Essay 11 – My Teaching Philosophy

Below is my current statement of teaching philosophy. I haven’t updated this for a couple of years now, but need to do so before going on the job market. I will probably edit it down a bit and tighten up the language as well as go through and work on those areas where the language is imprecise or hackneyed. However, the core values that I express here remain central to my philosophy of teaching and how I try to conduct my classroom.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

My work as a teacher is much like my work as a director or even as a writer: an attempt to facilitate thoughtful reflection and create the environment for new stories to emerge. Learning is a matter of building connections, both in a literal physiological manner (as the brain builds new and different neural pathways), and in connections between a student’s life, his/her imagination, and the material presented. In other words, a learning experience is one in which a person builds an information pattern that includes themselves, the material and the interactions between the two. My responsibility as a teacher is to create a classroom that facilitates these connections. Dialogue and reflexivity are two excellent ways to create just such a setting. My classroom is a space for myself and my students to share information as well as to examine what this information communicates about ourselves and our world. There are any number of classroom attitudes that promote such sharing and examining, but for me the key requirements for a successful classroom include the following: respect, curiosity, and reflection upon both the self and the subject matter.

As a teacher I believe that it is important to earn the respect of my students. Practically speaking, this means learning their names as soon as possible, learning a little about who they are, and learning why they are in my class. It means taking the time to ask questions when they are late or absent instead of simply taking off points. It means I need to recognize that each and every student is an individual with unique talents, knowledge and perspectives. Ultimately, it is only by showing respect to my student that I deserve to receive it from them.

Another way I can demonstrate respect for students is to maintain a curious nature as a teacher. This is very difficult if I see myself as a repository of knowledge rather than as a conduit for information and a facilitator of critical reflection. To be curious means that I am open, eager to explore both the subject material as well as the relationship between the material and the student’s own lives. To be curious means to accept the risk of being wrong, of finding new ways to understand old data, of engaging in an exchange with the students and being willing to learn from them.

If I am genuinely curious about my students and about my own relation to the work of theatre arts, it becomes impossible not to engage in critical reflection on my own work as a teacher. Just as respect begets respect, reflexivity on my part sets the conditions for reflexivity on the part of the students. It would be laughable to have a guitar teacher who does not play the guitar. Is it any different with critical reflection? I need to model reflexivity not simply ask for it from my students. This reflexivity should not end at the material or the material’s relationship to the teacher and students. It is also vital to be aware of the various systems surrounding the classroom, including the university as an institution, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientations, etc. Very little of what we do and present as teachers is ideologically innocent, and to foster reflexivity in my students, I must allow the context of the classroom to be present and accounted for.

Of course, one cannot peer into a student’s heart and mind and precisely gauge their level of curiosity and reflexivity. However, there are a number of tactics one can use in the theatre and performance arts that can reveal just how well the students are able to see and manipulate patterns of information for themselves. To begin with, in a performance class, it is important to create detailed rubrics for what the students are responsible for. For example, if the students are presenting a scene from a play, I can evaluate measurable elements. Are all their lines memorized? Did they use the basics of blocking to keep themselves open to the audience? Are their movements motivated by the text or character’s needs? Do they use space to help establish relationships between characters and objects? While acting ability can be hard to pin down and even, in certain classes, not the main focus, these kinds of objective and viewable elements are important in evaluating a student’s progress and understanding.

Additionally, other classes that are more historical or research based have their own guideposts to the student’s ability to synthesize information and patterns. Class discussions, which I facilitate but do not lead, provide excellent insight into how students are able to deploy information as a pattern that encompasses the material, the world, and themselves. Additionally, the peer instruction in small group work can be of tremendous value for students attempting to form new images and stories about the world based on new information.

Informal writing assignments with guiding questions are an valuable technique to prompt students about how new material relates to their own lives. Having these papers form a portfolio that is graded provides for some weight to the assignments, but allows each one to be less goal oriented and more reflective. Longer paper assignments need to be held to a high standard of technical execution (spelling, formatting, etc.), as well as argumentative and/or research standards. However, there should be ample opportunities for revision by the students so that they are able to address comments and criticisms in an active manner by engaging in rewrites.
Ultimately, these methods of measurement are all meant to support the creation of an environment that allows dialogue and critical reflection, buoyed by respect, curiosity, and reflexivity.

