Philosophy and Goals
In recent years, the conception of teaching as simple transmission of content has come under increasing scrutiny, as has the lecture format traditionally used in undergraduate education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, recently hosted a broad discussion, including user-submitted video commentary and written statements, of students’ and faculty members’ views on the lecture format (prejudicially) titled “The LectureFail Project” (Young). Wilbert McKeachie, perhaps the best-known scholar on teaching methodologies, points out that a growing body of studies comparing lectures with other teaching methods shows that lectures fall short in student retention of information, transfer of knowledge to new situations, problem solving and change of thinking, and motivation; McKeachie, whose book on teaching I read in the context of an intensive summer teaching institute offered by UVic, nevertheless presents ways to make lectures more effective (Svinicki and McKeachie 55-6). Attitudes toward the traditional lecture unsurprisingly are mixed in academia, but what is clear is that, while lectures can be efficient at presenting information, their content-delivery methodology has its limitations because it is not specifically designed to help students develop a range of cognitive skills. Traditional lectures “set up a dynamic in which students passively receive information that they quickly forget after the test” because it is not shown to bear a relation to what they already know; nor are they asked “to make meaning from what they learn, to ask questions, extract knowledge, and apply it in a new context” (Berrett). Although I do lecture in my classes, I do so relatively sparingly in order to take advantage of the strengths of the lecture format, which McKeachie suggests include the ability to synthesize widely scattered material and to help students approach texts more effectively by providing a conceptual framework (Svinicki and McKeachie 56). Increasingly, however, my focus in teaching has been to help students develop cognitive skills that enable them to participate actively in their own learning process. My ability to foster such skills among students is the result, I believe, of my paying careful attention to what I want students actively to be able to do when they have completed my course, rather than merely what I want them to know.
What students learn to do often changes, to be sure, depending on the subject. My central aim remains the same, however; it is to help students develop a basic attitude of “agency” or “activity” in all my classes as they come to recognize that they have the ability to direct their own learning. I do not mean by this that the function of the teacher is lost; rather, I want students to learn to trust their own intuitions and creativity as they approach texts, while ever more actively seeking input from their teachers or mentors, peers, and scholars in the field. As students learn to trust their own abilities, they increasingly become empowered to ask new questions and venture their own ideas or approaches to solving problems. They begin to perceive learning, and especially the acts of reading and writing, not as formalistic trials to get through nor as instrumental tasks toward a determined end (such as a grade), but rather as an experiential process of growth. Encouraging this kind of active, student-centered learning requires, on the teacher’s part, developing exercises designed to help students incrementally grow to trust themselves and participate ever more fully in learning as a process rather than expecting to receive knowledge as a product.
Beyond this general approach to promoting active learning, I believe that teaching literature and film also requires a commitment to fostering specific text-oriented skills that constitute what teachers often refer to loosely as “critical reading.” The literary scholar Elaine Showalter has helped me to clarify the basic set of skills that teaching literature, specifically, can impart within the framework of student-centered learning. Among the competencies she suggests literature teachers can provide to students are the ability to recognize “complex and subtle differences in language use,” including learning to identify different rhetorical and formal modes; the ability to seek out relevant information about the conditions of a text’s production and reception; the ability to “detect the cultural assumptions underlying” texts from different times and places while becoming conscious of one’s own cultural assumptions; and the ability to compare diverse works to one another while synthesizing ideas that connect a given work to a literary tradition, movement, genre, or period (Showalter 26-7). Each of these skills, as suggested by the active verbs in the previous sentence, corresponds to the aim of having students learn to do rather than simply know; to recognize, identify, seek, detect, compare and synthesize each can be correlated with the process of helping students become more active learners. My own recognition that I still have much to learn as a teacher is consistent with such an approach to teaching literature: teaching, like learning, is most effective when it focuses on the process of open intellectual exchange, subject to continual assessment and revision, between students, teachers, scholars, texts and the world around them.
Berrett, Dan. “Harvard Conference Seeks to Jolt University Teaching.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 5 February 2012. 8 August 2012.
Showalter, Elaine. Teaching Literature. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003. Print.
Svinicki, Marilla and Wilbert J. McKeachie. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2011.
Young, Jeff. “The LectureFail Project.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 24 January 2012. 8 August 2012.