Teaching Philosophy: Stentor Benjamin Danielson

My teaching philosophy begins from my view of the academy's place in society. The academy is an institution specializing in the production of knowledge, but to maintain its place in the larger society, it must put that knowledge to good use. By "good use" I mean the increase of human happiness, either directly (through the intrinsic enjoyment of knowing things) or instrumentally (through solving the many problems that confront our society, which are perhaps nowhere greater than in the field of human-environment relations). Our society is increasingly recognizing the weakness of the technocratic paradigm, in which the academy applies its knowledge on behalf of a passive or ignorant laity. Instead, it is imperative to create engaged citizens by helping non-academics to understand, use, and critique scientific knowledge. An engaged citizen is one who is able to understand how their actions affect the people around them in the home, the marketplace, civic organizations, and government. An engaged citizen can intelligently discuss the direction of society with others. As a greater number of people partake of postsecondary education, the college classroom has become a crucial site for democratizing knowledge.

My approach to teaching springs from the idea that the purpose of postsecondary education is to equip students with the skills necessary for engaged citizenship, and that the role of the teacher is to act as a facilitator and a resource for the student's acquisition of those skills. Some of those skills are the general abilities that allow a person to participate in democracy -- the ability to exercise sound reasoning, to recognize the limits of one's knowledge, to understand and respectfully consider the arguments made by others, and to present one's own ideas in a clear and convincing way. Others are topic-specific. In my area of human-environment studies, it is important that students acquire both an understanding of our present state of knowledge about the environment, and also an ability to interpret -- and even conduct, if they wish -- both natural science and social science research about it.

In my view, the learning process is something like jazz improvisation. The rhythm section (the teacher) lays down the chord changes (the course material). The soloist (the student) has to try out different licks (ways of understanding the material and relating it to their life) to see which ones sound good. Soloists can listen to each other for ideas, but ultimately they ought to be able to play on their own. The rhythm section has to be willing to give the soloist as many choruses as they want (spend as much time as is necessary for the student to grasp the material), and to decide whether the soloist is ready to play Giant Steps or whether they need to start with C Jam Blues (try out different teaching methods and come down to a level that will challenge but not overwhelm the student). In exceptional cases, the rhythm section will take cues from the soloist (the teacher's understanding will be broadened by the student). In the jazz metaphor we see the rhythm section acting as a resource for the soloist, providing opportunities, structure, clarity, and guidance through the song, while not dictating the content of the improvisation.

The learning process faces numerous barriers (otherwise a specialized academy would never have developed!) In my conception of teacher-as-resource, the role of the teacher is to lower those barriers. A good teacher does this by designing a curriculum that guides students to the most important ideas, a syllabus that provides a framework for fitting them together (see, for example, my Environmental Justiuce syllabus), and instruction that unmasks the jargon and practices of the knowledge-producers (see, for example, my lecture on the urban-wildland interface and my lesson plan for the Cultural Theory of risk).

In teaching a class, I commit to being available to enable students to learn as much of the material as they are willing to, including working with them to find more effective learning approaches for those students who continue to encounter obstacles in grasping ideas in the way they're presented in class. If a concept is important for students to learn, it is important enough to repeat in multiple ways in readings, in lecture, through visual aids, in class discussions, in application-oriented assignments, etc. Other strategies range from generous office hours to periodic reconsideration of the syllabus (though always recognizing that the syllabus is a contract whose alteration requires the consent of the full class) and ways of meeting the goals outlined therein. It also requires a generous and sympathetic attempt to work with students with disabilities and the appropriate administrative office, as disabilities constitute an important barrier to some students' learning. Of course, the goal in such situations must always remain ensuring that the student learns the material and that assignments accurately measure that mastery.

My lesson plans tend to draw on a three-stage model (see, for example, my lesson on the Cultural Theory of risk). First, I present the students with a problem. This serves to motivate the lesson by showing its relevance. In discussing the problem with the class, I discover, and remind them of, the baseline knowledge that they have of the issue. The lesson can then build on (or even challenge) this baseline knowledge. The next section of class involves a more traditional exposition of the lesson material. In doing so, I attempt to link each step of the new material back to the initial problem. I try to end the class with an exercise that allows students to apply the lesson to a real or hypothetical situation. It is important to give students an immediate chance to use their knowledge, in order to consolidate it and give them the opportunity to receive clarification or affirmation.

