On Why a Teaching Philosophy Fails at Being Just
This academic year makes a full decade that I have been teaching at the collegiate level. It seems like a short time ago that I graduated from graduate school and was searching for academic positions. I spent quite a bit of time during those years focusing on my teaching philosophy, cleverly titling my teaching philosophy a toolbox, listing all of the tools I had in my toolbox that I was prepared to utilize to teach. The teaching philosophy also reflected the way I viewed education, the functions of education, and my role in the process of educating. The statement of teaching made many assumptions, which, for my first few years of teaching, I built upon, focusing on what I had and was willing to share with my students. Of course, this framing implied power relationships and assumptions about agency, but this, in my eyes, was the way in which education operated. At least that is how I felt in my early years as an educator – and while I had an awareness that performing the educational process in this way was not the best method for learning, it was the way in which the institution of education trained educators to “educate”.
Ten years into my career, I began to rethink the way I teach. Focusing on the teaching philosophy seems to me to be an upside down way of thinking about education, that places the agency squarely in the hands of the knowledge holder, the expert, the professor, the educator. In my years as both a professor and diversity and inclusion trainer, with a focus on equity and justice, I began to see my own role in the classroom differently. Questions about power and agency, as well as access and diversity, created questions in my own mind about the functions and gatekeeping that occurred in education and it made me uncomfortable. I questioned:
1. How do students learn?
2. What is my goal for students in the class?
a. Is my goal engagement? Memorization? Development of critical thought?
b. How do I present the material to encourage engagement?
c. How do I assess engagement over memorization and regurgitation?
3. How do I construct my classes in a way that centers the student?
4. How do I expect them to engage with the material that I am so passionate about?
5. What barriers exist to that engagement?
a. How and why do those barriers exist?
b. Are the barriers institutional or situational?
6. How do I, as the professor, provide students with the agency necessary to be successful in the college classroom?
7. How do I, as the professor assist in removing unnecessary barriers to engagement?
I began to see the statement as a Statement of Learning, or a learning philosophy, rather than a statement of teaching. This shift of focus from Teaching to Learning is really related to engagement practices and comes from my own commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice.
During the time that I have been teaching, I have also developed a training and consulting business, as an anti-oppression worker, initially focused on the differences between and the movement toward diversity and inclusion, and has since moved to an emphasis on equity and justice. It is helpful to define these terms:
Diversity: the visibility of differences within a classrooms, institutions, or societies. Power dynamics and systems of stratification are readily visible and felt by those defined as “diverse,” since those with power define in and outgroups. Diversity includes recognizing certain differences while ignoring or refusing to acknowledge any associated barriers
Inclusion: allowing those within the classroom, institution, or society opportunity to express agency and be a part of the conversation related to rules and policies that impact their educational experiences and lives. Inclusion still implies a power dynamic as those with power invite the input and participation of the “diverse” groups. Inclusion includes noticing the differences and discussing those differences while still refusing to remove those barriers
Equity: equal access within classrooms, institutions, societies. All groups are seen as valid and valuable. Decision making occurs within groups and each group is seen as valid. Equity involves acknowledging the barriers in the room and giving to each according to the need to be related to the barrier.
Justice: the intentional and purposeful removal of the barriers to full access within a classroom, institution, or society. Justice requires visibility of agency, as well as a push toward advocacy and anti-discriminatory practices. Decision making occurs across groups and there are no barriers to full inclusion, recognition, and regard. Justice is acknowledging difference and removing the barriers that might exist with in the room.
During my time as faculty, I have worked to develop assignments and projects reflective of goals of the discipline. As I gained more knowledge and more insight into my own Teaching Philosophy, my assignments became more structured, and more pages, and more difficult, at least according to my students. In my mind, however, Sociology as a discipline that demands critical thinking, it also demanded an incredible amount of rigor – and rigor was defined as writing, at least for me. Never mind that in many of the colleges and universities, Introduction to Sociology courses had no prerequisites, as students often took these general education courses in the same semesters. I wanted APA format and a clearly constructed argument to demonstrate both the retention of course information, but also to demonstrate just how rigorous this course could be. Also during this time, I began my company, Diversity to Inclusion, Inc. (D2I), with the express goals of discussing diversity and inclusion. Having both experiences concurrently, and providing trainings to educational entities forced me to evaluate the practices in my own classroom. While the discipline of sociology lends itself to concerns of diversity, equity, and inclusion, the structure of academia is not always inclusive. It is definitely not always concerned with creating a justice filled classroom.
