Originally printed in University of Central Florida's Facutly Focus Vol 13 Number 3 http://www.fctl.ucf.edu/Publications/FacultyFocus/content/2014/2014_august.pdf
Recently, I had the opportunity to participate on a panel about pedagogy at my discipline’s national conference. We planned to write critical autoethnographic responses to the late Dr. John T. Warren's call for an ethic of reflexive teaching practice that moves from "what I believe about teaching" to "why I believe what I believe about teaching." As I prepared, I began to panic. I had serious doubts about why I should sit next to these very impressive professors with esteemed teaching and research careers. What was I going to talk about? Is anything I do actually phenomenal? Was I even teaching from a place that is congruent with what I believe about teaching?
The thing is that I actually never wanted to teach. I thought it sounded like the worst deal ever. And so I tried lots of other jobs and got very close to starting a law degree. Even more reason why I thought I should gracefully back out of this panel – teaching might not even be my calling. This internal inquiry brought a lot of self-doubt, but also a moment of true self-reflexivity at a critical time in my career. So, I sat down to write my paper and make presentation notes when student evaluations from the previous semester came in. After over a decade of teaching in college classrooms I received what I consider one of the best compliments a student has ever given me. “Dr. S – this was the REALEST class I’ve ever been to and you are the REALEST professor I’ve ever had.” This may not seem like much – I have had much “nicer” things said about me over the years. But this struck a chord with me. After a very long process of coming into my own in the classroom, of finding my footing, of engaging truly difficult topics - I had found my authentic voice. Ever better, someone had heard it.
Very often we make the work of teaching about ourselves and I was definitely in a habit of making it about me. This panel and this student evaluation brought me back to thinking about the “we” – that relational partnership created when we enter the classroom from a place of authenticity. When I began teaching at a ridiculously young age I was very concerned about correctness. I was worried about being correct. I was worried about correcting my students’ mistakes and misperceptions. I still have those concerns, but they are overshadowed by my desire to connect. I want to connect to students where they are. I want class to be “real.” I want to “keep it real.” By focusing on connection rather than correction I find I can create an environment of curiosity, of compassion, and of intensive reflection where students come to know themselves and their strengths beyond a single classroom.
Many of my colleagues actually give me a hard time about my teaching philosophy. It involves what Hart (2007) calls “a pedagogy of interiority.” Hart argues that even beyond our everyday educational goals we have much more value working with students “developing their authentic inner potentials.” (p. 2). I agree wholeheartedly. But before we can do that we have to take stock of our own authentic inner selves. Reflexive teaching practice is more than taking a few notes about what did or didn’t work during a particular class session. It is not only something we should do every week, every month or every semester, but also cumulatively over time. We must think not only about what we are doing in our courses, but why we are doing them.
It is very easy to get caught up in what we need to teach in order to reach learning objectives, or what we can to do to get an award or positive evaluation. I would never advocate for ignoring our responsibility to educate students in our content areas. However, I would challenge instructors at all levels to consider a superordinate goal of authentic personal development. Teaching with a practice of contemplation and reflexivity invites students to participate in their education in a deeply meaningful way. They can move beyond basic content competency toward mindfulness in thought and behavior. We can achieve this by maintaining our authentic voices, by “keeping it real, and by focusing on connection rather than correction.
Works cited: Hart (2007). Reciprocal revelation: Toward a pedagogy of interiority. Journal of Cognitive Affective Learning, 3(2), 1-10.
Warren, J. T. (2011). Reflexive teaching: Toward critical autoethnographic practices of/in/on pedagogy. Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies, 11, 139-144.