At the heart of my teaching is a passion for learning – understanding things, figuring things out, discovering new things, finding unanticipated connections, creating new questions – a very engaging sense of wonder. I believe that all of us have that capacity in us to some degree. We certainly have it in us as children. It is very exciting to see that alive and thriving in students and faculty alike here on campus. With this in mind, I also believe that attending the university – an institution of higher learning – should help students learn things that have the potential for making a positive difference in their lives and the lives of others in a variety of productive and compelling ways. Does learning matter? Can we help students learn things and learn in ways that help them use some of what they learn in their classes to have a better life in some significant way? In this sense I feel that higher education is always on trial in the lives of students (and faculty for that matter). In a nutshell, these are the basic things I want students to learn and experience in my courses at least as much as I have learned to provide for and coach them to do within the parameters of the different kinds of courses that I teach.
I realize that course content can be taught and presented to students in a number of different ways. My writing courses (and my lecture classes to the degree it is possible) are designed to develop the capacity of students to think actively and critically about the particular subject matter or course content and its relevant applications to students and their personal worlds of experience, their families, and their involvements with different groups and institutions in our society. I select my texts and readings specifically to help accomplish these objectives. Students study different viewpoints or systems of thinking about the course content because each viewpoint studied enables students to think differently about things they already know as they uncover new content and considerations within the different viewpoints. This helps students identify different ideas and issues, ask different questions, and develop different frames of reference. Learning new ways of thinking helps students understand more critically the ways they already think so they can more clearly articulate their beliefs and values with their relevant justifications and implications for personal practices and positions.
Course content and activities are intended to have pragmatic applications to day-to-day living as students study the relationships between themselves and their social interactions, beliefs, values, rules, rituals, practices, etc. From my perspective, students learn for themselves largely what they personally make sense of, apply to their lived experience, and share with others. Consequently, they are required to connect course content to individual concerns, issues, or problems from their personal experience. I ask students to find for their further study course-related concerns and content that are personally relevant and problematic so they will focus on what they want or need to know that is important to them and those around them. Then they need to determine where they need to go to find what they need to know. I encourage students to discover for themselves personally important ideas and insights that they connect from areas of course content to their own experiences and concerns and then articulate them in their demonstrations of learning. Students are reminded (and in some of my classes required) to monitor, keep track of, and write down the important, meaningful, and insightful ideas, thoughts, reactions, reflections, questions, and concerns they come up with during the term. They are to explicitly, consciously, and always question, read, reflect, reason, and write to obtain and communicate depth in their understanding and inquiry and to work at getting underneath the surface of things by pushing themselves past superficial and shallow levels of understanding.
Students are encouraged to use a set of basic questions to help them in everything they read, write, and discuss. These questions form a shorthand for the elements of critical thinking emphasized in my courses and the important components for students to include in their personal demonstrations of learning. These brief questions are: What’s important? Why? How do you know? Who says? Who cares? What difference does it make to you? HOW should WHO and/or YOU do WHAT about it and WHY? Then what? So what? Now what? These questions help students think more systematically and pushes them to identify depth and breadth of substance, meaning, and the implications of relevant ideas, assumptions, and actions. I have found students to be particularly challenged and fascinated by their efforts to explore the Why? and So what? questions.
I define critical thinking as thinking that a person uses to be consciously aware of the important elements of thought that constitute it. It is necessarily self-monitoring and self-reflective. It enables the critically thinking person to discover, study, and articulate the line of reasoning or system of logic the person is thinking within or that one is reading, hearing, or speaking at any given time. I assume that all people are egocentric and self-deceived to some degree and therefore fairly irrational much of the time. I see learning to think carefully and critically as the replacements or antidotes for these more irrational and usually self-serving patterns of thought.
My emphasis on critical thinking requires students to learn holistically – questioning, thinking, reading, reflecting, discussing, and writing are all necessary components to learning something well enough to do something with it. I want students to see just how holistic their own learning can be and that learning to reason well and think, speak, read, and write critically is something they can do that will positively influence the complex way they learn to view themselves and their worlds of experience.
In my writing courses (and my lecture classes to the degree it is possible), learning content and knowing something is only a beginning. It is not the only desired end or outcome for my courses. Learning to do something with what students know and learn is the other essential desired end or outcome for my courses. In this respect, very little learned content is useful or worth knowing for its own sake. From the beginning of the term, students are expected to articulate in their demonstrations of learning what they are learning of the important course content and how they can apply and make use of what they learn in relevant areas of their lives. Students are to discover for themselves the content and considerations they personally find worth learning as well as the criteria and processes they use to determine what is important and meaningful to them.
