My Teaching Philosophy

"We are what we repeatedly do. 
Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." 
~ Aristotle
I. Philosophy

This quote appears in the syllabus for each class I teach, along with others. It is a provocative expression about the quest for excellence that I use to initiate a semester-long discussion about learning itself with students. Whether I am teaching statistics, data analysis, demography, social network analysis, or other subjects, my aim is never simply to teach the subject, but to show students how to learn about the subject. The latter serves as a basis for lifetime learning, and is by far the more critical skill in a rapidly shifting economic landscape than mastery of a subject alone.

To this central pillar, I add a second: a focus on individualized student attention. The literature on the cognitive and social bases of effective learning is often contentious, but it does present a consistent account of diverse learning styles, motivations, and capacities in learners. It is essential to meet each student at her or his current level of understanding, and to integrate my instruction and guidance seamlessly with an existing set of experiences and knowledge, challenging worldviews at times, and working always to develop in each individual an effective strategy for life-long learning.

II. Experience

I have five semesters of experience teaching introductory and advanced undergraduate courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as one semester of advanced graduate seminar experience at Brown University. I have developed syllabi, reading courses, materials, and assessments for three courses – Data Analysis and Statistics, Measurement and Data Collection, and Social Network Analysis. I have also collaborated with Martin Piotrowski at Oklahoma University to develop an innovative demography course entitled “Population Problems” which is now featured in the ASAs Demography Teaching Resources Guide (2007). I am equally well-prepared to expand into introductory sociology and undergraduate social theory, or to teach advanced graduate prep courses.

In each course, I use carefully crafted assessments (mostly ungraded) that require students to evaluate their own work objectively and diagnose strengths and weaknesses both substantively and globally. To be successful in a competitive, fast-paced world, students must practice critical and skeptical questioning. With a motivation to learn, and the skills necessary to do so, students can become self-motivated and reflective students of sociology, demography, and like subjects. Simply put, I teach for life, not the next exam. Summary teaching evaluations from my first three semesters of teaching are attached. These evaluations are on a five-point scale with 5 being “strongly agree.”

Cumulatively, my educational experience inside and outside the classroom afford me a unique perspective on all levels of higher education. My own undergraduate experiences at academically rigorous Hope College introduced me to the values and ideals of pursuing a liberal education in the context of a faith-based liberal arts institution. My graduate experience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill familiarized me with the dynamic and intellectually challenging atmosphere of a major Research-1 establishment. My postdoctoral work and teaching at Brown University has exposed me to a third unique milieu with its own philosophy toward instruction This diversity of experience across institutional enables me to effectively mentor students from a wide variety of backgrounds and with an equally wide variety of career and educational aspirations.

III. Classroom Practice

Time in class is one part of an “arc of learning” that starts long before class with individual student study. In order for the mind to grow, it must be fertilized with provocative ideas, facts, and information, and for this, reading is still the root of scholarship. Reading also surpasses lecture as a means of pure information delivery (Lowman 1995; McKeachie 2002). I use my time in class to highlight and organize, and use diverse readings, ranging from popular press works to scientific research manuscripts as necessary to challenge and inform.

For learning to take hold, it must be reinforced. It takes time and repetition for new neural pathways to become firmly established. Thus when introducing new topics, I work hard to present the same information in a variety of forms, helping students to organize large volumes of raw data into meaningful patterns and associating it with existing knowledge. To aid in this process, I provide my own summaries and notes for most readings, challenging students to compare their understandings of the material with what I took away. When I asked students in one class to list elements of my class that they found especially helpful for learning, 30 percent spontaneously mention these class notes. As one student wrote, “I like the class notes because I compare them to the notes I take when I am reading so I can check to be sure I got the main points.”

Honing the higher-level thinking skills that are required in today’s global society requires practice, and to gain practice students must be present and engaged. To this end, group work takes a prominent role and promotes attendance through social monitoring. I use informal groups with shifting membership to help students get acquainted and, in time, shift to stable groups that allow students to build trust and practice working cooperatively. My students have reported high levels of satisfaction with this approach. 34 percent of students in a recent class spontaneously mentioned group work as important to their learning in open-ended feedback.

The arc of learning is incomplete without the opportunity to master and demonstrate skills and critical thinking through homework, worksheets, projects, papers, and formal examinations. Using a wide array of assessment tools, I maximize the likelihood of measuring real learning rather than proxying well-established test-taking ability. Regular assessments also keep me abreast of student progress so that I can adjust.

These and other practices promote repetition, association, and application of core concepts, all demonstrated requisites of long-term information retention. My approach is designed to reach most students on multiple levels, but to reach every student on at least some level. With such an approach, it is difficult for students to “slip between the cracks.” When a student does fall behind, I act quickly to make sure he or she knows it, and also that the student knows that I know it. On standard end-of-semester evaluations at UNC-Chapel Hill, students consistently rated their ability to get extra help when needed a half-point above the average for the department as a whole. All I ask is that students first demonstrate a sincere commitment to learning. I repay this commitment with one of my own, going to great lengths to help them attain their goals. My commitment does not cease at semester’s end. I am asked to write an average 5 letters of recommendation per semester for former students, which I do, and many continue to write me about their recent successes and challenges.

IV. Teaching Beyond the Classroom Walls

One of the most effective ways to promote better learning is through involving students in activities that simultaneously merge learning, research, and increasingly, service to others. In my time at Brown, I have had the pleasure of beginning to mentor a wide range of students from sociology, ecology, and public health in carrying out their own research. Equally important are efforts to involve students directly in my own research, not as mere laborers, but valued contributors. My extensive ties to researchers in Brazil, Thailand, and China, provide opportunities for student involvement at every stage of several large, ongoing projects, from primary data collection to data management and analysis, through to writing research reports and publication. Whether students have ambitions of working in the private sector, public sector, NGOs, or academia upon graduation, I can provide them with the top-quality mentoring they will need.

V. Teaching Evaluations
Available upon request. Please email me today.

VI. References
Lowman, Joseph. 1995. Mastering the Techniques of Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
McKeachie, Wilbert. 2002. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.