Teaching Philosophy

My first major teaching assignment came while working on my PhD in religion. I was 23, had just finished a master’s degree, and was offered a chance to serve as a teaching assistant for the Writing Intensive Program within the Religion Department at the University of Georgia. The university, thankfully, did not send me right into the classroom, but the training they provided was more of an eye-opener about how little I knew than anything. In our first training session, the instructor asked us to think about how we ourselves write and what writing looks like in our field, and I realized that I had never paid much attention to the writing style for our field or even my own writing process. I would just sit down and do the writing. In reality, while I could write, I did not know how to write, or more properly how to help others write. A similar statement could be made about my knowledge of Religion. While I could speak about Religion, I had little understanding about how I received that knowledge or how it connected to everything else around it. In many ways, I had a very isolated, academic sense of education, both in writing skills and material knowledge. That moment of reflection on how I write came to shape how I understood teaching both writing and Religion, and whether students are able to apply the skills and knowledge with which they are engaging.

Since that experience, I have had many conversations with colleagues and mentors about successful education, and I became heavily influenced by some of the principles my Academic Advisor friends used to engage with students. One of the ideas that really summed up the realization I had about my own educational journey is that "a checklist isn't an education." I (and other students) entered my degree programs or classes with a checklist of courses or assignments I had to complete to get my degree or earn the "A," with the assumption that finishing that checklist meant I have received an effective education. This was my approach to education throughout my undergraduate work, pushing to check the items on one list so I could move onto the next. Holding the sense that "a checklist isn't an education" as a core principle in my approach to teaching reminds me that education goes beyond a list of information and instead builds connections across the disciplines and engages with a student's life and sense of being so that there is a chance to define the purpose of their education for their career and life. Education is the journey students and instructors make together to decide what the content they are engaging with is going to mean for them. In turn, my pedagogical approach ought to create opportunities not only to engage with content, but also for students to collaboratively make meaning from the content by questioning its value for their career, lives, and roles as global citizens.

Based on those reflections, successful learning is situated around students’ reflection on the academic legacy offered to them and how they define its purpose for their lives. The act of teaching goes back to creating the space for students to do this work. This includes presenting students with a variety of notions with which they can experiment and engaging them in a conversation about how they write and speak about their own beliefs. To center these notions in my pedagogical practice, I emphasize Imaginative Storytelling (Narrative Learning) and Self-Authoring/Metacognitive Reflection.

My own research looks at the intersection of Religion and Fantasy Literature, which naturally lends itself to Imaginative Storytelling, and that has played an important role in the success of student learning in my courses. Moreover, I find Imaginative Storytelling essential in learning to move beyond a checklist because Story engages us on so many levels. When we tell our friends about books, tv shows, or movies we have watched, very rarely do we summarize the plot (focus on the checklist content). Instead, we discuss how it made us feel or how it connected with our life. In other words, when we engage with Storytelling, we look at what it offers beyond a checklist of information to consider why it matters for us and make meaning out of the plot. In a theological educational context, one example of this in practice might relate to how we approach the bible. We can read and learn what the bible has to say about any particular topic and check a box that we understand the principle. Imaginative Storytelling, however, takes us a step further though to begin asking what we do with that information. Why does it matter for the way we live our lives or the way Christians have lived their lives the past 2000 years? The stories we tell about what it means to be Christian brings the biblical texts to life by embodying those ideals in our lived experiences of the world. Engaging storytelling in the classroom then becomes an opportunity to help students naturally consider what they might do with the the content I was formally presented to them.

When I taught the Introduction to Religious Thought at UGA, I took a different approach from previous iterations of the class which focused on learning religious theory or specific branches of theology. Instead, I had my students read the first five Percy Jackson books, and we reflected together on how they demonstrate religious ideas or how they can impact our religious life. Throughout the first two weeks of the course, students often brought up how they never thought they could think about Religion in this way, especially given the negative associations between fantasy and Religion in popular culture. This approach had an immediate impact on how they thought about the concept of Religion and broke away from our normal associations with the major world religions. This, in turn, emphasized the different ways we can apply our theories of religion throughout the course, process the Percy Jackson stories encouraged us to use. The use of pop culture in the course engaged the Imaginative Storytelling mode to help students slow down and and think about the texts, theologies, and theories we have inherited in new ways. By asking how does Percy Jackson relate to Religion, we gain some distance and can begin asking why is Religion important in our contemporary landscape and why has it been important in the past.

