University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
 
 
Professor Bob Nowlan, Hilo, Hawaii, January 2007
 

STATEMENT OF TEACHING PHILOSOPHY
 

PROFESSOR BOB NOWLAN
 
 

Introduction
 

I want my students to know what is my philosophy of college teaching, how I bring this philosophy to bear in practice, and why I maintain this philosophy. I want to be as responsible and as accountable to my students as possible. I believe it is very important that students become aware of the ideas and the values which shape and direct their education, and I believe students should expect that all of their teachers will be prepared to explain why they teach as they do. This is a forthright statement of my foremost principles and objectives as a college teacher. My students can expect that I will abide by the principles and aspire toward the objectives I set forth in this statement. I must evaluate my students, and judge their performance; I encourage my students to judge me in accord with how well I abide by these principles and how well I meet these objectives, the principles and objectives to which I am hereby publicly committed. 
 

Statement
 

In teaching at any college, I think it is important for the teacher to keep in mind that college is not, in actuality, a separate world unto itself: college is not "an ivory tower." On the contrary, college is an integral part of a larger society -- even when this does not readily appear to be the case. The college is itself located within this larger society to serve the specific interests and needs of this larger society and of the men and women who live and work within this larger society. A college should always strive to be a vital part of the local, regional, national, and international communities in which it is situated, and the college teacher should always teach with this is mind. The knowledge concentrated within the higher educational academy does not exist in a vacuum, and it should not be taught as if it did so exist. Knowledge should always be taught and learned in terms of how and for what it can be socially useful. I believe the college teacher should strive to teach her students in a way that enables these students to understand how they can make use of what they learn as productive and responsible citizens
 

I therefore certainly agree with and support the objectives set forth in the "Statement of the Select Mission of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire" (as this is listed on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire World Wide Web home page -- http://www.uwec.edu):
 

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is a comprehensive university whose purpose is to foster the intellectual, personal, and social development of its students. The University provides an academic environment designed to encourage faculty-student interaction and promote excellence in teaching, scholarly activity and public service:


However, this mission statement can be understood, agreed with, and supported in many different ways, depending upon how one understands "the intellectual, personal, and social development" of students, and how one interprets "fostering" this development by "providing" programs and resources as part of an "academic environment" enabling "faculty-student interaction" which will "encourage," "support," and "promote" such intellectual, social, and personal development. There can also be many different ways of interpreting what exactly is and is not involved in "teaching," "research," "scholarship," and "creative endeavor" at the university level, especially if this is to take place as part of programs which truly promote "excellence." Likewise, there is no necessarily single way of interpreting what constitutes "public service," and, as a result, there are often multiple different conceptions of what kinds of "outreach" the University should initiate and what kinds of "community service" the University should provide. Furthermore, substantial disagreement can easily take place as well over:


Finally, what kinds of people, in what kinds of social positions, are to be included within "the region" and "the state" which the university aims to "serve" -- and what "other" kinds of people, in what other kinds of social positions, are to be excluded? Or, to put the last question in slightly different terms, what different rights of access to, and what different opportunities to exercise the resources, powers, and capacities provided "the region" and "the state" by means of the work carried out in the university do people enjoy or suffer according to differences in their respective social positions? Again, we find room for many substantial disagreements. The range of different interpretations this mission statement allows -- and the range of different debates it prospectively promotes -- is, however, I think, as it should be, because a university's social contribution -- its contribution towards solving social problems and improving and enriching the lives of the communities in which it is situated -- is enhanced by the extent to which it is a place where different interpretations and evaluations are possible, and, beyond this, where these differences engage each other actively in argument and debate, and in contestation and critique.
 

