Mapping Your Academic Career: Finding Your Voice as a Teacher

I miss teaching.

I enjoy being on sabbatical, but I miss teaching so much that when I erased a chalkboard at my parents’ church the other day, I actually felt a wave of emotion. Feeling that eraser rub against that slate instantly evoked the anticipation, exhilaration, and (yes) fear that accompany the start of every class I teach.

But taking a break from what I’ve long seen as my primary academic calling has also given me a chance to look back over my development as a teacher, and perhaps to better understand how I’ve changed in that role. Here too, Gary Burge’s Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor’s Life has been very helpful.

Burge, Mapping Your Academic Career(If you haven’t picked up on this from the first two posts… I’d highly recommend this book to any professor, but also to anyone charged with overseeing faculty development at their institution. It would make a great faculty retreat text, for example.)

To review: Burge suggests that most faculty pass through three developmental cohorts, each with its own distinctive emphases, goals, anxieties, and challenges. In Cohort 1, freshly minted professors are highly trained as researchers, but have much to learn about most other dimensions of their profession. That certainly includes teaching. While I suspect that grad programs these days pay more attention to pedagogy than mine did in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it’s still rare to come across a recent PhD who’s a highly skilled teacher.

While Burge thinks that there are certain preconditions for successful teaching (“verbal communication, personal transparency, agile thinking, a sense of humor, healthy self-criticism, native intellectual aptitude, confidence and curiosity… rarely will a teacher succeed without some of each”), he also believes that it’s possible to overcome early struggles in the classroom. Here too, he emphasizes the importance of mentoring and peer friendships, if only to spot early problems before they solidify into bad habits. (He closes the chapter with some practical steps that mentors can take in this and other areas.) And Burge warns against seeing “popularity with students as the sign of success” — not to say that there can’t be good reasons for such popularity.

(To his credit, Burge also devotes attention to the gendered unpopularity that some women professors experience, thanks to students who view them as “weak or insufficiently skilled or easily challenged.” As Burge hints, this can be especially common at Christian colleges, where some students’ theology predisposes them to disdain the idea of women fulfilling a teaching vocation or holding a position of authority.)

As professors make the transition from Cohort 1 to the relative security of Cohort 2, they start to recognize some deeper truths about teaching. Burge starts with a truism from Parker Palmer: Professors don’t teach information; they teach themselves. What Burge takes this to mean is that

teachers will each have different styles. There is not one formula. One will use pure lecture, another seminar-style discussion, still another Socratic questions. One may be in a lab. Therefore it isn’t the methods of teaching that make the difference. As Palmer says it: “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher”… Successful classroom work is thus a three-legged stool: the curriculum, the students, and who we are in our truest selves. [Parker continues:] “Good teachers join self and subject and students in the fabric of life.” The great migration in teaching that takes place in Cohort 2 comes when a teacher begins to speak from his or her integrity and identity. Suddenly authenticity is born in the classroom.

Or as my late friend Stacey Hecht told me in my first month at Bethel: “Teaching magnifies your personality.” It’s still the best piece of advice I’ve ever received, and one reason that I’ve tended to be an instinctive teacher, distrusting claims that there is a universally applicable right way to do what we do. (Or a supposed wrong way.) But in my experience, you can’t fully understand Palmer’s wisdom (or Stacey’s) until you’ve lived it for a while.

Amy Poppinga teaching
One of my favorite teachers: my colleague Amy Poppinga

Second, Cohort 2 teachers can avoid the trap of repeating the same information through the same pedagogical patterns by teaching “what matters instead of teaching everything.” For example, Burge describes a historian colleague who uses class time “to invite students to join him in thinking aloud about the meaning of history instead of its details.” Amen! While knowledge and skill acquisition still show up in my lists of course objectives, students will tell you that my history classes increasingly have more to do with how we think about the past and how we make meaning of it than with the details of what happened.

Such professors “have found their voice.” They have achieved “a new confidence and poise—even an interest in talking about the values at work in a subject, not only the mastery of its details.” As a result, they may find themselves more interested in the ethical and political dimensions of what they’re teaching and publicly contemplate topics that “may be prophetic and be awkward to the college’s comfortable culture.” But then again, that’s “one function of tenure.” (See here.) Perhaps especially at Christian colleges like Burge’s Wheaton and my Bethel, “[f]inding and using your new voice will always be expensive.”

Burge’s description of “teaching who you are” and “finding your voice” rings so true with my experience that I only have one thing to add. When I read this section of Mapping Your Academic Career, I did something I rarely do and added a brief comment on Kindle: “Value of blogging.”

Burge observes that “Great teachers have an uncanny capacity to be ‘present’ in a public forum—to be ‘connected’ not only to their students but also to the inner issues at work in their own lives.” But how do you cultivate that capacity?

I don’t think I quite intended this to happen when I started The Pietist Schoolman in 2011, but if I’ve “found my voice” in the classroom, it probably has something to do with my using this blog to “think in public.” It’s not for everyone, but blogging has helped me become vastly more comfortable working through Burge’s “inner issues.” Using one public forum to become more “present” in another, Pietist Schoolman has time and again helped me to think aloud about topics that eventually make their way into my classroom.

<<Read the previous post in this series

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