Teaching Philosophy

 

I always assumed that I would teach the way my favorite professors did: with great passion and boundless energy. I would conduct effortlessly clever lectures to explain the oddities of French culture that fascinate American students, and my off-the-cuff film analyses that would naturally come forth from my deep appreciation of the art.  Yet when I finally became a teacher, I discovered just how difficult it was to rely on passion alone.  Faced with fifty sleepy eyes and the subjunctive mood on the menu, I realized that one never teaches on enthusiasm alone.  The seemingly graceful, brilliant lectures my legendary instructors delivered were in fact the products of hours of careful planning, research, and trial-and-error.  These educators were keen engineers who knew their material so well that they could rapidly adjust lessons to fit the day’s demands.

Now, the way I teach today comes from my belief in the importance of initiative.  My process relies on planning, accountability, hard work and creativity. As a teacher, initiative applies to everything from designing a fresh curriculum and keeping current with classroom technology to accurately grading homework and showing up a few minutes early to class to get to know my students.   For my students, I expect them to be conscientious and consistent in their progress; even the smartest kids can find room for improvement.

On the first day of class I ask students what their expectations are for the course.  What specific aspects of the subject are they curious about?  How do they want to learn it?  Such a challenge is rarely put bluntly to students, and of course I already have a syllabus, but the point of my question is to show students that they are active participants in their own progress.  Term papers, class discussions, and homework rely on preparation for the greatest impact.  I ask for the best my students have to offer, and I am pleasantly rewarded, though not surprised, that they rise to the occasion.  Unwilling to reward the average, I give students the grades they deserve, but always with good humor and constructive feedback. If a round of papers is below their capabilities, I arrange mandatory office hours with one-on-one meetings.  I have had students—especially the smart ones I know are “coasting”—thank me for being stringent; their skills improve after the initial shock, and they find themselves to be capable of much better work than they thought. As one recent evaluation put it, "Elizabeth treated us like mature college students." 

Although I emphasize organization and preparation, I don’t believe my teaching style excludes creativity.  This is where the passion comes into play: as long as the topics are addressed, the more creative the methods, the better.  Having a consistent course plan, structure and rhythm in place allows me to “teach outside the book.” As I have become more capable and confident teaching basic material of grammar and vocabulary, it has freed me to use wider array of tools. Skits, interactive online activities, and the inclusion of extracurricular lectures and films can all lead to productive, engaging learning: they also create a sense of community so vital to language learning. If a review of the week’s work has gaps, I can fill them in with films clips or extra readings to paint a fuller picture of the subject.  For instance, when discussing the idea of the French Republican tradition, a clip from Jean Renoir’s film La Grande Illusion demonstrates French attachment to such principles among various social groups in a tangible way. If no adequate reading in English can provide a picture of French life under the Occupation, why not show Le Chagrin et la pitié? I would love to tap into my network at UCLA to bring in Francophone authors and filmmakers as guest speakers in relevant courses.

My ultimate goal is to be the French teacher whose enthusiasm is contagious.  I try to point out the relevance of the subject with my students’ interests and observations. When an Ethnomusicology major complained of having nothing to say about French cinema, I urged him to use his music background for the assignment--and he wrote a fantastic paper about Louis Malle’s use of Miles Davis’s score in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud.  If I teach the film again, I will have an entirely new perspective on Malle’s approach to music. These types of reactions to texts and films I think I know so well surprise me and provide new directions for my own research.

In today’s digitally oriented academic world filled with tech-savvy students, I often turn to technology to supplement all subjects.  Software like Wimba and WebCT are convenient and effective platforms to show French in action. French podcasts, Internet radio and video incorporate the language into students' daily lives. A conversation course I taught convened once a week in the computer lab so students could study and present a current event from an online French news source or discuss where their ideal trip to the Francophone world would take them.

I look forward to teaching future Francophiles using films and texts that first sparked my own interest in French years ago and transformed me into a student for life. Beyond the classroom, I look forward to building strong study abroad programs and motivating classes to explore their potential as students of French. I love to get updates from previous students who have gone on to live and work abroad, or who are thriving on the path they have chosen.  It is my hope that all of my students continue to apply the skills they learn in my courses as they learn about themselves.