Teaching statement

I see my teaching as closely connected with the values described in the Mission Statement of Saint Mary’s College, in which we describe ourselves as “an academic community where women develop their talents and prepare to make a difference in the world” and where we promote “a life of intellectual vigor, aesthetic appreciation, religious sensibility, and social responsibility.” As I seek to help students develop their talents in ways that reflect these goals, I am driven by three primary concerns: (1) that students engage and wrestle with questions about how to live, both as individuals and as members of communities; (2) that they develop a set of skills that will serve them well in their college careers and beyond; and (3) that they develop a confidence in their ability to learn, and that in that process, they come to see learning and scholarship as necessarily involving conversation.

I come to teaching as the result of two things. The first is a passion for wrestling with important questions—about human beings, their nature, and their life in community—sparked in me by professors at my undergraduate and graduate institutions who took those questions seriously and encouraged me in my exploration. The second is a strong desire to share that passion with my students, in the hope that they, too, might find the questions captivating.

In the classroom, the teacher of Political Theory is in a unique position to encourage students to think about such questions, because she can make use of course material that explicitly addresses them. The subject matter of Political Theory itself forces students to confront issues they need to consider when making decisions about the course of their lives. For example: Do human beings have a nature? If they do, can it be discovered? Are there clear norms for human behavior in both private and communal life? Can people who differ in their answers to these questions work together in society? If so, how? In all of my courses, I try to awaken in my students the same appreciation for these questions that my mentors awakened in me. In the 200-level Political Thought course in particular, I try to make the questions come alive by relating them to students’ own experience. In explaining Socrates’ description of the three parts of the soul in the Republic, for example, I ask students to consider whether they’ve ever felt the kind of division Socrates is talking about. Have they ever had an internal debate with themselves about whether to engage in an action they knew to be wrong? Most of them have, and reflecting on such an experience helps them to understand both what Socrates means when he describes the parts of the soul and the difficulty involved in rightly ordering those parts.

Among the skills I want students to develop are the ability to read texts carefully and analyze the arguments they present, to evaluate those arguments, and to develop positions of their own. Writing, I believe, is an important element in helping students to develop these skills; in order to write a solid essay, students must engage the text sufficiently to acquire an understanding of it and use it as evidence. Moreover, writing is an important part of the thinking process, and I believe that helping my students develop their writing skills and helping them develop their critical thinking skills are inherently linked. The amount and kind of writing that I ask students to do varies by level and by the kind of course; I ask students in Political Issues (W) to do the most writing, as they are working to earn their basic writing certification. They get a fair amount of direction from me, however, both regarding the general content area and the development and format of their essays. They are, after all, still learning to construct arguments, and many of them are just beginning to find their voices as writers.

The students in my upper-level courses (with the exception of Catholic Political Thought, in which I ordinarily require a series of shorter papers due to the nature of the course readings), on the other hand, have a different challenge. They need to be able to conduct guided research on a topic of their choosing (restricted only by the subject matter of the course itself), find their own resources, and determine how best to narrow their subject so as to produce a solid piece of academic writing. I provide guidance as needed and requested, of course, and class sessions are devoted not only to helping students master course content but also to introducing them to sources that may be of help to them in exploring a topic. They must, however, work largely independently. Students seem to enjoy doing this work, and are eager to share their findings with others in the class. In previous semesters, I’ve assigned this work in the form of a traditional research essay, which students have generally enjoyed doing; my upper-level students take pride in their ability to learn and write about a topic of interest to them and present their findings to their colleagues.

This semester[1. Fall 2011], however, I am conducting an experiment in my American Political Thought course. Instead of writing a traditional research essay, students will present the fruits of their research in a website that they, as a class, construct together (each student will be responsible for providing the same amount and depth of content that she would provide in a traditional research essay, but there will now be more options for how to present that material). Students will, for example, have the option of including images, video, audio, and timelines (among other possibilities) as part of the information they present. They will have to think carefully about what pieces of information they discover in the course of their research are truly essential, and about how best to present that information effectively to a broad audience. It is my hope that this assignment will enable students to think about the course material in new ways, while helping them develop information literacy and technical skills that will serve them well in the future.

