Teaching Philosophy

A Statement of Teaching Philosophy
David L. Clark
(For additional remarks see "Thought and Theory")


     It is only fair to say from the beginning that I do not--cannot--have a single philosophy of teaching. If I am to talk of them at all, I will need to speak of teaching philosophies, in the plural, as befits the highly variegated conditions--by turns, thrilling and exhausting--of the postmodern classroom. It also seems important to concede right away that the work of teaching is a work-in-progress for me, an ongoing experimental labour whose techniques and objectives are constantly in a state of flux. There are, after all, many ways of teaching well, and many more ways of failing to teach as best as one can. And who is to say thata statement of teaching philosophies is not also an instance of more teaching? Where teaching is concerned, theory and practice are for me part of the same subtle knot. But my experience has always been this: teaching happens in a classroom, which, far from being a banality, describes my sense that education is fundamentally a practice, a performed activity that is therefore largely contingent upon the day-to-day exigencies-the openings and the resistances-of the classroom, whether that classroom is along a corridor, in a lecture hall, or on e-mail. That I can teach two sections of the same course in the same term and have quite startlingly different experiences witheach section reminds me that a class is invariably more than the sum of its parts and that teaching must be more than the expression of a certain philosophy. One of the most challenging problems that I have faced as a professor has consistently been finding the ways to respond to the unique coming-together that makes a "class"--not only to teach individual students but also to work imaginatively with what is jointly created by students and professors around a particular question on a particular day. If there is a heart of teaching for me, it lies not in a philosophy but there, in the surprise and the alchemy of the classroom.

      Now, what worked a decade ago for me or for my students may no longer do. I am changing, always changing, as a teacher, but then so too are my students. They bring different assumptions about education, and part of being a professor is addressing those assumptions. It means meeting some of my students' expectations about the nature of a humanities education, but not hesitating vigorously to ask that others bereconsidered-in some cases, radically. An example: more students than ever identify the classroom as a site in which education is a kind of "commodity" that is to be passively consumed. This for me would be a way not to speak of the university, and therefore all the more reason for it to be an important subject of discussion in a university, by students and teachers alike. As a teacher I feel compelled first to bring the origins and implications of this identification to the attention of students, and second, to encourage them to consider alterative ways of thinking about what a classroom and what a university is or might be. In other words, for me teaching is always implicitly teaching something about the nature of education, and thus to develop in my students new and more self-conscious "philosophies of learning" in conjunction with the philosophies of their teacher. It strikes me that there can be no teaching philosophies of any kind without analogous forms of reflections in the students we teach.

     Teaching for me is a profoundly philo-sophical endeavor. As the roots of the word themselves suggest, it is a labour that presupposes a desire or passion for knowing. And this work must include above all what the French philosopher Jacques Derrida calls "a passion for non-knowing," by which I mean not a mystical abstention from rational consideration but an urgent openness to all that necessarily exceeds straightforward definition and organization, and thus a strong commitment not to find or to expect answers too quickly. But I live and work in a culture that can be positively phobic about non-knowing, and that can be massively invested in narratives that simplify what are irreducibly complex social and intellectual realities. Why is this so? Where does such a restless craving after what are imagined to be natural "facts" and "self-evident" explanations come from? My work as a teacher, especially as a teacher primarily of critical theory, begins with such questions, encouraging students to reflect ever more carefully upon what they thought they knew, and thus to consider or reconsider the knowledges that they bring to the classroom. And I myself am hardly immune to such work, for I cannot reasonably expect my students to conduct such reflections without simultaneously conducting them myself. How to instill such desires in students, desires which, far from being antithetical to rigour, are, I would ague, the very basis of thinking precisely and responsibly? How to foster curiosity-which is less a faculty of the mind and more a way of being-in-the-world-in a student? No single statement could adequately answer such questions, questions, in any case, that I am still asking of myself. But in principle one key seems to me to be teaching by example, a lesson I learned once and am learning still from my own teachers. This means:

                  not only taking pleasure in putting certain provocative texts and questions into play, and in the knowledge that there is, in many cases, no turning back for an attentive student once they are put into play, but also appearing to take such pleasure.

                  being palpably puzzled, troubled, quickened, and delighted by the material, and to suggest the ways in which that material remains in excess of my teaching of it.

                  becoming a dynamic presence in the classroom, adopting persuasive and animated personae that model a spectrum of possible interpretations and presentations of the questions before us.

                  demonstrating that a text or a question can be attractive precisely because it is maddeningly difficult, rather than merely obscure, irrelevant, and alienating.

