I've been teaching for what now feels like a very long time. I began as a high school teacher straight out of Princeton, taught my way through graduate school at Stanford, and have been teaching here at the University of Virginia for some thirty years. I initially chose to be a teacher simply because I had come to Princeton off a ranch in Colorado, moderately dislexic and woefully unprepared for college work of any sort. I struggled my first two years, overwhelmed by reading that often ran to 3,000 pages a week, a new foreign language, and a social situation that was profoundly alien and alienating. But a number of teachers, with soft words and hard, encouraged me to persevere. In my third year, Lawrence Thompson, my preceptor in Larry Holland's American fiction course, called me to his office and, explaining that he was working on the first volume of his biography of Robert Frost and that he would have to be away from campus doing interviews, asked me to take responsibility for running his precepts until he came back. When I hesitated he said, simply, "I think you can do this work."
For me that was an important moment.. In it, I saw the power of a great teacher, not merely to impart what he knew, but to ecourage a student to find in himself what he did not yet know he possessed. When I left Princeton, I chose to teach because I could not imagine a nobler undertaking. And at Virginia, as my vita probably suggests, I evidently made the perverse choice to be primarily a teacher at a major research university.
For a very long time I attempted to do for my students what had been done for me: lecturing well, all in all, in large courses, leading discussions in smaller ones; spending a great deal of time working on student writing whatever the size of the course because it seemed to me not only an invaluable skill but also the surest way to get at the ways students organized and analyzed information, to get at the deeper structures of their intellectual processing. And for a very long time I tried to persuade students of their public obligations, that they were unusually gifted by nature and unusually priveleged by circumstance and that they owed a debt to the larger society. (I realize now, that I did this with the passion and conviction of someone who believed he owed a similar debt.)
About ten years ago, however, I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with the results of my own teaching. My students were smart and willing and capable. But they seemed to lack genuine curiosity, to perform well without actually internalizing the deeper principles and attitudes of their learning. More and more I felt that I was helping them, not so much to become educated adults, but to accumulate the GPAs and transcripts that would allow them to proceed through law or business school and on to the life-style that was their highest conceivable ambition. And I couldn't seem to find ways to break through this highly competent compancency.
At about this same time, a situation in the English graduate program reached a critical juncture that was, in its own way, analogous to the crisis of confidence in my own teaching. We found ourselves training large numbers of Ph.D.s for which we knew there would be no jobs. We had inadvertantly slipped into the business of producing "avocational Ph.D.s." as one of my colleagues blandly put it. I found this unconscienable and decided to attempt to design a "terminal M.A." program in American Studies, a program whose twin objectives would be, first, actual learning rather than a high-level imitation of it and, secondly, training for students that would allow them to move directly into non-academic positions where they could utilize their humanities educations to the greatest effect.
I had already concluded that that the new technologies that were emerging in the mid 90s posed both a significant threat to education and real opportunities; that they would either lead to the dissolution of the traditional university or its reinvigoration and reform. Whatever turned out to be the case, it was clear that they would create a significant new demand for "knowledge workers" and "content providers" and "non-traditional educators" --and I determined to help meet that demand.
Designing, impementing, and re-designing that program has been the second great transformative experience for me as a teacher. In the process I ran into a whole string of new buzz-words: "hands on learning," "collaborative learning," "project-based," "asynchronous" and "active versus passive" learning.
Through trial and a error, I think I've come to understand what those buzzwords actually mean and, more importantly, how to make them a reality in the classroom. What, in the end, they mean is having more confidence in the students, encouraging them to become more responsible for their own learning and being
willing myself to become openly and visibly a student again, willing to learn alongside them, teaching and learning from them by turns.
Both my students and I are a good deal happier with the results. The Masters' Program has just gone through an extensive, year-long formal review process. The results are, in my judgment, extremely positive and I urge the committee to view them at
this site .
This is an unusually detailed and well substantiated review, focused primarily on outcomes for the students; it offers both evidence of the "teaching expertise" you've asked for as well as a fuller explanation of the specific means I have found to return to my original ambitions as a teacher.
The committee might also want to look at a series of meditations on teaching with the new technologies. Read in chronological order they chronical my own re-education; what they spell out is my growing awareness that active, collaborative, genuinely useful engagement with real issues for the purpose of doing real cultural work is at the heart of real teaching and learning. But these are overly long essays and, in fact, everything I say in there is captured in the motto of the American Studies programs, "We DO American Studies."
("American Studies: Virtual Space -- Actual Learning" -- 1996)
("Where We Are Now" -- 1998)
("American Studies and the New Technologies" -- 1999)