Thomas Hugh Crawford-- Teaching and Learning Philosophy
"on-the-fly adaptability, service learning, and material practice"
I am happy to have this opportunity to look back and reflect on my own sense of teaching and learning, and how it has evolved over the almost thirty years I have been at it. Like most teachers, in my early years I saw teaching as transferring to students a fairly specific form of knowledge and a relatively narrow skill set—reading, writing, and critical thinking. Of course I still value those forms of knowledge and the attainment of certain critical skills, but, in keeping with transformations in society and pedagogy over the past decades, I now find myself focusing more on the notion of learning. In a sense, teaching is the easy part: here it is, good students, take it. Understanding learning or devising effective learning strategies is the hard part, but it is also where all the action is.
All of my academic career has been in English departments, teaching literature, composition, and a good bit of philosophy and cultural history. I have also spent that career in engineering institutions. Many scholars in the liberal arts might view that as a less-than-ideal teaching situation, seeing the practical and hard-headed needs of the engineer as not easily accommodating the often extended contemplation demanded by literature and philosophy. I feel it is fundamental to address the challenge of teaching pragmatically (a word whose root meaning is “thing”); it is a need that must be met for students in all disciplines. We need to be questioning long-held assumptions on practical grounds, and building in the pedagogical flexibility necessary to engage each and every student.
I always felt I was doing a fairly good job in the classroom. Students were enthusiastic, usually developed interesting the research topics, and generally engaged with the material we discussed in class, and I regularly received support and commendation for my efforts. My turning moment came about four years ago. I was teaching the inaugural class of Georgia Tech Honors Program students in a freshman composition class. In composition, I usually try to choose a topic and methodology that makes the familiar a little unfamiliar (Freshmen essays are usually much better when the students have some enthusiasm for the material). In that class we were studying “Knowledge Spaces," places where people think and learn. This is a great topic for first-year students as they are acutely aware of their new surroundings, and, in this case, they all shared the same dormitory. Georgia Tech had just renovated part of its library, developing an open and flexible study/presentation space along with a new coffee shop. One student attended the dedication, and chose to write on the novelty of the space in the middle of a traditional library. After reading her paper, I found myself going to see the space and recognizing that the Library East Commons was the material instantiation of the questions the course was designed to ask. We were about two-thirds through the semester, and I walked into the class the next day, read out the paper and asked if they wanted to make a documentary film. Of course I got an enthusiastic yes, and I suddenly found myself in a completely different pedagogical arena. Classes ceased being all about me leading a discussion regarding the nuances of a particular essay and instead became production meetings where we determined needs, identified specific research topics, and plotted out how to attain the skills and equipment necessary to accomplish the task.
This was my first real taste of what is a modified version of “problem-based learning,” a pedagogical strategy used effectively in a number of disciplines, but not often deployed in the English class. To me, the key is a well-articulated problem (which we had, thanks to a