Finally, I would like to stress another element of a productive classroom that I often feel is lacking. In his essay “Theatre for Pleasure, Theatre for Instruction,” Bertolt Brecht points out that the “contrast between learning and amusing oneself is not laid down by divine rule; it is not one that has always been and must continue to be.” Indeed, as a species, one of our greatest strengths lies in our capacity for lifelong learning and play. I strongly believe that learning, no matter how difficult or challenging, can retain elements of joy, amusement, and fun. In fact, emptying the learning experience of just those elements will guarantee a far more difficult, if not the utter failure of, learning experience. As we learn, we change the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. This is also exactly what theatre artists hope to do. Every play, every performance is an attempt to understand what it means to be human, and to explore the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Essay 10 – Watching Doctor Who: The Hartnell Era

I have written elsewhere about my issues with the current era of Doctor Who under the hand of Steven Moffat. My distaste for his work and what he has done with the character has only grown more extreme throughout last year’s series 7, with its sexism and sloppy writing, and a Doctor who acts like an immature fourteen year old boy, has no empathy, and who experiences no consequences for his actions. After this last series, I decided that, to wash the bad taste from my mouth, I would revisit classic Doctor Who. And by revisit I mean watch every single story from the first to the last. Twenty-six years worth. So, nearly every Sunday since August, I have been watching a full serial.

I have seen many of the classic episodes before. Watching as a kid, I was very familiar with the Tom Baker years and somewhat familiar with Peter Davison. However, when I was older—in my twenties and thirties—I was also lucky enough to live in two places with really strong PBS stations, Berkley CA and College Park MD and so I got to see many of the episodes I’d never seen before. Often in order as well. However, there are many serials during the Hartnell and Troughton years that I am entirely unfamiliar with because they are either partially or completely lost. For these stories, fandom has come to the rescue and created reconstructions of the lost episodes using the audio tracks and still images. Having the opportunity to experience, even in this way, Doctor Who stories that I have never before seen has been a real treat and, as I begin this essay, I have only one more serial in the Hartnell era to watch, The Tenth Planet.1 Because the last episode is missing, I have never see this story. I am both excited and sad to finally experience the first Doctor’s regeneration. Oddly, even though the episodes I’ve been watching aired 47-50 years ago, there is something about watching them in sequence that has me really attached to Hartnell right now and his upcoming departure holds a certain level of emotional weight. Just as past episodes have shaped how I view the current show, the current show shapes my appreciations of the past episodes and I have greatly enjoyed my time with a grown-up, if sometimes cranky, Doctor rather than Steven Moffat’s immature characterization.

While I often live-Tweet my viewings of each serial, I will also write and post some of my general thoughts and impressions at the end of each actor’s tenure as the Doctor. This essay, then, is the first in a series that will likely be spread out over the next several years …

Sexism & the Doctor

I promise I won’t make this entire essay a jeremiad against Moffat, but considering he had the 11th Doctor making dick jokes with his sonic screwdriver, sexually assaulting married women and then getting off on being slapped, making really creepy comments about his companion’s clothing, and slapping companion’s ass, it would be impossible not to make some comparisons between the current series and what was going on over 50 years ago.

Watching the Hartnell era demonstrates quite clearly that the show has devolved to a point never before seen. During a run from 1963-1966 the Hartnell years are remarkably free of sexism directed toward individual women. The women are not sexualized in the ways that Moffat continually does to nearly all of his “strong female characters”2 Certainly, there are structural sexisms: for the most part during this time, women are rarely seen in leadership positions or as scientists and in the last Hartnell episode, The Tenth Planet, Polly makes herself useful by making coffee, so there is little doubt that Doctor Who between 1963 and 1966 was a product of its time. Still, there are very few instances of any kind of active sexism, i.e., indications that women as a group are inferior or sexualized or more emotional than men or any of the thousand and one things that have cropped up in recent years.

The Companions & The Doctor

The relationship between the Doctor and the companions is one of the more profound changes between classic Who and the current show. When Russell T. Davies brought the show back, he gave the Doctor’s companions much richer and more developed characterizations and inner lives than companions tended to have in the classic series. True, companions in the classic years often suffered from their structural position as a way for the Doctor to explain himself and what was going on, but make no mistake about it, Ian, Barbara, Susan, Vicki, Steven, Dodo, Polly, and Ben are independent agents. While we never get the kind of character development that we see in the RTD era, each of the companion’s mix of inquisitiveness, courage, and ethics plays out through their actions.

