A Philosophy of Holistic Teaching
“The heartbeat of critical thinking is the longing to know—to understand how life works.” – bell hooks
To me, higher education is a place to embrace liminality, those transition spaces between who you once were and who you will be tomorrow. These are spaces of productive unrest, questioning, uncertainty, and exploration. This is where I feel the greatest opportunity for deep learning of lingering value lies. However, I recognize that this an atmosphere filled with tensions and challenges to confidence in ourselves and our world. This kind of learning, therefore, requires that attention be paid to all realms of the student experience—academic, personal, and social.
This predominantly social constructivist philosophy is informed by my diverse—sometimes contradictory—training in the humanities, social sciences, student affairs, academic administration, and research administration. My early training in literary studies in particular, leads me to value close reading, writing, and revision portfolios as tools for learning, not just assessment of learning. For many students, including myself, the act of writing helps them to work through complex ideas, reflect on their gut reactions to new information, and understand why they connect with some pieces of the material and not others. For this reason, every course I teach includes some regular written reflection, formal or informal. In service-learning courses I find that informal reflective writing can be especially productive to help students process and articulate the value of their experiences. For me this additionally servers as a way to get to know my students. I personally remember stories better than names or faces, so I will often recall a paper long before I can remember the students’ first and last name.
My feminist studies have further solidified my passion for critical thinking first fostered through the humanities. Feminist scholar –teachers like bell hooks (2010) believe in the centrality of critical thinking to education, democracy, and ethical connection to the world around us. According to hooks, “[t]he heartbeat of critical thinking is the longing to know—to understand how life works,” and “[c]hildren are organically predisposed to be critical thinkers” (hooks 2010, p. 7). By the time students reach college they are no longer children, and it is clear that some have lost the passion for learning they once had. In the years following a teach-to-the-test era of primary and secondary education we are now seeing fewer and fewer students who have even been afforded the opportunity to practice critical thinking, let alone students who have been guided and encouraged to hone their skills. Providing a safe space for my students to return to finding their intellectual passion and ability to think critically are now, in my opinion, fundamental goals that should be incorporated across the undergraduate curriculum as often as possible. Without this experience students are not fully equipped to be citizens in our globalized world who are sensitive to the everyday roles of gender, race, class, and intersectionality around them. Furthermore, today’s employers are specifically seeking these higher-order thinking skills in their applicants. It’s important that we as college educators help our students recognize and practice how this scholarly academic rigor can build transferable skills for any career path.
As a feminist International Relations scholar, I have come to deeply value bringing in world events to ground the study of almost any topic. For students, bringing in contemporary debates of relevance adds a layer of practicality to theory and a sense of immediacy to history. One of my most important goals in this process is to give students space to practice research skills that they could use in everyday life to keep them aware of the world around them. Again, critical thinking and information literacy are vital because students will need to identify, understand, and evaluate sources that they bring to our class as evidence. They are also transferable skills that students can bring to any other realm of their lives during and beyond college. In addition to information literacy, technological literacy can be valuable in bringing students to current events and their research to one another. For example, I have used a course Facebook group to facilitate a dialogue about current political news. Students were responsible for locating, posting, and evaluating current events as they were reported in online news publications.
As a human rights scholar who is deeply invested in social justice, I often bring in challenging contemporary topics such as genocide and materials like film, theatre, and literature that connect these atrocities to human bodies, actual or fictional. Like Bat-Ami Bar On (2002), I am committed to searching for the best ways to help students think critically about these topics, bending them but not breaking them. It is my belief that when not handled with tact and care, course objectives can be undermined and instead problematic, destructive constructions of the world and stereotypes of “others” can be reified. My recent research on genocide film and community organizing has led me to see how working alongside community members through service-learning experiences might be an optimal next step after rooting students in theory and history. While students grapple with new understandings of how there have been and continue to be inequities in the world, they can actively learn from people in their community about how they might locally contribute to a globally more just world.
This work is linked to my feminist pedagogical leanings that lead me to desire hands-on education that includes respectfully learning from real people who may have very different positions than most students in the class, an important element of contemporary feminist teaching across the country (Naples and Bojar 2002). I do not have a political goal for my courses, except to illuminate students to the issues. I want to get students out to make their own decisions based on their own increasing knowledge, not necessarily to reproduce my world view. More than any of my academic education, though, my experience in student affairs has opened my eyes to the value of open, student-directed experiential learning outside of the classroom.
As a higher education professional, I have also developed expertise in educational technology. I have seen personally how distance learning can empower students who might not otherwise be able to obtain a college degree and create opportunities for traditional college learners. I prefer to root my praxis in evidence-based practices, but I also enjoy trying out new tools to keep learning fun. For example, this spring semester I will earn my Quality Matters certification (a well-established standard in online education), and I will co-present a faculty development workshop on using Breakout EDU for creative active lessons (a cutting-edge educational tool for game-base learning).
Assessment is also a passion of mine. I want to feel confident my students are learning, but I’m open to creative ways of defining and gaging success, including contract grading when appropriate. For assessment of student work, I prefer to grade through portfolios that give credit for student growth and learning that may look different for each individual. Revision and reflexivity are not only important as elements of my teaching, they are also keys to my continual growth and success. This leads me to frequently asses my courses and programs. Each semester I give my students opportunities to shape my approaches and content, not just at the end of the semester, but mid semester and each week at the end of class. I ask them to grow every day, and I want them to be able to expect the same commitment from me.
Bar On, B. (2002) “Teaching (About) Genocide.” p. 233-249 in Twenty-First Century Feminist Classrooms: Pedagogies of Identity and Difference. Ed. Macdonald, A. and Sánchez-Casal, S. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
hooks, b. (2010). Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. New York: Routledge.
Naples, N. and Bojar, K. Eds. (2002). Teaching Feminist Activism: Strategies from the Field.