Four basic principles guide my approach to teaching.
- I believe that centering courses upon intellectual questions helps students learn more comprehensively while facilitating profound critical thought.
- I strive to facilitate students’ autonomy and creative discoveries in my courses (and in advising and mentoring relationships). This approach is designed to draw upon and develop students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. I, therefore, offer students both freedom and responsibility in a learning environment that is relaxed, exciting, and (to the extent possible) egalitarian.
- Students are most successful when they are offered diversity in course media and materials and when their work is assessed and constructively critiqued throughout the academic term, rather than at only one or two time-points.
- Successful teaching means balancing challenge with support, both in and out of the classroom. My students almost universally describe my courses to be difficult, but they also find them both pleasurable and rewarding because I afford them opportunities to succeed along with assurances of help and support when needed.
In what follows, I briefly elaborate each of these basic principles.
- Teaching Questions
One of my primary goals in teaching is to help students generate, articulate, and reflect upon their own questions of course material. My approach is not Socratic, because I do not ask guiding questions of students or direct them toward pre-determined answers. Rather, our materials, our learning environment, and my comportment in the classroom lead students to ask open questions, which we then explore and consider together.
In my view, the capacity to generate incisive questions about complex subjects is a fundamentally important learning outcome and a profound intellectual achievement, particularly in the domain of political theory. I have described some of the theory and practice that informs this view and my application of it—which I have called, for lack of a better phrase, a “question-centered pedagogy”—in a (2010) article, entitled “Teaching Students to Ask Questions Instead of Answering Them,” published in Thought & Action: The NEA Higher Education Journal.
I use a variety of methods to help students improve their critical questioning skills, such as thought-provoking texts and open-ended writing assignments, but what is most influential to this end is undoubtedly our daily coursework, which consists of analytical discussions of course material. Depending on the age of the students, the size of the class, the nature of the material, and other factors, course environments must differ, but in every course, I demonstrate that I am sincerely interested in students’ questions, I ask students to take the lead in determining what we discuss as a group, and when I offer help and guidance, I do so with a sensitivity to the possibility that too much help, or help given in the wrong way, can undermine students’ processes of inquiry and exploration.
In class, I practice silence, demonstrate comfort with uncertainty, and model reflectiveness. I attend to students’ questions honestly, sometimes admitting that I have no easy answers, sometimes wondering openly about them before offering an interpretation, and, most frequently, returning questions in a modified form to the students for further consideration. Dr. Daniel Kotzin, Chair of the Interdisciplinary Studies Department at Medaille College, recently observed one of my courses and described this aspect of my teaching thus:
“I was very much impressed by how Matt structured this class session… Matt began asking students open-ended questions, but in a way that was conversational, so that students saw him wondering about some of the ideas raised in the reading assignment. In this way, he modeled how he wants students to think, that he is encouraging them to question and think critically about the things they are reading. Matt also used silence very effectively when he asked questions, allowing students time to think. In this respect, Matt pushed his students to be reflective thinkers.”
In an evaluation of a 300-level seminar, a second-year student at the University of Maryland, College Park described the connections s/he found between our study of political theory and my question-centered approach in the following way:
“I have learned to question life and authority. For the first time in my life, I’m beginning to understand the meaning behind differences in beliefs and theory. I think that the only way to gain a true, broad understanding of the rights, liberties, and often contradictions of society is to ask the hard questions and to broaden previously narrow-minded opinions. I have also learned that asking the difficult questions not only helps the person asking to understand, but also the person being asked. I believe that asking questions allows the person being questioned to question what he/she has previously thought or been taught; it allows room for greater understanding.”
At Medaille College, I regularly teach courses in our General Education program. These courses are required of all students and are, therefore, not electives chosen by students, nor courses within students’ chosen Majors. In spite of the fact that Medaille students often have little say in their overcrowded schedules, and that some students enter General Education courses with low expectations and even a degree of resentment at the “involuntary” coursework, my student evaluations consistently reveal extremely high scores and superlative comments, in many cases superior to electives and courses within students’ chosen areas of study.
While student evaluations are, in several ways, imperfect measures of teaching success, I believe that such student evaluations suggest, at least, that my efforts to help students generate questions results in profound cognitive developments, along with enhanced engagement and enthusiasm about thinking and learning. The following comments from first-semester Medaille College students are typical:
“I really enjoyed this class. It was one of the only classes I took that challenged my mind, made me feel smarter, and made me feel like a college student. The instructor was very nice, helpful, and really wanted to push our minds further. This is the best college course, one every student should take.”
