Why the Title?

I decided to call this blog “A Lifetime’s Training” for a number of reasons.  This was the title of my very first statement of teaching philosophy, which I wrote in 2005 when I was a Ph.D. student about to go on the job market for the first time.  Here is what that document said:

I believe that self-reflection is one of the most important qualities for any teacher to have.  If we do not examine ourselves, our techniques, our philosophies on a regular basis, then we begin to lose our effectiveness in the classroom.  Thus, a teaching philosophy is necessarily a shape-shifting creature; it presents a picture of teachers as they are now, not as they will be twenty years from now or even tomorrow.

Although I hope never to stop developing new approaches to pedagogy, the teacher I am at the moment owes a lot to my background in athletics.  Most of my life was spent either training or competing in various sports, and I even had the great privilege of being an NCAA wrestler at Gettysburg College.  Everything I do, then, has been influenced by my time as an athlete, and my teaching is no exception.  As a professor, I can often see in my own practice inklings of what old coaches have taught me or shades of modest epiphanies that struck me in the midst of a contest.

The best coaches I had in my career considered it their job to ensure that each one of their athletes would reach a maximum level of individual success.  For some this might mean a state championship, while for others the highest point they might reach would be a lone career win.  My father utilizes this philosophy with his college softball players; my college wrestling coach unselfishly helped me reach my own threshold of excellence.  As a teacher, this concept of success drives my interaction with students.  For me the most important goal of teaching entails helping each of my students reach her or his maximum level of success as a scholar and as a writer.

I try to achieve this goal through a number of means.  At the beginning of every semester, I tell my students that I view the college classroom as a laboratory for constructing new knowledge.  In order to reach our objective, though, I explain to them that they will need to improve their critical thinking skills through many different kinds of writing assignments.  In my classes, students either complete in-class writing or are assigned writing to do outside of class nearly every day.  For example, in my upper-level literature classes, students write informal responses prior to each meeting and post their work on our course website.  In addition, they typically write two formal essays at different points in the term to demonstrate their ability to carry out a sustained argument.  I feel that this kind of emphasis on writing is invaluable for the discovery of their voice and for their intellectual development as undergraduate scholars.

The second method I employ as I try to help my students succeed as critical thinkers is of a theoretical nature.  Whether I am giving comments on a paper or leading a class discussion, I try to practice scaffolding, which is simply the notion of beginning at the most basic concept and working up to more advanced ideas.  One example of my use of scaffolding occurs in my composition classes, where I begin by asking students to explore media with which they interact on a daily basis:  advertisements.  Gradually, we work through ads, songs, poems, and stories until they are confident and comfortable constructing well-reasoned arguments about any kind of text.  Eventually, we move to Hamlet, and students attack this difficult text with rigor and enthusiasm.

I even use scaffolding to structure the way I comment on papers.  I begin by addressing the thesis of the essay and its inherent strengths and limitations.  From the thesis I move on to how well the argument is supported by evidence, and eventually the student and I are engaged in a holistic discussion of the paper.  While it is necessary for me to shift my scaffolding paradigm for individual students, I feel that this approach has greatly helped my students reach their own levels of personal success.

Finally, I believe that any level of achievement I have helped my students to attain has been based on the idea of mutual respect.  I tell them my philosophy as a teacher on the first day.  I stress that my job is to help them become better learners and that I will do everything in my power to ensure that result.  In return I expect them to do all of their work to the best of their abilities and to convey a sense of respect to each other as colleagues. This idea of respect underlies what I believe to be the heart of the educational experience—a sincere collaboration between teacher and student to construct knowledge and create meaning.

As an athlete, these kinds of structure and respect were important to the ways I learned and grew.  Even after changing venues from the wrestling mat to the classroom, I find that these ideas are an indispensable part of the educational process.  Along with these more specific points, the sense of frustration, exhilaration, and passion I experienced in sports has transferred to the classroom as well, and I consider these emotions to be a natural part of the evolution of my teaching just as they assisted in my growth as an athlete.  As my teaching continues to develop, I will most definitely tap into more of my lifetime’s training in athletics for guidance because it is what I know the best.  The more I teach, the easier it becomes for me to see this debt I owe to sports, to all of the coaches who ever took it upon themselves to help me, and to every teammate and opponent with whom I have been associated.  I think it is a debt that will never be fully paid.

Much of this is still central to the way I view the classroom, but my teaching philosophy has now evolved to include an emphasis on undergraduate research and much more in the way of specific assignments.  As I look back at this earlier version, I can see that I was trying to be memorable, to distinguish myself in the minds of search committee members.  Such concerns are important to job seekers, and even now I teach the graduate students with whom I work to strive to make their application materials stand out.

But I see something else lurking in the prose as well:  a deep desire to connect my teaching to my identity as a person.  I suppose I wanted to show the ways in which teaching was a genuine, authentic part of my self.  This, more than anything else, has remained with me as a core value.

As I have advanced in my career, first as a tenure-track faculty member and now as an administrator involved with faculty and graduate student development, I now see the relevance of my title for the place of teaching and learning in higher education.  As college instructors, our teaching develops over the span of an entire career. We never actually stop learning and growing as teachers (or, at least, we *shouldn’t* ever do so); we simply leave the classroom for one reason or another.  A teacher’s journey takes a lifetime, and each moment in the classroom, each essay on learning that we read, each conference we attend is our training for that journey.

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Welcome!

Is there a way to begin the very first post for a brand-new blog that doesn’t sound as if the reader is witnessing an educational film from the 1950s or 60s?  You know the ones, right?  We watched them in elementary school, and they always began with the actor playing the scientist/professor/narrator working busily, when suddenly he (it was always a he in these films) seems to recognize that there is someone else in the room and says, “Oh, hello!  I didn’t see you there.  Would you like me to show you what I’ve been working on?”

I’d love to find a way to avoid this, if I could.

I suppose I could jump right in and tell you that my name is Josh Eyler; that I live in Fairfax, VA; and that I work in the Center for Teaching Excellence at George Mason University.  But you could discover that information in my profile, and you would probably find my use of semicolons to be unnecessary or pretentious.

What if I started with a joke?  My lovely wife and I had dinner with some good friends and their daughters a few nights ago, and one of the girls dazzled us with an impressive repertoire of knock-knock jokes.  If I began this way, though, you might get the wrong impression about this blog, and you would certainly believe me to be funnier than I actually am.  Who needs that kind of pressure?

How about this:  Higher education in America is at a tipping point right now.  Budget crises, rhetorical assaults by politicians, high-profile books asserting that colleges and universities are ineffective, and consumerism threaten to derail this vital part of our society.

I want to write about teaching and learning, then, not just because I am passionate about them, but because I think they are the ultimate solution to this difficult problem.  If we focus on creating transformative educational experiences for our students and on supporting all the instructors who teach in our classrooms (and I do mean ALL of them—both part-time and full-time), we will be taking the steps necessary to right the ship.  Great teaching and engaged learning go a very long way.

I also hope to use this blog to talk a bit about the humanities and my chosen field of medieval studies, but within the larger context of higher education.

So what do you think?  Did that work for an opening?  If not, I have a knock-knock joke I can tell you.