Taking a step back: teaching philosophy

After inviting my friends, both those in academia and outside, to look at what we’re doing in this course, I’ve had a couple of questions about how this course is different from previous versions. I’ll preface this by explaining that most of the changes to this course came about from my participation in an ePortfolio learning group last semester sponsored by the Teaching and Learning Center at Wake Forest. I applied to be part of this group because of the experiential learning in the class and the fact that I felt there was no good way to assess the students’ learning with conventional methods. Tests or papers just do not allow students to fully express their experience and what they’ve learned. They’re too restrictive, having the effect of homogenizing every student’s experience into one or two questions in which they think there is a right or wrong answer. I wanted to allow them to express their thoughts about the learning process, be creative, and develop their own learning outcomes. Before I go too far into this, I want to describe what remains constant this semester.

As far as content, this semester is similar to the first time I taught this course in 2010.Many American Indian cultures courses I have seen tend to focus on the traditional and etic. My goal was and continues to be to have students learn about traditional and modern American Indian cultures through both the emic and etic perspectives. One small change is that I believe this course should have an applied/social justice component to it. That was one reason for adding the ePortfolio component to the class. I wanted the students to document, explain, and reflect upon their learning in a public forum, from which other people can learn about American Indian societies and modern social issues through them.

Now back to my pedagogical approach in this class. With all of this focus on learning through experience and trying to understand the emic perspective of different American Indian cultures, I realized that the traditional approach of students reading and me covering that reading in a lecture with some thinking questions mixed in just wasn’t going to cut it. Cultures are not cut-and-dried. I’m no post-modernist but people’s individual experiences do influence our understanding of our own culture as well as others. Taking a traditional approach in the classroom does not encourage this deep understanding that comes from personal, individual experiences. As I said earlier, it really only serves to encourage students to focus on what they think are right or wrong answers, when in reality there is very little right and wrong in this course. That said, I want them to leave this course with detailed knowledge about past and present societies, so there is some basic factual information I want them to take away. However, the bigger goal is an understanding and appreciation for American Indian cultures and modern social conditions/issues. To achieve this, I felt it was important to remove myself from the center of the learning experience. I’ve never been a lecturer, standing in front of the students and talking at them. I wasn’t taught that way, so it never really occurred to me to teach that way. However, I was still at the center. As an aside, I don’t think this is always a bad approach. For example, in introductory anthropology courses, where most students have had no experience with the field, there is a real benefit to offering yourself up as an open source of information for the students based on your own experiences and expertise.

Back on topic: in place of interactive lectures, classes are now conversations about about what students learned from the readings. I ask some deeper thinking questions during these conversations. It worked during the first class. We had a lively discussion and the students said they liked the approach. I don’t have it all figured out, but the course appears to be on a good path. I know this is the most excited I’ve been to go to class in several semesters.

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