Undergraduate Teaching and Teaching Philosophy
For six years before returning to graduate school, I was a member and later became the director of the Urban Debate League, an education non-profit working with students and educators to develop advocacy skills in the alternative learning environment of competitive debate. The philosophy of the program was relatively simple: the best way to deal with students that had fallen through the cracks was to completely change the context of how they were learning. Students at these schools, many of whom had severe learning disabilities and literacy skills 5 years below their average grade level, regularly sat in classes with 40 other students in which educators spent most of their time disciplining the class rather than teaching. English as Second Language programs were under severe budget restraints and political pressure and so in many instances debate became the laboratory to experiment with English without the fear of getting bad grades or constant grammatical policing.
Our solution was to put these students at the front of the room and convince their teachers to listen them. Students who were otherwise disrupting the classroom felt a sense of ownership and enjoyed debating their classmates. Teachers thrived off of the energy of their students, and other students who were not debating on a given day enjoyed judging to determine who won and lost the debate rounds. Weekend debate tournaments staffed by volunteers, and later by paid judges once we acquired a permanent budget through the Illinois state legislature, provided a 4 to 1 teaching environment during the 90 minute debates.
The success of the program taught me an extraordinary amount about how different the learning environment can be when students are part of the learning process at both the level of curriculum development and teaching. My biggest fear going in was what predominantly black and hispanic teachers and students would think of a Texan from the suburbs. Ultimately starting from the proposition that education is and should be participatory and based on respect provided the tools I needed. While teaching at the college level is somewhat different, it is my experience that in every classroom there are students who struggle to find a means of expression and engagement. Therefore, first and foremost, I see my job as an educator as one that first listens and then facilitates and encourages the participation and involvement of all students in the classroom with regard to both the subject matter and active characteristics of their learning environment.
As a result my first concern in any class is challenging students to read, write, and speak critically. This often requires substantial effort as many students are resistant or afraid to take their own positions or question the expertise of authors. I believe the most important skill one can teach a student is the ability to form their own arguments and express them clearly and persuasively. I spend time at the beginning of every semester pushing students to distinguish between opinions and arguments, assumptions and warranted claims. Students that understand how to construct a complete argument write better papers and give better presentations. I try to accomplish this by assigning provocative texts that inspire constructive disagreement or at least strong skepticism in the classroom. In my experience this leads to discussions of evidence and about how we make judgments on what representation of the world we affirm or deny. Also I think there are many different kinds of learners in the world and so I encourage students to draw on a wide variety of media including film and television, blogs, books and other traditional print media. I also like to give a variety of assignments and encourage the use of diverse formats for completing them: oral, written, and in some cases video presentations. I do this so that students with different strengths are able to excel without escaping the modes of expressions they are less comfortable with.
I also believe critical thinking requires student participation and thus I try to avoid the banking model of education in which we expect students to accept that their instructors will deliver an hour of prepackaged knowledge to them each day. In classes small enough for everyone to present I assign students days in which they are responsible for leading part of the class discussion, and find that as a result students are often much more willing to question and engage their peers. If a class is too large for everyone to present I give particular students the opportunity to teach or participate in class more directly, particularly those students who are bright but may not perform as well on written assignments.
Substantively I work hard to disaggregate the study of global politics from the field of International Relations. There is a tendency in our field to think that IR has all of the answers to global politics, or at least has the best methods for investigating them. This has in my opinion, impoverished the pursuit of global literacy in undergraduate education. In an attempt to address provinicializing tendencies I assign texts from anthropologist, economists, non-experts that have direct experience with violence and conflict, as well as fictional attempts to capture the truth by other means than facts.