In order for the college teacher to teach in a way which enables her students to act as productive citizens within their communities, I believe that she must strive to empower these students not only to live individually productive lives but also to participate actively in the ongoing work of improving and enriching the general quality of life within the range of communities in which they live. The immediate local community is itself of course always both a community within many larger communities (i.e. regional, national, and international communities) and a community comprised of many smaller communities (e.g. families, neighborhoods, workplaces, charitable and recreational organizations). In order to make this fact concretely meaningful for her students, a college teacher should strive to enable them to make use of what they learn in recognizing and engaging the interconnections that link communities together. It is necessary to teach the student mastery of even the most "basic" skills or the most "abstract" knowledges in a way which challenges the student to think about what uses he can and will make of these skills and knowledges, and, from there, to think further about what effects these uses can and will provoke and what interests these effects can and will serve. It is insufficient to teach a student simply how to "pass" without teaching him to be able to inquire into the nature of the social context within which this passing takes place, and to investigate what particular ways of passing mean -- and what particular ways of passing do. Beyond this, it is important to teach students in a way which enables them to see that they do not ever simply "pass" -- they never simply learn to adapt and conform to a community, a society, a world outside of themselves; even when they are not aware of it, they are participating, albeit unconsciously, in producing and reproducing, maintaining and transforming the communities of which they are a -- vital -- part. 
 

I seek to empower my students to participate within their communities as critical citizens; in other words, I seek to empower my students to question and challenge the existing social status quo, and to work for progressive social change. I think it is always far more exciting and enabling for students to gain competence in the knowledges and skills they study in college if they learn at the same time that they can actually put these to productive use, and that this usefulness extends beyond the struggle to survive and the quest for personal satisfaction and individual prosperity. I believe that the knowledges and skills students gain from college study should serve as more than merely means to the acquisition of a degree and to the increase in wealth, status, and power that this degree can help obtain. Students do hear and read and talk about major social and political problems quite often, and yet they also frequently tend to think of these as problems which are beyond their capability significantly to influence. This is often the case even when students enroll in courses in which these problems become central topics of discussion. It is often the case even when students work with teacher-scholars who have themselves acquired considerable expertise in analysis of these problems and who have themselves demonstrated considerable success in confrontation with these problems as engaged intellectual activists and as critical citizens. I aim to show my students that they do not need to accept this sense of their own insignificance and powerlessness. I believe, on the contrary, that they can begin to make a difference in the positions they take up and in the practices they pursue, every day, within even the most immediate of the local communities in which they participate. Ultimately, I seek to show my students that they can work together, steadily linking up the efforts of more and more individuals and groups, to make substantial contributions towards advancing the causes of human emancipation, social justice, collective equality, and ecological sustainability. In my experience, this kind of teaching -- teaching which respects all that students can be -- makes the most exciting contribution both to the students and to the communities of which they are a part and in which they participate throughout their everyday lives. 
 

In order to achieve these ends, it is necessary that I exert a certain amount of pressure upon my students. One key way in which I attempt to do this is a result of the fact that I address my students and encourage them to address both me and each other not only as discrete individuals but also, and more importantly, as representatives of social positions. This means I encourage my students to inquire into 1. what social conditions make possible and what social forces give rise to their "own" most precious ways of thinking, understanding, feeling, believing, communicating, interacting, acting, and behaving, and 2. what social ends are advanced and what social interests are served by means of their identifying with, accepting of, and conforming to the dictates of these kinds of social positions. I seek to teach my students to recognize that their "opinions" are not simply opinions, purely individual and without consequence; instead, I want my students to see that these "opinions" also, and, again, more importantly, represent social positions and therefore work to advance social ends and to serve social interests. Furthermore, I try to show my students that these positions, these ends, and these interests always both challenge and are challenged by other, opposing positions, ends, and interests. 
 

I encourage my students to "own" (up to) the positions they already occupy (even if they occupy these positions largely unconsciously, passively, or indifferently), and to account for what working from and for such positions means -- in particular in terms of what ends these positions advance and what interests these positions serve. Students represent social positions, social ends, and social interests in their individual articulations and in their individual actions both in and out of class, and I think that it is very important that they be taught to recognize this state of affairs for what it is, not only so that they can participate consciously in this process, having to think about what positions, what ends, and what interests they are actually supporting and opposing so as to be able to advance these as effectively as possible in what they say and do, but also, and more importantly, so that student engagement with fundamental questions of social conflict and struggle cannot help but be made to feel very direct, very immediate, and very relevant to the "lived experiences" of their "everyday lives." Also, rather than assuming that students always possess simply their "own" knowledge, I encourage students to inquire into whose knowledge this "own" really consists, and what are the real consequences of "owning" different kinds of knowledges. It may well be that students support social positions which careful reflection would lead them to oppose. They may even support positions which run counter to their true best interests. I hope to help students inquire into these possibilities and to open themselves to the prospect of changing their positions when they have thought this through carefully and reached the conclusion that such change is right and necessary
 

