Saturday, April 21, 2012


I've been adjunct teaching at the undergraduate and masters level for about a year now, so I thought I'd reflect a little on what I've learned and my own personal pedagogy (teaching style) at this point.

First, in this day and age, one has to be fairly careful about what one puts out there online when one is a teacher! It's a little weird to write publicly about teaching, because who knows which of my students will find my blog at some point--or if they're my "friends" on Facebook, then they will see that I post. (If I taught underage kids I probably wouldn't accept them as Facebook "friends," but since I'm teaching adults, some of whom are my friends in "real" life and not just online, it ends up that some of my students are also my Facebook "friends.") I sometimes post things about sitting around on Friday nights grading papers, or I post my lecture topics, but I'm definitely careful to make sure what I say online is responsible and respectful.

I feel like at this point I need to go read everything Parker Palmer has ever written! (He's a Quaker who writes about teaching.) I've read a couple of his books, but I need to re-read them, and read everything else. I really appreciate what he has to say about creating classroom space that is egalitarian rather than too teacher-focused. This is something I want to do better. I find it difficult to make sure this happens, but at the same time to make sure students feel they are getting their money's worth, or that they are learning the information they want/need to know. Part of this is the academic system we currently use. It is information-focused and teacher-centered, so that is basically what students expect. They expect that if they are taking a class, the teacher will be the "expert" (at least compared to them) and will impart knowledge, which they will soak up. Parker Palmer talks about a pedagogical setting where all participants are both students AND teachers.

I try to do this in that I have students give a presentation at some point during the class. Therefore, they are the expert-for-the-day at least once during the semester, and they get used to listening to one another and valuing one another's input. This doesn't go as far as what Palmer suggests, however, because the model is still the same: someone is standing at the front and imparts information that they learned from books and experts. But at the same time, it helps students to feel confident in something so that everyone has a chance to contribute something important to the discussion at some point. There are many students, it seems, who don't feel comfortable speaking up in class, but if given the microphone (so to speak) they will talk for a long time!

I also try to incorporate quite a bit of discussion and to make sure that people feel comfortable asking questions. My best-laid plans don't always work out, however, and often the class time is all used up by lecture and other details and there isn't enough time for discussion. I try to set aside specific days for discussion only.

Grading is one thing that I've found is not my favorite thing. I know this goes for most teachers! I am learning to assign things that I enjoy grading, but with undergrad general ed classes, it seems like it's necessary to assign things that will encourage students to process the information and to learn it in-depth, and that this learning doesn't really happen unless you force them to do it. Students complain about how much work they have to do, but the prof has to do the same work x40! It's definitely a challenge to keep up with all the grading and to give them helpful, constructive feedback.

One thing I really try to do is to require an active element outside of class. I taught a class on spirituality and social justice, and required that each student do some sort of social justice volunteer work or action of some kind. For Bible survey for undergrads, I asked them to do a research project that incorporated a paper, a presentation and a creative or active element. It was amazing to see the creativity so many of the students used! Some wrote poetry or music, some made movies, some served in their church, one person memorized a passage of scripture in sign language, some students incorporated what they learned into their sport, some made art projects, some had conversations, one created a dream journal and another started a spiritual journal, and many other things. It was wonderful to hear how they connected with God and connected with their biblical topic in new ways through their creative or active portion.

Overall, I've learned that I really enjoy teaching! I actually love it. I really do like the grading, too, except for that since I'm kind of just teaching on the side at the moment, I don't have time to do it. But I like to read what they have to say and to find out whether or not they're learning the things I'm intending them to learn. I assign journals for the general ed classes, and although they take quite a bit of time on my part, they're some of my favorite things to grade because I can see their worldview growing right before my eyes. They open up to new concepts and new ideas, and so many of them are incredibly receptive to this new information and to the spiritual growth that the new information encourages. I love to see how God is working in their lives through their interaction with the texts and other materials we're learning about as a class.

My only hesitation with teaching is that I feel like I can so easily get sucked in to the academic world being my whole world. I talk about social justice and the equality of all people, but I just sit around in my suburban ivory tower. I don't really have time to do anything else! I think pretty much one could spend all of one's free time on one class and still not do it perfectly, because there's always more preparation or a more creative way or a little bit more attention to grading or any number of other things to be done--not to mention one's own research and writing for publication. So I'm not convinced that this career path is entirely healthy for me. By no means is it easy, but it's safe (in some ways)--I'm comfortable with academia and with the kinds of questions it raises. There are areas where it is not exactly safe--what happens when I disagree theologically with the institution I'm representing? Is it possible for me as a woman in academia to be myself and to still have a viable career? I'm not a big fan of dealing with politics in terms of "playing a game" to get ahead in a career, so I'm not altogether certain that I'll be able to get very far beyond adjuncting. But these are not the kinds of "safety" questions I would have to deal with if I chose a career path that was more social justice-oriented.

For now, though, I'm definitely enjoying teaching and I'm hopeful that it will lead toward a career that challenges me in all the right ways, and in which I can be my best self and encourage students to be their best selves, too.

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