Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Teaching Philosophies, Medieval Edition

by Mary Kate Hurley

One of the many things I’ve had to do this semester as I prepare for and apply to job postings is write a statement of teaching philosophy. I’ve luckily done quite a bit of teaching – at Columbia we have up to three years of University Writing, one year of Teaching Assistantship, and an optional two years in the Core (either Literature Humanities or Contemporary Civilization). I took the Writing track – one year as a TA, five semesters in University Writing, one semester teaching the Introduction to the Major course. All that goes to say: I’ve definitely taught in graduate school. I’ve loved every minute of it.

But as my job market seminar discussed two of our colleagues’ teaching statements, I realized that this is a genre I’m not familiar with, and one for which I feel oddly ill-prepared to write. My first statement of philosophy skewed toward the autobiographical: “I am the student of great teachers, here’s what I learned from them about pedagogy.” But that misses the point of a teaching statement, I think – it displaces the responsibility for a holistic philosophy onto my past, creating out of four separate experiences a patch-work statement of pedagogical beliefs that don’t belong to me so much as they inform my teaching style.

And so, at the suggestion of an adviser, I turned to the medieval to try and find a pedagogical model. But which what statement or character from medieval literature would offer the best model? I found this a paradoxically difficult question to answer...after all, I’ve spent most of my adult life learning about and from the Middle Ages, surely there’s a “teaching pedagogy” in there somewhere!

Beowulf was my initial thought. However, although you can excavate a pedagogy from the poem, I’m not sure that “hack things to death with a sword in order to understand them better” is the best idea for a teaching statement. I over simplify, obviously, but it still just didn’t ring true as a source for me. One could turn to Augustine, I suppose, or perhaps Abelard, but neither one is really my style.

Chaucer, I finally decided, would be my best bet. But which Chaucer to choose? The Clerk seems too obvious – “gladly would he learn and gladly teach,” but that doesn’t really lend itself to a philosophy. It’s just a statement of who I am, and though it has the virtue of being familiar it’s also a little bit clich├ęd. The quote from Parliament of Fowles, “For life is so short, the craft so long to learn” didn’t seem quite like what I wanted either – again, it’s true, but it’s not a philosophy. There’s a whole section of the Physicians’ Tale on how to raise children (aimed at governesses and parents) but I wasn’t overly fond of it either, and I’ve never been particularly enamored of the Physician’s Tale.

In the end, I finally settled on what I hope was a less obvious but more productive choice for my pedagogical model: The Wife of Bath. A counterintuitive choice, perhaps, but her argument for “Experience” as the best teacher gave me a fruitful starting place to think about how I teach literature – I attempt to give my students the experience of analysis and argument by helping them to participate in the formation of both.

My statement of teaching philosophy’s in the mail already, so my answer’s less interesting to me than everyone else’s – do any readers have a pedagogical model from the Middle Ages that they draw their teaching philosophy from? Or, come to think of it, any go-to quotes on teaching that they turn to when it comes time to form a pedagogical philosophy?

14 comments:

irina said...

Gregory's Pastoral Care, no doubt. I'd venture to say that it's one of the most scrupulously thought-out teaching statements in European history. It's a helluva a lot of work to teach to Gregory's standards, but I think the principles are right.

And, as fate would have it, I just taught it!

irina said...

Oh boy, now you have me wanting to mention more! But it will have to wait for the book!

Alex Mueller said...

The Wife is an excellent choice! I actually think there are a number of medieval models to draw from - Gregory's Pastoral Care is a great example too. As it turns out, I've written about this and think about this quite a lot. If you're interested, here's one piece: http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/F08/writing.php

Karl Steel said...

What a fun question, MKH! And Irina, boo. Waiting eagerly.

How about Marie's Prologue to her Lais? To paraphrase: don't hide your knowledge; or DO hide it in obscure speech, which in turn requires interpretation from those who encounter it (our students, maybe?), which makes that obscure speech now flourish; study and stay free from vice; and, uh, toady to power. Okay, pedagogies #1 and #2 are better than #3 and #4, but they're worth something...

irina said...

Thank you, Alex (if I may), for the link to your article. I can't believe I haven't run across it so far, but I'm glad to read it now. A few random remarks:

-I second Jorie Woods' work for anyone interested in application of medieval techniques to the modern classroom.

