Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Here are some initial thoughts about teaching, from a recent interview where I was asked about “the project approach” to learning and my involvement with the National Heritage Fairs: CLICK HERE FOR THE PODCAST

As an English professor, I want each course I teach to enact a kind of shared intellectual journey or exploration. My most successful classes tend to pose a question at the outset, one for which neither the students nor I have a fully resolved answer—but one that I have thought about and studied extensively.

Over the last ten years, for example, I’ve sought opportunities to integrate my research and teaching in this manner, (1) by developing courses allied to research projects and archives, (2) by creating hands-on learning situations for my students. I’ve developed new courses on “reading and writing the city” and “memory mapping” (tied to the Small Cities CURA grant); “artists’ books,” “artist statements,” and “creative nonfiction” (tied to a 4-year study of Artist Statements and the Artist-as-Researcher); and “vernacular literature,” “photography and literature” and cultural mapping (tied to an ongoing research program on visual literacy). In addition, and as an extension of my teaching interests, I proposed, designed, and introduced the Service Learning Program at TRU (credit courses allowing cohorts of up to five senior-level students to work on community-based research projects under the supervision of a faculty member); and, as AVP Research, I provide leadership for our university’s suite of student training programs, which provide students with scholarships and funding to conduct approved research projects.

I have a special interest in the theory and practice of involving students in Undergraduate Research. My understanding of this field–especially its pedagogical impacts–has benefited greatly from my association with Dr. Jenny Shanahan (Bridgewater State University). Together we are working on the development of a research network and a symposium to address questions of inclusion and exclusion. We know that students of diverse nationalities, fields of study, racial and ethnic groups, gender identities, and socio-economic classes benefit from participating in undergraduate research (UR). Students involved in UR demonstrate higher rates of persistence and degree-completion, campus engagement, academic achievement, self-efficacy, and analytical and communication skills. These benefits derive especially from supportive relationships with faculty mentors and the advantageous opportunities afforded by participation in UR, such as conference presentations and community-engaged work with social agencies or municipal departments. Yet research indicates that access to UR still disproportionately favours economically advantaged students with family legacies of higher education and students in their final year of study who have proven themselves with high GPAs. We are looking at ways to address this issue, to make UR opportunities more inclusive.

In my classroom, I do my best to foster an academically sound environment that is also accepting, supportive and respectful. I’ll usually meet with each student early in the semester, and I ask for feedback notes (comments, kudos, and complaints) at least twice during each semester—with the aim of using the notes to help guide the pace or focus of instruction.

I see my teaching as serving various functions: as introducing students generally to the excitement and intellectual energy of disciplinary inquiry; as initiating majors and honours students into specific disciplinary practices; as preparing students for further studies (informally, via so-called “life-long learning,” or formally via graduate studies); and, with senior-level students, as creating opportunities for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary inquiry. Once students have declared their majors, once they have begun to initiate themselves in a discipline, the introduction of competing disciplinary viewpoints, methods, or findings can further stimulate learning.

Toward that end, I’ve found the Project Approach, which encourages sustained student engagement and in-depth research, both an effective complement to traditional lecturing and an effective method to involve students as active learners. I regularly ask undergraduate students to frame semester-length projects of interest, projects that may be divided into two or three stages and involve working with primary materials (gathered via archives, fieldwork, personal interviews, etc.). These cumulative research and writing activities benefit from periodic consideration of other disciplinary perspectives, considerations designed to disrupt conventional thinking (and clichés) and force possible connections between the ostensibly unconnected. Here my teaching has been influenced most obviously by the work of Sylvia Chard, John Dewey, Andrea Lunsford, Greg Ulmer, Michael Jarrett, Greame Sullivan—and by my own long-term study of the Reggio Emilia approach to education.

In teaching I try to introduce new ideas and practices by encouraging students to make connections between what they take as “given” and what I’m presenting as “new.” My classroom emphasizes extensive discussion, clear demonstrations and modeling (via close examination of exemplary work); group workshopping, providing multiple opportunities for problem solving and revision; and meaningful practice via assignments that become (over time) both personally meaningful to the students and directed toward an audience other than the teacher (e.g., via publication, performance, exhibition, or presentation). Throughout this process, I think it important to share specific evaluation criteria, to provide examples where possible of previous student work, and to offer regular grading and feedback.

Classroom discussion creates its own context, where one interpretation or viewpoint variously collides, colludes, or converses with others. I’ve found that the dynamic of such a critical exchange, when it goes well, can entertain or seduce even the seemingly uninterested student. Writing essays, though, presents a different set of challenges. Writing can seem a lonely and even isolating experience; and too often student essays may initially lack the energy and purpose of the lively classroom discussion that may have preceded them. My own approach (illustrated in Writing about Literature, a guide for student writers) is to create opportunities for practising reading, viewing, and writing as interrelated performance arts. I introduce writing as a heuristic, as a means of discovering and sharing what we think; and I do my best to dramatize (and make visible) the writing process via group writing exercises, guided self-reflection, the sharing of in-process drafts (including my own), and regular classroom critiques of student work.

During the last ten years I have supervised the research of 27 undergraduate students, 9 graduate students, and 2 postdoctoral fellows; and I have successfully involved over 40 undergraduates and 5 graduate students in my ongoing research activities. I have created a wide variety of collaborative research opportunities for students, including copyediting and manuscript editing, interviewing, data transcription and analysis, field research in archives and galleries, script development and video production, and co-presentation at provincial, national, and international conferences. In 2001 I was given primary responsibility for the development of Service Learning at the university, and starting in September 2002, senior-level students were able to gain academic credit by joining a recognized faculty research team such as (1) the Small Cities Community-University Research Alliance (which provided hands-on research training and experience for more than 90 students); (2) the Centre for the Study of Multiple Literacies (which, I directed for 12 years and which has involved 11 students in its projects); and (3) two refereed publications, the online journal The Small Cities Imprint (which I co-edit) and the refereed academic journal and publication collective Textual Studies in Canada (which I co-edit and co-founded, and which together with the Imprint has employed and trained 17 editorial assistants, publishing the work of 15). My former research assistants have won Bombardier scholarships and graduate awards, and have been recognized for their achievements inside and outside of the academy.

To hear more about my teaching experiences, and especially about the project approach to learning, listen to the following interview:  Adventures in Teaching Podcast (An Interview with Rob Schoen and John Churchley)

My recent role as Special Advisor on Integrated Strategic Planning has afforded the opportunity for honours programming development, where I’m providing administrative leadership on the creation of TRU’s Honours College. The focus here on integrative learning, open pedagogy, Indigenous knowledge making, and equitable access to research make the Honours College a wonderful fit with my commitments to teaching and learning.