My Teaching Philosophy and Approach

 

Introduction

 

I enjoy teaching, and I especially enjoy teaching at SIUE.  I fully share SIUE’s priority of excellent undergraduate education, as well as the CAS Desired Characteristics and the Political Science goals for majors, and I dedicate myself to helping college students along the beginning of a life-long journey of intellectual development and curiosity.  My area of expertise within Political Science is urban politics, particularly the effects of suburbanization on urban cores, and I am proud to be the only urbanist in my department (and one of just a handful on campus). 

 

Transferring Knowledge through Multiple Perspectives, Contexts, and Disciplines

 

I believe that teachers and students should value diverse perspectives, seek meaning through various contexts, and appreciate contributions made by other disciplines.  In Political Science courses especially, students often enroll with ideologies and perspectives already entrenched, as well as a heightened sensitivity to certain political issues.  A professor who demonstrates an ability to understand and explain multiple perspectives can help students consider viewpoints beyond their own.  Similarly, a professor who can show the students how to understand Political Science within a larger body of scholarship succeeds in building a well-rounded thinker capable of understanding complex ideas and formulating them as well.  “He always showed respect for everybody; led to great class morale,” observed one student in a course evaluation.

 

While a critical component of teaching is to assure that students acquire the core knowledge of a topic, making that core knowledge dynamic and relevant excites students and makes them eager to learn.  An American National Government student recommended my course because it makes one “actually want to learn.”  Students are most successful when they gain an understanding of the broader perspective surrounding the topic and the context in which it is applied.  I regularly draw from other disciplines—such as Historical Studies, Sociology, Criminal Justice, Economics, English and Literature, and the Fine and Performing Arts—in order to expand student’s understanding of American Politics and its subfields.  Having a broad understanding sets the stage for self-development as students refine their viewpoints and start thinking of course topics in larger and more personally-relevant terms.  Guest speakers and field work opportunities help provide context to the ideas, allowing for the integration and application of knowledge. 

 

I value the practitioner’s point of view, and have found that students genuinely enjoy hearing from them.  I have hosted business leaders to discuss government spending and lobbying, the local chair of the St. Louis Regional Empowerment Zone to discuss economic development, and Madison County elected officials to discuss elections and political power.  Students respond favorably to these outside speakers because it helps them attach relevance to textbook concepts. 

 

I also value multicultural perspectives in the classroom and attempt to integrate these into my work.  An SIUE professor who has led several GLBT efforts on campus is a regularly-invited speaker to discuss the differences among state-level public policies on homosexual rights.  I dedicate a significant segment of the one course to the topic of Civil Rights and Liberties.  Here, we discuss issues of racism, gender discrimination and religious intolerance, among other important Civil Rights topics.  I also use this opportunity to show a film, utilize historical documents and photographs, and provide a presentation from my own research on the East St. Louis race riot of 1917.  In the course I developed for the Women’s Studies Program, I examined the overlooked and misunderstood role of women and families in urban politics. 

 

When students see the real-world applications of textbook examples, they gain a higher understanding of the topic.  For one of my regular courses, we conduct a major case study of the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD) operations.  I offer my students the opportunity to tour Missouri’s largest sewage treatment facility, MSD’s Bissell Point plant.  Because of my community service to MSD, I have developed a strong working relationship with the management team there and I have a deep understanding of the organization that I share with my students.  At the sewage treatment plant, students not only see bureaucracy at work, but can appreciate exactly what must happen when, for example, government sets new clean water standards.  One of my past students in this course was especially impressed by the MSD case study, writing that it was “one of the most productive projects that I have spent time on,” adding that she “realized and formed views about real life organizations…which will benefit me in the future.  Thank you for this lesson and realization.”

 

When my students accompany me on a driving tour of East St. Louis, the case study area for much of my research, they begin to integrate knowledge gained through course materials and, thinking analytically, can begin to describe realities instead of relying on stereotypes.  I use field work as one of several opportunities to integrate my research into the classroom.  I often show the public television documentary based on my research and present a slide program that I developed from my scholarship.  Using these examples from my research allows for greater connection between the classroom and the larger world. 

 

By offering an appreciation of multiple perspectives and disciplines, along with real-world context of that knowledge, students receive the tools needed to properly execute problem framing and problem solving.  Successful students appreciate a diversity of ideas and all of my courses are designed to expose students to that diversity and to harness the potential for knowledge it offers.

 

Developing a Creative Learning Environment

 

I believe that all students have potential for learning and creativity.  In order to tap the innate learning potential within each student, the learning environment I create must be open, accessible, and comfortable.  Transferring knowledge is only half the challenge; creating an environment where students feel comfortable and want to learn is an equally important task.  I have attempted to give students a degree of control over specific assignments, and, where practical, to have more team experiences.  I develop my course presentations from the students’ perspective, in order to discern which points are readily understood and which points are more difficult to master.  I assess learning regularly.   I have found that it is important to meet students where they are, rather than assuming they will readily overcome obstacles by simply working harder.

 

One way to develop a creative learning environment is to walk students through a process of learning, allowing each individual to start at a unique place.  There is a way to take seeing and make it observation; there is a way to take hearing and make it listening; and there is a way to take opinion and make it conclusion.  I have developed teaching tools to guide students through this creative process, helping them build their capacity as thinkers and researchers.  My goal is to develop their critical thinking skills in the short run, but also to help them be on a path for long-term confidence in their abilities that can lead to life long learning.

 

Enthusiasm is contagious, and makes a great contribution to a creative learning environment.  I make a point to show the enthusiasm that I have for my topic and my work.  I want students to share my excitement over the topic and I want them to view me as someone who is eager to discuss the topic in class and outside of class. 

 

Striving for Awareness, Adjustment, and Improvement

 

I believe that the classroom can and should model what is known in Public Administration literature as a learning organization, one that regularly evaluates itself, modifies its practices, and improves its performance based on multiple sources of internal and external input.  For the classroom, this process includes seeking student input, taking advantage of teaching improvement tools, seeking peer evaluations, and adjusting course elements regularly.  I seek to model the learning organization in my classroom.  By giving them a process model, they have a tool by which they can engage in self awareness and self development, while appreciating the importance of communication with their environment. 

 

            In order for my classroom to improve upon its performance, the basic course structure must be flexible.  I have made adjustments to the written exercises to maximize student achievement.  Similarly, I have been successful in encouraging student to visit during office hours and work outside of class.  Students return to class with heightened individual understanding that improves the overall learning capacity of the classroom.  I address classroom improvements further in my course evaluation summary analysis.

 

Conclusion:  Pursuing Excellence

 

            I was honored to receive a 2007 Teaching Recognition Award from the Provost.  In the letter from the Teaching Excellence Committee announcing the award, the committee chair noted that one committee member called me “one of the best speakers” he had ever heard.  I’m glad that my excitement for politics and understanding showed.

 

My teaching philosophy is built on the notion that student learning occurs in a classroom that is sensitive to diverse viewpoints, fosters productive learning environments, and pursues a track of regular evaluation and improvement.  I feel that I am effectively engaged in student learning and I am helping to build the CAS Desired Characteristics in the students who enroll in my courses.