Michael P. Johnson
Philosophy of Teaching

Preface: This is a version of a document I was asked to prepare for a dossier that was submitted to recommend me for a College teaching award in 1996, at a point in my career when I had been teaching for over 25 years.  I'd never really thought through in any systematic way what my "philosophy of teaching" was, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was indeed  method to my madness--or so it seemed to me.  Judge for yourself.

Diversity, variability, flexibility, and respect. These are the core concepts from which I address the planning of every curriculum development, course outline, and classroom event in which I am involved.

The diversity of which I speak is diversity in the broadest sense. Each curriculum must meet a diverse set of program and student needs; as a result, courses differ considerably in goals and general clientele. Furthermore, each course addresses a variety of topics and must make them manageable for students from diverse backgrounds, and each classroom event must communicate with anywhere from ten to two hundred different students, with different life histories and therefore different skills and learning styles.

It follows that effective teaching must involve considerable variability, in the nature of the readings, the structure of the grading system, and the planning of classroom activities. I also believe that the diversity of students requires that courses be designed to incorporate as much flexibility as possible, to allow each student to address the materials in a manner that closely suits her particular style of learning--which brings me to "respect."

The effective teachers I know all have tremendous respect for their students, and they respect them in their individuality. Teaching is only one facet of a teaching-learning process, a process whose success hinges upon effective communication; and communication is undermined when students sense that they are of little importance to their teacher. What we do in the classroom is important because the people who come there to learn are important, each in his or her own way. This attitude toward the students is expressed a number of ways, including the careful design of a course that meets the diverse needs of students, the devotion of energy to preparation for class and the clear expression of one's involvement in teaching, and the respectful treatment of students in the give-and-take of classroom interaction. In the first two sections below, I will address matters of course design (course materials and grading systems), and in the third section I will turn to the nature of classroom interaction.

Course Materials

To illustrate how these principles play out in my case, let me begin with the matter of variability of course content by contrasting two courses that I teach regularly. At the introductory level I teach a course on the sociology of gender that is cross-listed in Sociology and Women's Studies, and that meets both diversity and social science breadth requirements. As a result of this structural placement of the course, the clientele ranges from incoming first year students who are filling a requirement to sophomore or junior Sociology majors who come with good social science sense but little knowledge of the topic at hand to senior majors in Women's Studies who are deeply committed and already quite well informed on the topic. There is not a textbook to be found that could effectively address such diversity--so the answer is to develop a reading packet of tremendous variability. In this case, that variability includes a sophisticated statistical analysis of the status of men and women in the paid labor force, an essay by Gloria Steinem on the distinction between erotica and pornography, an important theoretical piece from Patricia Hill Collins's Black Feminist Thought, a fairly accessible essay on "homophobia as a weapon of sexism," a children's fable, an empirical study of power in dating relationships, and an excerpt from an introductory textbook on men's lives. The readings thus represent diversity in general level of academic development and specific knowledge of the area, as well as diversity in the more narrow sense of validating the importance of under-represented groups in our understanding of gender issues. Although I will speak to the issue of grading systems below, I need to point out here that one important aspect of this course is that the grading system is set up in such a way that students can select from this packet the readings that most interest them and that most suit their current level of knowledge in this area. This flexibility, in combination with the diversity in the readings, thus allows the students to tailor the course to some extent to their individual skills and interests.

Contrast this with a 400-level course on social psychological theory that is not cross-listed and serves primarily upper-level Sociology majors. Here the materials chosen demonstrate respect for students, not in the diversity of the material, but in the selection of readings that embody an assumption that these students are ready to tackle material that is written for a professional audience. We read primary materials, written by social psychologists and published in professional journals for an audience of other social psychologists. For most of the students, these are the most challenging materials they have yet encountered at Penn State. Recognition of student variability comes in the form of a threefold attack on each set of readings, recognizing differences in student learning styles, and involving them centrally in the process of teaching each other. For each topic, the students learn by reading, by listening to a lecture focused directly on the reading material, by at least participating in and occasionally leading small group discussions of the reading in which students teach each other, and finally by bringing back to the teacher unresolved questions that arise in the group discussions.

