Curiosity & Creativity: Statement on Teaching

Last year I was asked to write a brief teaching philosophy in order to be considered for the university’s distinguished teaching award. Here’s what I sent:

It’s an exciting time to be part of higher education, to be in the Humanities, and to be a contemplative teacher and scholar. Higher Education leaders are championing the application of inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches to real-world problems. We also know that students need to feel the relevance and purpose of classroom experiences for education to be meaningful and valuable. Our own university is launching transformative, community-building initiatives that engage students and regional partners in collaborative experiences. What a time to be a passionate advocate for education’s role in promoting well-being and ethical action!

Thank you for this opportunity to share briefly two of the mindsets that have helped me experience lively and enriching encounters with our Plymouth State students over this past decade. I’m excited to see how curiosity, creativity, innovation, and service can drive our clusters-based approach in the coming years. As students learn how to trust themselves and to cultivate curiosity, wonder, and resilience, they can, upon graduation, craft deeply satisfying and rewarding lives for themselves and their communities.

While applying for tenure in 2009 I reviewed my course evaluations and noticed that students most often praised my teaching by citing my enthusiasm for the subject matter. I found this trend a bit disturbing since I had considered myself a practitioner of student-centered learning. These evaluations caused me to reflect: Is my teaching style actually all about me? Am I simply hoping that the sheer force of my own enthusiasm for literature could be contagious? And, most pressingly, would I be able to sustain my enthusiasm year after year, course after course, teaching similar kinds of things again and again? Student-centered, I determined, must become learner-driven.

That summer I explored the roots of my enthusiasm in order to nurture this strength and sustain it, which brought me to contemplative pedagogy. I’ve since discovered how to cultivate curiosity not just about the material but about the interesting, unique, and surprising individuals in class alongside me. And that, as they say, has made all the difference.

Curiosity drives Innovation

Once I think I know a thing, I no longer see it clearly. This is true with literary works, courses, people, and a variety of “taken for granted” assumptions. By keeping open the possibility that I can be surprised by a text, a student, or an assignment, I can feel genuine wonder and curiosity. Only then can I authentically learn to see new possibilities in my work and relationships. I model this disposition and cultivate it with my students as an explicit methodology. That way, together, we can learn to innovate and more deeply appreciate our time together. At any time, we can change courses, assignments, and we can change our minds.

For innovation to occur I have to let go of the idea of mastery– let go of control– and simply notice: What’s happening with this student? With this class? With this assignment? I then ask myself: What can I do to improve it? How can we do things not just differently but better? And then, I must act. So, too, must my students.

Stability encourages Creativity 

We must feel safe, supported, and encouraged if we are to make truly innovative changes in our lives and communities. While all sectors claim to value creativity, we—as individuals—are actually quite resistant to change and suspicious of the novel. It takes great courage to try something truly new. Fear of failing a class, losing a job, or looking foolish all hinder creativity.

When we tap into students’ intrinsic motivation and empower them to craft enriching and successful experiences for themselves and their peers, we can rely less and less on the “grade” as a motivator. Don’t get me wrong—I use rubrics; students earn grades; courses are rigorous. But often students do their best (i.e. most creative) work on the ungraded assignments.

I work hard to deserve student-trust by providing clear and consistent communication. And I’m finding that many students, when liberated from critique and fear of failure, respond by experimenting, innovating, taking risks, asking good questions, and helping one another more than they had when trying to “get it right,” “get a good grade” and “meet the teacher’s expectations.” They are truly creative, producing works and experiences I could never have anticipated.

I am honored by this committee’s request of a teaching philosophy and grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the evolution of my teaching and learning practices over the past eleven years at Plymouth State. From an assistant professor demonstrating “mastery” of the subject matter, to an associate professor experimenting with contemplative pedagogy, to a full professor who brings a “beginner’s mind” to every class experience, I’ve grown into a joyful, curious, and confident educator thanks to countless Plymouth State student, faculty, and staff mentors.

Thank you.