The first day of classes, during the usual student introductions of name, degree, hometown, and so forth, I have every student end his or her introduction with the phrase “and I don’t know everything.” I do this too. Hearing everyone in the room admit that they don’t know it all is a crucial part of my approach to student-led education. I have gone through this process the first day of every undergraduate and graduate course I teach, and my students have enjoyed an active and dynamic learning atmosphere because of it. In one evaluation, for example, a student commented that my seminar “urged me to think critically and share my thoughts and opinions with my peers. I have never been a fan of open discussion, but [Dr. Johnson] helped create an environment in which everyone’s thoughts were valued.”
Early in my teaching career I sometimes made the mistake of pretending I knew all the answers to every question posed by students. Not only was this stressful and exhausting, but I inadvertently established a classroom tone that placed my interests above those of the rest of the class community. I eventually discovered that my limitations were an asset rather than a liability. In fact, I now believe that developing critical thinking skills requires first a healthy and safe environment and second a willingness to make and admit mistakes. For the sake of the entire class, I encourage my students from the very first meeting to value vulnerability, to bravely admit where they fall short, and to check their inhibitions at the classroom door in order for real learning to begin.
Learning to be vulnerable together is an exercise in civility and empathy that translates outside the classroom as well as it does inside. Typically, for every student who offers a comment in discussions or lectures, several others shy away, doubting the validity of their own experiences or thoughts. However, in a setting where each of them has acknowledged from the very beginning the limits of their own understanding—that collectively the classroom is smarter, funnier, and wiser than any one individual—then students learn that they have a responsibility to push and prod knowledge collectively rather than passively accept it directly, and only, from me.
I intentionally seek out ways to increase the rigor and thoughtfulness of music instruction. As a graduate student, I took several courses in writing pedagogy and eventually held a position mentoring other graduate students in developing more successful writing strategies in their undergraduate seminars. I drew upon that training in designing the writing seminar central to my institution’s new music history curriculum. But even in courses not designated as writing-intensive, I give students opportunities in every class setting to make connections between the written word and critical thinking. We write so frequently in my seminars that my students know that a pencil and scraps of paper will be of greater use to them in class than a laptop computer. If I can establish for them that even informal writing like doodling or freewriting is an essential part of learning, formal writing assignments like research papers and reports seem more connected to the content of the course and the purpose of education. I am now convinced that learning to write in a variety of ways and styles is one of the best things I can impart to my students, regardless of the material I teach. And, as I discuss below, prioritizing writing as a process of learning can be a radical act of inclusivity in classrooms that are becoming more and more diverse.
My students know that they have permission to take risks in classroom discussions and their written work because I model such risk-taking too. I had a successful year experimenting with assigning an atypical research project. I taught students a series of writerly techniques known as “Grammar B” that show how outstanding storytelling can often look and feel very different from the typical student research paper. In a sense, Grammar B assignments teach students to break all the “rules” of formal writing in order to focus on how other styles of writing—like journalism, blogs, reviews, or even text messages—create arguments and impart meaning. Sentence fragments, flagrant repetition, graphics, and run-on sentences thus can enhance an argument if done with care and imagination. Students where I teach come from a wide range of diverse backgrounds and possess varying language skills, so Grammar B writing helps them feel a sense of ownership over language that isn’t always possible through other kinds of writing assignments. As I guided them through the process, their creativity began to show. The final papers were instinctual, creative, highly individualistic, and, most importantly, still maintained the integrity of a well-considered argument. In my experience, this level of creative thinking can only happen in an environment where risk is rewarded and failure encouraged. It is my job to provide that kind of intellectual freedom, buoyancy, and inclusivity for students from all backgrounds while also giving them plenty of guidance and structure.
Students in my classes expect to learn about learning. I once worked with students to design their own midterm exam—which, probably to their disappointment, was not as simple as it may seem. However, this assignment proved to be a helpful exercise for students to think not only how to answer their own questions, or even how good questions are structured (although those are valuable things to consider). Instead, the assignment put them in touch with a more historiographical phenomenon: how the very questions asked determine what answers are possible.
This is why I believe good teaching is instinctive, flexible, and grounded in current and relevant scholarship. In designing my courses, I regularly assign articles that either I have published or, more commonly, that are in various stages of completion. I do this for two reasons: 1) it motivates me to pursue research projects that will be valuable in the classroom, and 2) it shifts the focus of academic storytelling to its writerly process rather than fetishizing it exclusively as an end product. When student writing was not improving at the pace I expected in one of my classes, for example, I organized writing workshops outside of class where I taught students how to be better evaluators of writing. This is also why several years ago I stopped giving written feedback on most writing projects. Instead, I regularly conference with small groups of students in my office where we can get a chance to know one another and learn from one another’s writerly strengths and struggles in a way that comments in red ink just can’t match. These practices reward exploration over completion. As I tell my students, truth may not be something we triumphantly claim after seeking it. Rather, I encourage them to consider how truth is found in its own pursuit.
To be intellectually conscious is to be critically thinking, questioning, and willing to “hang up looking glasses at odd corners,” as Virginia Woolf once wrote. This is my own aim, and I want my students to hang their glasses akilter as well. It goes without saying that teaching makes me a better teacher. When a student finds new ways of expressing herself in a writing assignment, or when a classroom hears for the first time what they previously hadn’t thought to listen for, then I know I am on the right track as a teacher—even, when I am reminded, that I don’t know everything.