Grading Systems

In my view, the major function of a grading system is the shaping of student and teacher behavior in the teaching-learning process, and it is therefore essential that one give considerable thought to what is all too often treated as a secondary matter, a matter only of certification that the process has or has not worked in the case of any particular student. To illustrate the diversity of grading systems required for different courses and clienteles, I will return to the two courses discussed above.

The primary goal of the introductory course on the sociology of gender is to provide students with the knowledge and skills necessary to address the structure of everyday life from a feminist sociological perspective (the course is cross-listed in Sociology and Women's Studies). There is not a specific, narrowly-defined body of knowledge that must be mastered, but rather a set of analytic frameworks and methodological tools that are useful beyond the specific content areas covered in the course. The combination of these general analytic goals with the diverse student population (noted above) suggests a grading system with two major features: (1) the flexibility to allow students to choose substantive materials that suit their individual interests (within the general realm of gender studies), and that allow them to address those areas in a manner that most closely fits their preferred learning style, and (2) the encouragement of global, analytic learning as opposed to a focus on detailed information. Feature number two is attained by focusing the grading system almost entirely on two-page papers on readings and classroom events, which are graded Pass-Rewrite, and in which the students are required to demonstrate mastery of the main points of the reading or event. Students also have the option of writing longer papers on books. Feature number one is attained by providing the students with enough reading choices and classroom events that they need only do half of what is available to receive an A in the course. (The criterion for an A is thirty papers.) Thus, students choose topics as they wish, and deal with those topics in the manner that is most effective for them--a few read books and write long papers, others focus their work on lectures and other classroom events, while others focus on the article-length readings. All are exposed to a variety of analyses and are pushed to demonstrate mastery of general theoretical perspectives, methodological approaches, and styles of research and analysis.

By way of contrast, the goal of the upper-level theory course is to guide all of the students to a mastery of each of the core theoretical perspectives in social psychology. As noted above, the materials are very challenging for most Penn State students. Thus, the grading system must (1) encourage global, analytic, and critically focused thinking; (2) facilitate mastery of the major perspectives in the field; and (3) attend to differences in student learning styles. Thus, in this course the grading system is designed to ensure that all of the students will struggle with all of the material (that is, the flexibility in terms of choice of content is eliminated), and grades are assigned at various stages in the learning process. Students are graded on the quality of their participation in group discussions on all of the assigned topics, the quality of their preparation and performance as group discussion leaders on selected topics, and the quality of their performance on midterm and final essay examinations.

As a final note, I would like to point out that differences in grading systems are not merely a function of course level, but of the goals of the course and the learning-teaching process that is most appropriate for those goals. Thus, although I will not address them in detail here, my grading systems for Soc. 001, 003, 103 and 110 (all introductory level courses) differ significantly from each other.

Classroom Interaction

Some aspects of what goes on in the classroom are pre-planned, and to a large extent under the control of the teacher. Again, I would argue strongly for the importance of variability, across and within both courses and class periods. The need for variability across courses is obvious and, as noted above, tied directly to the goals of the particular course. The need for variability across class sessions has three sources. First, to some extent different topics lend themselves to different types of presentation, a film for example being an effective learning aid for the topic of gender in the media, while being of little use in explicating the sources of gender differences in income in the paid labor force. Second, even for the same topic, students differ among themselves in terms of the impact of various modes of presentation (some responding well to lectures, others to group discussions, and so on). Finally, even for the same student, a variety of approaches to a single topic facilitates learning. Thus, for example, students will be more likely to understand the impact of pornography on the lives of men and women if they have read an analysis of the feminist critique of pornography, attended a lecture presenting the results of research on the topic, seen a documentary on the topic, and engaged in small group and full class discussions of the material to which they have been exposed. This variability can, of course, also happen within a class session, with the added function of reducing boredom and holding the students' attention. This is one of the functions, for example, of the common practice of encouraging students to ask questions during a lecture--the change in the rhythm and style of learning involved helps to maintain student (and perhaps even teacher) interest. However, the general principle can also be extended to more clearly multimedia planning of a single class session--a short lecture can be followed by a short videotape followed by a short class discussion, and a final wrapping up by the teacher.

