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Some Random Thoughts about a Teaching Philosophy

The basic tenets of my teaching philosophy are creativity and discipline. I firmly believe that without discipline there is no creativity but the discipline must be of a special kind. What has enabled me to continue to be excited at the prospect of teaching another section of a course after all these years is the fact that I am usually on to some new ideas in small group communication, communication theory or history and criticism which excite me. I try to teach courses which allow me to insinuate those interests into the course. I often go into a lecture with some of these new ideas on my lecture outline but without being quite sure what I will say about them. If I can get the class to participate with me in mulling over these notions we often discover some new things and some new slants that make the whole thing worthwhile for me.

I try to establish a learning environment which creates norms of uncertainty and which encourages the participants to try out new ideas or new ways of doing something. If a student gets an idea and is excited to try it out for a paper or a research project and then discovers that something has gone wrong and the idea did not turn out as anticipated I try to have the student, the class, and the instructor learn from the unexpected. In other words instead of dismay that the effort went awry I try to have the students ask, "What can we learn from this strange result?"

But creativity seldom strikes without preparation. Disciplined warmups and systematic testing of the results of creativity are required for successful academic work. I like to have students write essay questions and papers. My teaching practice is to go over all written work with great care word-by-word if time permits and certainly sentence by sentence. I search for clear central thesis statements, the ability to present concepts clearly, and the overall shape of the argument. No matter how detailed or sketchy my comments my perspective is always that of a friend of the project.

In practice my classes succeed in exciting many students (not all). These students provide the kind of reward which I find most satisfying. The student who gets excited about Puritan preaching and spends a number of hours in the rare book room at Wilson library consulting primary sources in preparing a paper is a joy. Often my classes develop norms of great effort and high standards of work quality. I also strive to create norms of open group discussion in my smaller classes with widespread participation by the class members.