PHILOSOPHY OF TEACHING



David H. Kessel

Revised 6/1/02

My teaching philosophy is both simple and complicated. It's simple because it can be stated in no uncertain terms, that is, my concern is for students to become as aware of their social world as possible so as to become conscious active agents in it. It's complicated because doing this is no easy task given the ideological and material interests of our lives, not to mention the dominance of ego-psychological concepts to "explain" our lives...whether teacher or student. It's complexity involves using pedagogical techniques and approaches which may at first flush seem like I'm not doing my job, traditionally conceived...or which may seem so "different" that students will tend to get confused at first and until some initial generalizations are specified by the "doing" of them. My experience as a college teacher for over 20 years is that all these stages are necessary and unvoidable and that the huge percentage of students in my classes not only "catch on" but come to appreciate my approach.

Using three themes or motifs, I'll explain what I mean. First, I see and treat the students in my classes as human beings, holistic human beings who have a variety of facets to their lives. They are not mere "role players" as students...they are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, spouses, partners, bosses, employees...the list could go on, as you know. This means in my relations with them and assessment of their performance, I must take into account the totality of their lives and while maintaining an academic rigor in terms of evaluation, I must also allow for realities which may infringe on that performance. However, this larger context in which each is situated is not merely a limitation...it's a benefit in developing a sociological imagination. Each individual's holistic realities constitute a font of experience and information upon which they can draw and from which I can draw out illustrations of the concepts covered in sociology courses. Further, since I, too, am a holistic individual with realities swirling around me, I utilize my own experience to illustrate these concepts. Showing my own humanness along with acknowledging their own connects us in a way which generates respect for our commonalities as well as our differences.

The second motif involves the process of knowing itself. On the basis of my own sociological understanding of this process and of the interfering realities which prevent many of us from a clearer view of social reality, my philosophy and methods of teaching follow the path which can be roughly stated as: Unlearning, Relearning, and Learning. There are simply some things...distortions of reality as well as outright falsehoods...which need to be unlearned if we are to become those conscious and active agents in our own lives. Then, the realities which had been filtered through inadequate conceptual and commonsense notions...these realities need to be relearned in more sociological and honest ways. Finally, the very process of unlearning and relearning sets the stage for more authentic learning of new things without having to go through the distorting lens previously used. All of this involves helping people to learn and utilize critical sociological "tools" which make the process of knowing much more transparent (although also more complicated) than it was previously for them. The honesty and straightforward approach of doing this creates an atmosphere in which they realize that their knowing is done by themselves, the knower.

The third motif involves authority, specifically, my authority in the classroom as a teacher. Thus, it involves the structure of the relationship between teacher and student. Although it may sound at first to be a bit strange to put it this way, in essence I'm in the business of giving my authority away...to the students. I use my authority to rid myself...and the students...of its unnecessary and in my sociological perspective, harmful aspects. This doesn't mean, however, that I'm not "in charge." Rather, what it means is I want students to be self-authorities...in charge, so to speak, and responsible for their own education. The functional gap between student and teacher is sufficient and necessary, especially if I'm to stand up there with a straight face and maintain I have some reason to be there. This is, of course, the least understood aspect of my philosophy of teaching and education, not only by students but also by colleagues. In other words, I use my institutional and role authority to energize an individual's sense of their own.

Hence, my teaching philosophy is geared towards getting people to think...not memorize, to reason...not repeat, and to broaden their outlook...not to narrow their range of understanding. It is premised on the notion that people will think when they are respected for having viable thoughts of their own...and when they are given substantive ideas to think about, rather than so-called "facts" to merely "spit back." Thus, I challenge students to become (grow) what they are capable of becoming...and that's different for each of them and very open-ended. Each is in a kind of "struggle" with themselves, NOT in a "competition" with each other...and certainly not with me.

My philosophy of teaching is best understood by doing it...to trust enough in the respect that will be generated by doing so. It is student-centered and respect-based...respect not from some arbitrary title or role, but rather, respect emerging from giving respect unconditionally. I believe that education is NOT something that is done to or for another. Rather, education (as contrasted with "schooling") is a process of inquiry done by each of us...for ourselves. I teach on the basis that each individual is responsible for their own education...even at a young age...but hopefully with the assistance of a teacher who has been in charge of their own education. However, this does not mean that I have no expectations of people as students. To the contrary, I expect students to understand materials presented to them so they can better use these materials to critically understand themselves and their world...to liberate themselves as well as others. This means that the educational endeavor is a joint venture and on-going...unbounded by either time or location.