American Political Thought isn’t the only course in which I regularly integrate technology. Students in all of my courses will attest to the fact that I’m a technophile; over the last several years I’ve asked them to do a variety of things involving the use of digital tools: submitting their work via Blackboard’s Digital Dropbox, submitting work via email, participating in discussion groups in Blackboard, keeping a blog of their own, contributing to a class blog, and using Zotero (a reference manager that also allows students to make notes and share their resources with others; see www.zotero.org for more information). This semester, I’m asking students in Political Issues (W) to build online portfolios showcasing their work, using a combination of Google Documents and Google Sites. I do not, however, ask students to use technology simply for technology’s sake. There are particular reasons why I ask them to make use of these tools, all related to what I hope for them both in their understanding of scholarship and in their confidence in their own abilities as learners.

First, I want them to understand that all scholarship (even that produced by a single author) is part of a conversation; it’s embedded in a context. Using and citing sources is one way in which scholars participate in the broader conversation; using Zotero for tracking their sources and providing proper credit to them helps students to understand that. (It has the added advantage of making citation formatting easier than it might be otherwise.) Participating in a discussion board or contributing to a class blog serves a similar function, though more informally. It’s a form of interaction that forces students to engage with a text, with each other, or both.

Second, I want students to realize that even individually-produced scholarship can involve collaboration, even if it’s as simple as having others read and comment on our writing. This is the major reason I routinely ask students in Political Issues (W) to use Google Documents for their work. In addition to keeping track of revisions, Google Documents allows students to share their documents with each other for the purpose of giving and receiving feedback on their writing. Though I do not ask students to co-author papers, their familiarity with Google Documents will make co-authoring simpler for them should they need or wish to write collaboratively in the future. I also ask students to use the sharing feature in Zotero (Zotero Groups) to share research or other course-related resources they find with each other and with me. Again, I want to impress upon them that all of us rely to some degree on the work of others; mining our Zotero group’s shared library for possible resources for their own work is akin to mining an article’s bibliography for possible resources. It’s my hope that students will end the semester with the sense that they have something to offer one another in their scholarship.

Third, I want students to gain confidence in their ability to locate useful material and to learn from it. I always devote at least one class session in Political Issues (W) to finding and evaluating resources. I ask students to make use of electronic databases such as Google Scholar and Academic Search Elite (among others) to find sources, and point them to Zotero as a tool for storing them, marking them up, and crediting them appropriately, but my focus is on finding, sifting through, and assimilating material so that they can learn from that material in the process of writing.

Finally, I want students to be free to try new things and to see what develops when they do. This is another reason why I ask my students to use Google Documents. It automatically keeps track of revisions, so students need not be afraid to move whole sections of their text around, or to add or delete significant chunks of material. Nor need they worry about accidentally overwriting a newer version of a file with an older one. If they’re working in Google Documents, they simply cannot “break” a document they’re reasonably happy with, short of deleting it outright. Because they have a “safety net” that allows them to revert to a previous version at any time, they can be completely free to experiment with their work.

Integrating technology into my courses has taken time and effort, and I’ve made a few blunders along the way. Students did not fully understand the purpose of blogging the first time I asked them to do it (that first time, in Politics and Religion, I asked them to maintain their own blogs), and perceived it as busywork. In response, I backed away from the requirement, and used blogs simply as a means of communicating with students while I rethought how best to make use of them. I eventually moved to having students contribute to a class blog. In some courses, I moved to asking students to post to the course blog as part of their preparation for each class session. That seems to have worked well, in large part, I think, because it’s made the purpose of blogging much clearer to students. It better shows the link between blogging and engaging in conversation with each other and with our reading materials.

Certainly class discussions have been more lively and engaged as I’ve fine-tuned the blogging portions of my courses; students seem better prepared for in-class conversation when they’ve done this kind of preparatory work. That’s been a great gift to me, because, while I’m convinced of the importance of using discussion in my courses rather than relying primarily on lecture, I don’t have a natural gift for it, though I’ve improved over time. The kind of preparation that blogging requires of students makes them better able to carry on the conversation without as much intervention from me.

