The central to my teaching philosophy is the importance I place on fostering intellectual curiosity in my teaching. Fostering intellectual curiosity differs slightly, but is complementary to, ideals of maintaining academic rigor and developing practical skills in the college classroom. Its emphasis is on introducing students to a variety of novel ideas, topics, and methods in a way that encourages their interest to explore further. It requires the recognition that student learning in the classroom is limited and focuses attention on developing an orientation for lifelong learning.
A teaching philosophy of fostering intellectual curiosity is an ideal approach because today’s students typically come to the college classroom with the preconceived notion that all their courses should relate directly and in straight-forward fashion to their specialized career track and major. This poses a difficult challenge to overcome for academic fields in general and sociology faces a doubly challenging situation in this respect. First, undergraduate students enrolled in other majors, such as in criminology, psychology, family studies, and communications, regularly take sociology courses. These students typically come asking the same question “how is this going to be relevant to my major and professional skill building?” Second, sociology teachers have to balance the needs of students approaching the field from applied/practical and science/research orientations which can lead to similar questions about relevance of course content. As challenging as these issues are, I believe that a teaching philosophy that fosters intellectual curiosity is the solution.
More than just a buzz word, this requires establishing the practical relevance of sociology early in the semester, developing lessons that incorporate creative story-telling, demonstrating passion for each unit covered, designing assignments that allow for application of intellectual interests, adopting the teacher/scholar model in mentoring and teaching, and making use of technology for reaching students beyond the classroom walls. I have spent the previous five years designing, implementing and honing pedagogical tools that foster intellectual curiosity inside and outside of the classroom. I illustrate this through a sample of those below and also feature many on this website.
Fostering intellectual curiosity first means meeting students where they are at from early on in the semester. That requires demonstrating that sociology is not only relevant to all majors but often of central relevance. I use different techniques to establish this in my classes, but most notable are those in my Principles of Sociology course where the variety of majors are the greatest and there exists a departmental mandate for the course to serve as a recruitment tool for majors and minors. In this course, I have developed an introduction exercise that I call “I bet that sociology relates to your major.” In this exercise, I call roll and ask each student to tell me their major. I produce a frequency distribution of majors and then relate each to aspects of sociology. For instance, I would explain to nursing majors that sociology relates to their field because health and diseases have roots in social conditions. If a nurse does not understand how social conditions impact disease and wellness they will not be competent in their job. In addition to this, students in the class learn about sociologists that are doing unique and interesting contemporary work, famous sociology majors, and how a major in sociology gives entrée to a variety of different careers, organizations, and agencies. In a related assignment, the vast majority (nearly 99%) of student responses are reflective of the student quoted below who states,
As I learn more through class and assignments, I’m starting to think what sociologist do is pretty interesting. They study something that relates to every person in the world. I wouldn’t have expected sociology to be able to relate to so many different majors until we talked about it in class and were able to see how it really does. Sociologists help us to understand human interactions, social lives, politics, economics and organizations.
Lecture materials that foster intellectual curiosity are not ready-made and their development requires a great deal of effort. Traditionally, lecture materials and book chapters in sociology are designed around a central lesson-unit (e.g. socialization, micro-theories of deviance, juveniles and courts). This type of “lesson-unit” organization of materials lead students to approach materials by memorizing lists of vocabulary concepts determined to be important to the central lesson. Often this turns into “cram and dump,” with students never realizing how these concepts and vocabularies help to articulate social relationships and facts relevant to their careers. Rather than fully shedding the materials and traditions of the lesson-unit, my teaching philosophy alters it through the use of creative story-telling. In doing so, my teaching philosophy includes developing creative story-telling lesson-units that help to foster intellectual curiosity in the material.
For instance, I found that students have a difficult time with the lesson-unit regarding symbolic interaction in my course “Interpersonal Dynamics” (SOC 345). I found that students were able to “cram and dump” definitions regarding symbolic interaction, but could not articulate how these concepts inform predictions of behavior nor how the lesson-unit concepts could be applied in practical settings. To remedy this I spent several weeks researching the origin story of symbolic interaction. From this research, I developed a creative story-telling tool regarding the debates between John B. Watson and George Herbert Mead. This creative story is historically accurate and includes introduction, explanation, and logical relation of the following twenty concepts; theory of mind, William James, introspectionism, Wilhelm Wundt, John B. Watson, Ivan Pavlov, behaviorism, classical conditioning, stimuli > response, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, little Albert, George Herbert Mead, stimuli > interpretation > response, symbolic interaction, socialization, imitation, play, games, generalized other. I found that students are much more likely to be able to retain information, synthesize it, and apply it to practical settings when delivered through creative story-telling lesson-units.
