Teaching Statement

[In 2018-2019, I went through my university’s promotion process and successfully made it to Associate Professor. My portfolio required a teaching statement, which I am publishing here. Having never had to write a teaching statement before, I found myself very grateful to those willing to share theirs: Brandon Walsh, Ryan Cordell, and Jesi Egan. I share mine in hopes that it can help others who are new to the genre.]

As a librarian, my teaching philosophy is rooted in a desire to build information and digital literacy skills in my students. Whether I am teaching a “one-shot” library research workshop or a full course in our Digital Culture and Information minor, I hope to equip students with the research and technology skills to accomplish whatever academic or professional goals they might have. In my role as Digital Humanities Librarian at Washington and Lee University, I am responsible for educating my colleagues as well as my students. I provide training in digital humanities (DH) methods and guidance on best practices in scholarly communication. Regardless of my audience, I hope to create a learning environment that is grounded in principles of critical information literacy and feminist pedagogy. I believe in an “ethic of care” in which I see and value my students’ whole selves, not just their achievement of certain learning objectives. I want to foster a community of learning in which everyone feels comfortable expressing uncertainty, embracing process, and letting go of perfectionism. I work to make my classroom a place where students share knowledge, rather than hoard it. Even outside the classroom, I try to model collaborative scholarly production in the humanities through work on DH research projects. I frequently employ technology to accomplish these goals, but I do so in a way that encourages critical understanding of the way our devices work as well as the social and political forces that shape our information consumption and production.

When I first began teaching at Washington and Lee, I was anxious that my training as a generalist, not a specialist, would hinder my performance in the classroom. Instead, I found the ability to traverse various disciplines to be a helpful skill in exposing my students to the ways that scholarly authority is both constructed and contextual. Since my courses are not tied to a particular academic field, I am able to engage my students in conversations about the values and habits of their chosen program. For instance, in my Data in the Humanities course, I require students to identify their disciplinary angle when they propose their research questions. I have my students produce assignments on their own websites to expand the potential audience for their work beyond myself. When I realized that de-centering myself in the classroom was a conscious strategy, I started to rely more on the knowledge and expertise of my students. What can I learn from them about their experiences in other classes or jobs? My goal is to encourage students to see themselves as scholars with their own set of expertise to share - not just students primed to consume and regurgitate their professor’s content.

I began to see my pedagogy in a new light after reading Cathy N. Davidson’s The New Education. In the “Against Technophilia” chapter, Davidson describes a “defamiliarization” activity in which she begins class with a pop quiz that asked, “who invented the printing press?” Davidson proposes that students who are confident in their answer can have a guaranteed A in the course, but if their answer is wrong they will flunk. Unsurprisingly, students request an alternative. This time, students have 90 seconds to answer the same question with any method they have access to - their classmates or laptops. The students collaboratively conduct online research to discover more about the history of printing than they would have through a traditional lecture and test. The discussion that followed even turned to the limits and bias of Wikipedia as a source for fast facts. For Davidson, this activity serves to illustrate the basic principles of student-centered learning. She writes, “you set the conditions for invention, set challenges, and let students go from there.” In this example, I recognized many of my own practices, including my habit of requiring collaborative research activities in class. I regularly ask students to work in teams to research a DH project or method. For their last unit in Data in the Humanities, students must create their own list of resources for building a web map, rather than rely solely on my recommendations. After gathering relevant links, students annotate and evaluate each other’s choices before posting them to the course website. Not only do students hone their research skills, but they learn how to build their knowledge together, rather than in isolation. My role is to guide and assist as they learn for themselves.

As a faculty member in the Digital Culture and Information program, I feel responsible for improving and expanding my students’ digital literacy skills. It is easy to assume that undergraduates do not need training in using technology, but I believe this is a myth. Many of my students come into my classes lacking the digital skills they will need to function in the workplace. Some of them even admit to being afraid of technology or “not friends” with their computer. I structure my courses to include lab sections - time for students to work through a tutorial and acquire new technology skills. More importantly, I see these sessions as a time to practice problem solving and working through frustration. I love starting courses with building websites from scratch or doing basic tasks in the command line. Not only is it an easy way to get to that lightbulb moment, but it shows them that error messages are not failures, but chances to diagnose and try again. I celebrate errors and encourage students to break their project a few times - just to see what happens. I also follow up with metacognitive exercises so students are aware of their own path from frustration to success.

Encouraging failure in the contained environment of a lab session works well with undergraduates, but not with my faculty colleagues. My work as Digital Humanities Librarian requires me to consult and train faculty members on DH methods for their own research or teaching. In some ways, this is a bigger challenge than undergraduate classroom. Faculty members are used to being experts, so it requires careful scaffolding and some affective labor to create a safe environment for learning something entirely new. When a faculty members says, “This looks easy, I should know how to do this,” about a technology challenge, I respond in a way that illuminates the path from their own knowledge base to their query. Although I have not been successful with every faculty member, I consider projects like Huon d’Auvergne Digital Archive to be a testament to my ability to guide a scholar, in this case Steve McCormick, from DH novice to developing and maintaining his own web application. In other cases, these projects require me to move between disciplines, such as from Classics to Computer Science in The Ancient Graffiti Project. This type of discourse mediation is teaching - it just occurs outside the classroom for an advanced audience.

At this stage in my teaching career, I feel confident in my pedagogy and comfortable with my methods. As I move forward, I plan to focus on my assessment methods in order to improve my practices and bring them in sync with my colleagues’ courses in the DCI program. Professional development opportunities like the the Digital Humanities Summer Institute and the Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching Institute have deepened my technology skills and I look forward to more chances to translate those skills into learning experiences for students. One of my favorite things about teaching is the iterative possibility of each class period. Every day I have another chance to try a new metaphor, learning something about a student, or facilitate a different activity. I hope my students leave my classroom feeling empowered to try new things and unafraid to engage and criticize the technology around them.