My aim in addressing my students as representatives of social positions is not therefore to "fix" them in positions they have already (previously) taken, but rather to enable them to better understand what these positions are -- and especially what kinds of developments and transformations of whom they are they both already have made and they yet can make by taking account of how much this "of whom and what they are" is shaped and determined by their relations "with whom and what others are." At minimum, I aim to help my students discover what are the real consequences of the positions they in practice actually do support on issues of serious social and political import, especially when they are not consciously aware of supporting these positions. I want my students to be able and ready to argue for these positions rather than ending up content simply to indicate that this is how they think or feel. In addition, a further minimum aim is to teach my students to recognize cultural clichés as such and therefore not simply to reiterate these uncritically, but instead to present thoughtful articulations which indicate that they do know how to look carefully -- and critically -- into the whys and wherefores of the ideas and convictions they have been taught to hold (and uphold).
 

As I see it, any serious intellectual, working as a professor at the university level, should be open with her students about her stance on the issues she addresses in teaching the texts and topics that she does. In other words, he should have ideas of his own which he represents to his students and he should be accountable to his students for where he is coming from, how, and why. In making my positions clear and being open about them, trusting and respecting my students as capable of dealing with these for what they are, I am inviting contestation and I am making it all the less likely that I might in any way "deviously" "manipulate" my students' own thinking. Teachers who pretend to maintain a position of "disinterested neutrality" in relation to the texts and topics they teach are, in contrast, those who are far more likely to be deviously manipulative, because it is in fact impossible to be genuinely disinterested about social issues that shape and determine who and what we are all about, and it is also likewise impossible to remain effectively neutral in relation to ongoing social struggles over how to conceive and engage with these issues
 

All education is political, and this includes education that claims to be apolitical - that is, to be above and beyond, or indifferent to and unconcerned about politics. The supposedly apolitical classroom in fact supports the maintenance and reproduction of the status quo because it does nothing to question, challenge, critique, and work to change this status quo. If I were to teach this way, I would teach in direct opposition to my own foremost principled convictions. In effect I would be doing either one of two things that I simply cannot and will not, in good conscience, do. Either I would pretend to be a mainstream conservative who is satisfied that "the way things are is the way they should be," or I would accept the despairing conclusion that nothing can be done to change any of this, that I am essentially powerless and inconsequential, and that I should cynically simply "do what I have to do to take care of myself" by merely "going along" with mainstream conservative commonsense in order to "get along" with those who exercise dominant positions of institutional and social power. I refuse to do either of these things; I must stand up for what I believe is right, no matter what the cost might be to my own immediate comfort and security.
 

I do not, therefore, pretend myself to occupy a neutrally disinterested position above the fray of contestation and critique. At the same time, however, I want my students to develop an accurate understanding of, and to take seriously, all of the principal positions we engage. My "own" positions and arguments are never likely to prove particularly convincing if I don't strive to do as much justice to opposing positions as possible, to represent these in the strongest possible way, and to account forthrightly for how these "other" positions in turn contest and challenge "my" positions and arguments. I expect students to do the same in relation to all positions we discuss and all texts we read. As I see it, the pedagogical aim of representing my "own" positions in my teaching, both inside and outside of class, is therefore much the same as it is in representing "other" positions, including ones which are sharply "opposed" to "my own": it is not simply to "persuade" students to "agree with me" and to identify with the positions I represent, whether my "own" or those of any "other," but rather to compel students to rethink, reformulate, and rearticulate their "own" positions in response to the pressure exerted upon these latter by means of a sustained and rigorous encounter with positions that students will find "different," "new," "unfamiliar," "challenging," "difficult," and even "disturbing." My goal in emphasizing pressure and contestation is to help students strengthen their abilities to discover and recognize, to understand and explain, and to justify and account for their "own" positions, and, on the basis of such a "strong" occupation of these positions, to be able to advance forceful and effective arguments against and critiques of "other" positions. In the courses I teach no position is ever simply unwelcome and excluded out of hand. I maintain a commitment at all times to free and open inquiry and to critical -- including self-critical -- examination, reflection, and exchange. Students are judged not on what positions they hold and support but rather on how well they argue and account for these and how well they do so by engaging seriously with other positions represented by myself, by other students, and by the texts read for the course. 
 