The teacher-as-resource model recognizes that learning must be done actively and willingly by the learner. In a well-run classroom, students should be able to acquire as much or as little knowledge as they wish. Indeed, a key part of learning is recognizing what one's goals are and learning efficiently to meet those goals. A mistaken perception that the material is boring or too difficult is a common barrier that the teacher-as-resource must work to overcome, but we cannot blame all student disinterest on misperceptions. Rather than thinking in terms of motivating students to love geography the way I do, I prefer to see my role as helping them to make an educated decision about what knowledge will be useful and interesting for them as individuals and as citizens. My focus on equipping students for informed citizenship stems from my recognition that this -- rather than, say, advanced study of environmental issues for their own sake -- will be the prevalent goal bringing students to my classes (at least at the undergraduate level).

A good teacher also recognizes that because the production of new knowledge continues long after the student leaves the classroom, so must the student's learning. Thus in addition to initially lowering the barriers to access knowledge, students must learn how to lower those barriers for themselves, to reach out to new material not taught by the teacher. This requires knowing how knowledge is produced and how to evaluate claims. For this reason, as far as possible I structure my courses around key debates in the literature -- whether it be Deep Ecology versus utilitarianism, the Minnich-Keeley debate about the effectiveness of controlled burning, or the timing of human colonization of Australia. These debates show students that academics are not infallible while helping them to understand the perspectives of those who disagree with them. Both in-class debates and issue-focused written assignments force students to engage with the professionals and take (or make) a side. An idea that one has had to defend (or defend against) is understood more deeply than one that is simply learned.

If the purpose of a college education is to equip students with the knowledge they will need to be effective citizens, then the real test of the success of learning comes when the student is able to participate intelligently in the debates that shape the future course of our society. This connection between the classroom and life must be fostered, for example through "current events" assignments that ask students to apply the concepts from class to things they read in the daily newspaper (see the longer description of current events assignments in my Environmental Justice syllabus).

In order to be successful in improving students' knowledge, it is crucial to assess their level of understanding. This assessment should be done informally on a continuous basis, for example through extensive use of brainstorming questions in class (illustrated in my urban-wildland interface lecture). The most rigorous test of student progress, however, is graded assignments.

The purpose of grading is twofold -- to summarize my informed judgment of a students' mastery of the material for outsiders, and to give students a periodic assessment of their progress. The criteria by which student achievement is measured spring from my understanding of the goals of higher education as equipping students for citizenship. Thus, assignments and their assessment focus on application -- the ability of the student to encounter a new situation and make sense of it using the knowledge and skills from the classroom (see, for example, my lesson on the Cultural Theory of risk).

As a report to outsiders, it is important that grades are meaningful. They should accurately reflect the student's abilities in the arena covered by the course, not the student's effort or needs. I make efforts to reserve the highest grades (A and A+) for students who have truly reached for deep mastery of the larger field in which the course material is located. At the same time, I stress to students that grades are a measurement of their progress, not a judgment of their worth.

To be an effective during-class progress assessment for the student, assignments need to be frequent and spaced out (see, for example, my Environmental Justice syllabus). Basing the bulk of the grade on a few major exams or papers is ineffective at helping students and the teacher monitor and improve their progress, as well as creating unnecessary stress. Where a major project (such as an in-depth paper) is useful to the class objectives, several drafts or progress checks can ensure that the student discovers their areas of weakness before it's too late. Ungraded assignments, such as online quizzes, are a useful supplement to graded assignments as progress checks for both students and teachers. Assignments must also be diverse, so that the format of the assignments does not present a barrier to some students' expression of their mastery (e.g. students who are shy about real-time discussion or have difficulty writing), while not treating the hope of overcoming such barriers as a lost cause.

Ongoing learning is important not just for students, but also for faculty. I am committed to continuing to improve my teaching, in two ways. On one hand, I will draw on the experience and research of others through informal conversations, classes and workshops, and online discussions. On the other hand, I will pay close attention to evaluations of my own teaching -- both the indirect evaluation through monitoring students' progress, and direct evaluation through feedback surveys and discussions about how the class is going.

My overarching goal is to be an effective resource and facilitator to my students. I will focus my efforts on lowering the barriers that prevent students from engaging with the knowledge produced by the academy. If I am successful, my students will be prepared to be engaged citizens who can work to make their communities, countries, and world a better place.