What's a Pedagogy, and How Do I Find Mine?

Posted in: pedagogy 

Crossposted to the Scholars’ Lab blog

As part of the Scholars’ Lab’s year of blogging, Amanda asked me to write a little about my pedagogy and things that have helped me find it. When someone asks me to do such a thing, I always think about this poll that Jesse Stommel put out on Twitter about pedagogical training in graduate programs:

I consider my own background as falling under the “basically nothing” category. My program did have a single semester course for pedagogical training, but for a variety of administrative reasons, it was possible to slip through the cracks and start teaching without any formal training. This is not to say there was no teaching support - we did have the help of a faculty mentor while serving as a teaching assistant, and we graduate students had each other. But that kind of catch-as-catch-can approach to pedagogical training left me with what felt like a very spotty teaching background and loads of imposter syndrome.

So, in some ways, this post is a letter to myself from eight years ago. It talks about steps I’ve taken to develop a stronger sense of myself as a teacher. It’s worth noting at the outset here that teaching happens in many shapes and sizes - courses, workshops, weeklong institutes, one-on-one mentoring, etc. Similarly, your pedagogy itself manifests in a variety of different ways, but it should ideally inform every decision you make about yourself as a teacher, your students, and everything in between. It’s also worth noting that these steps are more truly about pedagogy generally - digital pedagogy is a related subject that overlaps with this one that merits its own discussion. But the steps below could certainly get you started thinking your way through a pedagogy in that field as well.

Hopefully, what follows will help someone else work their way towards a more informed, aware, and critical sense of their own pedagogy. I’m still learning, and these are the steps I’m taking to do it.

What’s a Pedagogy?

When I put together my first syllabus, I had no idea where to start. I didn’t even really know what the genre looked like, despite having seen syllabi many times before. So I collected a bunch of example syllabi from friends and looked at what others had done. Using these pieces, I started assembling a Frankenstein’s monster of a syllabus that, when I looked down, was eight pages long and had pages of policies, rules, and readings.

Do these sort of things inform your teaching? Sure. Are they your pedagogy? No…or not exactly. An important first step is recognizing something that Jim Seitz, UVA’s Director of Academic and Professional Writing, told me at a later date - your pedagogy is what arises out of your motivation and thinking behind every decision related to the classroom. Those rules and policies were not my pedagogy, but they were expressions of it. They reflected a variety of different ideas about who my students were, how I viewed the classroom, and how we would all be interacting with each other.

Of course, when writing that initial syllabus, I didn’t know anything about all this - I was grabbing pieces that felt right without thinking too much about them. At the end of it all, I remember looking down at the resulting syllabus and thinking, “It sounds like I’m going to run this class on film musicals like it’s a police state.” So I deleted 90% of the rules and policies and started over. There was a pedagogical reason behind my doing this, but I didn’t really know it at the time. For me, discovering my own sense pedagogy has been about reclaiming agency over these sorts of impulses. I’ve learned what I care about, what I don’t, and places where I can express my vision of what teaching should be.

How Do I Find Mine?

The first thing to know about teaching is that if you’re asking that question you’re already moving in the right direction. These steps can help.

  1. Think about what you’re doing. You might not realize all the different components that go into the classroom, but every one of these could merit further examination. Everything from the way you dress to the way you interact with your students to whether you sit or stand while teaching can be things to think further about. Think about all the different elements that make up your teaching experience.

  2. Recognize which of the things you’re doing are choices. Most teaching situations bring with them a variety of constraints. Depending on your situation, you might not be able to adjust certain elements of the classroom. Of course, these sorts of restrictions can still be worth examining more closely - you might not always be constrained in this way, and it can be useful to have deeper thoughts about what you’re doing even if you can’t change it.

