April 11, 2011

Teaching Philosophy

I grew up imagining, and often slaying, dragons.

I start there because when you’re small, there’s nothing so daunting as the idea of slaying a dragon, of standing up to whatever it is that’s there in the dark, lurking under beds and in closets, outside windows. The thunder and the rain, fire… these are the things that seem impossible. How did we really get the fire across the water, again? How does one withstand lighting? How does one slay a dragon?

Near the end of my Ph.D. studies, as I was just about to defend my dissertation and move from being a student to being a professional, I told one of my mentors I felt like my sword was heavy and my shield worn nearly bare. He suggested it was time to stop fighting. Little did he know, in that moment, he was a playful dragon, smoke drifting from his nostrils as he offered advice from the other side of a battle field.

As we deal with a modern America where the gap between those with means and those without grows by the day, I represent one of those people who to some degree “got out.” I came from a background where the idea that I could ever be Dr. Alexander was presumed impossible; as the son of a single mother who barely finished high school (who I later convinced to earn her B.S. while I was working as an adjunct) and an absent father who only received his G.E.D.  because the Marines made him finish, coming from a poor family in a relatively poor community, I was never “expected” to have a chance to receive high quality education, and even if I had the chance, it was always assumed I wouldn’t have the ability. I was told from my earliest days that I’d be a dog catcher, like my father. Maybe a mailman one day. Or I could work in a factory. As such, part of the deepest foundation of my own philosophy of teaching is that if a poor kid can find the way and receive the help to become a Ph.D. who teaches in labs with cutting edge technology, everyone (at least in America) has a chance. It might mean that you work three jobs to get your BA, that you have to lean on mentors who will help you to figure out the things you really didn’t learn in your high school, and it sure won’t be a walk in the park, but the chance is there. And I’m going to work as hard as I can to push for those opportunities, to open doors, to make connections whenever I can. Having received help, support and advice along the way, I’m now going to do my best to offer it. I probably shouldn’t use such a violent metaphor, but I’m all about putting swords in hands and pointing people at their own dragons, because nine times out of ten the dragon gets the best of us, but we learn across those nine times, and the tenth time we’re better people than we were when we started.

In my academic life, I’ve had the chance to teach at a small, mostly non-traditional-student, open-admissions university (Indiana University East, in my home town of Richmond, IN), a mid-sized research college (Miami University in Oxford, Ohio), a large state school (Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI, on a campus larger than the town of Centerville, IN where I attended high school), and now back at Miami, I’ve found that students in each environment, at every level, learn best when they view the me, their instructor, as a facilitator and not as an authoritarian— maybe not exactly as their pal, but as someone who faces the same sorts of tasks they face. From undergraduates writing essays and creating websites to graduate students learning to teach and writing their first journal articles, I make it clear that I’ve been there and that I’m still there (dear students, I am presently writing, just like you, trying to make an argument, just like you. Don’t tell anyone, as I’ve just gone meta). From writing classrooms to gaming labs, from texts that will see print to writing that could never exist on paper, I encourage my students to be honest about where they are, but then to let the questions they have lead them to a place where they can venture forth and leap into the fray, knowing that I’ll be there to catch them should they not find solid footing and there to send them forth to try again. Most importantly, I remind them of something I fear we just don’t say enough in the academy: we have to mess up– we have to fail, to fall down, to break things, to take chances that don’t pan out– before we can ever truly succeed. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. That’s the only way to really do it.

I urge my students to adopt a stance that fosters curiosity, to always ask questions and dig deeper. While I don’t push games, as a thing, on those who didn’t come to the classroom looking to learn about games, and in spite of my love for the metaphor I don’t stand on my desk and scream out that we will all go slay the dragon, I  do push the “good” aspects of gaming and play, the “best practices” for a critical thinking life that I’ve learned from my own 30-plus-years of gaming: don’t be afraid to fail as long as you’re progressing, have fun, be so curious it sometimes frustrates the people around you, do what you do well, depend on others and let them depend on you, keep trying, keep going, keep moving. It’s okay if it’s hard. It’s okay if you don’t “get” it from the start. If you keep trying, and keep moving, you’re going to get there. Don’t stop. Don’t. Ever. Stop.

I also believe rhetoric is important for everyone, even if some students shy away from the word “rhetoric” or roll their eyes at triangles and talk of, as one of my early students who is now in a graduate program once said in error, “those four Greek guys, Aristotle, Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.” Each semester I tell my students that they must understand and accept that we read and write in multiple ways every single day, and while it might seem like I over-sell it, everything is to one degree or another a rhetorical situation. Once we see the connection between the conversations we have with friends and our interactions with our employers, or the similarities between a technical report and the note we leave on the refrigerator, between a course lecture and a conversation in line at Starbucks, we can see a world where everyone is interconnected by reading and writing—be that visual, auditory, alphabetical, or a mix. At the same time, this all happens in a world governed by rhetoric: audiences, occasions, motives, desired outcomes, all these things that I ask  students to find and to understand truly matter out there in their lives, too. As such, we should welcome each opportunity to communicate as a chance to situate ourselves within a larger world, a larger text, and to illustrate both our individuality and our connections to others. We should embrace the chance to learn to better understand the world around us and why people say and do what people say and do. At the core of it all, we need to look, listen and think more in order to be more informed, more adept, more articulate students, academics, professionals, citizens, and, fundamentally, human beings.

