I recently stumbled across an blog on Inside Higher Ed about ‘alt acs’ or alternative academics, a cadre of academics who either left tenure-track teaching positions or stopped pursuing a tenured position in favor of non-traditional academic careers. As I scanned the comments section of the article, I realized that there are many people who, like me, are simultaneously drawn to a workplace where they can pursue the ‘life of the mind’ and are deeply unsettled by the contemporary culture of higher education. I have a high regard for teaching and learning (even if it occurs outside the classroom) and am concerned about the status quo of higher education. My ‘alt ac’ perspective colors my philosophy of teaching and learning in several ways.
For one, I do not believe that formal education institutions, like colleges and universities, hold a monopoly on learning. Learning is a lifelong process that cannot always be quantified with test scores, credit hours, or degrees. The recession of 2009 and the ensuing crisis in higher education has compelled some to develop alternate credentialing systems. The emergence of massive online open courses (MOOCS), digital badges, and open educational resources (OERS) have all attempted to ‘unbundle’ formal higher education. While some of these initiatives were naive attempts to usurp the college degree, they underscore the value of lifelong learning outside of the classroom. Through my teaching and academic support, I hope to instill the value of lifelong learning. I seek to incorporate the use of OERs, open access journals, and media on freely available outlets like YouTube and TED Talks so that students will know where to find lifelong learning resources and access them long after their student access to library subscription resources has ceased. I believe one of the greatest legacies we can leave our students is the desire to learn for themselves. With rapid shifts in the economy, current students will likely to have train themselves for new careers several times in their lives.
Part of growing as an educator is realizing my strengths, weaknesses and biases. I am, admittedly, ‘pro-learning’ in that I have love learning as long as I can remember. Reading encyclopedias was a source of enjoyment as child. I imagined myself in the exotic places I saw in that set of 1987 World Book Encyclopedias. Not all learners, however, approach education with the same enthusiasm. For this reason, I believe that I must instill a sense of curiosity and healthy skepticism in students that will hopefully cultivate an intellectual curiosity. As someone who has taught information literacy and sociology, I believe that both disciplines beg students to think critically about the world. Peter Berger identified several motifs of the sociologist in his Invitation to Sociology, one of which as the sociologist as a ‘debunker of social myths’. I believe in starting a lecture or tutorial with a problem to be solved or an interesting fact, thereby piquing students’ interests to know more or solve the problem at hand. What could be an abstract lecture where students retain the information long enough to regurgitate it on a test becomes a lively pursuit of truth. Students implicitly learn that knowledge has value apart from helping them to earn a high grade in a class. I believe that engaging students as knowledge seekers is valuable since many of them are used to being passive spectators on which teachers ‘broadcast’ facts. Teaching learners to assert their own agency in finding information is a valuable skills that people with an intellectual curiosity possess.
As a master’s student in an educational technology program, I am constantly reminded that there has been a paradigm shift in how learners learn in the digital age. This compels educators to change how we teach and assess student learning, although the shift in teaching strategies is far from complete. In addition to having a natural intellectual curiosity, I also admit to having thrived in traditional classrooms that were often lecture-heavy and depended on printed learning materials. Through the assigned readings in the course and my own research on the flipped learning, I have come to realize that how I learn is atypical. Many learners are completely disengaged in traditional learning environments. They need hands-on practice, visual learnings aids, and flexibility with what they learn and how they prove their learning. While my current teaching strategy is more traditional, I am committed to evolving my teaching and assessment strategies to compliment a social constructivist framework. It is very easy to fall into a passive lecturing mode and fail to do some type of learning activity or formative assessment. However, I realize now more than ever that a passive lecture is an ineffective method of teaching. I seek to incorporate some active learning activity to break up long lectures and use more formative assessment as I teach. In regards to assessment, I believe that I can have students create their own digital content rather than using discussion forums or essay questions to assess student learning. There are a number of tools, including podcasting and videorecording, infographic makers, mind maps, and the like, that can engage students’ creative faculty. While I believe expressing oneself in the written form is an important skill, I also think that realize that using new media to assess learning is helpful in that it equips students with new tools for expressing ideas and engages learners who are anxious about writing and test-taking.
Finally, I believe that I must reflect critically on my own teaching philosophy and seek to improve it as a much as possible. I believe this can be challenging for college-level instructors, who may considered experts in their respective disciplines but are relative novices in teaching. To this end, I think that continuing professional development and being a perpetual learner myself will help impart that desire of learning to my students. I approach teaching with the humility that I will always have new things to learn; about my discipline, about teaching, and about myself and how I connect to learners. To that end, I attend academic conferences, webinars, and take continuing education courses that connect me with trends in my discipline, trends in pedagogy, and trends in technology integration. As an ‘alt-ac’ who has worked in academic support, I am well aware that it takes a proverbial ‘village’ to help students succeed. I plan to take advantage of a community of learners and teachers to hone my own skills. I am grateful to work at an institution that has a Learning Commons, a department that evaluates new course proposals and reviews courses with numerous student complaints for revision. I believe that availing myself to this services will make my teaching top-notch. In regards to the tutorials I create, I do solicit feedback from instructors for whose courses I designed them. I think that developing a professional rapport and demonstrating my desire to serve them positions me to receive constructive feedback. Academic deans and peers in the library are also good sources of help. Finally, I observe what are the ‘end users’ saying about my learning materials. Students evaluations from face-to-face teaching, comments on a YouTube video, and data on user behavior on library web pages and other teaching tools are valuable ways to know if my instructional impact is being realized. I believe that this trifecta of taking part in academic discourse communities, listening my peers, and observing students themselves will help me to be an effective teacher and facilitator of learning.