Teaching Philosophy

Every year, before the beginning of term, I have one or two nightmares related to teaching, in spite of having taught for over 30 years. In my dreams I wander through endless halls looking for my class, or I enter the class and nobody seems to see me. I think the explanation lies in that fact that I am a naturally introverted and yet as a teacher I believe I have to open myself up to the students. You make yourself vulnerable so that the students are willing to take the journey with you, a journey in which both you and they will learn and change. For me teaching is always an intense, fascinating experience. Every year I wish I had done some things differently, but every year I feel enriched by my contact with the students.

What do I mean when I say I must become vulnerable when I teach? As a linguist, I would like my students to see that understanding language and how it is acquired, how it changes, how it dies, constitutes a problem we do not have a solution to, a problem that may have impact on our understanding of how the mind works, how we interact with others, how we tell stories. Ultimately, what it means to be human. I never feel as the source of knowledge, but rather at the beginning of a course I always feel I am the one person who sees how little we know and how much we have to learn, the one person who knows that the problem of falling apples can be infinitely interesting. It is as if students were blind to the questions because they often bring so many assumptions about language, for example that children learn by imitating, that there is a correct and an incorrect way of speaking and someone has the right to decide which is which, that mixing languages is always bad. The students are sure, I am unsure, full of doubt. However, they expect me to be the person with the answers, not the person with the questions. They want me to tell them which option is the truth, at least the truth as it should appear on the exam, but I want them to see that we don’t yet know, but that it is wonderfully interesting to try to find out, for them to come with me and we will research the questions together, we will learn how to understand the theories, to analyze the data, to think critically, and thus to get closer to understanding the nature of the problem.

Graduate students are somewhat different in that they no longer expect the professor to be the authority. They provide their own set of questions, new ones that we had not thought of, which is what makes contact with graduate students so exciting. At the same time they expect much more from you on the personal level, and you have to open up to them in a different way. It is not the same to teach a four month half course than to follow a PhD student for four or five years. This has to be a labour of love, and for me it is.

Yes, teaching means an intense involvement with others, but I cannot think of a more rewarding experience. To be a student among students, how amazingly lucky I am.