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TEACHING PHILOSOPHY

 

 

My teaching approach

 

 

My teaching methodology is student-centered and takes into account students’ diverse learning styles. I firmly believe that the process of learning which best encourages well-rounded skill development is one which moves through all the learning styles. All students need to be taught in all four learning styles in order to be comfortable and successful while at the same time being stretched to develop other learning abilities. In this way, they also learn from each other as they each excel at different places in the learning cycle. This conception of knowledge and the learning process shares its rationale with the experiential learning theory developed by David Kolb and with Daniel Schön’s conception of knowledge in action. The concept of experiential learning explores the cyclical pattern of all learning from experience through reflection and conceptualizing to action and on to further experience. Schön’s concept is rooted in a notion of knowledge in action as a tacit knowledge. It revolves around the idea that in professional practice one takes certain courses of action in an intuitive fashion based on practical know-how. So, it becomes essential to reflect on these actions. For this purpose, after each class activity, I give ample room for reflection on the steps taken to carry out the activity at the individual, small group, and whole class levels.

 

To achieve deep learning, students need to practice new skills, receive feedback, see the consequences of applying new knowledge, and in this way integrate new knowledge and skills into their way of thinking. Experience is used so that students can test out ideas and assumptions rather than to passively obtain knowledge. Thus, I combine traditional lectures with other active teaching methodologies, such as group discussions, cooperative group solving problems, analysis of video segments depicting scenes relevant to criminology and criminal justice topics, debates, collective construction of web sites and drafting exercises. I carefully design the classroom activities so that my students can reflect on their experience in a critical way. I encourage them to have an active role in the production of their own knowledge, and in the design of their own learning strategies. For this purpose, I provide continuous formative feedback and foster collaborative projects to promote learning both inside and outside the classroom.  Students’ response to my approach to teaching and learning has been very encouraging and stimulating. They often tell me that my classes “made [them] think a lot more than any other course” (Unsolicited feedback, International Justice class, 2004), and that they “made a difference in the way [they] look at teaching in University and research” (Unsolicited feedback from student, Culture, Rights and Power class, 2003). They also recognize that “[my] style of teaching is very unique and […] remarkable. It encourages learning, class participation, and public speaking.” (Unsolicited feedback from student, Criminology and Criminal Justice class, 2004-05). They also emphasize that my “unique teaching philosophy and passion for students’ education is both rare and immeasurable” (letter from two students to the Dean, 2006).

 

Passion for teaching, passion for students

 

The fundamental premise of my teaching philosophy is that I feel true passion for teaching and for helping my students.

 

I devote hours and hours a day to prepare for each class. I try to think of every possible detail so that I can give my students a unique learning experience in each class. I approach the preparation of the lectures, materials, and activities for my students as if they were a piece of art that requires a lot of creativity, thought, and love. I also profoundly love the disciplines I teach.

 

When I am in the classroom I feel excited, full of energy. I experience a genuinely unique enthusiasm to be with my students, to listen to them, to talk to them, to challenge them.

 

Above all, I sincerely care about my students. I always get to know them on a personal level, as human beings, and not just as students. I get to know who they are. I learn about their goals, their concerns, and their dreams. And I do my best to help them not only with my classes but also with their education in general, with their future academic endeavors, and their future professional careers. To me, the ultimate goal of a teacher is to help students realize their full potential as human beings.

 

Students vividly recognize this. They say that I “was extremely enthusiastic (student official evaluations, International Justice, 2004), that they “loved [my] zest for teaching (letter from student, 2005), that “they [have] never come across a professor such as [me], someone who really shows passion for their students” (letter from student, 2005). They also say that “[I] find a way to connect with everyone in the class, [that I am] fully committed to students. Any problems, academic or not, you can talk to [me]” (student, Dalhousie Gazette article, 2006).  Others say that “Professor Hermida’s unique […] passion for his students’ education is both rare and immeasurable (letter from two students to the Dean, 2006).

 

International orientation

 

I carry my interest in both international and domestic problems into the classroom. So, I always encourage my students to see the international dimensions of the social problems which we deal with. The conventional divide between the two often results in oversimplifications and artificialities. I believe I can help my students see not only the ruptures, but also the continuities between international and national problems by incorporating a global perspective into the fundamental undergraduate and graduate core subjects. Thus, I constantly bring examples, cases, and articles from all over the world. As I always attract several international and exchange students with diverse national and linguistic backgrounds, I also try to bring articles published in other languages. Both local and international students have reacted very favorably to this approach. As one student put it, “I like the fact that we are not only dealing with Canada -there are other countries in this world and it helps to know about them so that we can see where Canada stands amongst them” (One minute paper, Criminology and Criminal Justice class, 2003-04).

