Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Teaching Philosophy, Medieval Edition

One of the many things I’ve had to do this semester as I prepare for and apply to job postings is write a statement of teaching philosophy. I’ve luckily done quite a bit of teaching – at Columbia we have up to three years of University Writing, one year of Teaching Assistantship, and an optional two years in the Core (either Literature Humanities or Contemporary Civilization). I took the Writing track – one year as a TA, five semesters in University Writing, one semester teaching the Introduction to the Major course. All that goes to say: I’ve definitely taught in graduate school. I’ve loved every minute of it.

But as my job market seminar discussed two of our colleagues’ teaching statements, I realized that this is a genre I’m not familiar with, and one for which I feel oddly ill-prepared to write. My first statement of philosophy skewed toward the autobiographical: “I am the student of great teachers, here’s what I learned from them about pedagogy.” But that misses the point of a teaching statement, I think – it displaces the responsibility for a holistic philosophy onto my past, creating out of four separate experiences a patch-work statement of pedagogical beliefs that don’t belong to me so much as they inform my teaching style.

And so, at the suggestion of an adviser, I turned to the medieval to try and find a pedagogical model. But which what statement or character from medieval literature would offer the best model? I found this a paradoxically difficult question to answer...after all, I’ve spent most of my adult life learning about and from the Middle Ages, surely there’s a “teaching pedagogy” in there somewhere!

Beowulf was my initial thought. However, although you can excavate a pedagogy from the poem, I’m not sure that “hack things to death with a sword in order to understand them better” is the best idea for a teaching statement. I over simplify, obviously, but it still just didn’t ring true as a source for me. One could turn to Augustine, I suppose, or perhaps Abelard, but neither one is really my style.

Chaucer, I finally decided, would be my best bet. But which Chaucer to choose? The Clerk seems too obvious – “gladly would he learn and gladly teach,” but that doesn’t really lend itself to a philosophy. It’s just a statement of who I am, and though it has the virtue of being familiar it’s also a little bit clichéd. The quote from Parliament of Fowles, “For life is so short, the craft so long to learn” didn’t seem quite like what I wanted either – again, it’s true, but it’s not a philosophy. There’s a whole section of the Physicians’ Tale on how to raise children (aimed at governesses and parents) but I wasn’t overly fond of it either, and I’ve never been particularly enamored of the Physician’s Tale.

In the end, I finally settled on what I hope was a less obvious but more productive choice for my pedagogical model: The Wife of Bath. A counterintuitive choice, perhaps, but her argument for “Experience” as the best teacher gave me a fruitful starting place to think about how I teach literature – I attempt to give my students the experience of analysis and argument by helping them to participate in the formation of both.

My statement of teaching philosophy’s in the mail already, so my answer’s less interesting to me than everyone else’s – do any readers have a pedagogical model from the Middle Ages that they draw their teaching philosophy from? Or, come to think of it, any go-to quotes on teaching that they turn to when it comes time to form a pedagogical philosophy?

Cross posted at ITM.


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Matt Ward said...


Awesome blog. You have been off blogging for some time it looks like. What happened? Did you get your PhD? What motivated you to pursue it?

I am also very passionate about the Medieval history and the Middle Ages and own my own online medieval history blog http://arthursarmory.com/medieval-blog/ . Here I try to share some of my passion about this awesome time period with others and teach about historical figures, wars and weapons that people are interested in. I believe your audience of history buffs would appreciate my postings and I would love to be listed on your medievalists listings.

If my site is not something you believe your readers would enjoy I completely understand. Thanks for your time.


Matt Ward