Conversations on Teaching

Variety is the
spice of learning

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.

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 for students.

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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