“The thing to do, when you don't know, is not to bluff and not to freeze, but to learn.” Donella H. Meadows

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Statement of teaching philosophy

What can we do?

This is perhaps the most fundamental issue that we all face when contemplating the wide open, inquiring eyes of a new student: What can we do to make it worthwhile for the student to come and listen to us for several hours each week over a period of 10-14 weeks? What can we do to make a difference? We can certainly provide useful information. We can explain how things are, have been, or might be under certain conditions. We can introduce techniques, tools, and different ways of thinking. If we do this in an engaging, clear, rigorous and up to date way we will be enhancing our students’ abilities to think critically and to effect change in the world.

But we can do more. We can provide information in a context in which we are or have been actors too, either in a professional or academic (research) capacity. In this fashion we become role models. Not necessarily to be imitated or followed in every or even any way, but as examples that help connect a classroom or textbook lesson to life, and imbue it with the colors of reality. One thing is to learn about the right formula to use when valuing a business. Another is to know someone who was there and did that, and hear “war” stories, funny stories, out of the textbook stories. Or someone who is actively engaged in finding the solution to still unsolved questions in the discipline. By offering students a collection of role models in many disciplines we will be helping them decide who they are, and who they want to be.

Teachers inform and perform while demonstrating real hopes, fears, doubts and most of all enthusiasm. It is enthusiasm that overcomes fear, helps resolve doubts, and validates hope. This means being truly ourselves in the classroom. Not a replica of some textbook’s author, nor strict guardian of arcane rules, but someone who truly enjoys the discipline of finance, or marketing, or law, or whatever it is that we teach.  Someone who is thrilled with the accomplishments, fascinated by the unsolved questions, and trusting in the relevance of the disciplines we teach. If we can accomplish this we will contribute immensely to our students finding the area or areas that they are enthusiastic about. We will also be helping them find a reason to want to engage with the world and transform it.

I believe that if as teachers and scholars we do all of the above, we will be making sure that students enjoy the time spent in class and derive maximum benefit from it. We will be contributing to their figuring out who they are or want to be, in which area of human endeavor they most want to act, and how to use the tools available. But two crucial elements are still missing. The first is the ability to choose the direction of change, set priorities, and persuade others to help. The second is the courage, energy, and strength of character to actually go and “do it” without giving up when unforeseen obstacles arise. A creative mind and a brave heart. A mind to find the way forward and a heart to issue the rallying cry. In sum, leadership. Where does it come from (within the realm of university life)? How can each individual faculty member contribute in this regard?

Not just from class time, I believe, although careful organization of each course, and of groups of related courses are important. Team work, oral presentations, and significant research and writing assignments are effective ways of helping students acquire or improve leadership and communication skills. Team projects involving service to the community are especially productive in this regard, especially when students get to know first hand about the homeless, the poor, the sick, the old and the young who have lost their way and/or their means of support, and who are asking for help. Compassion and empathy are fundamental for effective leadership toward good causes, and both can be fostered by first hand knowledge of suffering.