“This class was very interesting; it really helped me think, as far as going beyond what’s on the page. It opened my mind to a different way of thinking. It taught me to read between the lines.”
“I always left this class feeling intellectually challenged, stimulated, and fulfilled. Love Matt Bowker and can’t wait to have him again next semester.”
“This class was the most enjoyable of all. I honestly left with a new mind every day.”
“Answer to questions 8 – 10 [#8 is ‘stimulated students’ thoughts on the subject’] should be a 10 [on a scale of 1 to 5]: Extremely Agree. Really enjoyed the class but found it pretty depressing sometimes. Guess that’s what happens when we ponder deeply.”
“This was my favorite class of the year by far. Beside the fact that it was at 8am, I learned a ton from this class. Every class was really interesting and kept me thinking about the subject for the rest of the day. It helped put different perspectives on life and I think changed my entire way of thinking.”
- Facilitation and Shared Responsibility
In my teaching I strive to be, above all, facilitative. To be a facilitative teacher means to be concerned with fostering the autonomous intellectual development of students. In many respects, this means pulling back from the more traditional, instructor-led, answer-oriented classroom, divesting myself of certain forms of authority, freeing students from the assumption that it is their job to be dependent upon me to provide them with solutions, and opening up a space where students have room to explore and discover, for themselves, the value to be found in the course. Some further reflection on both the ideals and challenges of a truly facilitative classroom may be found in my (2016) article: “Rethinking Critical Thinking: A Relational and Practical Approach” (with K.P. Fazioli), published in Pedagogy and the Human Sciences.
Any facilitative teaching style must be responsive to students. Of course, part of being responsive to students means being able to meet the needs both of individual students and of the course group as a whole. So, attention, flexibility, and listening have all become crucial pedagogical values to me. In many ways, my training and research in psychoanalysis and in group behavior have helped me to become a more thoughtful teacher. I strive to be maximally aware, for example, not only of what is being said in any given class meeting, but of what is happening in the course group, of how roles are being assumed or defined, of when comments or actions have subtler meanings worth exploring, and of when the behavior of the group reveals something important about the topic under discussion, as it often does in courses in political theory. I inform students that I consider this awareness to be part of my responsibility as a professor, and I share certain reflections of this nature with students when I believe doing so will help the group move forward.
If I am to resist the urge to solve every problem for students, or to provide all the answers, then it is also incumbent upon me to facilitate a group-encounter in which students can discover these answers and solutions themselves. Anything less would mean depriving students of knowledge and information. Thus, students must feel safe in taking on these greater (and often new) intellectual responsibilities. In my experience, they only do so when they feel assured that errors will be tolerated, that uncertainty can be productive and interesting, and that the norms of academic integrity, mutual respect, and democratic communication will be honored.
One method I have found to be successful in ensuring that learning outcomes are achieved while simultaneously facilitating students’ autonomous discoveries is by creating (or approximating) an egalitarian relationship in the course group. This means asking students to share responsibility with me for deciding how we spend our time in class, for how we speak to each other in class, for how we arrange certain texts and reading assignments, and, to some degree, how we manage assessments. This sharing of responsibility also means that students take on individual responsibility for attending class, for being prepared, for completing assignments, and for contributing to class discussions.
At a more concrete level, the egalitarian spirit of my classroom is expressed in the seating arrangement that students and I decide upon together: almost always a circle or square. I do not stand at a podium, sit on a desk, or place myself in an elevated position with respect to the students, except to write on the board. When this sort of arrangement is impossible, we collaboratively establish guidelines for participation so that everyone feels welcome and able to speak and to be heard. For instance, in a recent course I taught at the Singapore Institute of Management, the course enrollment of sixty students and the large lecture hall to which were assigned made it difficult to generate an intimate, seminar-style setting. Nevertheless, we found ways to ensure near total participation, from simply suggesting that students be aware that others seated behind them may also wish to speak, to the slightly more complex task of creating and moderating daily discussion boards where students posted questions and comments before and after class.
