In the fall of 1999, I entered the master’s program in humanities at the University at Buffalo (SUNY) and taught my first class as a stand-alone instructor. The course was basic video production in the Department of Media Study. I was extremely nervous teaching my first class and worked extremely hard preparing for the course. I had no prior teaching experience, but instinctively went forward with the pedagogical aim of being accessible, friendly, patient, humorous, interactive and to maintain a high academic standard in the classroom. At the end of the semester, the student feedback from the course was extremely positive. A few students noted it was the best class they had taken at the university. During my two years in the department, some students had confided that they changed their academic major to the Department of Media Study after taking my basic video class. In the spring of 2001, I received the prestigious Excellence in Teaching Award as a teaching assistant. I was extremely moved by this positive feedback and it was clear that teaching at the college or university level was the career I wanted to pursue. Since my days at SUNY Buffalo, I have accumulated a total of seven years of teaching experience at the college or university level.
Teaching is a profession I truly love and there is nothing more rewarding than contributing to the expansion of a student’s perception and critical experiencing of our mediated culture. Whether a class is theory based, such as media criticism, film communication or alternative media, or focuses on the production of media, my goal is to encourage a vigor of spirit and mind. I want students in my classes to see the world in a different way, to actively contribute to the world by critiquing the media that surrounds us, and produce media that encourages others to do the same.
My pedagogical approach begins with developing a classroom atmosphere where students feel comfortable asking questions and actively engaging course material by building connections to their own life experience and frame of reference. This means making space for the students to actively participate. Every lecture includes questions that encourage students to reflect, debate, and critique the key concepts of the course. These discussions allow students to clarify their understanding of the concepts. This usually sparks an active discussion where I moderate the discussion, and students teach each other. I’m continually revising courses based on these discussions by incorporating material students suggest and contextualizing their observations. This exchange of ideas fosters an active and collaborative learning environment.
To keep students engaged in today’s classroom, it is vital to present course concepts and materials through relevant examples of media artifacts. This means integrating clips from YouTube, documentary videos from the Media Education Foundation, television programming, web projects, contemporary music and song lyrics, books/novels, newspaper articles and magazines.
I stay current in the field and in the classroom by actively sharing and discussing my research and creative projects with the students. Conducting research forces me to be current with the latest scholarship, and by showing my students creative media projects that I’m working on, or have finished in the past, I can demonstrate how theory translates into practice. My goal is to share my enthusiasm as an actively engaged scholar and media maker, and transfer this spirit to the students.
Guest speakers and fieldtrips are useful for presenting information from multiple conceptual and theoretical vantage points. During my Alternative Media class, I took my Eastern students to Champaign-Urbana where they interacted with a variety of alternative media professionals. The trip included lively discussions with the Independent Media Center, Art Theater, WEFT Community Radio and Polyvinyl Records.
Small group work and student presentations also add variety to the classroom structure. My multimedia approach combined with lecture, discussion, group work, presentations, guest speakers and fieldtrips creates an environment where students are producers, not just of media, but also producers of knowledge, rather than passive recipients. This structure makes the students want to be in class.
In my classes, students will be challenged. I assign rigorous class readings, and maintain a very high expectation for academic excellence in terms of writing, research and creative projects. For example, in my video production classes, I provide the students with a detailed written critique of their work. I encourage the students to strive for perfection and have high expectations for themselves and their work, knowing full well future employers will covet this ethic. When students sometimes characterize my class as “difficult,” I take this as a compliment. However, I make accommodations based on the context and skill level of the class. For example I provide additional outside opportunities to meet with individual students to better assist their struggle with the course materials.
In my media arts production courses, technical proficiency is a requirement of production classes, but students must also have the conceptual ability to creatively and effectively tell stories and convey information to a variety of audiences. Students must be able to strike the balance between the fundamentals of technology and the demands of creative storytelling. While the main goal of a digital video or documentary production course is to familiarize students with digital camera operation, non-linear editing and the creative application of video as an art, I often integrate concepts of media literacy, cultural studies and critical art practice as a vehicle to create a dialogue about the media, culture and politics. For example, I discuss the “male gaze” of media production and the need for media produced by women and other marginalized voices. This integrated approach encourages students to create work that is culturally challenging.
Many students reflect that after a production course they actively “read” the media they consume. In the alternative media course, the students produced an in-class fanzine (hand-made publication) on a specialized topic, and distributed the zine around campus and in the local Charleston community as a form of praxis. This activity clearly ignited and energized the students. As a result of my integration of technology, theory and conceptual skills, I was awarded the 2011-2012 Michael R. Hoardley Instructional Technology Award for the innovative use of technology in the classroom at Eastern Illinois University.
Humor and laughter is another effective tool for keeping students engaged — as well as creating a comfortable, and accessible mood in the room. This is an appropriate and often self-depreciating humor. Humor is an important component of my teaching philosophy, and it’s a vital part of my teaching “performance” that keeps the students engaged and present in class.
Lastly, my English teaching experience in Japan, China, Poland and Lithuania have given me an invaluable cultural perspective, a deep sense of history and tolerance, as well as a critical lens from which to view American culture. I often draw from these global experiences and I strongly believe students should be exposed to a variety of intercultural perspectives.
In sum, I worked to hone my teaching over the past fourteen years. My aim as a professor is to be transformative — to inspire and evoke a critical agitation of spirit and mind.