Christine Hoff Kraemer
As a teacher, I see facilitating connections as my primary role. Students do not come into my classroom as blank slates waiting to be filled; they enter with a wealth of their own experiences. Meaningful learning can only take place once students have a context for the information they take in, a context that connects to and expands their existing sense of the world.
My entire class is a resource to help students make personal connections to the material. Every classroom is a small community where students teach and learn from each other, drawing on their unique understandings to translate the material into their own worldviews. Knowing that I can never be the perfect teacher for everyone, I seek to engage every student in the process of teaching and learning, and attempt to break down the paradigm where information flows solely from the teacher to individual students, with little feedback or larger classroom interaction.
My views on teaching have been influenced by my studies of German literature, where I learned the term “Bildung”: most literally, “education.” In German, this term has connotations of coming of age, character building, and becoming a fully developed human being. Contrary to the educational culture many of my students were raised in, I do not believe my job is primarily to provide bodies of “facts” for them to memorize, but rather to facilitate this character building. I see a liberal arts education as preparation for being a responsible citizen of society: becoming aware of the diversity of viewpoints within Western culture and being able to think critically and communicate effectively about social issues. Study in the fields of religion and literature allows students to open their eyes to the suffering in the world, to develop an appreciation for beauty, and to interrogate what in their own lives is most sacred. While it is important that my students come away with an understanding of the texts and ideas that we cover in class, I see my larger project as helping to initiate them into Western culture while cultivating tolerance, compassion, and clear thinking.
Particularly when I teach writing, I emphasize to students that the skills learned in a classroom are not limited to the academy, nor can they be safely forgotten after graduation. Reading comprehension, critical thinking, and clear written and oral communication are skills that are central to most professions, and can also smooth the functioning of personal relationships. When focusing on religious studies and works of literature, I attempt to reveal the enormous complexity and ambiguity of the thought of theologians, writers, and religious practitioners. Students have the opportunity to grapple with the questions of the human condition in an environment where asking questions is more important than immediately finding answers. What we do in a classroom should not be separate from students’ real lives, but an enriching part of them.
In order for this process to happen successfully, students must take responsibility for their own learning, and this represents my greatest challenge. Many freshmen students have specific expectations about what happens in a college classroom based on their high school educations. Some are made uncomfortable when asked to express their own ideas, to challenge what is being said in a lecture, or to take on teaching roles with other students. Further, I find that a certain percentage of students in every class simply would rather be somewhere else, and their disinterest can flatten the energy of an otherwise lively group.
I do my best to break down the high school power dynamic by arranging the desks in a circle, and I honor each student’s potential contribution by having them introduce themselves and their interests. My teaching style often involves small group discussion, where the class breaks into groups to discuss questions among themselves, and then offers their conclusions and further questions to the rest of the class. This engages the shyer students, who may prefer not to speak in front of twenty-five people, but open up in front of four. Further, many of my writing assignments include a reader response section, where students record personal reflections on the readings and on the process of learning new writing techniques.
Throughout, I attempt to balance honoring each student’s perspective with the lesson that arguments must be supported by data. In my writing classes, in-class paraphrase and summary activities supplement discussion to improve student reading comprehension. Writing students are extensively prepared for major assignments with exercises in summary, analysis, style, and grammar, while both writing and religion students are coached on developing supportable theses. I give written feedback on every paper and allow (or sometimes require) revisions. This process helps students learn that while there are a wide variety of ways to write a successful paper, they will not be rewarded for arguments that fail to use convincing evidence or essays that do not adhere to academic standards of writing. To retain the power to evaluate student performances while also asking students to step into their own power as thinkers and scholars is a delicate dance that I work hard to perform well.
My time as a teaching assistant taught me that the biggest difference between young scholars and most undergraduates is not only the willingness to take responsibility for one’s learning, but also the ability to do so. As a second-year graduate student, I was asked to assist with an Eastern religions class where I knew little more of the material than the students did. However, I soon found that unlike my students, I retained far more of the information from lectures and readings than they did – partially because of my study skills, and partially because I had a scholarly and personal context for the information that they lacked. I was able to lead discussions and help them learn the material because I was personally invested in my learning, as well as motivated by my need and desire to pass the information on. Accordingly, especially when teaching freshmen, I strive to encourage this sense of personal responsibility and engagement, create a meaningful context for new material, and improve reading and writing skills. Only when these are in place can a student receive the full benefits of a liberal arts education.