Inspired by the theories of Paulo Freire when I began university teaching in 1974, I have remained convinced that students must be active subjects rather than passive objects in the learning process. Like Friere I believe that the ultimate aim of education is to cultivate in ourselves and our students the capacity for critical reflection and effective action upon the world. I hope to empower students not only as skilled and responsible members of an academic community, but also as intellectuals engaged in the task of transforming the world into a more justice and humane place. Knowledge is not something that I "profess," merely, or dispense to students as though they are empty receptacles; it is, rather, the product of our thinking in common achieved through dialogue. The foundation of our learning together, such dialogue demands an abiding respect for our students, their minds, their concerns about the world, and their capacity to stretch themselves--when challenged and supported--far beyond anything they thought possible. Whether working with freshman writers or graduates in a Renaissance seminar, I invite students to accept their responsibility as colleagues committed to the teaching and learning we create as a community of scholars. Each semester I write my students a letter like the one below in which I use a story about my own experience as a student or teacher to articulate my philosophy of teaching and to begin a process of dialogue, the life's blood of our work together.
Welcome to English 101. I'd like to take a few minutes to tell you something about why I teach the way I do. I can't think about teaching without remembering what it's like to be a student. Crowds of memories rush to mind, but one story stands out with particular clarity. It helps me remember how teaching can sometimes defeat learning--how the teacherly rage for correct form and the right answer can make students feel like powerless objects rather than active subjects in the learning process. . . .
Taller than all the boys in Sister Vincentia's fourth grade class, gangly and pale like a house plant that needed tending, Donna Ferroni always tried to make herself small. A bush of tangled dark hair shot out in every direction and fell over her thick cat's eye glasses.
"Four eyes Ferroni. ... Hey, bottle eyes!"
Donna was the butt of everybody's jokes. Especially the boys. The girls refused to talk to her or stand next to her in our perpetual, two-by-two lines.
A fidgeting, wriggling snake of morning energy, we lined up outside the gray granite blocks of St. Mary's Grade School waiting for the clang of the bell that always shook us like an electric shock.
"Where's your uniform, Donna?"
"You're gonna' get it for that."
"Hey, whose garbage did your mother pick?"
Instead of our required blessed-mother blue uniform jumper, Donna was wearing a turquoise party dress, gauzy and overdone, with a skirt of layered flounces and a rhinestone-studded bodice. Without a note from home, this would mean trouble. "Oh man!" I thought. "I hope she's got a note."
"Hey, Donna. That's a neat dress. ... I like the color and all, ya know? ... It's nice. ... Uhm ... Didja get a note?
"My mother had to go to the hospital Friday and she told me not to wear my uniform. It's dirty."
"Geeeez, that's too bad. ... I mean about your mother. But did you get a note?"
Donna made herself smaller as the bell rang.
Donna sat with the Fs, right in back of Sally Farreau and right in front of Jeannie Higgins, number eight in a row of ten, so Sister Vincentia didn't see her dress until it came time for her to recite her answer to our homework questions. A long silence followed Sister Vincentia's interrogation on the lesson.
"Where's your geography book, Lady Jane?"
"I forgot it at home."
"Did you do your homework?"
"I forgot to do it."
"Why didn't you write it in your assignment book?"
"I forgot to buy one."
"Maybe you'll forget to be promoted to fifth grade. ... Where's your uniform?"
Donna sat there, silent.
"Why don't you have a note from your mother?"
Donna hunched her shoulders so far forward I thought they'd meet under her chin.
"Step up here, Missy. ... I want you to stand in this waste basket until you can remember your assignments. Next time you'll not forget."
The rest of the class howled as Sister Vincentia glared at them for their misconduct. I couldn't look. Tried to make myself small. But as David Marino boomed out his answer to "What is the capital of Argentina?" I got up the nerve to look at Donna. She made not a sound and looked smaller than I had ever seen her. But the front of her rhinestoned dress was glistening with tears and snot. Her dark pupils seemed to grow larger and then melt, but she made not a sound. I'd never seen anyone cry so silently, so motionlessly.
I worry sometimes that teaching, especially teaching writing, can make students feel small and worthless, the way Donna felt about herself. I worry, too, that I will not be able to convey to you that you are equal partners in the teaching that goes on in this class and that I am a learner along with you. If my teaching of writing does not, in some measure, empower you to explore, deepen, and trust in your own capacity to make meaning of your world with language, then it fails. If it does not help you see your responsibility to each other as we all grope for clarity in our struggles with inarticulate meanings, then it fails. If I fail to encourage you to take seriously your own capacity to use language, then I have failed you. And I defeat the kind of learning that I most value.
But I need your cooperation if we are all to succeed as teachers and learners. I'd like to invite you to accept your responsibility for the teaching and learning that will occur in this course as we work toward genuine dialogue with each other. I'd like to ask you to take your own experiences and thoughts seriously and to respect the thinking of others. In this way I hope that we can become a community of scholars and writers, seeking knowledge in conversation with each other. I would appreciate any responses you have about my story, my thoughts on teaching and my invitation to you to share in the responsibilities of teaching and learning. Next class time, I'd like us to discuss our ideas about these issues. Thanks ahead of time for your cooperation and for your letter in response, which I eagerly await.
Home Page| Curriculum Vitae | Courses Taught | Course Descriptions and Syllabi | Scholarly Interests