      And not only attractive. I must try to convey that what is being talked about in class is important, that it possesses some gravity, that it is "relevant" in ways that far exceed the narrowly utilitarian senses of the term that have recently insinuated themselves into talk about teaching. As a student myself, I vividly recall being confused by how much energy was put into what was being studied when the question of why it was being studied was either held in abeyance or answered only with cliches about its putative "greatness." This will not do. I cannot imagine a more irrelevant teaching philosophy than one that invites students to be tourists in a mausoleum of "culture" with me performing the role of earnest caretaker. The texts that I share with my students are not beautiful objects reverently locked away in a museum of ideas, but living, messy, interminable things, a part of the cultural milieu in which they where written, to be sure, but also, by virtue of appearing in this course, at this moment in the history of the discipline, a part of a quite different milieu, and alive to it in ways that also need unpacking.

      In general, then, I see myself as attempting to model the possibility that the life of the mind, which is to say an examined and engaged life, is anything but abstract, and, indeed, can be one that is enthusiastically, rigorously concerned with the here and now (which includes the interminable question of "Where is here?" and "When is now?"), with my students' lives and thus with their responsibilities as citizens. That work continues, to be sure, in my teaching relationship with graduate students, but at that point there are additional imperatives: the need for integrity in research and in one's professional conduct, the importance of participating in the creation of a scholarly community, the value in becoming canny about academic institutions. With doctoral students, one could say that the object is more immediately one of teaching students to become good teachers, researchers, and colleagues.

      If I were to name three felt obligations in my teaching practice--and I can do little more than name them here--they would include:

            I. Critical thinking:
I have often told my students that, in a certain way, all of the material we examine in class, whether it is ancient Greek philosophy or early twenty-first French philosophy, is a means to one complex end, and that is ever to sharpen their abilities to think and write with imagination, subtlety, discipline, and self-awareness. What we require, Friedrich Nietzsche says, are "teachers of slow reading," meaning that a culture otherwise addicted to speed is precisely the one most pressingly in need of an education that encourages students to proceed in an insistently interrogative mode--whether the subject in question is Plato or NATO. Teaching critical thinking means teaching something about the power of reading practices that are both resistant and respectful-that is, respectful because they are resistant.

           II. An ethics of pedagogy: Being an ethical teacher means keeping abreast of the current research being conducted on the course material so as to speak in an informed manner. It means being in a position to introduce students to the widest range of critical positions and historical provenances, and to teach in a way that brings the classroom as close as possible to the frontiers of research. For me, it therefore means being a teaching researcher rather than a researcher who happens also to teach. It means situating what I in particular bring to the classroom, the methodological assumptions and intellectual contexts that shape what I say and how I say it. If, for example, my teaching is "an adventure in applied deconstruction"--to borrow a phrase from the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick--it is imperative to make clear to students what "deconstruction" is and is not, what its blindnesses and insights are, why it is important and illuminating, and what alternative positions exist that could and should be explored.

      Being an ethical teacher means fostering a classroom that is as free as possible from intimidation, sexism, homophobia, racism and other forms of exclusion, including the fundamentalisms, naturalisms, and irrationalisms that are antithetical to the Enlightenment principles that I take to continue to govern the Sittlichkeit--the community of obligations--of the university.

      Being an ethical teacher means accepting the responsibility for treating students with respect; it means being cognizant of their differences, their difficulties and their abilities.

      Being an ethical teacher means making arduous intellectual demands and conducting evaluations that I provisionally view to be in the best interests of the student even and especially if those interests are not or not yet evident to that student. Do I want them to find me agreeable? Of course. But simple admiration cannot be a priority in the classroom. Education is. So teaching sometimes means practising a certain asceticism, a turning away from the lure of being liked by one's students so as more vigorously to foster respect.

           III. A politics of pedagogy: For me, the classroom is an inherently political space, not in the sense of what is too quickly called "partisan" politics, but in the more fundamental senses of being a site and circumstance of potential change, difference, and dissent, as well as a vital part of the polis. Not isolated from the culture at large, then, but richly and ambivalently connected to it in ways that need constantly to be addressed ... and exploited. Cached within the polis, the classroom is a point from which parsing the body of the culture and writing a history of the present is perhaps most freely possible. Yet it is a social space, like any other, that is imbued with what Michel Foucault calls the "nexus of power and knowledge." Teaching therefore also means making the subtle and obvious ways in which authority and education are inextricably bound up one with the other a part of the teaching. In the English Renaissance, Sir Philip Sidney taught that gnosis is worthless without a corresponding praxis. To bring students to the point that they can make the ethical significance of their knowledge a part of their lived experience: therein for me lies the task--interminable as such--of teaching.

(This document was prepared at the request of the Chair of the Promotion and Tenure Committee of the Department of English, McMaster University, August 29, 1999.)