In "pressuring" students to engage actively in argument, contestation, and critique, I believe it is important, moreover, simultaneously to recognize that college students are women and men who most often already do possess not only great potential but also a great deal of knowledge, talent, and experience. This may not always be directly academic, intellectual, vocational, or professional knowledge, talent, and experience, and yet, if taken seriously and if treated with respect, the knowledges, talents, and experiences that students do possess can provide the crucial bridge towards building and strengthening academic, intellectual, vocational, and professional interest and enthusiasm. If the college teacher always teaches her students in a way that addresses them as men and women who all truly can become interested in learning and who all truly can develop a very serious commitment towards improving themselves, her students will much more likely respond positively to her teaching and develop much farther than if she were to treat her students cynically or condescendingly. Students at all "levels" quite often express impatience to understand the "relevance" of what they are taught -- and this can often take the form of wanting to find out how they can put what they learn immediately to practical use. I believe that the college teacher should not respond impatiently in turn to this concern, conceiving of it as "below" the level of discussion "proper" for college, even when it is crudely formulated and even when it becomes a demand or a complaint; instead she should take this concern for "relevance" seriously and respect the prospective positive side of this kind of demonstration of interest at the same time as she challenges her students to move beyond an excessively mechanical and instrumental pragmatism. 
 

It is especially important for a college teacher to work hard to encourage his students to recognize that they really can engage with the subject matter of the course in a fashion which is both serious and productive -- even, and perhaps especially, where students doubt or worry that this is not possible. The college teacher must work closely, and as much as possible individually and outside of class, with all of his students to show them how they all can become good students in the subject area of the course. It is necessary therefore that a college teacher be patient and flexible. He must be able to pay careful attention to how his students are and/or are not relating to and understanding the subject matter so as to be able to respond appropriately and to make changes whenever and wherever necessary in order at least to attempt to make the course enabling for all of his students. 
 

I insist upon maintaining a certain amount of discipline and order in how I organize and conduct my classes, and I think this is in fact necessary for students to be "free" to learn effectively from me, from the texts we read in and for class, and from each other. This also means that I do not pretend that I as teacher -- and especially as a doctor and a professor -- occupy the same institutional or cultural position as my students. I do not try to hide or deny the fact that I am called upon to exercise authority in the course and in the classroom. I do not seek to protect myself from student contestation and therefore am upfront about the fact that I am the teacher and am called upon to exercise authority. I account for my authority in terms of how -- and especially for what -- I use it. I believe that the classroom in which the teacher denies and disowns her authority is more likely to be the classroom in which the teacher abuses her authority since this latter kind of classroom allows the teacher to conceal the fact that she does exercise authority and thereby protects her use of this authority from being questioned and challenged. 
 

In conclusion, I believe not only that how I teach must always be justified in terms of what it does for my students, but also that the success of any course I teach depends as much -- if not often in fact much more -- on what the students bring and give to the process of learning as what I do. I see college teaching and learning as a collective project and this means its success -- or failure -- depends upon the degree and kind of commitment and the quantity and quality of contribution of everyone involved. Some of the best teachers with whom I have ever worked have insisted that they do not teach their students as much as they teach their students how to teach themselves. Even if this overstates the case, I do think that it is impossible to teach someone who does not sincerely want and who does not assiduously strive to learn. This means that I expect, and for their own good, that students in my courses will work very hard and very seriously -- even as I also expect that this work can be fun and enjoyable and even as I also believe that humor occupies an important and at times necessary place in learning. I expect my students at least to make a serious effort to read and to write and to present and to comment and to discuss and to argue and to critique in all of the ways that I indicate are "required." I will always work equally hard and equally seriously to help students who make this kind of effort succeed, both within my courses and beyond. 
 

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