Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Teaching Philosophy

In a poster I recently saw regarding a faculty job search retreat - a workshop for soon-to-graduate PhD students and postdocs - at UIUC, I saw something called a 'teaching philosophy'. So I asked myself, armed with my too many years as a student and a semester as a TA for a major course, what was my teaching philosophy? And that is a really hard question to answer! What is a philosophy? A way of thinking? A set of ideals? Do professors actually know what their teaching philosophy is?

I can't say I have any of those answers. When I was a TA, I don't think I had a philosophy that varied from how I did anything else. Over the last few years, I've developed a principle of doing something well, or not doing it at all (which may be bad for research, actually). And when I was a TA, I applied the same principle. When my first lab bombed, I spent a lot of time thinking of ways to improve, and improve it did. The round of applause I got in my last lab was perhaps the most special moment for me in years, a deeply satisfying end. So does that count as my research philosophy - giving it my best? Is that even a philosophy? Why do I even bother, especially since I know that the kids have little choice?

One of my students told me that they had a CAD lab where the professor sent them videos from Lynda.com to watch and learn - and I remember being outraged. Not because they didn't learn anything - Lynda.com is great for learning stuff, and I use it often, most recently to learn Python - but because students paid for a real instructor. Lynda.com is already covered in their fees whether they took that class or not. When students pay for a real teacher, that money is meant for the teacher to prepare and deliver lectures, make homework and exams, and anything else needed to run the class. Plus, given that it is highly likely that most if not all of those students either had a student loan or a MAP grant, which means either they or somebody else is going to have to work off that money through what they learn. So they need to be taught well.

So is that my teaching philosophy? Cold-hearted, mathematical, utilitarian calculations that money deserves to get what it's worth? In any other country, I might have felt that to be appalling, to see teaching as a monetary transaction. But American philosophy has taught me that money represents value, and a monetary transaction is an exchange of work for work - somebody's work for my teaching. When the high castles of idealism fall, as they always do, money retains its value. Does that count as philosophy? You pay me, I'll teach you what I know, and do it well?

I'm not sure, but it sounds like a fair deal to me.

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