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Adventures in Academe

Exploring the “why” of teaching


This fall I returned to teaching after a three-year hiatus. Two maternity leaves plus a sabbatical meant that, although I kept myself busy with other forms of scholarly activity, I had not stepped foot in a classroom for three years. That’s almost the lifespan of an undergraduate cohort, and in some ways the cultural imagery shifted dramatically during my time away (when I went on leave, for example, Snapchat wasn’t a cultural phenomenon, Trump was a TV host, and Brangelina was going strong).

Just as the cultural landscape changed, I too underwent transformations in my personal and professional spheres. Although the most dramatic transition was parenthood, my research interests evolved, and I also had an opportunity to explore new educational leadership projects. Fast-forward three years and the prospect of standing in front of students was both terrifying and tantalizing.

Before my leave, my lectures were assiduously prepared, my PowerPoint presentations were carefully crafted and my handouts were meticulously detailed. When I went back to my lecture notes after three years, my course prep should have, therefore, been straightforward, with slight modifications to reflect additions to the scholarly field. However, much to my chagrin, my lectures no longer resonated with me. The material I had hitherto delivered with great verve – I could wax poetic about oxymoron in 16th century sonnets and rhapsodize about the rhetorical complexity of epizeuxis in King Lear – now felt stale, pedantic and even irrelevant without context. My view of the academy had shifted and, as a result, I had to revise my approach.

My past pedagogical self treated students as if they were all potential graduate students. My teaching goals were results-based: I wanted to ensure that my students had an in-depth understanding of the disciplinary field and could write academic essays informed by rigorous research. The pressures of coverage, with depth and breadth, created a specific dynamic: professor as transmitter of knowledge and students as passive receptacles. I was delighted when students performed well under these conditions and was quietly disappointed when others did not.

My present integrative self collaborates with students as they build their capacities to lead enriching and diverse lives. In this model, our learning goals focus on process. Together we build a guiding vision of why we read literature; namely, how studying Shakespeare’s plays, for example, challenges us to see the world through new lenses in order to develop both an in-depth understanding of ourselves and a deep appreciation for the disciplinary field. Our point of entry into strange and unfamiliar texts is to discover resonance with our lived experiences. Exploring our affective responses is the first step in a progression towards a more sophisticated critical approach, gradually moving away from what we already know into a realm of new knowledge(s). Furthermore, when the pressure of coverage is alleviated, there is enough space to pause and enjoy moments of delight and surprise.

I no longer expect students to learn at the same rate or excel in the same ways. Sometimes seeds are planted that do not come to fruition until well after the course has ended and the marks are submitted. A case in point: one of my favourite undergraduate professors included a quotation from the influential philosopher Michel Foucault (The Use of Pleasure, 1984) at the top of every syllabus: “There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all.”

As an undergraduate, I understood this as permission to approach knowledge with intellectual flexibility and limitless curiosity without the limitation of correct answers. More than 15 years later, Foucault’s words affect me more profoundly for his exhortation of empathy, for the focus on sharing rather than telling, and for the responsibility we have to identify and challenge our deep-rooted assumptions in order to grow as intellectuals and as human beings.

I still believe in the “what” of teaching, and work hard to build students’ capacities to master disciplinary-specific skills and competencies. I also devote a lot of time to the “how” of teaching and endeavour to create conditions that most effectively support transformative learning. However, I have shifted my attention to the “why” – the guiding vision – as the starting point of all our endeavours as learners. Looking at all my scholarly activities through this new lens has made my re-entry into the classroom an incredibly enriching and integrative experience.

Jessica Riddell
Jessica Riddell is a full professor in the English department at Bishop’s University, holder of the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, executive director of the Maple League of Universities and a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Her column appears in every second issue of the print magazine.
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  1. Nancy Chick / December 8, 2016 at 20:48

    This is lovely, Jessica. Thank you.

  2. James Oloo / December 12, 2016 at 22:03

    Nice piece Jessica. The Foucault quote is lovely. Thanks. @JamesAlanOLOO

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