Despite my authority as an instructor, the act of teaching ironically often raises more questions than it answers. How can I challenge my students through traditional assignments as well as inspire them to embrace unconventional paths to learning? And most importantly, how can I empower my students through class discussions and coursework to take on intellectual leadership roles? Keeping these questions in mind, I have shaped my teaching philosophy and practices around three key principles:
- Train students to think critically and approach issues from a variety of perspectives;
- Apply these concepts and theories to their own disciplines and cultures of research; and
- Carry these skills forward into their professional communities.
My beliefs about effective teaching are formed from my experiences teaching undergraduate courses in popular and children’s literature and mentoring graduate students as part of my work as a postdoctoral administrator at the Semaphore Research Cluster at the Faculty of Information (iSchool), University of Toronto. Drawing on my interests in children’s media, animality studies, and digital culture, my teaching practice encourages students to, as Carol Shrewsbury frames it, approach critical thinking not as an “abstracted analysis but a reflective process firmly grounded in the experiences of the everyday” (9).
For this reason, I believe that it is necessary for lessons in theory to be accompanied by contemporary and concrete examples that are relevant to students’ own experiences, as well as practical applications that allow them to explore abstract concepts, a process Matt Ratto calls “critical making.” According to Ratto, this term “theoretically and pragmatically connect[s] two modes of engagement that are often held separate – critical thinking, typically understood as conceptually and linguistically based, and physical ‘making,’ goal-based material work” (253).
Although critical making is focused on producing technological objects to think through issues in our relationships to technology, this framework is easily adaptable to many classrooms. In my children’s literature course, I used weekly quizzes as a lightweight opportunity to think through theoretical concepts by employing them to generate their own texts. For example, the quiz for the fairy tales unit asked students to make three updates to Perrault’s original tale to reflect contemporary issues and values as an inroads to examining multiple versions of the story, particularly modern feminist re-interpretations. This was a particularly fruitful line of inquiry, as it led to a wide-ranging class discussion on the historical roots of contemporary representations of women in media, defining meaningful consent, and the role online activism can play in changing perceptions of marginalized populations. Because the quizzes were aligned with the participation grade and not evaluated on the merits of their ideas, my students were more open to taking risks and, over the course of the semester, their willingness to challenge themselves and their colleagues resulted in a more inclusive classroom environment.
This organically-developed inclusivity also underscores why I believe that my students have so much to offer and learn from each other. I incorporate opportunities for peer mentoring into my lectures and course design. I often dedicate the last 15 minutes of class for students to help one another prepare for exams and upcoming assignments. I also include brainstorming sessions into class discussions, to help students come up with or refine their essay topic ideas. Similarly, the week before the final exam, I divide the students into small groups to discuss what types of questions might be on the exam to present to the class. This approach acknowledges the role that undergraduate students play in the production of new scholarly knowledge.
Graduate students are similarly central to the production of new knowledge at Semaphore. Foregrounding students’ expertise is crucial in developing sustainable interdisciplinary research communities comprised of students, faculty members, and industry experts. These communities arise naturally when students are part of working groups on projects spanning every level of academic research, from grant-writing to curriculum development. Working with graduate students committed to critical technical literacy has broadened my perspective so that I am able to facilitate collaboration between seemingly-disparate groups of researchers expanding on notions of what critical technical literacy means, and carrying that perspective forward into my own pedagogical process.
My student-centred approach has served me well both at Ryerson, with its highly diverse body of students committed to academic excellence, and the Faculty of Information, a graduate faculty which similarly attracts top students from around the world. Collectively, my students come from a variety of different backgrounds, carrying with them a broad range of different interests and ambitions. Supporting this diversity of interests and expertise enables me to foster a deeper level of engagement with my students, and in turn has been effective in supporting dynamic and interdisciplinary opportunities for students’ scholarly development. I see my teaching practice as a dynamic process, informed by my experience in the classroom, in the lab setting, and in my ongoing interactions with students at all levels.
Ratto, Matt. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life.” The Information Society 27 (2011): 252-260.
Shrewsbury, Carol. “What is Feminist Pedagogy?” Women’s Studies Quarterly 21.3/(1993): 8-16.