Fostering intellectual curiosity also means that each and every lesson-unit must be performed with intense passion. Without coming to each class ready to maintain a high level of passion and enthusiasm in delivery of course material, I cannot expect the transmission of it – in the form of inspiration – to my students. This may sound like an easy task but, let’s be clear here. I am neither a fanatic about every topic in sociology nor about any single topic in sociology at all times. Mustering the passion to teach requires a great deal of research on each topic, the ability to pull the relevant from the esoteric, and practice in responding to and controlling the energy and attention of the students in attendance. I approach each class as a performer would approach the stage. I spend time prior to class warming up the crowd, I think about how creative story-telling lesson-units can be intertwined into broader cohesive story arcs and narratives, and learn to respond to and control the collective energy of the students.
Beyond creating story-telling lesson-units and delivering them with gusto, fostering intellectual curiosity requires developing assignments that allow for practical application of intellectual interests. An excellent example of this is my “deviant biography” assignment for my juvenile delinquency course (SOC 333). As a culminating activity for this class, students are asked to write a biography on a youth that could be characterized as a delinquent or deviant. They are required to apply sociological terminology, theories of deviance/crime, and current statistical information on the trends of the delinquent behavior to their biographical subject. The biography is developed in three stages that include proposal, rough draft, and final paper. They are given appropriate feedback at each stage that guides the development of the papers. Student response to this assignment has been generally positive. For instance, one student notes in their SEI “The paper on a juvenile delinquent was very fun to write and I learned a lot of interesting information on my subject.”
Fostering intellectual curiosity means staying intellectually curious and sharing that curiosity in the classroom and in mentoring relationships with students. I would suggest that a teaching philosophy aimed towards fostering intellectual curiosity is really only possible through adoption of the teacher/scholar model. My active research agenda makes it possible to achieve quality teaching as my primary objective. As a teacher/scholar, I focus on incorporating research interests into the classroom as well as inviting students into protégé roles on research projects. For instance, I helped to organize the IUP-REACH conference and developed associated undergraduate and graduate courses where students had the opportunity to learn alongside professionals in the field. One student wrote of this experience, “This is an incredible experience. Here I am, a wee student sitting with graduate students and mental health professionals and feeling like I belong…I cannot emphasize how wonderful it is to be able to get this experience.” Additionally, I have mentored multiple undergraduate and graduate students in my role as Veterans Reintegration Research Cluster coordinator and academic advisor in the sociology department. Student assistance on my research projects has helped me immensely along the way. Fostering intellectual curiosity leads to better research.
Finally, fostering intellectual curiosity also requires the skilled use of new technologies for reaching students beyond the classroom. One way to encourage interest in academic subject matter beyond class time is through the use of social media. One of the most popular social media platforms is Twitter, which is a “microblogging” network that allows participants to post links, photographs, and ideas in 140 characters or less. Many twitter users curate their microblog around a single subject matter and I have focused mine on news and findings in the field of sociology. I have posted near 4000 pieces of information regarding sociology since 2013. Curating this microblog also includes connecting it to a network of nearly 2000 other sociologists, psychologists, economists, and behavioral scientists. My twitter account has been widely followed and engaged in by students during their time in my class and beyond.
In sum, fostering intellectual curiosity is a multifaceted pedagogy that requires a great deal of thought and preparation. I am committed to this style of teaching. To enact these goals I have designed and implemented multiple teaching techniques both in and out of the classroom. Students who enroll in my class will learn sociological content from an enthusiastic and engaged teacher/scholar through creative story-telling lesson-units, find the relevance of sociology in their career aspirations, be assessed through application assignment, have opportunities for mentoring and research outside the classroom, and access to a continuous stream of sociological content through social media.