  3. Work from specific to abstract. Take a look at one thing you do and try to find the principle behind it. Given the entire world of possibility, what was it that would lead you to choose to do that one thing and not any others? And then take that justification and get even more abstract - why is it so important to you? To offer one example: when I run discussion I tend to contribute more questions than I do statements. As students respond to the questions, I give more. I do this because I’m genuinely interested in what the students have to say. And I think the underlying belief here is that students, even while learning, can make important contributions to complex discussions that are at least as important as anything I can offer.

  4. Observe others teach. Growing up, you probably spent a lot of time in classrooms as a student. But the irony is that, once it became clear that you would do some teaching, you probably didn’t get much of a chance to see how others do it. Education programs generally have student experiences designed to address this gap, but I think it’s the case that graduate students in the humanities don’t get enough opportunities to observe others. And you can’t rely on your memories of what good and bad teaching looked like - it’s fundamentally different to be a student than to be an outsider thinking about the logistics of how it all gets put together. So ask others if you can watch them teach. While some people might be self-conscious about the activity, you’ll get some people willing to let you sit in on a class. And while you’re watching, take notes about everything from the students to the teacher to the general classroom environment. Everything can be grist for your mill.

  5. Talk with others you respect about their teaching. This point can be taken in isolation, but it works best with observing someone teach. It often works well to get context for what goes on in a given classroom session. If the instructor has a lesson plan prepared in advance, ask them to send it to you (or at least a few sentences about what they’re planning to do). After the session, ask if you can follow up to talk about what you saw. Keep in mind that you’re asking the observee to do work for you. I sometimes offer to buy coffee to sweeten the deal if necessary, though this might not be financially possible for you. You might also offer to have them observe you in turn. When talking, it can often be a good entry point into the conversation to ask them how they thought the session went. And beyond observing individual classes, you should explore whether your institution (or one nearby if you don’t have one) has a group dedicated to teaching and pedagogy whose work and conversations you can tap into.

  6. Read and learn more. Depending on your own background, this fact might get obscured, but pedagogy is an area of study - and research - like any other in academia. There are countless scholars working to advance conversations about pedagogy, and beginning to read around in the field can help you to discover where you fit in. You might start off by reading people discussing teaching as it relates to your specific field to get a general sense, but strong pedagogy frequently transcends the disciplines in which it manifests. As with any discipline, you won’t agree with everything you read. If you’re reading this, odds are you are in some way interested in how we run our student programs in the Scholars’ Lab. A pedagogical starter pack for us might look like the following:

    • Paulo Freire - Pedagogy of the Oppressed
    • bell hooks - Teaching to Transgress
    • Cathy Davidson - The New Education
    • L. Dee Fink - Creating Significant Learning Experiences

    As with any good lit review, I find it works well to read any given piece looking what I am going to read next. I’m always looking for my next citation. So as you’re going, keep an eye out for any compelling citations that might offer good opportunities for digging deeper into the conversation in the future.

  7. Where to Start. You might try a thought experiment: imagine that your supervisor has asked you to take on a new course/workshop/student. In short, you’ll be doing exactly what you currently do but with one crucial difference - they will dictate everything about your teaching. Everything will be decided for you and you will have few freedoms. But they recognize your strengths as a teacher and are willing to compromise - you can bring three things over from how you used to teach. Only three - pick the most important parts of what you do. Start with the three treasured components, find the beliefs that underlie them, and you’ll be well on your way to developing a stronger sense of your pedagogy.

Hopefully the above activities will help someone reading this think more deeply about their teaching. The above suggestions are all born out of my own experiences with pedagogical training and growth - your mileage may vary. If you have had wildly different experiences I would love to hear more about them. My last suggestion is to write your pedagogy down. These writings might take many forms. The Scholars’ Lab has tried to express our pedagogy in the form of a charter. You might choose to blog about it or construct a generalized teaching statement, but, whatever form you choose, writing about your teaching will help you develop a better sense of it. And that labor is not for nothing - there are a number of great venues for writing about pedagogy, and doing so can be a professionally legible activity in its own right.

The world needs more teachers, and it needs more good thinking about teaching. Contribute yours to the conversation.