My teaching philosophy emphasizes critical thinking, exploration, imagination, and problem solving. I view the university as a setting where comfortable conventions are challenged, where individuals think critically, where various perspectives can be considered, and where diversity is welcomed. No other setting is like the university. It is here where we can seriously ask "What if" questions and where we have the opportunity to bring a variety of perspectives together; it is here where we are able to get a grasp of the interconnectedness of knowledge; it is here where social change can begin. Of central importance in considering my philosophy of teaching are my role as an instructor, my method of teaching, and the expected outcomes of my teaching. Each of these elements is described below.
ROLE OF INSTRUCTOR
I view my role in the classroom as a facilitator of thinking and knowledge. I begin each semester by telling my students that I view learning as a two-way process. In this way, we acquire knowledge collaboratively. I recognize that each of us has a unique history and set of experiences or previous training, and I encourage each student to share relevant experiences or ideas so that we may all gain in our understanding. I try to foster a classroom environment in which each student feels free to participate – whether that means asking questions, voicing a viewpoint, or sharing a personal experience that may illustrate the given topic or concept. I learned the value of my students’ experiences early on. In the winter of 1993 I had the opportunity to return to my undergraduate alma mater, Saginaw Valley State University, to teach for one semester. As a twenty-four-year-old, first-year doctoral student, I was initially intimidated by the Continuing Education night class that I taught in Cass City, Michigan. The vast majority of the students were older than me and had been employed in various kinds of occupations for many years. I quickly learned how to incorporate their experiences and insights, further shedding light on the application of important sociological concepts and theories. It was rewarding to see the students begin making those kinds of connections on their own.
I also conceptualize my instructor role as advisor – in the broad sense of that term. I think of my advisor role as more than providing direction to my assigned advisees with regard to what classes they should take next semester. I also attempt to provide direction to all of my students by helping them to discover what their aptitudes and interests are and how those aptitudes and interests can be cultivated. When students come to me and are torn, not knowing what to do with their life, I often find myself saying to them, “what is the song of your heart?” It may sound trite, but I do believe it has proven beneficial to some of my students.
METHOD OF TEACHING
I use a combination of lecture and other innovative pedagogical techniques. For example, I use class exercises which involve students experientially, I lead class discussions, and I have drawn upon elements of popular culture to illustrate various sociological topics. A major objective of mine is to consider the subject matter through the eyes of my students. I use particular examples and experiences from our shared popular culture and from my own previous student and work experiences, to illustrate various concepts and topics, such as gender roles, deviance, and dominant ideology. In my classes, I integrate my own research so as to illustrate concepts and theories. For example, I have conducted research on generational membership. In particular, I have written articles which dispel many of the myths that prevail about members of Generation X. This is a topic which students find engaging. In the classroom, we discuss cultural, social, political, and economic events which have shaped previous generations, and also events that are shaping subsequent generations. We consider the origin of stereotypes about members of various generations and, at a more social psychological level, we consider together the impact of generational stereotypes on individual behavior and self-image. The sociology of nostalgia is another research area of mine. This topic, too, invites eager discussion. In my research, I have found that young people exhibit nostalgia for times they do not even know firsthand. This “displaced nostalgia” is an interesting phenomenon. My students work with me in arriving at explanations for this finding (e.g., the way in which past decades have been romanticized and mythologized in the popular culture).
An expected outcome of my teaching is that students will have new perspectives from which they can attempt to understand themselves and their social world. It is my goal -- and expectation -- that, after having had one of my classes, students will be able to use the sociological imagination, which is the linking of personal experiences to macro-level forces -- i.e., the intersection of personal biographies and social structure. It is important to me that having had my class will make a difference in the student's way of thinking. A theme in my teaching is "making it real." I emphasize the applicability of the subject matter in the students' own lives. I expect students to understand that it is we who have created separate disciplines for studying the same subject: Life. The academic setting is (or should be), in my view, what psychologist Ruthellen Josselson calls a “holding environment”: that is, a place that contains or grounds people while they exercise some aspect of their autonomy or skill. So, outside of learning the subject matter of my discipline, Sociology, I hope that my students will feel “held” in this way. Academicians are not only introducing their fields to students; they ought also to be cultivating humanity.
-- Janelle L. Wilson