Students must become familiar with considerable depth and breadth of content in order to establish an understanding for making or suspending informed personal choices, judgements, and decisions within a particular content area. Course content is studied on its own terms and in terms of connections, concerns, issues, and problems that students choose from their lived experience so they can learn how interrelated and holistic their understanding can become. Many students operate from the assumption that learning is the transfer of information from one source to another so they expect someone else to give them these connections. They have a difficult time learning how to involve themselves in their own learning so they will learn to do something personal and useful with what they learn. Students can learn to do this if they realize the need to change their assumptions about learning and their role in consciously making such changes occur. It is hard for them to see how much their own beliefs about learning can help or get in the way of acquiring and creating personally useful learning. I try to help them discover or realize that they are the ones who have to do most of the work in making the connections between their lives and what they are learning. As they learn this, they see how this helps them retain and apply information that is relevant to them. Helping students learn to learn and learn to think critically about what they learn and how they learn what they learn are other important objectives in my courses.
My teaching assumes that important values, perceptions, ideas, assumptions, interpretations, and conclusions are necessarily, pragmatically, and theoretically pluralistic in nature. These things exist and are organized together within different and often competing viewpoints, ideologies, systems of beliefs, or conceptual frameworks. As much as possible, by design, my course content studies things from more than one viewpoint and/or discipline. I try to focus on important assumptions of different viewpoints regarding my course content and their relevant research findings, conclusions, and implications. I have always felt that the abilities to understand, respect, and work within multiple frameworks of thinking and perceiving is one of the most important characteristics of a higher education. And that institutions of higher education had an obligation and responsibility to teach students, among other important things, the abilities, rigors, and moral responsibilities of higher order thinking (i.e., interpretation, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, application) and the use of such thinking as the basis for their personal actions. In my mind, this requires a major investment in the education of undergraduate students, especially; something I am very much committed to.
I endeavor to model this pluralism of thought, explanation, and interpretation in my teaching activities and course assignments so students can see that they can simultaneously consider and respect things from differing viewpoints without having to necessarily accept one and reject the rest. I try to help students come to see that they do not have to agree with a viewpoint to demonstrate that they understand it and the logic it employs. The critical issue is not whether or not they agree or disagree with a viewpoint or like or dislike it but whether or not they understand it and its assumptions and implications. As they learn to do this, hopefully they learn to see that they can respect other ideas, viewpoints, and the people who have them even if they do not agree with them.
My classrooms provide students with many opportunities to witness intolerance of viewpoints and ideas that are different from their own. Students learn that in spite of their self-perceptions, virtually everyone in the class is narrow-minded and biased in some ways that prevent them from doing the things that are necessary to acquire an understanding and appreciation of other people with alternative viewpoints and beliefs. I think education is supposed to help students detect, avoid, and remedy these trappings. With this in mind, my classroom activities are designed to help students be more respectful, enlightened, affirming, and empathic in their dealings with others.
For students to learn these higher-order learning processes as I teach course content, I have realized that I have to help students learn and then hold them accountable for higher-order thinking. I have to design and use activities and projects that require students to demonstrate their thinking as it applies to the course content. To give students a real chance to think critically about the things they are learning and their lives, I have to help them practice doing things that develop those skills. I had no idea how hard that would be.
Thinking critically is essential for students to understand and mediate their inherent egocentrism, biases, prejudices, and presuppositions. Class discussions are designed and facilitated to show students how to understand and justify their assumptions, perceptions, values, and beliefs that are relevant to the course of study and what the implications are of what they know and believe for important social and moral issues. Discussions, readings, and assignments are designed to help students see how data are embedded in a particular set of assumptions that are used to justify conclusions that are argued to directly follow from the data. Students learn how different conclusions can be drawn from the same data when different assumptions are used to construe the data and interpret the relevant explanations. They also learn to determine which arguments are better and more useful than others so they do not confuse arguments and reasoned judgements with opinions that they think are relative as to their merits, validity, viability, and usefulness.