Several things about the companions struck me as I watched these episodes. First, a surprising amount of each story was dedicated to the companions being apart from the Doctor and having their own adventures. In The Romans, one of the more comic pieces of the time, the Doctor and Vicki go off on their own adventure, while Ian and Barbara experience their own story. For practically the entire serial the two pairs are separate. This is not unusual, however, and throughout we see the companion’s demonstrating their own strength and resources to get out of any number of perilous scrapes and dangerous situations. Of note is that the Doctor, while certainly the pivot of the show, is not the sole “hero” of it. Ian and Barbara are especially strong when it comes to taking charge of situations, and of not depending on the Doctor for either moral, ethical, or even intellectual guidance. In the past, when I have watched Hartnell stories, I’ve always been a bit bored with the companions, found them stuffy and staid. But I have to say that this time around I was often impressed with how Ian and Barbara and Steven all operated as a kind of conscience for the Doctor, challenging his aloofness and arguing that, even in the face of drastic consequences, doing the right thing is the … well, right thing. The tension between the characters was often built out of just what the right thing is and the fact that the Doctor has a, perhaps, broader perspective. Though sometimes, his perspective is challenged by the other characters and even the narrative itself. It seems to me that RTD recaptured this element of the series with his Doctors and their companions.3

Setting the Template

While much about the show has changed over the past fifty years, this is the same show. Watching the Hartnell years, you see various threads that have remained. Stories like The Time Meddler and The Celestial Toymaker set the mold for a certain kind of villain that we see developed further in characters like the Master. In the first season’s The Aztecs, the Doctor develops a deep and genuine fondness and respect for Cameca that mirrors his enchantment with Rose and M. de Pompadour and it is easy to imagine that, if he didn’t already have Barbara, Susan, and Ian with him, he might just have asked her to join him on his travels.

There is also the general pattern of the Doctor himself: his intelligence, his ego, his sense of justice, his curiosity, his callousness, his compassion, his whimsey, his anger, and his mercurial temperament. Having started the Troughton era yesterday, there are significant differences between the Doctor’s from the very beginning, with none of the actors attempting to mimic their previous regeneration. Each new production team and each new actor presents a different mixture of the elements that Hartnell instilled within the character, but the template is there from the very beginning.4


Sadly, the final Hartnell episode, part four of The Tenth Planet is lost. There are a few seconds of low quality video of his final moments and of the first regeneration. How surprising those moments must have been! The viewers had absolutely no frame of reference for what was going on here. In an age when every regeneration is a major world-wide news item, it is hard to imagine the shock and bewilderment and anxiety that such a scene might cause an audience. And yet, there is a simplicity to the Hartnell/Troughton regeneration that is refreshing in this day and age when every regeneration becomes an EVENT and is MOMENTOUS and HIGHLY EMOTIONAL. Even other classic Who regenerations become something more of an event—with the notable exceptions of Colin Baker’s unceremonious dismissal—even if they lacked the grandiosity that is present in the current show. Sure, a sentimental side of me wishes that Hartnell had a bit more of a moment at the end; the chance to say something as moving as his speech to Susan when she left the TARDIS crew. In the end, however, the very lack of sentimentality means that the first regeneration operates in its own register. Like Hartnell, it is the first and there can be, no matter how many brilliant versions of the character or “reboots” of the show, only one “first”.

Final Thoughts on the First

Maybe it’s because I’m older; maybe it’s because I’m further away from the Tom Baker years of my life; maybe it’s because the new show has changed my perspective on the Doctor as a character, or maybe it’s because I’m so utterly tired of Moffat’s writing, but for whatever reason, I have found that revisiting these old episodes means more to me than I expected. No matter that Tom Baker is my Doctor, and no matter that the show has changed in many, many ways, Hartnell’s era began a journey through time and space that has taking millions of us into it’s larger-inside-than-outside home and that has provided excitement and adventure and suspense and laughter across generations. For some, the old programs may just seem silly and hackneyed. But for those fans who really want to get as full a sense of who the Doctor is as possible and who want a better understanding of just where the current show comes from, the Hartnell years may just be far more interesting that you ever imagined.

  1. As I finish and post it, I have recently watched the reconstruction of Patrick Troughton’s first serial. 

  2. Strength for Moffat seems to be synonymous with the ability to be violent, sexual, and provide double entendres in rapid-fire banter—and clearly not having a rich or complex inner life. 

  3. And, incidentally, Moffat has discarded this element in favor of a Doctor who is always right and always good and always more brilliant than anyone every in the entire universe gosh isn’t he brilliant! Yawn. 

  4. Actually, I would argue that much of Moffat’s version of the Doctor has been created by him: especially the sexual creepiness and utter sociopathic attitude toward the pain and death’s of those around him. 

Essay 09 – Thoughts On Two Books

The Martian by Andy Weir & Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

An astronaut. Stranded. Alone. His survival dependent upon equipment and materials meant for six people, as well as his intelligence and his engineering and biology backgrounds. The Martian is an interesting book: one that I would recommend—especially to teenagers—but one that I am, ultimately, somewhat disappointed in.

