Teaching is unquestionably the most important aspect of my job as a professor, and is the most rewarding work I've ever done. The experience of working with someone to help them see the world in new and exciting ways, to learn to ask questions and to set about answering them, is truly amazing -- I'm so lucky to do this for a living!!
At Sonoma State, I teach a number of courses in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Planning, and I'm also Graduate Coordinator for the Cultural Resources Management masters program -- so I get to work routinely with both undergrads and graduate students.
Essay on My Teaching Philosophy:
My overarching career goal has always been to share knowledge, to trigger other people’s interest in the world around them, and to help them to understand both natural and cultural resources through an integrated, broad-based view. As an element of this goal, I want to make the study of natural and cultural resources relevant to young people, who are often overwhelmed by pressures to just get a high-paying job and let the rest of the world take care of itself. Once students become more aware of the patterns of interconnections, the complex ways in which environment and society are woven together in our lives, then even if they don’t go into conservation or resources management as a career, they will be cognizant of their own role and impact on the way our world functions. Furthermore, I believe the conservation field as a whole is headed in a direction of greater integration—of natural resources management with cultural and historic, but also integrations of private and public lands, and working with ecological change via adaptive management—and the approach my classes represent forms a solid foundation for the new kinds of jobs emerging with these trends.
Philosophically, I am firmly of the mind that the best career preparation most students can get in college focuses on strengthening their writing and critical thinking skills; particularly from my work in private environmental consulting before coming to Sonoma State, I often saw people who were technically strong but could not express themselves clearly or convincingly, and similarly were often hamstrung by their educations into believing there was a single right way to approach problems. Creativity in any field relies not only on knowing the basic foundations but also being able to think about one’s work in a new way, or from a different perspective. The topics one studies in college can lead directly to one’s career, but many people end up switching careers, or evolving over time into different directions; strong writing and critical thinking will serve them well in any endeavor.
A crucial element of this approach is teaching students what kinds of questions are productive to ask, and particularly that they learn to distinguish opinion from analysis. It is my intention that my students eventually stop looking for the “right” answer, and instead be willing to consider alternatives and different possible scenarios and outcomes. Ideally they will become more self-critical, developing the ability to externalize the process of thinking and learning—to see it happening, to catch themselves in the act. They simultaneously will be better able to apply what they’ve learned to new or emerging situations, to analyze new problems rather than be stumped by them.
In almost all of my classes, I focus on the centrality of writing skills. Students write weekly abstracts of all their assigned readings; like learning a musical instrument, good writing takes constant practice. When papers are assigned, whether short essays or longer research projects, I strongly encourage students to turn in rough drafts, and give them extensive written and verbal comments back so that they can improve their work. Many of my classes require students to engage in peer review, editing and providing feedback on each other’s drafts. I also share my own writing with them, in the form of research notes, comparing first drafts to final to illustrate developing ideas and/or doing a hard edit, as well as finished publications—hoping to show them how they too can refine and improve their own research and essay papers toward publication.
I find that grounding students with these basic skills encourages them to then take some risks, experiment with their ideas, and find their own voices, rather than just follow standard formulas—to trust themselves and their distinctive perspectives to create new approaches and unique solutions to resource issues. They often already know how to approach a problem or answer a question, they just need to be given the opportunity to discover that. So while the subject matter of my classes absolutely aims to contribute to developing them into strong candidates for a variety of interdisciplinary, conservation-related careers, I also believe that these kinds of fundamentals—clear concise writing, careful and creative thought, and the ability to apply basic concepts to new problems, or to take a new perspective on an old problem—lie at the heart of all career preparation.