In conjunction with Imaginative Storytelling, I also utilize Self-Authorship/Metacognitive Reflection where I created space for students to reflect on our material as it relates to their life or a separate course they were taking. In turning to Metacognitive Reflection, I wanted to encourage students not only to receive the information for our course, but to start thinking about what they were going to do with that information and how it might influence them going forward. This helped to make the learning more personal for them as they get a chance to decide why it mattered for their context (see National Humanities Center's "Humanities Moments Project" as an influence). This is the same type of process that first helped me move beyond thinking about education as a checklist in terms of my own education, which became the encouragement to create that intentional space with my students. I found this especially important in my course on Religious Thought, where the emphasis is more on learning to think about religion rather than memorizing how others have thought about it. By asking students what mattered to them from the course and how they were applying it, the religious theory we were talking about became relevant to their own lives rather than an abstract set of knowledge.

A key component throughout this process was helping students learn to write and speak about their own ideas in a clear and meaningful way. As a writing assistant my first few years of teaching, I realized the importance of writing for students to present their ideas. While students are often able to speak about their ideas and easily convey why they found their arguments important, the social cues that guide that process were missing when they were writing so that students would leave out important information, justifications, or connections. Yet, writing is one of the most important mediums of communication students use, especially as we dive further into the digital world. My courses have therefore focused on improving how students communicate through writing, particularly utilizing a Writing to Engage framework that asks students to informally summarize content that has stood out to them and contextualize its importance for the student in relation to other course content or their personal/social context. As lower-stakes assignments, these are great avenues to encourage students to bring out their ideas and reflect on how they are presenting those ideas to readers because they focus on how the content becomes relevant for the student, front-ending their approach to the content.

One special assignment that combined both Imaginative Storytelling and Metacognitive Reflection for my students was a Fanzine and Reflection Project that asks students to create a fanzine based on the theories of Religion and fantasy texts we discussed throughout the semester. This is built as a scaffolded project where students are introduced to fanzines, get hands on experience evaluating historic fanzines at the university archives, and then create their own based on an idea that has been important to them throughout the semester. In the past, I have seen students discuss how certain books relate to grief, the idea of home, or food and why those topics matter for Religion and Theology. They then get the chance to present them to their classmates in a "zine-fair" to share the meaning we found in the process of zine creation. What I loved about this project and why I think it worked so well is that it encouraged students not only to know details from our semester conversations, but also to think about why those conversations were important to them and their context. Because of the material construction of the fanzine (a cut-and-paste mentality), it becomes necessary to put those two ideas directly beside one another. In doing so, they are physically able to take ownership of the content we have discussed and say why it mattered to them, physically cut pieces of the academic legacy offered to us and paste them together in a way that we find meaningful. The product is essentially a physical construction of the meaning they have found in our conversations. In one instance, the process even took on greater meaning for me as the students encouraged me to create my own zine and become a participant in our zine-fair, breaking down some of the student-teacher barriers so we might learn together.

While I have done a lot of writing and memorized a lot of material throughout my education, I think one of the key moments I learned something in all of that was during my reflection on that process during my first day of teacher training. My own pedagogy has been based on that reflection and asking students to begin it earlier in their learning career. Through Imaginative Storytelling and Self-Authorship/Metacognitive Reflection, my pedagogy has sought to create space for students to engage with the "checklist" content by asking them to consider how it impacts their understanding of the world and how will it impact them beyond the space of the classroom. As part of my practice of Metacognitive Reflection, I end every semester with the same question for my students: What is one thing you going to take with you as you leave this class?