Eddie A. Moore
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC
As an educator, I value flexibility, creative instinct, and keen awareness of what Audre Lorde refers to as the “erotic.” In Lorde’s formulation, the erotic is, “… a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” My approach to sharing information is largely informed and guided by the kind of metaphysical resource to which Lorde alludes, noting that it is an indispensible means of knowing the individual and collective needs of student-learners. It is a useful tool in assessing the development and challenges students face, and the appropriate instructional approaches necessary for maximum efficacy. In a sense, it relies heavily on the maintenance of a symbiotic relationship between instructor and student wherein s/he embodies both roles at various moments in their shared interaction.
My first experience teaching was outside of the formal academy, teaching for Job Corps in Baltimore, MD in 2007. My classes were populated by a mixture of students who had either dropped out of high school or been expelled. A fair number of them were gang members, with some detoxing from drug use while attempting to learn a trade and earn a GED or high school diploma. Most had literacy deficits and were struggling to balance the things that were happening in their body, at home (if they were lucky enough to have one), and in the classroom. In addition to these challenges, they lacked the basic and necessary life skills that would allow them to chart a successful life path. My responsibility was to teach leadership skills and professional and social development. As can be imagined, they made for a tough crowd, but it was one of the most rewarding teaching experiences I have ever had. Despite the inherent challenges, I learned compassion and the importance of what Samuel Delany characterizes as human “contact.” In essence I learned that a teaching philosophy that does not incorporate a philosophy of the human, fails to effectively teach.
Teaching for Job Corps forced me to adopt innovative methods to reach students with significant educational deficits. It also reinforced for me that regardless of the fullness or deficiency of one’s formative relationship to literacy and learning, every student can learn if they have intuitive and flexible instructors. While I value sound planning and strategy, I also recognize that rigidly defined systems at times must be abruptly abandoned in deference to the immediacy of student needs. Some of those need are emotional, and some social, while others may be merely motivational. In whatever capacity they arise, however, they require a pedagogy that centers on holistic student development—seeing the student as a whole person with needs beyond the classroom environment. Learning happens in a variety of ways, but refusing to overlook personal student challenges is often the key to successful teaching, and those challenges can sometimes be integrated into the learning experience.
“I have learned the exigency of
intellectual availability to the
substantive value of those
living, breathing, human curricula
we call students.”
In my years as an educator, I have learned to appreciate the complexity of classroom diversity. I have had the privilege of teaching at predominantly white institutions as well as historically black colleges and universities. The disparity in those two experiences has taught me the importance of a full and non-essentialist understanding of the many processes of student development that take place outside of the classroom. A number of intersectional factors come to bear on student identity, ranging from race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexuality, economic background, resource availability, parental education, etc. These are only a few of the facets that form/inform the student and determine their learning style(s)and how they integrate new information. Monolithic assessments of students that ignore the complexity of individual identity are alienating, prohibitive, and exclusionary. That said, teaching at institutions largely marked by dominant and minority racial demographics has shown me the importance of inclusion and objectivity. Further it has emphasized that, as the instructor, I must also assume the role of student, always gaining knowledge about the immense array of experiences and identities they embody. In teaching humanities, I have learned the exigency of intellectual availability to the substantive value of those living, breathing, human curricula we call students.
What I have described as critically important to my teaching is akin to the radical kind of “Engaged Pedagogy” explored in bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress (1994). hooks states,
[t]o educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. (13)
This has been an essential part of the framework of my instructional practice. I ask students to be willing to make themselves vulnerable in ways that feel safe for them with the goal of gradually expanding the parameters of that orbit of safety. This critical vulnerability is not limited to the instructor-student relationship, but it includes the student-student relationship as well. One of my aims is always to create a sense of community within the classroom that will allow students to respectfully share provocative and even contradictory ideas with one another in the interest of broadening each other’s perspectives. This kind of freedom often produces deeply meaningful teaching moments and empowers students to not just be passive and receptive participants, but rather to be instructors themselves. As often as possible I emphasize that my classroom is de-centered. That is to say, I do not function as the source of all knowledge, but instead as a kind of guide through heuristic processes that empower them to do the work of obtaining knowledge within a corollary of necessary and related information outlined in the syllabus. In that process, I learn as well. My primary purpose is to assist; to establish the frameworks and borders for interdependent bodies of knowledge, and then aid students in navigating it while correctively guiding them through the journey.
hooks’s notion of freedom is important to me in that it emphasizes the value of helping students abandon the things that distract them, whether they be insecurities, fear, personal challenges, or even past experiences with educators. I try not to invoke any air of intimidation in the classroom as that simultaneously establishes a hierarchy of power that I find to be counterproductive. I have found that doing so has not at all diminished the presence of respect in my student-teacher relationships, as students generally interpret the freedom I prioritize as a kind of respect to be returned. In practice, I facilitate collaborative learning and group work as often as possible. Collaborative learning strategies teach students leadership skills, socialization, professional decorum, and how to productively exchange and build on ideas. These strategies have been effective for me across a variety of disciplinary enterprises. Whether teaching writing or literature, liberating students to learn, while encouraging interactive community and collaboration proves to be fail-safe.
A key aspect of my composition instruction has been process writing. When designing assignments for a course I try to formulate a general writing objective built on real-world rhetorical situations. These assignments may be constructed around teaching a genre, discipline, or methodology. I prefer to teach themed courses so there is continuity between assignments and students can easily continue to build on pre-existing knowledge. I allow a great deal of leeway in selecting project foci so as to ensure their sustained interest. I also ask the students to be involved in tasks that are traditionally left to the instructor, such as constructing the grading rubric for their assignments. I find that this helps them process the requirements of the genre in a more thoughtful way that considers what the work needs rather than simply what is required. The most important aspect of teaching composition for me has been the inclusion of multiple peer-review workshops and drafting sessions. As a promise to students, I only grade final versions of work that has been met by many eyes before reaching my desk. Throughout this process, I am involved in their research efforts, brainstorming and collective exchange of ideas, and their critical analyses of sources and other student work. I emphasize an axiom I have adopted from Ta-Nehesi Coates, maintaining that the entire process of writing is about failure. That is to say, it’s acceptable to not get it “right” the first time; the revision and redrafting process is also instructive.
Recognizing that students have become very technology-driven, I try to employ teaching methods that appeal to a variety of learning styles. To that end, I am mindful to include multiple mediums such as written texts, video, music (including mixtapes and mashups), photography, art (sculpture, painting, graffiti, etc.), and various other forms as I find them. Within the context of teaching students to improve their critical thinking skills, I emphasize that everything is a text to be read and interpreted. This approach has helped students make critical connections between the elements of their worlds in order to formulate what often turns out to be substantive engagements with course content and their individual life contexts. I make every effort to always provide students with models of the work they are assigned, so as not to assume they are knowledgeable of what’s being asked of them. At times I have even done the research assignments with them on an interest of my own. During their group work, I become a member of their groups. In sum, I do what I find is necessary to meet students where they are and make learning intellectually intimate. Experience has taught me that sometimes it is not possible to teach from a distance; the instructor-student relationship is one that is symbiotic, and it must be nurtured and protected with pedagogic delicacy.
Hooks, Bell. Teaching To Transgress. Routledge, 2014.