Last term I had the opportunity to teach undergraduates for the first time, and alongside that I completed the teaching development course offered by the Humanities division here in Oxford. Part of the course involved writing a teaching philosophy, and so I had to consider: what do I think good teaching is? Specifically, what is good teaching in my discipline?

One of our readings was a standard typology of teaching approaches by the theorist Daniel Pratt, who identifies five distinct perspectives on good teaching: transmission, developmental, apprenticeship, nurturing, and social action. Not every teacher ascribes strictly to a single one of these, but they do represent differing perceptions of the nature of learning, knowledge, the classroom environment, and the teacher’s role.

For my own philosophy I’ve settled mainly on the developmental perspective – a mainstream modern understanding of teaching as aiding the development of the individual learner’s capacity to think and ask good questions – with some features of the apprenticeship model – which prioritises learning by doing, and through induction into a community of practice. By combining these two I’m trying to get at something I didn’t put explicitly into my written philosophy: the balance, or perhaps tension, between the highly subjective and individualistic approach I see as characteristic of modern literary studies, and the contrasting perspective that interpretation is a communal activity – something that for me is closely linked with the communal nature of Christian faith.

Literary work, as I’ve been trained in it, is focused primarily on the individual thinker as she learns to interpret texts. The subjective nature of reading is key; texts, and the meanings contained in them, change and refract under different lights. So my role as a teacher, it seems to me, is to build students’ own capacity to interpret, giving them the tools to think critically and originally.

This kind of focus on the self as a thinker can only take you so far, though, and can easily drop off a cliff into bottomless relativism. I increasingly think that an approach which thinks only in terms of the individual and the text is normatively flawed, in the sense of ‘norm’ used in Reformational philosophy’s account of reality. That is, it’s mismatched with the nature of literature, which always has an interpersonal dimension as well as a verbal or propositional one. Texts are communications between people; they have histories; they circulate. So interpretation, to be legitimate, needs also to acknowledge its own interpersonal norms – its communal dimensions, from the history of criticism on a particular novel to the classroom environment where understanding arises out of discussion and debate.

Hence my unwillingness to stick simply to the developmental model of teaching for literary studies. Keeping some of the elements of an ‘apprenticeship’ reminds me that students aren’t just minds becoming more complex, but people entering a community of which I, as a teacher, am already part. There are parallels here with how we enter the Christian community, and read the Bible and discern the will of God together, not simply alone.

I’m just beginning to work out how I should teach, and how my faith fits into that question – much less how these big ideas about individualism and communal interpretation translate into practical teaching and learning methods. If you are involved in teaching at any level, or will be soon, have you articulated a teaching philosophy? Does it interact with your understanding of your faith?

Alicia Smith
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Alicia Smith

Alicia has been blogging for Faith in Scholarship since 2016. She completed a doctorate on the prayer practices of medieval solitary recluses in 2020 and is now an early-career research fellow at the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.