There are other aspects of classroom interaction that are less amenable to detailed pre-planning, but they should at least be the subject of some general strategizing that can guide the often unpredictable flow of face-to-face encounters--and part of this strategizing should be focused on issues of diversity and respect. Let me speak first to the matter of respect for groups. Although this issue comes up most often in connection with the treatment of underrepresented groups, it is a general problem that arises whenever global statements are made about a category of people. In my Women's Studies classes, for example, I need to be as careful about how I treat "men" as a concept, as I am about how I treat "African Americans" as a concept. Nevertheless, the issue is particularly important with respect to groups that are underrepresented in our scholarship and our thinking. Of course, a partial remedy to this underrepresentation is the inclusion of more representative materials in the readings and other teaching aids, but the flow of classroom life offers a particularly vivid medium for addressing this problem. I carry a general rule into the classroom that I will use underrepresented groups whenever possible in the ad hoc examples that illustrate points that arise in the course of class discussion. My response to a question about attitude theory in the advanced social psychology course may, for example, utilize attitudes toward gay men as an example to clarify a point made about general theory. The answer thereby is responsive not only to the specific theoretical question at hand, but also reminds the non-gay students in the class that gay men exist, and validates for the gay men in the class their legitimacy as an "ordinary" topic of discussion. A related strategy is to try to be constantly attentive to diversity across groups. For example, if a student asks a question about violence in dating relationships, I need to go beyond summarizing the general literature, to acknowledge how little we know about such matters in lesbian relationships. If the question happens to be about decision-making in relationships, I would want to make a point of acknowledging the research that shows greater equality in gay and lesbian than in heterosexual dating relationships. Of course, being a product of my culture, I also occasionally find myself presenting something in a manner that neglects variability across groups, and thereby inadvertently assumes the dominant group as "standard." I find that these occasions, in which I address my own mistake, offer a wonderful opportunity not only to re-visit the diversity issue, but to say something that is related to the general issue of respect for individual students: "We all make mistakes. A person who makes a mistake is just one of us."

I have discussed some of the issues of recognition and validation above, those having to do with group affiliations, but there is another take on this that is very important. Every group of human beings contains within it tremendous diversity. If we wish to display our respect for individual human beings, we must be constantly attentive to that diversity within groups. Let me provide two illustrations related to race. First, a teacher might be inclined, immediately after presenting data on average income differences between whites and Blacks in the United States, to assume that the Black student who raises her hand to discuss the issue is poor, and to address the student in some manner that indicates that assumption. The second example carries this process a bit further, as the teacher calls on a Black student to "represent" the Black experience of poverty--not only assuming similarity of economic status among African-Americans, but also asking the student to serve as an icon instead of an individual. These sort of assumptions that individuals somehow embody the averages of the groups to which they belong are unfortunately a routine aspect of everyday life, but a teacher has a special obligation to provide students with a model of respect for their individuality.

This brings me to the final matter of respect, respect for individual differences of all kinds. I believe that the major classroom issue here has to do with style, with the tone in which a teacher addresses the questions and contributions of students in class. As teachers, we have to work at the development of a classroom manner that validates students even as we correct them. A roll of the eyes as we address an "ignorant" question will be remembered by all of the students in the class no matter how much we profess that all questions are valid, and no matter how much they may themselves have found the question to be ill-informed. This does not, of course, mean that we allow student errors to pass uncorrected, but simply that we address them in our role as teachers. If students did not have gaps in their knowledge and understanding, they would not, after all, need us, would they?

I think it is appropriate that this presentation of my philosophy of teaching has ended with a discussion of respect for students, because that seems to me to be the foundation for all effective teaching. Good teachers respect their students enough to want to do the best job they can for them.