The foundation of any liberal arts or research university education in a free society should be the development and honing of critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Students should graduate from any institution prepared to critique their social world and contribute to it as active citizens.
This goal has been the primary driver of my classroom teaching and research contributions — even my professional career. Inspired by privileged secondary and undergraduate classroom experiences, I studied to be a journalist after being inspired by a maxim from Hunter S. Thompson: “That’s the main thing about journalism: it allows you to keep learning and get paid for it.” That benefit for me was not merely learning for my own sake but the opportunity to share acquired knowledge and contribute to its production through the social circulation of critical discourses. As a professional arts critic, I presented my evaluations of popular culture — often highly accessible sites for initiating conversations about and evaluations of an artist’s social commentaries — not as final statements but as catalysts for dialogue.
Facilitating and guiding such dialogue remains paramount in achieving my classroom goals: (1) to illuminate communication processes already at work (and often taken for granted) in the students’ everyday lives, particularly the electronically mediated processes through which students experience so much of the world and its discourses; (2) to seize upon these newly conscious processes and work through them — by evaluating texts but also by participating in direct practice as much as possible — to achieve a complete understanding of their production, participants, and implications; and (3) to provide critical tools that will serve students throughout their pedagogical, professional, and personal pursuits.
My classroom process is designed to instill critical habits of mind through active practice and situated learning. The standard lecture approach is useful in certain circumstances — introducing new material, surveying large topics, or simply balancing out a schedule full of other activities — but as much as circumstances, enrollments, and rooms allow I seek to position myself among the students as a credible discussion leader rather than in front of them as an authoritarian surveyor. My experience as both a producer and critic of popular culture provides me a well-stocked quiver of media objects and communication examples useful for initiating discussions of concepts and theories on terms with which the students are already comfortable. For instance, I’ve often been deep into a sampling of socially conscious music (my own creaky examples to start, then emphasizing their more current suggestions) before students realized they were contributing to a critique of Adorno & Horkheimer’s conception of the culture industries.
Once they’ve had that kind of a-ha moment, my duty is to facilitate their more formal expression of those new ideas. I’m often not particular about formats, unless requirements are in place to master certain kinds (i.e., I currently teach in a writing program, so we’re perfecting textual arguments, not making films). Another maxim from which I operate — E.M. Forster’s quote of another critic: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” — seems to imply the written word, but as long as the student effectively demonstrates required course concepts in a clear, well-structured, well-supported statement, I’m open to that expression being made through a variety of available media.
To that end, I have found two tools extremely useful for encouraging students to rehearse their new ideas about course concepts and make connections between those concepts and the lived world. First, I’ve had great success with what I call the Q&A of the Day: each student introduces their assigned day’s readings with at least two well-formed questions for the class to pursue in discussion; the student must also suggest a possible answer, make a connection to another reading, present a real-world artifact, show a relevant video example — whatever starts us down the road toward answering the question. Through this, the students feel empowered by taking the lead in directing discussions, they participate in the class in more active and embodied ways, and they are more likely to cement their understanding via real-world links to the theories. These brief presentations from each student also promote participation from the full diversity of the present student body.
Second, for each communication class I’ve taught at UCSD, I’ve set up a blog. Through this medium, I’m able to share both logistical and conceptual material beyond the parameters of class meetings. For instance, I often run across multimedia items and news stories that connect to course concepts; posting these via a social-media platform students are savvy with has encouraged students to contribute their own items. Most posts, too, end with a prompt — a question for further consideration, which students may take up within the post’s comments. This has proven invaluable on two fronts: it extends the practice of thinking about course concepts outside of class, likely within real-world contexts where the ideas make more sense to them, and it offers an extra participation opportunity for students less comfortable with speaking up in the classroom. (I count blog comments toward participation grading.) Any practice, through any medium, that gets students to rehearse “seeing what I say” leads toward success in manifestly “telling what I think.” This, too, opens participation to students of diverse experiences and means of expression.
These methods have been effective, as monitored within my own practice as well as through the evaluations of professors, peers, and students. Feedback on my performance both in autonomous classrooms and as a teaching assistant has been highly positive from fellow educators. Student evaluations also have focused on my enthusiasm, attention to detail, accessibility, and approachability. Some recent examples:
• I think Thomas’ greatest strength was the way he was able to get the class involved with discussion. He brought up topics and allowed us to guide the discussion and learn more from each other, while learning about the material. Thomas also was very good at clarifying confusing material and getting us to really think and connect the readings.
Teaching has been central to my professional and university experience. The challenges and rewards of the classroom inspire me to continually evolve my style, approach, and methods. Teaching students about communication is helping them to understand every other corner of their everyday experience. That is a responsibility I take seriously, and it’s an opportunity I treasure personally.
Experience & syllabi
— University of California-San Diego, 2018-2019
Designed this Junior Seminar in my home department.
— University of California-San Diego, 2016 to 2017, 2019-2020
Teaching introductory writing and argument courses in the Muir College Writing Program.
— University of California-San Diego, 2014 to 2016
Teaching sections of undergraduate communication courses:
— University of Illinois-Chicago, 2008 to 2009
Teaching interviewing skills in the communication program.
— The Collegian, at the University of Tulsa, 2004 to 2005
Advising the annual staff of this student newspaper.
— University of Tulsa, 2000 to 2005
Teaching features reporting and writing in the communication program.
— Tulsa Community College, 1995 to 2000
Teaching honors sections of freshman-level English literature and composition.