Teaching Philosophy

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Teaching is one of my favorite activities because it provides the opportunity to generate excitement for geography in a new cohort of students. I truly enjoy the challenge of intellectually engaging students with geographical topics while helping them progress as scholars and citizens. During the past twelve years, it’s been an incredible privilege to share my enthusiasm for geography with students while developing their analytical tools to interpret our world.

My teaching interests are broadly defined. As fully summarized in my curriculum vitae, I have experience teaching a wide variety of courses at introductory through advanced undergraduate levels covering human, physical and mapping topics, all of which I have enjoyed. My favorite courses to teach are those covering cartographic methods, GIS, and mapping for the World Wide Web. I have taught a number of introductory and advanced GIS courses, as well as cartography courses in which I strongly stress crafting high-quality maps. I often teach students tools from the Adobe Creative Suite for post-processing GIS outputs to produce maps of publication quality. At Mansfield, I have developed a Geoweb and Internet Mapping course that combines the technical expertise of “scraping” geolocated social media data with producing high quality map presentations for web publication.

In New Hampshire for COPLAC 2014In these courses, I use a teaching philosophy and methodology that, thus far, has proven quite successful. My most important instructional goal is the development of critical thinking skills, because these are crucial to both completing degree requirements and guiding intellectual discovery after leaving the university. The most successful students are those who can discern information as presented, then skeptically analyze and evaluate that information through processes of reflection. In my experience, fostering critical thinking early serves students well by motivating independent thought, encouraging intellectual creativity and innovation, and sharpening argument acuity. For mapping, this mindset is especially crucial to develop because the production of maps is ultimately a subjective process. To accomplish this goal, I typically mobilize three different arenas for the educational experience in courses I lead: traditional classroom interactions, local engagements with course topics through field experience, and undergraduate research collaboration on service projects. I also use a variety of methods to assess student progress to ensure that students are successful in their intellectual development.

Santa Monica during AAG 2013In the classroom, I use a mixture of methods including traditional lecturing, multimedia presentations, group discussion and in-class active learning exercises. To ensure student preparation such a learning environment, I require that students read the textbook specifically to gain a common basis of knowledge. Lectures and in-class activities can then cover specific topics in greater detail to further their skills and interest beyond the textbook’s basis. I present content materials to students using a number of different media, ensuring that students receive their information from a number of sources and through a variety of methods. I frequently integrate social media to enhance learning; a necessary skill in today’s marketplace, my students become fluent in using of social media as a means for constructive course discussion. I also employ a policy of mandatory attendance, because no amount of instruction or social media integration can be fully effective without student presence, and no amount of education is sufficient without developing a habit of promptness.

Because developing critical thought is so crucial, I never pretend to be without bias in my teaching. I reiterate this point to students repeatedly throughout the semester, enabling them to interpret what I present to them through their own lenses, and constantly reminding them that learning is a process only built upon existing knowledge. For particularly controversial subjects, I often introduce a variety of perspectives, specifically designed to prompt classroom or small group discussion, or a brief written response. In such activities, I stress that the orientation of students’ opinions is not nearly as important as the ability to use knowledge gained from classes and real-life experiences to support their positions.  While textbooks and lectures provide a basis for grasping course materials, I have found that students attain a far deeper understanding – and a higher level of excitement about the topics – through field engagement and collaborative research. Whenever possible, I use local places to provide examples of spatial concepts. This engages students directly with issues of space and place, sometimes by simply taking a walk around the campus. I also encourage students to venture into the world on an individual basis, including new cultural experiences as part of their coursework responsibilities.

UWFox students presenting at AAG 2013In many of my courses, we have embarked on larger class-wide service projects, such as creating an interactive web map of campus for the university website, a Google Earth model of campus, collecting a full inventory of campus trees, and developing lesson plans to teach contemporary ocean issues to middle school students. We’ve also completed experimental research together in our courses, such as using balloons and autonomous drone helicopters to acquire low-cost remote sensing imagery. By working with students as collaborators, they not only hone critical thinking skills through the experience of developing research, but they tend to take more responsibility in their work and pride in their product. This is further enhanced by my focus on projects that serve a “greater good,” which students find valuable as because of the additional “real-world” applicability. With this strategy, I have collaborated with students at both Mansfield and UW-Fox Valley on a number of research projects, guiding them to completion. Using collaborative research and service learning connects students with our discipline while keeping them grounded and engaged in their community, strengthening the town/gown relationship. With this experience, I am well prepared to mentor graduate students and to develop a program of collaborative undergraduate research. Developing students’ community involvement is exceptionally important to me. By stirring a sense of responsibility to their community early, I hope that students leave my courses having developed lifelong duties to service.

To evaluate students, I employ a mixture of methods catered to the needs of the course, such as class size. I strive to assess student progress as critically thinking scholars, not their skill at navigating multiple‐choice exams. Typically, evaluation includes examinations, quizzes, brief homework assignments, in-class activities, classroom participation and larger collaborative projects. I require oral response and writing assignments throughout the semester to help students develop as communicator. For collaborative projects, I require students to present their results to the larger university community. Though initially they disapprove of publicly presenting work, they come away feeling rewarded by the presentation and feedback process.

Accompanying students to the PA statehouseI have found that by combining traditional classroom instruction with field experience components and collaborative research service projects, I have effectively facilitated a positive educational experience for students. These methods are effective not only for developing critical thinking skills and encouraging knowledge retention, but also in generating student excitement for geography. Feedback from peer observation and student evaluations has been overwhelmingly positive, in both numerical average and written comments. However, the most flattering praise of my instruction is when students tell me, as many have to date during my teaching career, that my course convinced them to change majors and started them on the path to becoming geographers.