LAST UPDATED
2024-05-16

DISCLAIMER
My teaching philosophy is inspired by the American style of pragmatism I learned from my old friend and mentor, Norbert Schedler, a former Lutheran minister who stumbled upon the heretical writings of intellectuals like Nietzsche and Darwin and basically never looked back. He got his PhD at Princeton, taught at Purdue and Berkeley, and then decided the academic rat race wasn’t for him, so he took a position at a small teaching college in the middle of nowhere, Arkansas, where he could focus on his family and his teaching. He would often say that our primary duty as educators and intellectuals and even as citizens is to “keep the conversation going!” You can think of the following statement as trying to articulate how I keep the conversation going in my own teaching and mentoring, and for that matter, in my research, too.

THIS IS STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS!

Teaching Statement

I like to think of my teaching and mentoring as just one small part of a much larger and much more ambitious social-engineering project called higher education. There are many roles such a project can and often does play in a society, but three in particular stand out for me. First, and perhaps most obviously, it facilitates the inter-generational transfer of our accumulated knowledge and wisdom. Second, it promotes the civic virtues that we rely on as a free and open society, like openness to new ideas, courage in pursuing the truth, and respect for those we might disagree with, to name just a few. Third, it serves as an instrument of justice, of fairness and equality, whether that be in our economy, our environment, or our social lives. I believe that these ends - knowledge, justice, and virtue - are coincident in practice, meaning they rise and fall as one. Together with the arts, they are also the primary engines of human flourishing.

Invoking such mighty goals, of course, is easy, pursuing them, not so much. I mean, it’s not like signposts reading “Justice, this way” are lying about pointing the way. Still, the goals of education would seem to recommend a certain pedagogy or prescription for teaching that I would put like this:

Try to meet students where they are, to speak their language.1

I would go so far as to say this is the core idea that animates everything I do as an educator. It also entails a number of more concrete rules for action, which I now enumerate with examples from my own experience.

Be sensitive to the diverse backgrounds, experiences, and interests of students. You cannot possibly meet students where they are if you do not know where that is, so I conduct a number of early assignments and tests with my students, including a pre-course assessment, that are designed to provide information about their current knowledge and interests. I also use informal, through-course assessments (what normal people would call small talk) to learn more about them. Basically, I just try to treat them like they’re adults.

Re-contextualize ideas, then re-contextualize them some more. Underlying the injunction to speak your student’s language is the old rationalist idea that learning a new concept, like learning a new word, involves a lot of translation back and forth into a more familiar idiom. For me, in practice, that means using lots of examples, placing the concept in a more familiar context, seeing how it gets used there and what its use entails, then slowly walking it through less and less familiar settings, all the while asking students to think about and discuss its shifting implications. Naturally, that includes traditional lecture, but I also offer students lots of opportunities to try out translating ideas through lab and other exercises involving problems from the ordinary and everyday to the ethnographic and archaeological.

Manage expectations, both yours and your students, don’t demand too much or too little! Translating new ideas into your own words can be difficult, often frustratingly so. Over time, though, the translating gets easier, eventually becoming unnecessary. But, that’s not something that just happens over night. Usually, you have to immerse yourself in a new idea, live with it day by day, just as one would need to do to really learn a new language. This is a point I try to impress upon my students at every occasion, especially when they are feeling discouraged, like they aren’t learning the materials fast enough, are getting left behind, or not living up to expectations. In such circumstances, I tell them that one class will not an expert make, that expertise might not even be the goal! Sometimes a basic familiarity will suffice for what they really want to learn or do, and that’s OK.

Invite them into the conversation. This is my preferred way of describing what most folks in the academy would call “active learning” as it emphasizes that the learning in this case is participatory, meaning the student does not just learn how to, say, move liquids with a pipette or calibrate a scale, but to engage critically with the scientific process, to step up and make their own moves in the wider conversation of science. As a graduate student at the University of Utah, I had the good fortune to mentor a lot of undergraduate researchers - dozens of them, actually - from all walks of life, mostly through my role as Assistant Director of the Archaeological Center. It’s easily one of the most rewarding things I did as a graduate student at the U, and something I look forward to continuing into the future.

But, also have some perspective. In the social sciences and humanities, we need to be more cognizant of the possibility that encouraging students to pursue careers in our disciplines might do little more than subject them to a life of penury. The best way we can do that is by teaching “transferable skills.” For me, that mostly means teaching them data science skills, specifically quantitative reasoning or statistics and computer programming.

Footnotes

  1. Framing it in this way is actually something I picked up from one of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Reddit AMAs, specifically an answer he gave to a high school teacher looking for guidance on how to impart to students the thrill and joy of actually doing science. The relevant part of his answer is this: “a goal as teacher, perhaps ought to include knowing as much as you possibly can about pop culture and referencing it at every turn as you teach the syllabus.” It may seem superficial, but it’s actually quite reasonable, as popular culture - for better or worse - provides a set of shared metaphors, analogies, narratives, slang terms, jokes, and memes, among other things, that people can use to communicate their beliefs and values in a way that gives them a reasonable shot at being understood.↩︎