Students are encouraged and invited to put their important ideas and perspectives into an arena of competing and oppositional ideas and perspectives so they see how interrelated and mutually informing they are of one another. Through these processes they learn how different viewpoints can be justified yet still be at odds with each other. They learn the importance of comprehending points of view (and understanding their justifications) that are often very much at odds with their own so they can see the different important implications that follow from the various competing viewpoints. They learn much more about the questions and considerations that are relevant to a subject or problem only as they try to understand the differing viewpoints about it – especially when they disagree. This is a process to deliberately learn from. As this realization takes hold, students come to see opposition as something to understand and use because it can help them better articulate their own viewpoints and the ways of thinking they use and the ways of thinking they compete with. This helps them support as well as anticipate opposition to their own viewpoints.
Given the prevalence of our biases and prejudices, I am also very committed to teaching course content that integrates, where possible, recent scholarship on gender, ethnicity, and social class. Where this isn’t possible, I articulate the ideologies that contribute to such obscurities or biases in the predominant research and conceptual orientations as well as where considerations visible in one perspective may be rendered invisible in another. I feel an obligation to push students to have grounds or become cognizant of the grounds on which they base their values, their ethical reasoning, and their justifications so they learn the importance of taking personal responsibility for being informed, formulating and taking stands, and understanding others and their points of view. Then they must take personal responsibility for doing something with what they know that makes things better for themselves and others.
As a final point, I think it is important to model for students and other faculty members that learning about learning and teaching is ongoing for me just as learning is for students. This is reflected, at least in part, in how I do what I do as an educator. I change several things about my course design, readings, activities, and/or assignments each time I teach a course as a result of feedback I receive each term or because of something I find in my ongoing perusal of the research on learning and teaching. As an educator, I feel I should continually demonstrate that I am also educating myself in these areas and that this education makes a difference to me because I then do something relevant with what I learn in the changes I make in my teaching and in what I ask students to do.
At different times during the term, I ask students what kinds of learning are most important and useful to them. I ask them if their learning experiences in higher education are providing them with the kinds of learning they feel is important to them. We discuss their responses to these questions in small groups and then as a class. This helps establish a particular focus for learning that the class has articulated and established as a collective. Students continually connect with this throughout the term as they participate in different learning activities designed to help them achieve desired learning outcomes and as they are asked to critically assess their strengths and weaknesses as learners. These practices provide both students and myself with many useful and important insights about learning and teaching. This information helps me determine where I should focus my efforts as an educator and how well I am doing in finding materials and activities that help students achieve the kinds of learning processes and outcomes that they desire and that I feel they should learn from their experiences in higher education.
Consequently, I think critically and work hard to provide students with a stimulating and meaningful set of learning experiences that I think will greatly enhance their learning if they participate in class meetings. Class meetings must be made worthwhile for students to attend. I constantly try to determine what it is that I can do and do well that students would really miss out on, in terms of learning and critical thinking, if they didn’t come to class. I really want to them to enjoy learning and be fascinated with at least some of the things they learn in my classes.
Family Belief Systems and Social Policy — different ideologies of family and related perspectives pertaining to policy; impact of dominant ideologies; role of social and family sciences research; different ethical frameworks and policy alternatives.
Family/Home Environment — embeddedness of the study of family and the physical environment of the home; meaning of “home;” types of families, family interaction patterns, rituals, material culture of the home, spatial features of the home, and family consumption patterns, characteristics of strong families.
Family Violence — different conceptual frameworks for studying and resolving family violence in its many forms from prenates to the elderly; role of anger, shame, disrespect, lack of love, warmth, and affection on participants of violence and abuse.
Fatherhood — role of fathers in the development of children and families; male and female parenting styles and abilities; impact on fathers of involvement in child rearing and shared parenting responsibilities; male roles, masculinity, and nurturance.
Feminism and Family — feminist perspectives on the study of family, home environments, gender roles in the home and family, household production, employment, time-use patterns, and resource management.
Neuroscience — implications of research on the brain and its development, functioning, and plasticity for understanding the formation, development, and alteration of strong emotions, beliefs, brain-based cognitive biases, open- and closed-mindedness; abuse, neglect, and violence; and attachment, affection, and attraction in family, intimate, and personal relationships.
Teaching and Assessing Critical Thinking — developing strategies and tactics for teaching students and assessing their abilities to: think, listen, read, write, and speak more critically; create, articulate, and evaluate arguments, evidence, data, and different lines of reasoning; understand different views of problems, their relevant definitions, central ideas, causes, solutions, implications, and consequences; make well-reasoned judgments.