-David Porter has done wonderful work demonstrating how Aelfric Bata's Colloquies use very modern second-language learning techniques -- Bata's methods would have been progressive in 1950, nevermind 1000.

-I think part of the reason modern thinkers on education see the medieval as an inescapably different Other lies in their own rather unsubtle reading of the source texts (when they read them). The rest of the reason lies in an, shall we say, undeveloped sense of history in the field.

- Speaking of "using medieval techniques because they work" -- Erika Kihlman showed at the MAA this year how a medieval sequence (in, I believe, a Bavarian MS) was used for grammar teaching. The Latin words were numbered, and she told us of the moment she realized that the numbering was an indication of how the Latin should be read if put into German word order. Well, I went right back to my Old English class, put a riddle on the projector and showed my students how to number it. They *loved* it, and a few of them showed me later in the course that they were still using the technique.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

You give us so much to think about! I've been especially confounded by the pedagogical philosophy question as of late because I've realized that even though I am teaching a course that has as 50% of its mission teaching graduate students to be good teachers, I do this on the fly: it's not as if I'm an expert in theories of effective pedagogy. As I'm talking about strategies for motivating students, for dealing with problems, for engagement, I always feel like I am just making it up. And I suppose that is because at one point, I was, largely.

That is a long winded way of endorsing your endorsement of the WoB's experience as teacher.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Though actually, and on second thought, it is also an endorsement of learning from someone who has learned from experience. The most inspirational pedagogical moment I had was sitting through a videotape of my Shakespeare discussion section with Marjorie Garber, back when I was beginning my teaching career. She knew enough to praise what I was doing right, and to point out what I should think about doing less. I still remember when she asked me if the way I was tapping my pen was annoying me as viewer yet (I don't tape pens any more) -- and, more importantly, her close attention to bodily language/nonverbal cues of engagement or disagreement among students.

TMT Bars said...

Great post.

Alex Mueller said...

I'm loving this discussion. Irina, are you working on a book on medieval pedagogy? If so, please publish soon! I would read it immediately. In any case, thanks so much for your thoughts about my essay. Yes, the Enlightenment narrative has a strong hold on "progressive" theories of education, which casts medieval education as fundamentally passive, repressive, and authoritarian. I'm sorry I missed that MAA presentation - medieval manuscripts, especially those that contain classroom texts can be a treasure trove for great teaching ideas. I've recently been examining mss that contain commentaries on the fables of Avianus and Walter of England. In many cases, single mss contain multiple versions of and commentaries on the same fable, a kind of interpretive multiplicity that medieval pedagogy supposedly lacks!

irina said...

Alex, in short, yes -- I'm working on a book on the complex role of pain in Anglo-Saxon (both Latin and Old English) depictions of teaching. So it's on pedagogy, but on the literary representation of it (though I do touch on techniques). And despite the "typically medieval" subject matter, I argue for a much more complex understanding of the role of suffering in teaching in the MA.

In any case, if you want more, I have a short article in Forum for Modern Language Studies (2009) I'd be happy to forward you, and another, longer one, coming out in Exemplaria in January 2011. (My email is on my SMU website.)

Gabriel Liston said...

The best suggestion for good learning conditions I've ever heard as a teacher: High Challenge and Low Risk.

Rick Godden said...

I just finished (well a few weeks ago) a Statement of Teaching Philosophy where I tried to do the same thing: find a medieval model or inspiration. I settled on Richard de Bury, who writes in the Philobiblon, "In books I find the dead as if they were alive." I try to work that quote as a way of actively engaging with texts.

Dr. Virago said...

This is a great post and thread -- thank MKH and commenters! I never thought of using a medieval model for my teaching philosophy, but next time I need to write one, I will. And Irina, thanks for the summary of Kihlman's paper -- I'm definitely going to try that numbering method next time I teach Old English!

Kelly said...

Great post! I had to write a teaching philosophy for a pedagogy class at the beginning of this semester, and I felt that every reference to medievalism that I made was empty--I wish I'd come up with the Wife of Bath idea. In our grad program, I really only get the chance to teach comp (no surprise), and I wonder if any fellow medievalists are in this same position.