Tim Thornton's Teaching Philosophy
My previous teaching experiences have provided me with valuable insight into effective teaching methods. I have led small group discussions for a course on social problems, coordinated an electronic classroom for a work and occupations course, and I have taught several computer labs on data analysis, at both the graduate and undergraduate level, using several statistical software packages (including SPSS, GAUSS, LIMDEP, and STATA). In addition, I have developed and taught undergraduate classes in Introduction to Sociology, Society and the Individual, Social Statistics, Research Methods, Sociology of Work, Technology and Society, Mental Illness, Health Care and Illness, Deviant Behavior, and Criminology. These varied classroom settings, ranging in size from 12 to 135 students and in diverse substantive areas from social psychology, work, medical sociology, and deviance to quantitative research techniques and advanced statistical modeling, helped me establish four guiding principles that I feel are key to being an effective teacher.
The first important aspect of my teaching incorporates providing students with what used to be called the "Martian perspective." I encourage students to examine the world around them from a fresh perspective, to take a step back from everyday life and try to understand the peculiar, occasionally frightening, and sometimes comical actions that often characterize human behavior. By fostering the sociological imagination in students, I hope to help them become more aware of the aspects of life that are often taken for granted and come to a greater understanding of how social structures dramatically influence their behavior.
A second key feature of my teaching includes the ability to clearly elucidate abstract sociological concepts and theories as well as complex statistical ideas and models. The basis of any learning begins with a clear understanding of the fundamental ideas. I work very hard to present key concepts in a manner that is readily comprehendible by presenting the topic from different angles and providing several examples to further illustrate the concept. At the start of each class I put a short outline on the board to keep students reminded of the central concepts as well as to help students comprehend the organization of the lecture or discussion.
A third characteristic of my teaching approach is to encourage critical thinking. Once I have established the basic principles of a sociological concept or theory, I urge students to apply the idea to a concrete example and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. I generally do not present topics as if there is only one correct answer. Rather, I illustrate the subject from numerous angles and allow the students to come to their own conclusions about the adequacy of one approach over another. The crucial point to me is not what conclusions students come to, but whether or not their exploration of the topic illustrates coherent reasoning and a clear comprehension of the sociological concept or theory. I strongly encourage debate in my classroom and incorporate controversial topics to get students thinking about real world issues.
Finally, my style of teaching includes a fundamental respect for students. I encourage all of them to participate in class and am willing to work with them individually to ensure they understand the material. I invite criticism of the topics I present as well as critiques of ideas discussed by other students. However, I demand that students respect each other's opinion, no matter how different from their own. In my experience, students provide a unique insight into many sociological issues. This insight aids student understanding of the issues and provides me with a clearer picture of students' perceptions as well as enhances my own sociological imagination.
In summation, an effective teacher is someone who has a sincere interest in the topic, shares this interest with the students in a clear and concise manner, encourages critical evaluation of ideas and concepts, and values student input. I am confident in my commitment to these principles and in my ability to foster significant student achievement. I find teaching to be highly rewarding yet constantly challenging. It is this challenge to do better that promotes pedagogical excellence and impels students toward greater personal and academic accomplishments.