Teaching Philosophy

Austen Riggs Talk 7.31.19 SCD
My public lecture on Mental Health in Early America for the Austen Riggs Center, Stockbridge, MA, July 31, 2019

I see my role in the classroom as a bridge builder. I therefore have three main priorities in my courses:

1) establish a firm foundation for students of critical thinking, reading, and writing skills;
2) model how to engage with diverse ideas, texts, and authors in larger cultural conversations that matter to them and matter to their wider community; and
3) provide scaffolding so that they can ultimately construct intellectual edifices of their own.

My job as a teacher is to help students connect the skills they develop in my classes to a larger cultural context, and to support them as they construct arguments of their own. Based on these goals, I foster experiential learning as a method to ground theoretical concepts in practical experiences. In my professional writing classes, I have worked with a variety of community partners, including the Purdue Veterans Success Center, the Carpenter Museum, the Rensselaer County Health Department Opioid Addiction Hotline, and the Electric City Barn, to create and advertise innovative programs that promote each organization’s mission. These projects achieve the learning outcomes for each course because they require students to communicate professionally, to practice problem solving, to work as a team, to research and compose documents in a variety of genres, and to present their work to the clients.

I am at my best in the classroom when I am helping students plan and support their own ideas.

The questions that animate my teaching invite students to apply the foundation of critical thinking, reading, and writing skills to creating their own arguments. In particular, we explore: how does each text provide one possible answer to larger cultural questions that defy easy answers? How can we evaluate that answer in a larger historical, cultural, and critical context?

This approach opens up space for students to analyze how diverse authors and literary works can come to different conclusions about big ideas. Embracing this complexity also gives students space to test and build arguments as they search for their own answers. By thinking of textual analysis as not just confined to the pages of the books, I help my students build bridges, both individually and collaboratively, between course content and real-world conversations.

As I express in my diversity statement, I am committed to including diverse voices in all of my courses. I use my own research as a model of how to engage with marginalized voices and experiences. For instance, I created a “canon buster” assignment in my short story course at Siena. On the syllabus, I assign texts written by a wide range of authors from five continents. For this assignment, students choose a text in their anthology that we have not read. Then, they make a case for why I should include it in the future as well as for what it should replace on the syllabus. I believe it is imperative to focus on how/why certain voices are included, excluded, or obscured in both current syllabi and in early American texts. By bringing my research methods into the classroom as a model, I guide students to examine and recover diverse voices.

My commitment to diversity and equity is informed by my experience as a first-generation college student, but also by my overarching goal of enabling student agency by helping students make connections and build arguments. Fashioning diverse syllabi is one way to ensure students do not feel personally or intellectually isolated. This point was underscored for me during the spring of 2016 when I was mentoring an African American student athlete. I noticed that he seemed very frustrated. When I asked him what was bothering him, he said: “no one else in my class looks like me.” I want to ensure students feel represented, seen, and heard in my classroom and on my syllabi. I also challenge students to read both with and against the grain in order to consider the power dynamics at play. In class discussions and more formal written assignments, I require that students explore critically—informed by historical context and literary theory—why some voices seem to be missing. In other words, we bridge the gaps and read the silence.

In all of my courses, I provide scaffolding including readings that challenge students to see the value of reading and writing in connection with their larger academic interests. I don’t lecture about successful reading strategies, I build a framework that models the strategies. For example, in my freshman composition courses, I introduce students to a variety of critical reading tactics, including re-reading and annotating. After applying what they have learned, students have consistently reported that they find the ability to think critically about their readings unexpectedly beneficial. After engaging in this iterative reading exercise, one computer science student wrote in a journal entry, “I realized how much programming and writing an essay had in common.” This comment suggests to me that my scaffolding works. I seek to enable students to construct their own bridges and then experience the benefits of engaged reading as applied to their own studies. In this case, the student made connections to programming and the world of coding that I would never have made for him.

So much of my teaching is grounded in pragmatic applications and skills development because I respect my students and what they value in their education. At the same time, we develop the critical thinking and learning that I believe are vital to a liberal arts education. By adjusting to suit the needs of my audience—the students—I am able to meet the learning outcomes and goals that we both think are important. For example, my first-year composition students learn rhetorical awareness by writing job documents. Targeting resumes, cover letters, and elevator pitches requires them to articulate and fit a specific rhetorical situation.

I know I am successful in the classroom when my students say: “I’m already using this skill,” or “I brought this up in one of my other classes.”

At the end of the semester, I want students to see that the material and the assignments are interconnected with their everyday lives because research shows that the critical thinking and community building are markers of successful individuals. I therefore offer students opportunities to be intellectually curious, to think critically about the narratives they encounter and to consider voices that traditionally have been excluded in academia. I offer them scaffolding throughout the course through careful feedback, both verbal and written. I give models so they can identify what kind of writing I expect them to be able to produce as they construct their own bridges to early American texts and literature, to their careers, to their communities, and to their own past.

Effective bridge builders are effective leaders. The ability to listen to diverse perspectives and work with teams will help our students become strong, ethical leaders.