We have some important questions to wrestle with in academia and in our lives (yes, to push the metaphor until it almost breaks, we have dragons to slay). We live in a world with media oversaturation, where politicians and pundits no longer bother to fact check. We live in a world where rhetorical skills are more important than they ever were before because there is quite simply too much coming at each and every one of us at any given minute of the day. We have to be mentally nimble. We have to have the proficiency to ask the right questions and to apply the right level of scrutiny. We have to understand the differences that emerge from different cultural upbringings and from living in different societies under different governments. We have to be critical but generous, quick-witted but not sharp-tongued. We have to know how to listen and what to do with what we hear. Our students should always have questions, too, and we should spend our days helping them figure out how to get to the answers. But first, listen. Read, then react.

This media oversaturation is due in large part to the ubiquitous technologies that we, as academics, are now tasked with understanding and integrating into our classrooms without allowing them to overshadow or derail our pedagogy. We must work to teach our students to use digital media and mobile devices with the same rhetorical acumen that we dedicate to words, as the world expects no less of them. There is a widely held, inaccurate belief that our students have and innate techno-literacy, that they are as some have said “digital natives.” The reality is that many college students have access to digital technology but are far from proficient and are certainly not yet rhetorically savvy with digital discourse. Far too many are positioned as consumers of media when they must learn also to become producers. At the same time, far too many students are denied access for reasons ranging from financial hardship to special needs. I grew up poor myself, as I mentioned previously; it was only my mother’s willingness to sacrifice and to help me find resources that allowed me to have the sort of relationship with technology that I’ve always had.  Most children in my neighborhood had not seen a computer terminal—other than perhaps in movies—until high school. As an educator, I feel it is my duty—and my pleasure—to introduce students to new methods of composing that make use of cutting-edge technology, be that technology the student brings with her or technology she discovers in the classroom for the very first time.

I also think we have to be realistic with ourselves when we talk about issues of race and culture in our current academic climate (and in fact in our world). As a mixed-blood Cherokee, I see all too clearly on a daily basis the issues brought about by cultural misunderstandings: baseball fans faux “Indian War” chanting in Atlanta, radio shock jocks proclaiming our half-African American, half Caucasian President is a Kenyan Muslim terrorist, blissfully unaware but good hearted humanists claiming live in a post-racial world and intermingled with them are our students, from many nations and backgrounds, from many social and religious groups, some learning from us in a language that was not their native tongue, trying to understand just exactly how and why a man like Al Sharpton reacts so differently to the shooting of Trayvon Martin than a man like Sean Hannity. As a facilitator and organizer in a very young race and technology caucus (and trying to found a second), and someone who brings these issues to the fore in my teaching, I believe we have an obligation as educators and as those who study rhetoric and communication, to help our students to better understand the cultural and race issues that lurk below the surface of so many of the things we see, hear and do. It isn’t easy, of course, to address issues of race. But we ask our students to do difficult things all the time; we, too, must embrace the difficult tasks of educating.

In the classroom I might be found asking students to snap photos of themselves then, using Photoshop, insert themselves into a movie poster, making a rhetorical statement in the process. Or I might have a circle of students on the floor weaving Cherokee baskets from river cane–a cultural practice I was taught by a Cherokee elder, knowledge passed through a very specific story told a very specific way– while I talk them through the process and ask them to discuss their own family and cultural traditions. We might all be sitting around a table, quickly modifying wireframes as we pitch ideas for a web design to a community partner. We might be sitting in small groups user-testing a set of carefully crafted instructions for a user manual. We might be in Azeroth, learning to collaborate so that a large cadre of Kobolds doesn’t make us more grist in the World of Warcraft, or trying to figure out if we can ever escape from the confines of the Crimson Room. We might be watching YouTube clips of the news, or of people like Jon Stewart one-upping the news, talking about the difference between the ever elusive truth and what we see on television. I might be quoting Baudrillard, or Neo from the Matrix, or Zack de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine. We might talk about Banksy or Warhol or Frank Lloyd Wright. We might read Whitman, or Silko, or Marshall Mathers. As I once said in a commentary on digital pedagogy, invoking Dr. Seuss, “oh, the places we’ll go!” I help my students to approach challenges and to build and cultivate knowledge wherever that knowledge might be, and I’m usually there with them as they work and as they discover, assisting and facilitating, exposing them to ideas and methods but then stepping back far enough that they have their own agency to learn and develop. All the while, of course, answering and asking questions. I ask them to never stop being curious, and I model that. Every day.

I’m most myself in a classroom that is kinetic and active, respectful of others but assertive of individual goals. I enjoy a class that is playful and jovial while staying serious and sincere. I want my students to feel they are a part of something while class is happening—something that extends beyond the physical space of the classroom but in ways that foster curiosity and community without being overwhelming or heavy handed. I savor every chance to help students to gaze inward and outward with a critical eye, to learn more about how to learn and in the process how to teach. I learn as much from many of my students as I teach them, and in the process I think we all become better people, better students, better scholars. I feel as if the scholars I have studied with over the years have helped to prepare me to see the world, comment on the world, and to in my way change the world; I seek to do no less for my own students, whatever shape that might take on any given day. I know that I’ll be there with them, trying, sometimes failing, but trying again and getting closer, always getting closer, always getting back up, always doing just a little bit better than the last time. Eventually, we get there.

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