Two perspectives influence my teaching philosophy – my own approach to the material and student engagement and an understanding for the context in which student learning occurs. I mean the latter quite broadly. Rather than taking for granted that the classroom is the most obvious and natural place for students to learn, it is important that educators acknowledge the myriad ways in which students access the information-rich environment around them. There are many ways in which students can answer their own questions, whether they choose to do so by reading a book, performing a Google search, watching a TED talk, or even taking a free online course. In this regard, those of us that value and practice teaching in higher education need to ask ourselves what is the value of classroom learning and more particularly, the value of learning in my classroom.
The foundation of a professor’s role in the classroom begins with our subject matter knowledge. This value of this knowledge is about much more than conveying facts and concepts, but also in the way this material is organized and presented. In this regard, educators play an important role as curators of information and our approaches to organizing and understanding this information. In this regard, a professor’s role as a teacher complements his or her role as a researcher. In preparing a course, we are forced to engage with our subject areas in a different way, to consider alternative ways of approaching and organizing our fields and topics. We must not only draw on our expertise to answer questions, but to consider – and teach our students to consider – what questions to ask in the first place.
But again, it is important to independently articulate the value of a well-designed class with the value of being in a classroom. I strongly believe that the shared experience of being in a class together is central to student learning. As such, I work to foster an atmosphere of engagement among students, the subject matter, and myself. This involves creating a variety of ways for students to interact and participate including group work, simulations, and debates in addition to lectures.
Successful engagement between the professor, the students, and the material also means helping students establish connections between the course material and their lives and to apply to ideas, skills, and concepts taken from the course to the context in which they live. This is true of any discipline, but especially crucial to courses on political science and policy. Towards these ends, I make connections between the course material and current events whenever possible. I also solicit student input regarding readings as well as potential test questions and essay topics.
Further, an engaging classroom environment is also important for students in their lives beyond the classroom. In addition to conveying subject mater knowledge, classroom learning is an opportunity to help students develop and hone skills that are important for their lives and careers including critical thinking, thoughtfully engaging with complex issues, formulating and supporting an argument, presenting, and writing. In this regard, course assessments are not only an opportunity for students to demonstrate their knowledge of a subject, but to also receive feedback from both the professor and their peers. A professor can also help students to use the classroom environment to articulate and further their goals by drawing from their own experience and working to incorporate outside perspectives such as guest speakers that can speak to their work in the field. Towards these ends, it is important for educators to remember that their value lies not only in their own knowledge and perspective but also in their ability to connect students with outside resources.
Regarding my own approach, I believe that I am best able to foster an engaging atmosphere if I approach teaching in a manner that is consistent with my own style. Students know inauthenticity when they see it. This is something that I impart to new educators and mentees, and am pleased when I see that my efforts to teach in a manner that is true to myself bears fruit with students. For example, my teaching evaluations consistently demonstrate that students appreciate my laid-back style and feel comfortable approaching me with questions and soliciting feedback, as well as expressing their ideas in class. At the same, regardless of one’s style, is always crucial to both articulate and maintain high standards.
There are many ways in which this teaching philosophy and its emphasis on engagement among the professor, the students, and the material is applicable to any field. But in courses on politics, policy, and governance, engagement is not simply a way for students to learn but also a central element of the subject matter. In this regard, my goal as a researcher and educator in the field of political science is to not only assist in fostering thoughtful and engaged students, but thoughtful and engaged citizens.