Poets & PhilosophersLocation: WEB L103 (WEB L103)
LEAP Sem in HumanitiesLocation: GC 2660 (GC 2660)
Legal ProfessionsLocation: M LI 1130 (M LI 1130)
Pre-Law Service LearnLocation: M LI 1130 (M LI 1130)
Two images from Plato express much of my teaching philosophy. In one, Socrates says
that the teacher should be a “midwife” to the idea. I interpret this statement to mean that
students should actively participate in the learning process. They must conceive ideas,
nourish them, and go through the pains of producing them. The teacher, with her
knowledge of how other students have produced good work and expertise in the subject,
assists in the process and steps in when serious problems arise. The teacher’s job instills
confidence in the students and treats them as people with dignity, worth, and potential so
that they feel empowered to work to the best of their abilities.
The second image, a more famous one, appears in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Prisoners
bound in an underground cave see only the shadow reflections of physical objects
projected by firelight onto the cave wall. Someone releases one of the prisoners, drags
him by force out into the brilliance of the sun, where he gradually begins to see things as
real physical objects and the sun which gives light, life, and nourishment. Socrates says
the nature of education is not that which some of its professors say it is: their putting
sight into blind eyes. Education, rather, is awakening abilities in the soul. Charles
Dickens in Hard Times similarly critiques the education of his day when he portrays
students as “little vessels” with “imperial gallons of facts” poured into them. I envision
my students not as blind prisoners or empty vessels but as human beings with potential
who need to be released from fuzzy thinking based only on what they have heard others
say and inexact communication based on everyday conversation and electronic media.
Though far from Plato in his confidence in absolutes, I try to guide students to be
attracted by the light of understanding, to be willing to explore and expose themselves to
the unknown, and to open themselves to developing empathy for multiple perspectives.
If yet another image will be permitted me, I follow Montaigne in imagining students as
bees, who fly from flower to flower (with the teacher as the provider of the garden),
collect pollen (information), and mix it with their own substance (prior knowledge,
experience, and analysis) to produce honey.
Two other components essential to good teaching include the preparation and knowledge
of the teacher (or gardener). The teacher must provide stimulating information and
model good learning: reading closely and carefully; comparing, contrasting, analyzing
and synthesizing data; and sharing information in clear oral and written form with others.
The second is the creation of a community of learning. Students learn best when they
become the teachers themselves: when they must formulate their understanding of ideas
in order to convey them to others, submit their ideas to the refinement of others’
comments and analysis, and receive the stimulus of different viewpoints so that new ideas
are created. Through large class discussion, small group work, oral reports, and
participation in Reacting to the Past games, I try to stimulate students to be responsible
for their own passion for learning.
In addition to my student-centered approach in teaching, I work hard to connect
coursework to students’ own interests, passions, and aspirations. In my Pre-Law LEAP
courses, my students learn what law school and the legal profession are like from
attorneys and judges, from visiting court, from reading legal cases, and from semesterlong
community engagement projects with the Quinney Pro Bono Clinics, state
legislators and agencies, and the Rocky Mountain Innocent Project, among other groups.
Even in my Intellectual Traditions courses, my students must connect their reading and
class discussions to their own experiences and values (as they in imitation of Dante write
“hell” papers based on their own ethical judgments) and reflective papers on what texts
during the semester have been most influential in their own odysseys through college.
Having been taught myself solely in lecture modes with occasional seminars, I constantly
seek ways to expand and improve my own teaching—from using small groups to
examine questions about texts, to holding debates over such issues as domestic violence
(Clytemnestra’s guilt as a husband-killer but agent of vengeance for her daughter), to
incorporating Reacting games, to assigning creative and reflective papers, to encouraging
students to prepare their own lectures to the class.
In this past year, Rachel MasonDentinger and I have re-envisioned what was once known as Super ITW in a version with
her as a historian of science and me as a humanist to present both a humanities and
science perspective of major intellectual movements: Integrated Intellectual Traditions—
Humanities and Sciences. A three-semester-long chronological view of the history of
ideas, the courses will also include a trip to London over this coming fall break.
After attending the Oxford Consortium on Human Rights initial pedagogical conference
this past January, I am working on a new course for Honors on human rights today. The
course would consist of two Reacting games, one on the original 1948 convention that
produced the International Declaration of Human Rights and one on Rwanda and the
genocide of the late 20th century. In the remainder of the semester, students would form
their own convention to construct a new Declaration of Human Rights, based upon the
events of the past 70 years.
My years at the University of Utah have included being one of the founders of the LEAP
Program, the founder of Pre-Law LEAP, the mainstay of Intellectual Traditions, and the
introducer of Reacting to the Past. I have devoted my career to undergraduates, especially
first-year students, and providing them with a well-rounded general education. I
appreciate students’ desire to explore and create meaning and hope always to assist them
in the birth of understanding and action.