes till class started, but I swear it took at least a countable infinity of seconds for the teacher to come in and break the silence.

The end.

I invite you to come back tomorrow and share my chagrin as I continue with the aptly-titled “Situation 2”.