I have written frequently about inequities and implicit bias in the college classroom. However, much of that writing was centered around a theoretical perspective that focuses on implicit bias and behaviors of instructors toward students, with an assumed power relationship. However, the more I engaged in the work, and the more I engaged with students, the more I began to see that implicit biases are not the only things creating barriers to success in the classroom. When we look at the student in a holistic manner, one must also question, “what systemic and/or institutional things are in place that may impede success and what is my role in maintaining that institutional barrier, even as I am in the practice of checking my own biases?” Additionally, what barriers do students experience unrelated to the institutional policies and behaviors of the professor that can impede success? How am I being a gatekeeper of access to education by my policies? In what ways do my policies impede of discourage engagement with material and the discipline at large? This line of questioning can lead to a far richer understanding of how students learn rather than how the instructor teaches and could potentially lead to a higher retention rate for students and a more fulfilling experience for professors.
Example of how this plays out in the classroom:
When I first began teaching I had strict policies about submission of assignment completion, exams, and quizzes. Papers could not be submitted online, quizzes had to be taken online before 11:59pm, and they were timed at 20 minutes per quiz, exams had to be taken during class and could not be taken later without prior approval, and other rules that made me feel as though I was a serious professor, serious about my craft and serious about the rigor of the course. However, in my syllabus, on the same page as my requirements and list of no statements, I also have a statement about inclusion and inclusive practices.
As I have done the work of inclusion, and then moving toward justice, I realize that it becomes imperative to reflect upon one’s teaching philosophy and pedagogy and compare it to how well we are ensuring equity and justice in the classroom. When I look at my statements of “No…” how well does it fit with my goals of access and engagement? Does having timed quizzes and no flexibility in assignments align with my beliefs about justice, equity, and access? Do these things by themselves create rigor in the classroom? Was I being “tough” for my own sake or theirs? Did this method encourage engagement or regurgitation? The answer then, to these questions about my “no…” statements was consistently no. My teaching philosophy as reflected in my syllabus was only a reflection of what I expected in teaching and unrelated to what and how I thought students learned.
This internal self-talk also made me consider why I enjoyed doing Diversity and Inclusion training so much. Part of the appeal is the ability to engage individuals in conversation and encourage critical thought. As I go out into corporate America and institutions of higher learning to talk about inclusion, equity, and justice, and made comparisons to what I do in the classroom, it became clear to me that my classroom policies around quiz taking, assignments, and grading were not as inclusive as I had imagined; and they definitely were not leading to justice in the classroom. While assessment is involved in both, assessment in D&I training is related to how participants engaged with the material and how much critical thought and application was encouraged. On the other hand, the structure of the classroom focused assessments on how much information was retained and repeated.
I sat with this information for a while. During my tenth academic year, I began making adjustments to assignments and grading as well as accommodating students of all strengths and abilities. Having students every semester who bring accommodation forms from the institution requiring things such as extended time on exams and quizzes, accommodations in when and how they submit assignments, the ability to record the class, and a variety of other needs, I began to consider what that meant for engagement for all of my students.
At the beginning of the semester I decided to remove all time limits and numbers of attempt on the online quizzes. The quizzes used to be timed with one of him and a significant part of the grade. While there is still a due date for the quizzes, if my goal is engagement, my hope is that they utilize their text books, notes, and other class resources to complete the quizzes. Even if they get the questions wrong, going back through the text to discover the correct answer is engagement rather than being penalized for not engaging.
More significantly, how does justice play out in this scenario? Given that there are students in each class with accommodations from the college, it felt imperative that I meet the need of the all students in the class. After all, who defines what need is significant for an accommodation? While medically diagnosed things are recognizable, single parenting of a newborn may be just as distracting. Needing to work over 40 hours a week while also taking classes full time may also provide a barrier. Therefore, when thinking of accommodations, justice requires an expansion of the definition of necessary accommodations.
