Statement on Diversity, Teaching Philosophy, and Pedagogy

 

 

My teaching prioritizes my students’ development in critical thinking, earnest engagement with our communities, and ethical communication. Within the framework of a liberal arts education, my students seek out relationships between a variety of points of view, fields of practice, knowledge, and values. Undergraduates, who are mostly young adults, are in a formative period of their lives. I therefore strive to facilitate their growth as independent, active thinkers who explore their own subject positions and others. I emphasize the potential of community and a diversity of perspectives. I weave such values into each course, whether the official topic is dramatic literature, performance theory, acting, a theater production, or a survey of interdisciplinary arts.  

At the beginning of any semester, my students first analyze the course’s objectives and implicit assumptions. What specific roles do we take on as students and instructor? What styles of learning are valued and encouraged? What unspoken, taken-for-granted paradigms and ideology does the course material embrace? For example, in my acting classes based on psychological realism, I use the useful concepts “believability,” “character,” and “neutrality,” but I do not present these ideas as universal, unquestionable truths. I include secondary literature that analyzes the language and assumptions behind such traditional terms and methodology. By offering this meta-analysis, I help my students historicize and contextualize ideas that can otherwise be presented uncritically. My students also consider and share their motivations for taking the course. What do they hope to achieve? And how does the time and effort required by the course relate to the rest of their lives? I emphasize such contextualization in order for students to take greater ownership of their participation and learning. This style of teaching requires that I share my own thoughts and perspectives, which hopefully increase the students’ level of comfort in working with me and asserting their own questions, concerns, and needs.

 

For my scholarly courses, I always make sure to address how reading, writing, and thinking are interconnected and mutually influence one another. This concept may be basic for seasoned academics, but I have discovered that many students benefit from a pointed reminder that what we write is not simply a reflection of what is already formulated in our minds but rather that which shapes, clarifies, and tests our thinking. I also develop my syllabi so that each assignment and skill prepares the students for the next units to come. For example, I include lessons on how to critically read and summarize a text before or alongside our discussions on the content of that text. I also craft assignments that provide ongoing feedback of the students’ comprehension and scholarly abilities. I seldom assign a reading without also requesting a brief summary and response to that work. As students move into analysis and answering their own research questions, I prioritize time to review concepts and skills in rhetoric and argumentation so that students can develop and critique their own perspectives rather than passively receive facts or others’ ideas. I constantly create and adapt worksheets that guide this critical development, such as helping students assess whether they are striving to test and change their ideas for the better or are defending their initial position and claim at all costs.

Because I want my students to become integral, productive members of a greater community of thinkers and artists, I underscore the ethical importance of both clarity and due diligence in their artistic and scholarly practice. I don’t assume that all students matriculate equally prepared. For example, students arrive to college with different understandings of critical ethics. While some instructors are content to simply worn against plagiarism, I extend the conversation beyond the idea of cheating, which the majority of students never intentionally do, to the idea that we cannot begin to develop our own thoughts and practices until we can differentiate what we ask, claim, and do from that which others assert and have done. I include exercises around how and when to summarize, paraphrase, and quote others and introduce the concept of scholarly conversations that occur across time and space and through different mediums. This moves the discussion away from punitive rules and encourages growth of independent thought and ways of working together to develop knowledge.

My students also practice civic engagement during class discussions, which present opportunities to role model and rehearse best practices in oral communication, including leading with “I” statements, validating others, and leaving room for difference of opinion. I do not shy away from sensitive topics but prefer to address them head-on, often using myself and humor in order to temper discomfort. I reframe offensive or ignorant statements as positive opportunities for group learning. For example, when past students have used potentially harmful terms such as “colored people,” “midget,” and “cripple” in class, I did not simply police such language but used those moments to briefly discuss the history of those terms and their possible rhetorical force. When doing so, I always expressed appreciation that the inadvertent comment made the teachable moment possible.

Because of my commitment to community, I regularly use ensemble building in all of my courses and productions. Simple, albeit time-consuming, exercises that ensure students memorize one another’s name result in stronger group work because when participants are able recognize and address one another by name, they are motivated to listen more closely and respond more fully. My students also regularly evaluate each other’s work-in-progress. This includes practicing how to most constructively share such assessments. For scholarly work, when students regularly read one another’s essays and critically respond to them, they draw from prepared worksheets that assist them in identifying key areas to assess and effective techniques for sharing that analysis. I also often solicit volunteers to submit their research problems and theses-in-progress for the entire class to work on together as test cases. In my studio acting classes, students assign others to report on the observed level of clarity of various individual acting choices. Not only do the evaluated students benefit, their peers gain a new, outside perspective on the otherwise intimate art and craft of acting. This critical distance can open up new solutions for their own work. Another benefit is that students become invested in the success of the entire class, which initiates positive feedback loops.  

I seek greater inclusion and civic engagement by developing my syllabi around other departmental, university, and community events. For example, I bring my acting classes to performances of nearby professional theaters with talkback sessions where students can ask the artists questions using course terms and concepts. In another example, I learned two days before the beginning of my course Identity Politics in Theater that our department was going to host a dialogue between two nationally known Asian American playwrights. I quickly adjusted my syllabus’ unit on critical race to include a visit to the talk, one of the playwright’s plays, and secondary readings that discussed the Asian American experience on stage and how both playwrights work towards repositioning Chinese American marginality in theater. This adjustment required extra work at the last minute, but it brought the subject matter alive by linking the course material to actual people and engaging in larger community discussions. Connecting course material to local events increased the relevancy of the material and expanded the nodes of engagement for students.

Because students learn in a variety of ways, I use in-class work that repeats core concepts and provides opportunity for building skills through different modes of learning. These include exploratory and structured writing sessions, verbal discussion in pairs or triads, worksheets that guide specific thinking and offer prompts, peer review sessions that afford students the opportunity to learn through teaching and helping one another, and larger group discussion that can be structured by games, power-point lectures, board work, or collective analysis of a written text, image, sound, or video. I regularly use the chalkboard as a way to make information more accessible for visual learners and to validate student ideas and questions. And I often tie various exercises together in order to prime engagement, increase comfort levels, and encourage deeper analysis. For example, a class lesson might start by pairs of students verbally sharing their thoughts on a text. Students then might engage in independent writing in response to a worksheet. Next, peers might provide written critical feedback on that writing, again guided by the worksheet’s prompts, after which the pairs discuss what they wrote. Finally, all pairs might come back together into one group to report their progress, exchange ideas, and solicit feedback.

Some of my classes, such as those relating to race, gender, sexuality, disability, and other forms of critical theory, make engagement with diverse communities a foregone conclusion. But I also include this in my courses that do not necessarily foreground it. For example, along with the fundamentals of theory and methodology in my acting courses, I include the politics of casting. I share my thoughts and rationale for selecting the course’s dramatic texts and explain my concerns and hopes regarding assigning students to monologues and scenes that do or do not specify, for example, race and gender. By soliciting personal preferences and weighing tricky issues and often competing needs, the class is able to situate the course material within a larger social context. I never set the goal of reaching unanimous agreement. The point is to initiate dialogue that the students may continue in their other classes and future artistic work.

In sum, all of my pedagogical strategies revolve around preparing students to participate as analytical thinkers who take responsibility for their own learning and consider their role as ethical members of society, regardless of the course’s specific subject matter. These goals, of course, in turn spur me to continue to critique and develop my own thinking and practice.