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Robert W Gehl

Associate Professor

Department of Communication

University of Utah

My Teaching Philosophy (circa 2014)

I have now been teaching at the college level for eight years. I realize that this amount of experience does not make me a master teacher by any means. However, from this short period, I have gleaned three methodological insights that I use to guide my practice:

  1. I perform love of the material and of pursuing knowledge. I strongly believe we are living in a time of anti-intellectualism, where expertise is often belittled for an uncertain collection of knowledges alternately called "common sense" or "real-world experience." People often hold that the loudest or "most liked" opinion - not the most informed - is the right one. I feel that this can cause university students to be somewhat ashamed of learning and education, that somehow the pursuit of knowledge is useless and even misleading - as our own Howard Stephenson put it, we're pursuing "degrees to nowhere."

    In contradistinction to this, in my teaching, I try to model the "life of the mind," the joyful pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake. I do this unabashedly performing my own delight in making connections between ideas. I also celebrate students who do the same in class, or ask big questions about the material we're covering. We revel in reading too much, discussing too much, writing too much, and thinking too much for our own good. We open up books drawn from stacks and libraries. We look up new words in the Oxford English Dictionary. In short, we proudly become nerds. There is pleasure in knowing the world and expanding our perception of it. I do all this to show students that school is a space for such pursuits - after all, the word "school" comes from the Greek scholé, which means to have free time to pursue education and to lead the examined life.

    Granted, there are instrumental factors in modern education: grades, paying (too much) tuition, getting a job in a tough economy. But overall, we need spaces where love of learning and of big ideas and questions is valued, because we are more than workers with skill-sets: we are citizens in a democracy. We are critical thinkers who want to make a better world. We are human beings who all deserve to read, learn, and question the ideas of the world. I want to show students that this is possible, even in the madness that is daily life today.

  2. I teach to the highest level of the class. Early in my career, I read the pedagogical writing of Jill Dolan, and this idea of hers stuck with me. In any class, there are students of varying degrees of engagement. If I have to choose which group to tune the class for, I go for the overachievers every time. Why? Because to do otherwise is to drag our collective feet, to deny that education is worth anything, to reduce our work to blandness. It would deny my ideal of the pursuit of knowledge.

    If my courses are tuned to the highest level, then necessarily only a small part of the class will get a grade above C. I am comfortable with this. However, this doesn't mean that I simply winnow the class down to those who are already equipped to do well and leave the rest behind. If any student - at any level - asks for my help during the semester, I go all out in helping him or her. For example, I've worked with students in Developmental English who struggled to write more than three sentences, and I've coached them to writing full essays. I've helped students who have never done research learn how to find and integrate sources. I've had students who had never read philosophy become comfortable with the shades and nuances of philosophical language by the end of the semester. This is my job, and if a student meets me halfway, I do my job well.

    If my courses are tuned to the highest level, then necessarily only a small part of the class will get a grade above C. I am comfortable with this. However, this doesn't mean that I simply winnow the class down to those who are already equipped to do well and leave the rest behind. If any student - at any level - asks for my help during the semester, I go all out in helping him or her. For example, I've worked with students in Developmental English who struggled to write more than three sentences, and I've coached them to writing full essays. I've helped students who have never done research learn how to find and integrate sources. I've had students who had never read philosophy become comfortable with the shades and nuances of philosophical language by the end of the semester. This is my job, and if a student meets me halfway, I do my job well.

    But I never lose track of the highest level of the course. Those students go on to do special things like get PhDs and MDs and JDs, and they deserve to be challenged, because all of life is challenging, and they should have a time to show that they are up for it.

  3. Finally, I am prepared to learn from my students. When it comes to working with classrooms full of college students, it is clear that being an authority on a topic is never mutually exclusive from learning from students. Instead, being a teacher means always being a learner and - most importantly - being prepared to learn from students.

    I've found that no matter the class, no matter the text or object, respecting my students' views and listening to them has always benefited me. Students push my teaching and research in unexpected ways. Of course, I have strong convictions about my work and where it should go, and I am not afraid to share my convictions with my students. However, students always find the gaps in my logic and the linguistic nuances that I overlook. If I respect them, they're not afraid to disagree with or trouble my lectures or the readings I assign. And many times, the students are absolutely right to point out those flaws. I pay attention when they do. My students have taught me much.

    But here's the secret: if I am prepared to learn from my students, I find myself feeling more obligated to return the favor, to push students to further their own thinking, make connections, and understand and command (even if they don't agree with) contending viewpoints and arguments. Moreover, if they know that I want to learn from them, they want to learn from me. And of course, this doesn't happen in a vacuum; it happens in a community. We all share our ideas together in a fine example of collective intelligence, either in class or online in blogs.

Although these seem like abstract methodological assumptions, I've found that they are useful in building a course. Demonstrating love of the material raises the standard for lectures and in-class discussions: it means that I have to own the material I'm discussing. And it means that if a student asks a question I cannot answer (and believe me this happens!), I model the process by which I find the answer to show the students that questions aren't "gotchas" and not having the answer isn't a problem - the problem comes when we don't delight in figuring out the answers.

Teaching to the highest level guides me in designing assignments. I come up with assignments early in the semester and provide them to students as soon as I can, along with a rubric that lays out standards for A, B, C, D, and E papers. The standard for A is, of course, excellence, not mediocrity. And, by giving these rubrics out early, I've found that students come to me early to get help getting to A. I do my best to get them there.

Finally, being prepared to learn means that I build courses with discussion and exchange in mind, rather than lectures. Even in classes of 60 students, I pepper any lecture I give with many open-ended questions. Sometimes, I simply get the students into group to tackle big questions. I feed on students' analyses of questions and their ideas, because as a whole students are wonderful at discovering new ways of thinking about whatever we're covering.

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