To be clear, any first published novel is a thing to be lauded, and Andy Weir brings us a sometimes compelling account of survival and the challenges that humans would face on Mars. His principle narrator is Mark Watney and, through a series of unfortunate events, he is left behind on Mars when his crew-mates leave him behind, presuming that his has been killed in the storm that precipitated their departure from the planet. As a narrator, Watney is personable and intelligent, and Weir uses this to great advantage when presenting the reader with quite a lot of information about the science underlying some of the technology and strategies that Watney uses to stay alive. There is actual math discussed in the novel! But fear not, Weir presents the math and physics and biology sections through Watney’s personable tone and I was never bored or uninterested. In fact, for much of the opening sections of the book, I was riveted.

This ability to balance narrative with science is one of the reasons I would highly recommend it to younger readers as it could possibly excite them about the importance of science and math, especially as connected to one’s very survival when going into space and exploring other worlds. However, Weir’s narrator also has limitations as a character and as a structural device. Chief among these is his essential cheerfulness. Watney survives for over a year, alone, under harsh conditions and in an environment that is always only millimeters away from killing him but he displays very little emotional struggle or even physical struggles throughout. No matter how strong, smart, capable, or optimistic a person might be, they are not going to live through something like this without some serious existential and emotional fallout. Yet Weir never delves into this side of Watney’s existence on Mars. He never once gives the reader a vision of Watney’s emotional challenges, nor does he allow his narrator room to reflect on his life. We get occasional mentions of boredom and frustration, but that’s about all. As I read, this flatness of character seemed to become more pronounced. By about half way through the novel, I found myself wanting a lot more in terms of character development than was being offered.

I also kept forgetting just how difficult every single activity would have been for Watney. Granted, if Weir went into detail about Watney suiting up every time the character went outside of the habitat, the novel could easily get bogged down in repetition and pointless detail. However, there is a real element of verisimilitude missing from the novel because the reader forgets the inherent alienness of the environment for large chunks of the novel. Furthermore, we never get a sense of Watney’s hunger as he is rationing his food, or the repercussions of several injuries that he experiences. Except for one or two mistakes, Watney’s cognitive abilities always seem to function perfectly, unmarked by emotional trauma or somatic experience. As the book continued, this lack of deeper characterization and the missed opportunity to explore emotional challenges grew more and more apparent to me and I found myself growing disappointed as a reader. However, as I mentioned earlier, I would highly recommend this book to younger readers who might get carried away in the sheer adventure and survival challenges that are presented. Indeed, part of my disappointment may stem from the simple fact that the book I read immediately before The Martian was Jeff VanderMeer’s stunning new novel, Annihilation.

Annihilation is not a long book. Nor is it epic in the way that so much of our popular culture has become. There are no worlds saved and no Big Bad’s defeated. VanderMeer is content to let the world he creates remain as much a mystery at the end of the novel as it is in the beginning. Much like life itself. You learn some things, you forget other things, but in the end the mystery of it all is never—and especially narratively—solved. The plot is simple: a small team of people go into a mysterious area that appeared some time ago, an area with properties and life forms that are distinctly alien to our world. Several things happen. There are wonders and mysteries. Violence occurs. Our point of view is first-person and limited as the story is told from the perspective of a woman known only as “the Biologist”. This is a book that, unlike Weir’s The Martian, is deeply situated within the mind and emotional landscape of its narrator. Plot is tenuous and, in some ways, tertiary to the two main impulses of the book: character study and exploration of the wonders and dangers of this alien world that has emerged in an area of our own world. You can probably tell that I found this a much more satisfying novel.

It is both true and banal to note that all good literature, regardless of genre, explores what it means to be human. However, I was struck by VanderMeer’s masterful use of a fantastic and weird landscape to serve as a scaffold for a truly moving and revelatory examination of his narrator and her life. Perhaps it is her feeling of isolation from other people that hooked me, or the power of VanderMeer’s language, which manages the trick of being poetic without being flowery and always consistently in the Biologist’s own voice. There is a fierceness and power to Annihilation and the book, very much like “Area X” in which it takes place, resists rational order and operates in the gut and on the body.

“[W]hen you see beauty in desolation,” the Biologist says, “it changes something inside you. Desolation,” she continues, “tries to colonize you.” In the end, Annihilation seems, to me, a novel about reclaiming oneself from the desolation caused by one’s own life, and doing so in the strangest of circumstances. It is just this sense of desolation that I find missing in Weir’s novel. Watney is infinitely more likable than the Biologist, but the Biologist has far more to say about what it means to be human. Of course, in many ways it is entirely unfair to compare the two books. Weir and VanderMeer are writing in very different styles, as well as being at very different places in their writing careers. They have only been placed together simply because I read one immediately after the other. Of course, my thoughts on these reveal more about me as a reader—even as a person—than they represent an objective critique of the novels themselves.1 In the end, while I believe that Annihilation is the more intriguing, and yes in some ways better novel, I would recommend both to any science fiction fan.

  1. Purely objective critiques being, of course, as imaginary as unicorns and the effectiveness of supply-side economics.