I also try to steer clear of teaching globalization from the perspective of the globe which leaves out the very real experiences of those who have endured the often violent interference of world wide financialization. It is important to remind ourselves and our students that people do not live as aggregate sums. However, confronting the violence of a Eurocentric bias in global change requires not simply adding more histories, cultures, or stories to the pile of dates and facts. Rather this requires giving students the opportunity to learn the events they thought they knew such as the Cold War from the perspective of those who have had to bare the brunt of colonial proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union. It also requires that students learn to look for primary sources outside their comfort zone, which necessitates assigning materials and films beyond the canon of International Relations. Reading Frantz Fanon on Algeria or teaching how the CIA/MI6 organized the overthrow of President Mohammad Mosaddegh are just some means of questioning the long and sorted history of nation building. Similarly the war in the Congo cannot be taught absent a discussion of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba anymore than a discussion of al-Qaeda can leave out the U.S. relationship to the Mujahedin and later the Taliban.
For me teaching Global Politics is about providing a geographical and historical context so that students have the tools to read and think critically for themselves.
I think the best way to avoid conflicts and improve the work of students is to make expectations extraordinarily clear in the syllabus and on the first day of class. It is also important to structure opportunities for one-on-one dialogue about class assignments through out the semester. When I teach classes with fewer than 25 students I require that all papers first be proposed in class and followed up by a short outline and write up. I then have a follow up meeting with individual students so that they have formulated their ideas clearly and receive feedback from me before they complete their final paper.
In larger undergraduate classes I attempt to create exams that force students to write in their own voice and from their own developing expertise and that are therefore impossible to plagiarize by assigning scenarios or problems that require the application of what they have read to a contemporary event too specific to copy from somewhere else. In POL 201 The Problems of War and Peace the final exam presented them with the details of a fictional dictatorship. The take home exam required that they draw on the readings and class discussion to design a non-violent strategy for either forcing the government to compromise on basic human rights, pursuing a change in leadership, or a peaceful overthrow of the existing state. In other classes exams have taken the form of memos advising presidents on the best course of action regarding the decision to use force in resolving a foreign policy crisis. I find that putting the student in the position of expertise advising someone else opens up the opportunity to develop a sense of their own voice.
Having taught high school and literacy to many different age groups I have worked with many students with learning disabilities and a wide range of learning styles. While it is vital that all students be able to write clearly and effectively, I put a premium on providing ways for students to do their best work and excel in my class. I also make it a point to work closely with the UH Manoa KOKUA Program to create the best possible learning environment for all students.
Graduate Teaching and Mentoring
I consider the opportunity to participate in graduate seminars a great privilege. As such I treat every seminar as what a former mentor of mine described as a collaboratory. That is, a space for collaborative experimentation with ideas and practices. First and foremost that requires flexibility in the content and form of a graduate class. Although I put a great deal of thinking and planning into the readings and general argument of a graduate seminar, I treat the subsequent syllabus as a proposal. I encourage graduate students to suggest and revise readings and the direction of the class as it develops. This is of course is a kind of wager as it requires active and full participation of all the members of the seminar to succeed. So far I have been lucky to have a great group of Ph.D. and Masters students that have taken the enterprise very seriously.
Pedagogically the role I play as instructor is more often in office hours helping students develop their research questions as well as rewriting their papers. As many students come into class with very different academic backgrounds I offer two different tracks for satisfying a seminar’s written assignment. The first is the traditional seminar paper of 25 pages. The topic for the paper is presented to class in the last two weeks after having met with me to discuss the research question ahead of time. For those newer to the graduate program I also offer the option of a 12 to 15 page critique of one or two of the readings in class. However this paper must be turned in by the middle of the semester at which time I make suggestions for significant revisions and rewrites that must be completed by the end of the semester. I find that this assignment allows differently experienced students to work on their writing style as well as the mastery of the deluge of new concepts one often confronts in the first years of graduate school.
I am still quite new to graduate teaching and as such have a great deal to learn. I try to take every advantage I can of the resources in the Department and the University. I was lucky to benominated and accepted to the Interdisciplinary Faculty Seminar on Race, Gender, Culture and Community. This Faculty professional development seminar lead by Charles Lawrence has been a great opportunity to learn from a teaching veteran as well as to discuss strategies and ideas with other young professor from other departments. I also find I learn a great deal from the graduate students. I consider those students brave enough to tell me when they think something is not working a great asset.