My Teaching Philosophy (A Letter to My Students)

A university course is like a conversation had over a three month walk. I am like your guide. It’s a walk I’ve taken many times with many students. For our conversation, I’ve selected a few interesting topics. For our path, I’ve selected a few interesting places.

I’ve led many other students down this path before, chatting about these same topics. So, at the start I can anticipate many of the twists and turns we’ll take, both in conversation and by foot. This is unknown terrain for you. I know many of the places you might trip and fall. The topics will be new as well. I know many of the ways you might misunderstand. If I know all this, you might wonder why I don’t smooth things out for you. Why don’t I, at the start, warn you of all the places you might trip and give you the knowledge you need to avoid misunderstanding?

The answer is fourfold. First, while you are like many other students I’ve guided in some ways, you are unlike them in others. So, while I know the gist of how this will go, I don’t know the specifics. Second, this is a long journey, remember? There is much to discuss and many places to go. If I warned you of every rut at the start, you would not remember what I said by the second day, let alone the hundredth. Third, the terrain might change as we go, or change from the last time I took this path. Storms might wash away old bridges and others on this same journey might forge new paths we could follow. Finally, you will change too. You will learn and adapt. I cannot anticipate how, or how fast, you will do those things.

What you do have to understand at the start is that our journey is not timeless, static, and fixed. It is not a thing which could be put on a shelf, passed from me to you piece by piece over three months. It is a dynamic process involving unpredictable interactions between you, me, and the landscape through which we walk.

My role in this process is to help you along the way, to point out sights and warn you of dangers. As to our conversation, there may be no one thing which I tell you that you could not hear from someone else through resources available to you without my help. However, my role is not to tell you any one of those things. I’m not an encyclopedia or a video. I’m a person. My role is to be a conversation partner. I’m here to answer your questions and catch your misunderstandings. What I bring that makes me suitable as a guide is not so much my knowledge, but my ability to adapt, point, warn, lead, encourage, and answer.

Like any human journey, we will have to actually take the steps, together. Unlike in science fiction, there is no instantaneous transporter we can use. Unlike the gods, we are not in all places at once outside of time. As we go there will be both excitement and frustration. There will be breakthroughs and setbacks. These things are just part of the journey, part of the reality which faces us as creatures embedded in spacetime who must ultimately learn through our senses and nervous system, with all of their biological limitations. Still, if you buy into the process with me, I think you will be surprised at how far we go and how much you’ll see.