Sometimes students begin class by immediately posing questions about the reading material. If a student does not do so, I begin every class (barring the very first class of the semester) in the same way, by asking: “Where do you want to start today?”. Early in the semester, this question usually occasions a period of silence or nervous laughter, but after a few meetings, it encourages students to feel that the course is truly theirs. This further motivates students to bring their questions to class, to direct attention to an idea about which they care, and to make the most of our time together. Beginning classes in these way also gives me daily indications of how well students have understood the texts and to what degree they have reflected on them.
For most classes, I participate in a frank discussion on the important themes of the day. I do not read from lecture notes and, most commonly, what I have to add is improvised or impromptu, based on my own preparation for the course, which includes, of course, not just my training but careful preparation and re-reading, anticipation of students’ questions and comments, reflection on the relationship between the material of the day and the goals of the course, and the like. This approach makes students feel comfortable, elicits widespread participation, and still permits me to offer help and guidance when needed.
A detailed description of one of my classroom environments was offered by a University of Maryland, College park student:
“The academic discussions of the readings were always intellectually stimulating—something I unfortunately don’t experience much in the majority of my classes. The seminar was more like a forum where Matt, our discussion leader, was able to nurture a comfortable environment where everyone could share their opinions and perspectives. I was able to hear the viewpoint of different people with different backgrounds… and understand better why certain people think and act the way they do. It was a time where even quiet people talked and everyone was able to express their thoughts.”
- Diverse Materials and Consistent Assessments
I use course materials, texts, and media from diverse disciplines for several reasons. First, a diversity of materials demonstrates something of the range of perspectives on a course topic. Second, exciting and unusual course materials are almost inherently motivating to students. Third, students with different educational backgrounds, interests, and aptitudes benefit tremendously from diversity in course material, since such diversity offers them varied “entry-points” into the subject at hand.
In my first-year course on Critical Thought—which is really a course in the Politics and Psychology of Subjectivity and which has inspired me to write a textbook entitled, Critical Thinking as the Subject of Inquiry: Politics, Psychology, and Philosophy (Forthcoming, 2018)—we read Plato’s Republic, Epictetus’ Enchiridion, Michel de Montaigne’s Essays, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, R.D. Laing’s psychoanalytic text, Self and Other, and several of Franz Kafka’s short stories. We read Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and watch a recent film adaptation of the story. We also watch the documentary films of Stanley Milgram’s “Obedience to Authority” experiment and Philip Zimbardo’s “Quiet Rage,” and, while I do not ask students to read the books and papers associated with these experiments, we consider them carefully and integrate them into course assignments.
In my 400-level seminar in (Psychoanalytic) Political Psychology, I have found that combining films and discussions with advanced readings is an effective way to engage students and to help students make connections between otherwise highly advanced ideas and theories. We read Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and “Science as a Vocation,” Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents and Totem and Taboo, Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Albert Camus’ Exile and the Kingdom, the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s Home is Where we Start From, and more, supplementing these readings with provocative films, such as “Equus,” “Black Swan,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” “Fight Club,” and “Rosetta.”
And in a 200-level course I helped design for Medaille’s General Education Curriculum, entitled, Justice and Democracy in America, I ask students to critically assess competing American notions of justice by juxtaposing traditional readings on American politics like The Federalist Papers and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America with popular works on American culture, such as David Callahan’s The Cheating Culture and films such as “Inside Job” and “The Corporation.” In addition, students are asked to question and evaluate alternative views of the meaning of justice as defined outside of the American tradition, such as Rousseau’s Social Contract and Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and Marx’s & Engels’s Communist Manifesto.
I primarily ask students to write reflective, analytical essays in which they ask critical questions, develop theses, conduct research (when called for), and defend their positions. The criteria by which I evaluate these essays are generally the depth of analysis and reflectiveness with which students have approached the topic. In all assessments, I ensure that students contend directly with the original works and concepts they have encountered throughout the course. Helping students to see themselves as emerging scholars with potentially valid insights about complex political matters is part of my attempt to inspire students to engage with current debates and dilemmas in politics, culture, academia, and life.
