P. Aaron Potter

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

During the past several years, I have had the privilege of teaching in a variety of contexts -- not only in a conventional university classroom, but in informal discussion groups, summer camps, and in the corporate environment. The breadth of settings and material has taught me that the education process is less the function of a particular class, or a particular text, than it is the product of the interaction between instructor and student, their attitudes towards the material, and towards one another. Most important of all these factors is the instructor's commitment to not merely teach the student a body of knowledge, or even a set of skills, but instead to instill in the student that enthusiasm for discovery which engenders a lifetime of critical thinking.

In formal instruction at the university level, this is often accomplished by teaching in a manner which allows students to recognize the relationship between the class material and their own major or field of specialization. Many students are surprised to discover how much they will be utilizing the writing skills they gain in composition courses in the future, regardless of their chosen fields. Similarly, discussions of literature often revolve around the wide applicability of interpretive skills. My own research on interdisciplinary pedagogy has reinforced my commitment to teaching students in a manner which encourages them to think in terms of how they may apply classroom skills and knowledge to their own coursework or lives, and thus gain "mastery" and "ownership" of the texts they encounter and create.

I tend to select texts which will engage students' attention due to their topicality or applicability, and I frequently introduce literary texts by comparing them to those texts with which students are already familiar. This cultural studies approach is particularly effective in discussing the social issues raised by texts, since there are often popular songs, television programs, films, or other texts which engage the same issues as canonical texts and other "high" cultural artifacts. If students can understand how the movie "Titanic" raises issues of class and economic power, for example, then they can use that knowledge to illuminate those same issues in Dickens' Bleak House, or Thackeray's Vanity Fair. In the course of suggesting their own parallel texts, students are often pleasantly surprised by how much critical attention they have unknowingly been bringing to popular culture, and this encourages them to try their skills on more demanding material.

I am deeply committed to the principle that the creation and interpretation of texts is the central feature of intellectual life, in any field. In this spirit, I emphasize the applicability of the skills students learn in English classes. However, I also teach students that the value of literacy does not end with pragmatism. The most rewarding moments in my teaching come when students go beyond whatever aspects of the class are immediately useful, and attempt to engage with those more complex elements of reading and writing which only reveal themselves over time -- more time than a single term, or even a college career, allows. At those moments, I am convinced that I have not merely imparted skills, but encouraged the underlying attitudes which lead to true scholarship.

As for the practical classroom application of these principles, I attempt to minimize lecture time, but not at the expense of class direction. Instead, I act as a facilitator to student participation, encouraging them to direct their attentions to one another, and most importantly, to the texts which they are reading and writing. I often act as a "class secretary," noting insights and comments and organizing them on the board as students interact. This allows the students to concentrate on their own analysis instead of spending their efforts taking verbatim notes of my observations, and also provides students with a model to help them organize their own thoughts on the material.

That said, I do not ignore the practical aspects of classroom motivation. Students do not learn if they are rewarded or penalized capriciously or unpredictably, and I make a great deal of effort to communicate the requirements of a course at the beginning of instruction, and I adhere to those standards throughout the course. I also offer clear rubrics for each assignment, and employ a point-based marking system in order to provide students with clear objectives and feedback. Perhaps contrary to expectation, I have found that students actually appreciate a firm, absolute grading standard. It gives them a model to which they can compare their own work, and a foundation for judging their progress which motivates them to excel.

I find that the best time for offering my interpretations is through one-one-one communications, and I encourage my students to meet with me in office hours at least once during each term. This individual format moderates much of the power structure inherent in a typical classroom situation, and encourages students to express their own views and to examine mine critically, rather than simply absorbing my views as cant. I am delighted when students disagree intelligently with my readings, and my own interpretations have occasionally been altered by their arguments. I have found e-mail to be an essential tool in fostering this level of communication between instructor and individual students, and I look forward to the improvements in pedagogy which will be made possible by further technological advances. My optimism with regard to such future developments is matched only by the satisfaction I get from my current work with students.

Potter's Field