“It took me many years to realize that being a good instructor is not being a gifted orator or a brilliant researcher but having a certain element of compassion and openness” (51).
• Dean G. Rojek, Responsibilities of a College Teacher
When I think about my teaching, I think about myself as a spider spinning, busily weaving a web. No one knows how hard I work at it because the web is mostly invisible, but it is there. It has a structure and perhaps only I know how intricate and fragile its design is. Sometimes when a particular class exceeds the educational goals I have planned for it, I get a view of the web. It becomes visible, if only briefly, and I see it sparkle before my eyes. If one or two threads break, an entire interwoven fabric still holds the web together. It is in these moments that I discover I do not weave the web alone: my students and I weave the web together.
To weave the web together means I want students to know their ideas, thoughts, and life experiences are valuable and that they bring to the institution, the classroom, and to their own assignments knowledges that they may have never considered as education or intelligence before. During a semester of teaching composition at a community college, I found myself struck again and again at what students knew, by the knowledges they bring to a classroom in topics as varied as video game expertise, to taking care of sick loved ones, to knowing the histories, characters, and most obscure details of movie franchises such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. I want to harvest that energy and enthusiasm. I want students to divert some of that gray matter to analyzing systems of power and the societies in which we live. I want them to put stock in themselves, to come to voice about their own positioning in social structures, and to always question. What do we know? Why do we think we know it? How might some of the expertise we bring with us into the classroom be put to use? Such questions do not pull at or stretch the threads of the web too thinly: they spin new strands and help build pathways to enriching exchanges and connections.
When students and instructors bond, a trust forms that allows them to step outside of traditional roles. Students author and circulate ideas, not merely receive them, and instructors can learn from students. In a less talkative class in which participation was mandatory, after many varied attempts at encouraging discussion, I formed the class into groups to present the main ideas covered in assigned texts. In result of this reshaping of the class, each member opened up to speak and to share ideas during their presentations. Many also created handouts, asked questions about the text, and generated discussion among their classmates. This class transformed from a quiet, non-responsive set of individuals into a thoughtful group of learners who continued to generate conversation even after their assigned presentations ended. This class that started out on both a quiet and rocky note became one of the most intellectually astute classes in my teaching experience. Though we weave the web together, it is important that all of us have a chance to spin our threads be it in written work, class discussion, or formal or even informal techniques. This class, with its rocky start, taught me the value of continuously spinning the web.
The threads of the web are further shaped in my evaluation of students’ work. This work includes classroom discussion and written assignments, such as analyses of texts and daily discussion questions. Since I want students’ minds to grow and to question, I see evaluation as a space where I can communicate with each one of them more directly. Grading is a personal conversation. More often than not, answers are not merely “right” or “wrong.” They are often unsupported, built on shaky logics and evidence, or, most important of all, they do not question. They stick with the status quo, with received knowledge, and they think inside the box. In such moments, I see the evaluation process as an opportunity to intervene. I need to come in with questions that shake them from their trees and allow them to see the claims they make in their work through new eyes. Ultimately, the goal of grading for me is to help students develop the skills they must acquire to thrive. Helping students to develop these skills is what creates the common thread that ties together our different webs. Even when we weave the web together, it is important for both student and instructor to share a common thread, and for me that thread is sharing and modeling skills.
In order for me to share and model skills to benefit students I must be committed to my own self-improvement as a teacher and a scholar. My bookshelves are lined with texts such as Stephen D. Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher and Laurie Stapleton’s memoir, Against A White Sky: A Memoir Of Closets And Classrooms. Films about teaching, such as the documentary, To be and To Have (Ètre et avoir, 2002) or the narrative film, The Class (Entre les murs, 2008) are touchstones, inspirations, and cultural spaces for me to think through my own ideas about teaching and the classroom. I commit time and energy to attending lectures and workshops dedicated to improving teaching, and I employ informal and formal methods of student evaluation throughout a course’s term to help form my own reflections on a course by taking into account the ideas and suggestion of others. My participation in conferences and research in my field are also central to my own self-improvement. Gaining knowledge about new and overlooked ideas and texts help me to enrich the classroom and improve the mentoring of my students because I devote time to learning what is current and what might be forgotten. The old folk tales say that an unwise spider can become trapped in its own web. I want to be a wise spider. I want to learn and share the intricacies of my own and others’ webs, be they students, scholars, or education professionals.
As the quote that begins this philosophy states: “It took me many years to realize that being a good instructor is not being a gifted orator or a brilliant researcher but having a certain element of compassion and openness” (51). In order to avoid becoming “stuck” in my own web, it is necessary for me to improve through reflection and the growth that cultural texts on teaching, seminars and workshops, and listening to students through course evaluations can all offer. All of these teach me compassion and openness. Teaching is not always a matter of method, technique, or course content. These examples remind me that teaching is an on-going process and can be a public conversation. One adage states that a spider spins a web strand by strand while another proverb suggests that when webs unite, they can tie down lions. Strand by strand or united, weaving the web is valuable because in this act lies the power to change others’ lives and ourselves.
• M. Catherine Jonet, Women’s Studies