I find that students learn best when their learning is well-distributed across the period of the semester, not highly concentrated in the days before a midterm or final exam. My courses assess daily learning in a variety of ways. Since student-participation is the foundation of every class period (and a significant part of students’ final grades), my courses ask that students read, reflect, and prepare daily. For lower-division or introductory courses, my syllabi often pose three or four “reading questions” along with each day’s assignment. Students are encouraged to reflect on and write answers to these questions in a journal or, sometimes, to respond to regular, brief quizzes related to one of these questions. A first-year Medaille student wrote about what these practices meant for his/her learning experience in the following way:
“[I] read the material and gave it a chance. I had to sit down and read the assigned reading over again sometimes to understand it and I got better at it. I got great at critical thinking and began to enjoy it more and more because I took the time to sit down, read, and interpret.”
For more advanced courses, I ask students to compose frequent, smaller written assignments, so that students are encouraged to keep up with daily reading and preparation for class discussion, at the same time as I encourage them to meet with me throughout the semester as they work on their larger, final project. For instance, in my upper-level course in political psychology, students write six short (3-4 page) essays (due bi-weekly) and a final, lengthier (10-15 page) essay at the end of the course.
When I teach Medaille’s 400-level course associated with the students’ completion of their Undergraduate Theses, as I do practically every semester, I offer a combination of general guidelines and personal attention to ensure that students remain engaged and do not fall behind on what is, essentially, an independent research project. Ultimately, this combination of structure, freedom, and trust that I am there to support them lets students know that if they put in the work, they will get more out of their course experience. Fourth-year Medaille College students frequently compliment these practices and praise their effects when evaluating their otherwise fearsome Undergraduate Thesis experiences:
“Great class! I liked Dr. Bowker’s style of teaching… I was able to portion the paper out with constructive criticism and support along the way. I can’t believe I was so enthusiastic about writing a paper.”
“Matt Bowker is a very helpful teacher who doesn’t wait until the last minute to help and give feedback on papers. [He] really helped me figure out what I was passionate about in order to write my [thesis] paper. He was always there to help me and whenever I was stuck he would talk it out with me to help me.”
- Balancing Challenge with Support
At any level of instruction, when it becomes clear to me that students are unhelpfully stuck, and that they need me to convey information in order to progress, I do not refuse them. But I do try to offer them several possible solutions in the hope that they will continue to critically evaluate my suggestions and to test out these and other ideas, rather than simply taking my word for it. Dr. Daniel Kotzin, Chair of the Interdisciplinary Studies Department, described this aspect of one of my courses in a supervisory evaluation:
“Students struggled with the connections [between two texts] but Matt kept offering them different ways to make them, until they finally did. Matt was patient with them, which proved extremely effective because they were able to make the connections on their own. This was impressive.”
In every course, I try to develop a relationship with each student, I keep tabs on how each student is doing, and I offer consistent and explicit help in rebuilding ideas and themes, both as a class and in individual meetings after class, in office hours or even over lunch, if needed.
The balance between challenge, questioning, and support is a delicate one, but one I believe it is one I have learned to maintain, as two Medaille College first-year students’ evaluations attest:
“Very tough and challenging class. In the end, I feel that I got more out of this class than any other I took this semester. Dr. Bowker is extremely approachable and always willing to help.”
“I found the class to be hard but that’s a good thing. [Dr. Bowker] made you want to read the material. He made the class exciting. I enjoyed him as a teacher due to his intelligence and he made me feel relaxed. Hopefully, I’ll have him again in the future.”
Similarly, a third-year Medaille College student commented on the balance between challenge and support I offer:
“Is [Dr. Bowker] hard? Absolutely. Would I take him again? Absolutely. I was worried at first because of the difficulty of the readings, but I ended up being just fine. You will get out of his class what you put in, and the discussions really help if you participate. He makes abstract material understandable with effort, and will always listen to you and your ideas. Great guy and teacher. Medaille needs more like him!”
Challenge, when combined with attentiveness and support encourages students to apply themselves and to discover their passion for learning, thinking, and writing. My assignment and assessment practice, therefore, consists of offering students diverse and challenging materials, consistent feedback on their progress, and the knowledge that, if help is needed, I will be a reliable source of support.
In the end, I believe my courses have been successful when students evince an improvement in reflective, critical, analytical, and creative thinking about a topic. That is, I assess students’ progress with the same measure I use to assess my own: A course is successful if students have improved their abilities to critically think and communicate, to tackle difficult political, philosophical, psychological, and literary texts and the problems they raise, and to ask richer, more sophisticated, more thoughtful questions about politics, culture, society, and government.