There tends to be a quite a bit of emphasis in higher education concerned with equality in the classroom. However, as I have written before, equality is the (somewhat selfish) idea that I, as the professor or the decider and power holder, have a set number of resources and, because I am in the position of power, I distribute resources evenly. Equality pays little attention to the need of the students or the constituents but rather, is only concerned with how the resources of the giver are decided upon and distributed. In this sense the professor is the giver. On the other hand, equity is related to the need of the students and as the giver, it I have access to the resources and I give according to need. Which, in the classroom, might mean an extension of due dates or a little bit more “handholding” and explanation for some students. However, even this even does not go far enough in ensuring that everyone has access in the classroom. Another step forward could be considered inclusion. In an inclusive classroom, everyone within that space has agency to create and all needs are met. The giver serves as a coach, ensuring that all voices are heard ensuring that everyone within that space is included in the decision making process. In the classroom this also looks like a variety of things in the professor’s toolbox to meet the variety of learning needs in the class.
While an inclusive classroom seems to meet the need of each student while in the classroom, what could happen if our focus was instead a justice filled classroom? If the focus of the classroom is justice, the professor pays attention to and foresees possible needs and barriers that exist and will prevent individual students from accomplishing the required tasks. For some, those barriers might be access to technology; for others those barriers might be some mental emotional needs; for others that barrier might simply be an elementary and secondary school experience that did not equipped them for higher education. Justice sees the extra work of “handholding” not is something that is punitive to the professor but is something that is necessary to ensure the success of all students in the classroom. Justice allows for everyone in the classroom to have an equal footing and being able to accomplish the tasks.
The Practice of Justice in the Classroom
What does this look like in practice? For my own individual class I spent some time reflecting on my teaching philosophy. I evaluated several things. What did I want students to remember about my class one month later? 5 years later? Was this goal accomplished by the rules laid out in the syllabus? Or, was my motivation for those who take my classes to feel such passion within my classroom that they are moved to be engaged in the classroom and create change in their own world? Is my syllabus a reflection of education that uses punitive measures or one that encourages engagement? I decided that if my goal was actually engagement, that then should compel me to consider possible barriers to engagement. Very practically, one of those barriers to engagement was the timed quizzes. Research suggest that simply adding the pressure of a timer can be anxiety inducing, with the potential of driving down test scores. If the students with written accommodations could have the timer removed because they sought help through student services, what of those students who may have accommodation worthy needs that are nondiagnosable? What of those students who’s needs are related to a challenging family life or work schedule? What of those students who did not have an accommodation form, but could have received one if only the institution had been flexible enough or inclusive enough to provide them with this service? Or those students who had economic barriers that prevented them from having 24 hour access to the internet.
While considering the ways in which students experienced barriers with online quizzes, my questioning expanded to potential barriers with written communication as well. I have for years required five written assignment per class per semester. One of those assignments was a group assignment that required that students met with group members outside of class time to complete a research proposal, including a brief literature review and proposal of research. The last paper was similar to the first in that it was a full research assignment, but it did not require group meetings. Nevertheless, it required extensive research and an understanding of the scientific method, sociological theory, and the ability to read current academic research. For years, I thought that I had prepared my students for such tasks. However, one semester students really struggled with both the group assignment and the final paper. For one, having no prerequisites for the introductory level course meant that many in the class were not familiar with or comfortable with academic research and writing. Additionally, students had familial responsibilities, were working 40+ hours per week, and were all experiencing life circumstances that required thoughtfulness and consideration on my part. I realized during this experience that creating a climate of equity, inclusion, and justice meant that I take these factors into account as well. I had to evaluate all the varieties of barriers to success that existed both in my classroom and outside of the classroom if I wanted to ensure academic success for each student.
Recently, I shared my classroom changes with a friend. In the exchange, they expressed concern that the new set up was “dumbing it down” for students. By requiring fewer pages of writing and by removing time limits on exams, it gives too many opportunities. My response, however, was this: what is the function of education? If I expect that education is related to equity and justice, the my concerns are engagement with material and equity of access. The rigor and critical thinking is found in the discipline, the way material is presented, and the questioning and discomfort it creates. Expecting that rigor is found in the difficulty of assignments is related to a punitive model of education that serves as a gatekeeper of who can and cannot have access. This gatekeeping has far reaching effects beyond the college classroom and can impact retention rates and future recruitment rates. Additionally, changing the structure of classes, including the syllabus and assignments, can provide students with the agency necessary to complete successfully. Finally, by intentionally removing barriers we are demonstrating and modeling inclusive and just practices, which is a useful skill in any industry and relationship.