Conversations on Teaching
Variety is the
One of my favorite classes to teach is Religion 323, "Death and Dying."
Although I am occasionally plagued with fears about how students will respond
to such topics as bodily decomposition, the extinction of identity and necrophilia,
the course has proven to be exceedingly beneficial to my development as
a teacher. The problems that are posed by this course, ranging from the
selection of topics to the determination of a final grade for each student,
have forced me to reflect on what teaching philosophies are guiding my choices.
spice of learning
I should immediately confess that, in fact, I don't have anything resembling
a coherent "philosophy" of teaching at this stage in my career.
On the other hand, I must also acknowledge that I don't quite make it up
as I go along either-though there are times each semester I'm much closer
to this mode than I would like to admit. Through a combination of my own
instincts, what I've learned formally about pedagogy and the strategies
I've lifted from some of my more inspirational colleagues, an outline of
a theory on teaching has begun to take shape in my mind.
My classroom experience, along with what students have taught me, has helped
me realize that there is no single model or formula for teaching that can
make a class successful. But there are certain principles I've come to appreciate
in my quest to teach in a way that is as fulfilling to me as it is illuminating
Teaching about death is easy because there is so much material. It can be
presented from a variety of perspectives, and students are fascinated by
it. The dilemma over what to cover has become, in my mind, intricately linked
to how it is presented-in other words, a matter of performance. This is
not about entertainment; the performance component of the classroom setting
relates instead to creating an environment for the transmission of knowledge
and finding the appropriate means to draw students into the education process.
I want students to be involved in their own education-and not simply as
passive participants who must regurgitate the information they are learning.
Part of the performance requires that the wall separating "teacher"
from "student" is occasionally subverted; I intentionally displace
my authority in the class and encourage students to take charge of their
education. I try to let the students' own interests drive what they are
graded on: they help me construct the exams, and their paper topics are
wide open (though they do consult with me during the semester).
Sometimes this kind of approach leads to ambiguity and, in some cases, moments
of chaos. The older I get, though, the more I understand the pedagogic value
of ambiguity and chaos, and I've even come to believe that students relish
unexpected turns in their classroom routine. For example, one memorable
instance of spontaneous disorder occurred when in the middle of a lecture
on ancient Egyptian death practices, I looked out the window at the Carlos
Museum and remembered the collection of artifacts there. When I remarked
about this in class and asked if my students wanted to take a look, they
immediately seized on this opportunity. I hesitated for a moment, swallowed
my fears about losing control of the class and then said, "Let's go
see those mummies!"
I'm glad I took that risk with the class. In these early years of my teaching
career I'm trying to engage in as much experimentation with pedagogic strategies
as possible when circumstances permit. Whether I have students work in groups
during class, try different examination methods, or work with unconventional
materials to explore a specific topic, the thrill of stumbling upon a stratagem
that enhances their learning experiences is worth the risk of failure. The
first year I taught "Death and Dying" I knew that when we began
our discussions about popular culture, we would spend one session listening
to whatever music the students wanted to bring in. The selections we listened
to that day ranged from Mahler to Metallica, and the kind of conversation
this exercise generated was one of the most memorable I've had thus far.
Reflecting on each of these aspects of teaching-performance, student involvement,
spontaneity and experimentation-has not lead to any comprehensive philosophy
of teaching. Instead, I've come to realize that any attempt to adhere to
a more systematic philosophy would deaden the spirit of my enthusiasm for
teaching. I expect that the challenge of broadening students' horizons and
getting them to appreciate their classroom experience will be a constant
source of tension, frustration and joy in the years to come.
Gary Laderman is an assistant professor
in the Department of Religion.
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