Matthew Bowman: Teaching Philosophy

Virtually all professors in the humanities agree that it’s important to teach students critical thinking and methods of analysis as well as content. I believe that this is best done by using the time in the classroom to model that for students, and to guide them in developing their own capabilities. Here are some ways I accomplish that.

I lecture. I believe that the lecture, if done right, is still a massively efficient way to convey necessary information. But it has to be done right. Over several years of teaching the amount of notes I carry into the classroom has dropped from full transcriptions to a page or so of prompts. Instead of excessive PowerPoints, I write on the blackboard and use PowerPoints primarily for images rather than text. All of these things mean that my lectures have grown flexible and interactive. Instead of simply conveying information, my lectures now resemble a discussion. I ask questions, have exchanges, and adapt the trajectory of the lecture on the fly based on student responses. All of this lends itself to the two primary purposes of my lectures: communicating context and modeling scholarly thinking. I want not only to download information into my students’ heads, but to show them how I draw connections, analyze raw material, and build an argument. Lectures pull back the hood of the smoothly humming narratives scholars construct and show students how the engine works.

I also lead discussions. Most of my classes consist primarily of discussion punctuated with brief lecture. In my first years of teaching I would walk into a discussion section with a list of questions, ask the first, wait for responses, and ask the next whenever the well of student answers ran dry. This often made for tepid conversations between me and whichever student dared to raise their hand, and only rarely would students began fluid conversations among themselves. I have since learned that it’s an odd truth that discussions which are the most carefully planned and schematized before class also tend to be the most dynamic in the class.

So my discussions are no longer based on a single list of questions. Instead, I meld the back and forth of a discussion with a variety of small projects to get students thinking. My students do not spend their classroom time sitting in one place: they are constantly getting up to join groups, standing at the blackboard writing, and formulating small presentations for the rest of the class. In my World Civilizations course I have them draw charts mapping out Jared Diamond’s arguments in Guns, Germs, and Steel on the blackboard and explain them to the rest of the class. In my World Religions course they gather in small groups for a few minutes to create brief presentations showing the ways The Matrix incorporates Hindu ideas. When I teach Black Elk Speaks, the autobiography of a Sioux holy man, I have students draw charts of the various rituals Black Elk spends a great deal of time explaining in order to better explain the social and political meanings each of these rites conveyed. Additionally, in all my courses I occasionally direct them to free-write about the reading assignment for a few minutes when class begins. As with my lectures, these sorts of discussions are interactive and prime the students’ pump, preparing them to engage with the material and making it possible for students of all different comfort levels in the classroom to participate at some level.

I also routinely discuss assignments. I ask students what they learned from writing papers or whether questions on exams spurred them to think in new ways. Before an assignment is given I discuss it, and ask students what they might do to fulfill its requirements. It’s easy for the work students do outside the classroom to grow disconnected from what happens inside the classroom, and I think it’s deeply important for students to understand why they have to do what professors ask them to do. If they understand the point of the essay they have to write over the weekend, they’ll not only do it more happily but will produce a better essay.

Here are some things I do outside the classroom.

I assign lots of writing. I prefer writing assignments to exams, and I believe that several shorter papers assigned throughout the semester are a more worthwhile use of students’ time than one long paper. Students learn how to be good writers – and hence, also, good thinkers – through writing and rewriting, and multiple assignments give them the opportunity to do that. In my course on religion in twentieth century America, for instance, students write rather traditional papers comparing primary sources from a variety of immigrant communities in the early twentieth century – Italian Catholics, Russian Jews, and so on. They also write a response essay to Dennis Covington’s memoir of his time in a Pentecostal snake handling church that compares Covington’s religious quest to their own, a review of the recent documentary Jesus Camp, and a brief research paper on a topic of their choice. Their writing almost always improve over the course of the semester, particularly because I also allow rewrites – though before I grant permission to do so I require the student to meet with me and explain precisely what they will do to improve the paper.

I assign different types of assignments. Part of my job as a professor is to equip my students with different sets of skills – but most of all, to teach them to recognize and be aware of what those skills are. Assigning a research paper, clearly explaining to them what a research paper is, and then assigning an analytic reflection paper, both helps them develop their writing skills but also encourages them to represent the different skill sets involved in each.

I use a variety of media to help my students develop these skills and engage with the world around them in new ways. In every class I teach I give a set of assignments called “labs,” which require students to engage with, think about, and analyze a primary source of some kind, usually available on the internet. In my courses on American history they browse a website documenting the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and try to determine whether various groups advocating for the impeachment agreed with each other’s aims. In my course on ethnicity in modern America, they listen to recordings of the songs of the civil rights movement on YouTube. In my course on Mormonism, they watch an episode of the cable comedy show South Park called “All About the Mormons,” and compare it to promotional videos the Mormon church itself has made. The internet has made a variety of assignments possible, but also allows faculty to connect the skills they’re teaching in the classroom to the daily lives of students.

I am an advocate for the notion of teaching backward, the notion that it’s essential for teachers to clearly map out what they are trying to accomplish in the classroom and make all their choices – from exam questions to books assigned to lecture content – purposefully toward that end. I conceive of my responsibility to be persuading my students that they can do scholarly analysis, not merely learn its findings. They’re in college for a reason – to learn how to think, and the content of my class should be a vehicle for that success.