Critical, Communal Learning and Action
My philosophy of teaching emphasizes three primary values: critical thinking, communal learning, and compassionate action. While I use a wide range of teaching strategies, assignments, and technology, my classes consistently return to these values. I find them to be the most effective at teaching sociological thought and engaging students.
I approach teaching by demanding that students enter the classroom with critical engagement in their education. One way that I do this is to open every semester with an in-class reading of a chapter from bell hooks’ book Teaching Critical Thinking. This chapter reflects on the ways that critical thinking is stunted by the educational process, and it posits that true critical thinking is what gives us power as social actors. We come together as a class to brainstorm what it means to think critically and what our collective responsibilities are in creating a community of thinking. This becomes our classroom contract. The exercise is simple but powerful, and it has fundamentally transformed my relationship with students. I can call upon our class contract throughout the semester, reminding students of both the tenets of critical thinking that we developed together and how thinking is a source of power. This conversation moves me from being the bearer of knowledge to the facilitator of critical thought.
Next, I have created an environment of communal learning through several strategies. First, for classes with topics such as gender, I have developed a technique based on William Fawcett Hill’s “Learning through Discussion” method. In my version of this assignment, students are required to prepare structured notes and questions about the day’s reading. These notes are then used in structured, small group discussion (See “Learning Society” assignment below). This method allows students to freely explore their own ideas with their peers but provides enough structure to guide them through a productive learning process. Similarly, in classes that require extensive independent work (such as research methods), I assign small accountability groups. I provide the structure and support for these groups to be successful, and we use these groups to workshop material that students are developing. This has the multiple benefits: students learn how to critique material, receive useful feedback, and remain active in the learning process. These activities function to create interdependency among peers and requires that students take responsibility for their learning.
Finally, I strive to use sociology to teach empathy and action. Critical thinking demands critical engagement, and to create this, I use assignments that connect theory with practice. For example, in classes I have taught on gender, the final assignment requires students to research a problem, use class material to connect the problem to theory, and then use that theory to create a solution (assignment included in supplementary materials). This assignment maintains the theoretical integrity of sociology but asks students to think of how theory can result in action. In past semesters, students have created programs including a sexual violence training for campuses and media campaigns regarding beauty standards.
As a teacher, I am committed to classes that challenges students as thinkers and as people. I believe that my emphasis on critical, communal learning and action does just that, striving to bring students together in thoughtful community to understand and respond to the problems in society.