Teaching

“Any genuine teaching [or learning] will result, if successful, in someone’s knowing how to bring about a better condition of things than existed earlier.”

--John Dewey

Every time I teach, I find myself also learning. That is why, I love teaching. Throughout my professional life, I have taught a variety of people, people of different levels and ages—children, high school students, undergraduate and graduate students, professionals, and fellow educators. Each group is unique, not only in the way it challenges me as an educator, but also in the way it provides me with opportunities to learn more about myself, other human beings, and the world around me.

My teaching practice is motivated by my firm belief that intellectual work matters and that progressive education cannot be reduced to the acquisition and mastery of a set of fixed skills and techniques, but should rather provide students with the educational opportunities to learn about and engage in the experience of substantive democracy and critical citizenship. I understand my field, cultural studies, as both an academic field and intellectual and political practice that seeks not only to produce complex analyses, or what Stuart Hall calls “useful knowledge,” but also help bring about a more democratic, more humane world.

When I teach cultural studies and global studies, I try to achieve two overarching goals. One is to help students to think critically about every aspect of their everyday life and culture. The point is not just to have students explore how cultural forms and formations are produced, shaped, distributed, consumed and used in a variety of ways, but also for them to learn to examine cultural phenomena in the context of their social totality (which, here, refers to the concrete unity of all interacting spheres of social life), that is, by pursuing their hidden interactions and interconnections in real life. Students are encouraged to discover that the significance of an event or phenomenon–be it ideological, political, economic, or cultural–cannot be properly assessed outside a dialectical understanding of its place in society as a whole. They are in a better position to understand how social, economic, and political forces act on cultural production, distribution, and reception; and how cultural forces, in turn, act on the social, economic, and political. The other is to have students question their methodological assumptions when they approach texts or study practices; that is, to be more aware and critical of the questions they ask about texts and practices, why they ask them, and how these might pre-determine and over-determine the interpretations they are likely to produce.

As far as advanced courses are concerned, my goals also include the development in students of a deeper understanding of the texts and issues studied, and the improvement of research skills and scholarly writing and speaking. This involves close reading of and critical engagement with primary texts and more thorough attention to historical context. Discussion is more extended and focuses more on the critical interrogation of specific perspectives and less on understanding basic concepts and categories. Writing takes the form of at least two short researched papers (a mid-term and a final). This allows students to develop vital research and critical skills that will benefit them in the future.

I approach teaching not in a didactic manner, but as a facilitator. I allow my enthusiasm, enjoyment, and even frustration to show, and I encourage students to develop a sense of their own response to the various authors and issues. I see great value in demonstrating that critical questioning can be a highly personal process relevant to one’s own conditions of existence. I also stress, however, that emotional responses to cultural studies issues are only the beginning of the process and urge students, through group discussion and critical reflection, to go beyond criticism to consider alternatives, to expose their beliefs to critical evaluation and develop rational support for them by extricating both questions and answers from the material under study.

Assessment of the performance of my students is an essential part of my teaching practice. Every two weeks, throughout the semester, I would use a simple feedback questionnaire in which students responded to questions concerning the effectiveness of both my teaching approach and their learning approaches. This helps me to determine which elements of the content and structure of the course need adjustment to better meet both my goals and those of the students. Moreover, engaging in this sort of evaluation, and discussing the results and possible responses with the students, further promotes the ideals of critical thinking by applying them to the classroom process itself. In cases where significant changes were made, I found that students genuinely appreciated an effort (in which they took part) to improve the course of the semester.

While my specific interests have evolved over the years, I have always been an interdisciplinary researcher and teacher throughout my career. Throughout my teaching career, I have taught and co-taught a number of interdisciplinary courses, including: introduction to cultural studies, culture and globalization, methods of inquiry in cultural studies, Middle Eastern and North African cultural studies. Teaching these courses has not only broadened the range of the material that I am able to teach, but—more importantly—it has broadened my pedagogical range as well. For example, in my most recent intro to cultural studies classes I use documentary films, newspapers, and the Internet. In addition, my regular participation at faculty and committee meetings have both increased my participation in interdepartmental exchange and introduced me to different pedagogical approaches. Significant among these is the use of visual media to increase students’ critical awareness with respect to both the visual media itself and more traditional texts. Visual literacy and a critical attitude towards visual media are particularly important in a market culture which encourages young people to respond rather passively to the visual presentation of information and entertainment. Another significant pedagogical approach I have incorporated is the use of role-play designed to introduce students to critical theories and to provide a point of reference for subsequent critique of those very theories.

The use of literature, visual media, and group work activities enable students to stretch their imagination and consciousness, opening them to alternate experiences, conceptions, and ways of knowing. Experiences and views which may have previously been too foreign, too unsettling, or simply too implausible to be entertained, can be made personal, vivid, and understandable in their complexity. At this point a genuine (and often very personal) critical approach can be taken to issues and ideas which previously had seemed unmotivated or inconceivable.

Throughout my teaching career, I have always enjoyed the challenge of curriculum development. Curriculum is, of course, more than the development of individual courses. It is the development and integration of a wide variety of learning experiences and possible sequences of courses that will help the student develop knowledge and abilities necessary for success in their studies and beyond that, in the process of lifelong learning. I view a curriculum as a road map with a carefully planned itinerary of learning moments. Each stop is an extended exploration of that topic and area (a course or an internship or an independent study or a research project). So even when I develop or teach individual courses, I am always aware of the importance of the overall, integrated learning experience afforded by the curriculum—in the majors and minors and other related programs.

developing good rapport with my students not only in class, but in one-on-one discussion, is an essential part of teaching practices. Some of my most rewarding teaching experiences have come from working with student at various stages of the research process and from discussing rough drafts at individual conferences. Students have regularly mentioned to me that they find it easier to engage me in one-on-one discussion, and report finding this extremely rewarding for them as well. I am always willing to spend a great deal of time outside of class with genuinely interested students, for this shows them a side to humanities discourse which can only be imperfectly communicated in the classroom. Moreover, this individualized, dialogical teaching can be crucial in getting certain students through core Cultural Studies courses. Cultural Studies can be very intimidating, especially if the student feels “everyone else is getting it but me”. The group work activities I do in the Intro and Methods classes combat this problem to some extent, by allowing students to teach each other and figure things out together. But, in order to fill the gaps and build confidence in the face of abstract and complex theoretical categories and concepts, nothing can match a few low-pressure, individually-tailored sessions. Often, students who are near failing finish their classes at the B level or better.

The enthusiasm for discussion which I have described as integral to a successful class also encourages students to approach me after and outside of class. Whether it is to address concerns about performance, discuss cultural issues, or (as occurred during this and previous semesters) to discuss personal matters, it is important that intellectual discussion and application of critical skills extend beyond the classroom.