Mary C. Miles, Ph.D. -
Mary Miles Penn StateTeaching Philosophy:

I taught my first university class as an undergraduate teaching assistant at Penn State in 1993.  In a course about Nazism and Fascism, we shared homemade cookies, staged a mock debate among German political parties, and ended with some soul-searching reflections about how each of us might have reacted to propaganda and political pressure during the Nazi era.  My academic advisor, Prof. Jack Spielvogel, attended that first class and announced at the end that I was a “born teacher”.  Hoping to become a professor, I was delighted.  After several more years of teaching, it occurred to me to wonder exactly what it was that a “born” teacher did, valued, and strove toward in the pursuit of his or her calling.  Reflecting on these questions, I began to identify particular philosophies and principles that might guide my efforts to grow as an instructor. 
Education entails activities that are innately pleasurable: the satisfaction of curiosity, story-telling, the acquisition and exercise of new skills.  Recent theories in psychology and biology suggest that these experiences are actually chemically rewarded in our brains.  Therefore, I believe that learning can, and should, be joyful, fun, and actively engaging.  Music, video clips, pictures, field trips, games, and appropriate humor make students receptive and help them relate course work to the broader world. In my rhetoric course, we travel to the Palmer Art Museum and Sports Museum to analyze the messages embedded in cultural artifacts.  We also hold a “contest” in which small groups use the persuasive strategies that they are learning to convince their peers and me to support charitable organizations that they believe make the world better.  In the American History survey, we go to the Penn State Room and use the yearbooks to learn about student culture in the different decades of the 20 century.  Students have the option of assuming the persona of a student from another era for a short written assignment.  In the History of Psychiatry, we watch clips from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Snake Pit to study the ways that mental illness and psychiatry have been culturally constructed in different eras.  While these creative approaches quickly generate excitement and vary the learning environment, ultimately -- as one student noted with surprise -- even grammar lessons can be fun (especially since errors can lead to significant – sometimes comical – misunderstandings). 
Mary Miles Penn StateEach student arrives with a unique set of experiences and views to share.  I believe that my role as a teacher is not to indoctrinate these individuals, but to embrace the Latin root of education, educo, meaning “to draw out from within”.  Good teachers lead students out of themselves, urging them to recognize their own strengths, creativity, and potential.  When students are learning a skill, or honing their analytic abilities, I work to create a positive atmosphere in which they feel uninhibited, actively engaged, recognized, and validated. I accomplish this through small group discussions, praise for some component in all student contributions, and an encouraging attitude.  I truly believe that everyone does something well and part of our job is to find that thing.  I, therefore, make sure to always provide an array of evaluated activities – some quantitative work on objective exams, some analytic essays, some public speaking, and some creative or artistic options for projects (short fiction or artistic reactions to books and events) – so that everyone has an opportunity to shine.
I believe that the best teachers are also perpetual learners.  One of the great rewards of teaching is the opportunity to continually explore and share ideas about subjects for which we care passionately.  I have always been fascinated by the stories that people create and tell each other to give meaning to their lives and worlds.  Stories are fundamental in both composition and history courses – in composition we focus more on the methods of meaning making, in history, more on the content and changes in narratives over time.  As I emphasize in the “narrative” unit of my writing class, we think in stories and, therefore, learn best when we see new information as being part of larger stories and conversations. In my History of Psychiatry course, for example, I frame the discreet units as part of a larger, ongoing discussion about how people have understood mental illness in different cultures and contexts.  The ways that individuals experience and explain their own inner lives and those of others are very much contingent upon what stories and explanations are available and revered in a given time.  The ways that we, as scholars, develop theoretical constructs to explain the significance of these experiences add a further level of meaning making to the stories. I like to make sure that the processes of scholarly research and interpretation are clearly visible to students.  While these theories can grow complex, I believe in challenging the students through intellectual sophistication rather than burdensome chores.  As such, I do not believe that there are any theories that are too complicated for our students to understand, only explanations that fail to elucidate.  I aim, always, to provide the students with stimulating texts from both primary and secondary sources.  Whether discussing postmodernism, psychoanalysis, or the rhetorical significance of exigency, I want students not only to understand my explanations, but to be able to interact with me about them.  Through such dialogue, we all recognize our roles as both contributors and learners within larger and ever-evolving cultural conversations.
Ultimately, I really like my students.  I want them to be happy.  I enjoy learning about their lives, talking to them about their problems, and offering whatever help I can.  I want to be an instrument of empowerment for my students, equipping them with tools and skills that they can use to operate effectively in the world, and also providing opportunities for personal growth and revelation.  Prof. Spielvogel characterized these efforts to help and care for students as a form of love.  The true rewards of teaching, in his view, are measured in the joy that lights up the faces of students grasping new ideas or the gratitude with which they exclaim that you taught them how to think for themselves or how to be better human beings.  To me, these elements of joy and caring are the vehicles by which teaching transcends the mundane realm of professional duty and becomes an act of heartfelt service to others.

Content Copyright 2012, Mary Miles.  All rights reserved.
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