A Philosophy of Teaching

Back in the old days, much time was devoted to pondering the true nature of journalism: Is it a craft or a profession? Today that question seems mostly moot, if not decided. Anyone with the means (certainly not everyone) can practice journalism today, for better and for worse. For the sake of teaching, perhaps we should now wonder whether journalism is an academic discipline rooted in scholarship and the liberal arts or simply a set of vocational tools to be taught—how to make a website, operate a camera, put a sentence together. Ultimately, of course, it needs to be both.

But the challenge facing journalism is the same one facing higher education in general. How does a university best equip young people to grow and flourish as humans while also teaching the often highly technical skills required to be employable? As the university becomes more like a business, it aims to “serve its customers” with the short-term benefit of being able to get a job. But like most profit-oriented business strategies, this neglects the long-term needs of a human and the larger needs of society, as well as the university’s social responsibility to meet those needs.

Only by bridging scholarship and the liberal arts with  technical skills and knowledge of the trade will we create students who can go forth and not only get a job or continue on to graduate education but also facilitate the kind of innovation and problem-solving that allows for progress in both their professional and personal lives. Thus, I believe in what some have called a “pedagogy of inquiry,” which involves challenging students to think independently so that they might seek their own answers to questions by using critical reasoning skills to weigh evidence and reach conclusions. More than a vessel of knowledge, a teacher should facilitate student learning by encouraging independent inquiry and analysis. At the same time, critical inquiry must be informed by a solid foundation of knowledge, and teachers should help students engage with resources that will provide this. I aim to equip students with the skills, tools and resources they need to succeed in their short-term endeavor to acquire foundational knowledge and in their lifelong pursuit of wisdom. I hope to help students balance foundational knowledge with critical inquiry so that they might find their own informed answers.

In the field of journalism, I strive to teach practical and technical skills that will serve students in their careers. But I take that opportunity to teach students how to think critically about media and to ask questions about journalism’s practices and procedures. In my classrooms, we discuss complex issues—such as normative goals of journalism in a democracy—that have no clear answers and demand an ongoing analysis. It is precisely this type of exchange with students that seems to engage and inspire, to motivate students to actively participate in the process of education, and to take an ownership role in their learning. The depth of these types of exchanges must be properly tailored to class size, age and skill level, and even sometimes to individual students, but this is the pedagogy of inquiry, and in learning about the study and production of media, it is immensely useful.

In my teaching, I am especially sensitive to short attention spans and a desire for efficiency among students. I have lost countless hours in my own life to a surplus of tedious administrative concerns and boring routines that do nothing to further educational goals. It is important, of course, to offer students a structured environment with clear goals and policies, but teachers should enter the classroom with some degree of humility and an appreciation for their students’ time and attention. Tired classroom traditions and unnecessary busywork often serve only to build up the institution in a transparent attempt to self-legitimize.

While it is important for an instructor always to retain some degree of authority, it is even more important to foster an atmosphere of inquiry informed by warmth and openness. Learning should not be viewed as something to be suffered through as a means to an end, but should be approached with enthusiasm as a joyous end of its own. The cold, aloof professor does nothing to encourage student learning or enthusiasm for the topic. Thus, it is ideal to avoid mere didacticism or rote memorization, especially in the humanities and social sciences.

Diverse ideas and critical questioning are sometimes unwelcome in young students who would prefer a didactic model to suit their typically dualistic worldviews, but a critically thoughtful approach should be encouraged even at this level. It is the job of the college professor to move students along from dualism to relativism to critical analysis. It is in the final stage of their college education that students are most engaged in active learning and questioning, and have also transitioned away from relativism and have begun making commitments to ways of knowing and to methods of practice.

Finally, a teacher’s level of enthusiasm is almost always predictive of student interest and engagement. If a teacher appears disengaged, the student is likely to copy this behavior. Enthusiasm for the subject at hand—not to mention for life in general—is infectious. As education represents a key component in an individual’s socialization, teachers should not neglect their role in influencing each student’s overall worldview and disposition toward his or her own future. Thus, I believe it is my job to actively promote an appreciation for thoughtful engagement, critical inquiry and diverse experience. Ultimately, I consider teaching a privilege and responsibility unlike any other, and I strive to inspire and engage students just as the best teachers in my life have done for me.

About Seth

Journalism and media studies professor
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