Integrating digital tools into my courses in a way that makes sense pedagogically is not the only challenge my courses have presented to me. Each of the courses I routinely teach presents its own set of challenges as I strive to help students meet the learning goals for the course. In my 100-level general education courses (Political Issues and Political Issues (W)), for instance, I want students to become more aware of the political world around them, and to think critically about it. Though I believe students in these courses do in fact accomplish this, it’s more difficult for students in Political Issues (W) to see their achievement. We cover a broader range of issues in Political Issues; because Political Issues (W) requires a considerable amount of time to be devoted to instruction in writing, we’re not able to cover as much ground. I find myself having to point out to students that, though they don’t cover as many issues as their classmates in Political Issues do, they have more opportunity to think deeply about issues and to develop and express their own opinions on them. The last two times I’ve taught both courses, I’ve opted to leave aside the traditional reader that provides students with readings on two sides of controversial political issues. Instead, I’ve started by choosing a few issues with which to begin and providing readings for those, then asking the students what issues they’re most interested in pursuing during the latter part of the semester. Based on their responses, we then choose topics and readings together. Making this move has allowed me to take up much more recent controversies than would be possible if we relied on a book. It also underscores what I teach earlier in the semester about evaluating sources.[2. I discuss this move at greater length in Cavender, Amy. 2010. A Classroom Experiment: Ditching a Textbook – ProfHacker – The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 16. http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/a-classroom-experiment-ditching-a-textbook/25578.] Thus far, students have responded well to this approach, taking more ownership of the course than they do when I select all the topics and readings.

Perhaps the biggest challenge I have in the required Political Thought course is helping students understand that it really is part of Political Science. Many find the course not quite what they expected from a course in the Political Science department; they find it more akin to philosophy. That frustrates a good many of them, especially at first. One of my tasks in the classroom is to help them make the connection between Political Thought and the rest of the discipline. I try to do this by connecting our texts to contemporary political issues and structures that they’re more familiar with. For example, I might have them discuss what Rousseau or Hobbes would think of the way the U.S. government is structured. Such discussions help students both to understand the texts we read and to see that they actually do have contemporary relevance. As the semester progresses students seem to see more clearly the connections with the rest of the discipline, and those who haven’t waited until their senior year to take this required course often enroll in one of my upper-level electives.

My upper-level courses present a somewhat different set of challenges. The most serious challenge in Catholic Political Thought is students’ lack of background information. In that course, I use an anthology (O’Donovan and O’Donovan’s From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought) along with John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths. The difficulty students encounter is that they typically have relatively little biblical knowledge, yet many of the works we read presume a working knowledge of the Bible. I often find myself filling in the gaps. Because the texts we read are not only unfamiliar but also difficult for the students to understand, this is the one upper-level elective in which I do not assign a research paper or equivalent project. Instead, I ask students to write a series of shorter essays, responding to particular questions using one or more texts we’ve read. This forces students to read the texts closely, and aids them in developing their understanding of what they read. Though American Political Thought, like Catholic Political Thought, is based on a close reading of texts, the history behind the texts is more familiar to my students, so they don’t feel as lost initially as they do in Catholic Political Thought. Students in this course have little difficulty developing a research question that explores one or more texts in greater depth than what we’re able to do in class.

The other two upper-level electives I teach, The Quest for Human Rights and Politics and Religion, ask students to consider historical and comparative perspectives as well as theoretical approaches. Students adapt fairly readily to exploring the history of the modern human rights movement, or to exploring how Church-State relations in the Netherlands differ from Church-State relations in the United States. Even when an historical or comparative approach is not the students’ favorite, they readily recognize such an approach as belonging to the realm of Political Science. My challenge in these courses is to keep the Political Thought element in play, and help students see the connections between theory and practice. Accordingly, each of these courses begins with a theoretical section that grounds it in the central questions: How do religious beliefs influence people’s understandings of how government should work? Why might particular theological understandings result in a preference for one form of government or another? Why are human rights so important? What understanding of human beings underlies our concern for human rights? Can there be a universal understanding of human rights? Only after we address these questions do we turn to an exploration of political behavior, of different approaches to Church-State relations, or of efforts to implement human rights regimes.

I see education as involving more than the teaching of a particular subject matter and skills, however. My commitment to educating the whole person also requires that I model, to the best of my ability, many of the things that I want students to learn. In the classroom setting, when appropriate, I’ll share my own experience of learning some of what students are learning. In POSC151W, for instance, I’ll sometimes share a story about my own experience of writing, particularly when students get frustrated. Writing well is hard work, and I think it’s helpful for them to know that it’s difficult for faculty as well. I also try to model the kind of inquiry I want students to be able to do. Again, as appropriate, when asked a good question to which I don’t know the answer, the students and I will talk through how we might go about finding out. (If it’s appropriate and there’s sufficient time, we’ll actually go ahead and see whether we can find the answer to our question right there in class.)

This is a lightly edited version of the teaching statement I submitted as part of my portfolio for tenure and promotion in October 2011.