 

Media Literacy: Teaching in a visually and technology-oriented culture

 

I place audiovisual languages at the forefront of my classroom teaching. Enrolled in the Visual pedagogy movement, I recognize the unique advantages that audiovisual media have for the development of intellectual skills. The power of audiovisual media enables a very high level of interactivity and critical thinking. I conceive media literacy as the process of critically analyzing and learning to create one’s own media texts.

 

My teaching methodologies mirror the new realities of a fast-paced culture. For example, in my Criminology and Criminal Justice classes, where enrollment consistently numbers between 100 – 125 students, I implemented a teaching method that makes extensive use of the pedagogical practices most students demand, without compromising the objective of achieving excellence in the discipline.

 

Although I constantly change the rhythm of the class and vary all classroom activities to avoid repeating the structure of my classes, they usually have a common pattern. I always start by posting on the blackboard, in a way that resembles interactive menus on cable TV, the objectives of the class, how this class fits with what we have done and what we will do, the topic of my talk, the class activities we will carry out, and what we will cover next class. My talk is usually short and straight to the points I want them to discuss. Then, we all embark on the class activities. One of the most successful is an analysis of video scenes from popular TV shows and commercial motion pictures depicting criminal events. It’s amazing how many crimes are committed on TV every day! For example, when we discuss the concept of sexual assault, I show a series of video scenes carefully selected from popular TV shows, such as Friends, Seinfeld, or The Simpsons, and commercial films, such as Election or The Accused. Students have to identify whether there is sexual assault, apply different criminological theories to determine the root causes of the crimes, and to critically analyze the attitude of the criminal justice system toward victims of these crimes.

 

These practices serve several purposes: pedagogical and criminological. From a pedagogical point of view, they relate to the way students look at the world without diluting the quality of learning. They cater to learners who are immersed in a visually and technologically oriented culture. These activities also motivate students to read the articles and books necessary for the analysis of the video segments. Additionally, these activities help students develop media literacy. They help students to critically analyze media texts and to create their own media messages on criminal matters. These activities also propose a more diversified, open, cooperative, and plural teaching and learning process, where students actively engage in small group discussion where they freely share their ideas and engage with the proposed material.

 

From a criminological point of view, this helps students demystify the traditional image that crime occurs between strangers and on the streets, and that the perpetrator is usually a marginalized lower-class member of society. It helps them see that crimes take place in all social classes and milieus, and that most of the time victim and offender know each other very well.

 

Students enjoy these activities immensely. Their feedback and comments on these types of activities have been gratifying and encouraging. Since I published an article on these activities, several colleagues from Universities across North America emailed me to inquire more about these activities and to request assistance, as they wanted to implement them in their own classes. Most of them told me that they truly “enjoyed reading [my] article in the Law Teacher” and that they were enthusiastic about “[using] some of the clips [I] wrote about” (Hillary Farber, Visiting Assistant Professor of Law, New England School of Law, 2005).

 

Writing Across the Curriculum

 

Subscribing to the Writing Across the Curriculum postulates, I conceive writing as a knowledge- transforming tool, and a privileged method for learning and thinking about social problems. I also consider that the social science field is not only a conceptual but a discursive space as well. So, I promote writing in all my courses and foster its learning through extensive feedback given to my students’ drafts and through peer review, i.e., the review and edition of drafts by fellow classmates.

 

I design  activities to help students practice with the disciplinary language conventions, as well as with specific formats typical of social sciences. In my experience, I have found that the standard research paper is not enough to achieve my proposed writing objectives. So, I encourage my students to reflect about and deconstruct the different styles of a variety of texts through a myriad of write-to-learn tasks.

 

Another aspect which has proved very helpful for my students is peer review. This provides reviewers with the possibility of critically analyzing a writing document produced by their peers, which makes the reviewer become aware of problems in the process of achieving superior disciplinary writing skills. At the same time, the authors of the papers are provided with real readers who must make sense of their writings and who provide invaluable feedback.

 

I have also developed a unique expertise in helping foreign students acquire native-like English writing skills. Foreign students usually feel marginalized and overwhelmed by both language and culture and sometimes they are even apologetic about their English. So, they require special attention and expertise to help them reduce their anxiety and discomfort. Helping international students adopt Anglo American writing styles implies exposing their mindset to a different way of thinking.

 

Evaluation

 

I strongly believe that students should have an active role in their evaluation process. As far as compatible with Departmental, Faculty, and University polices and standards, I try to adopt co-evaluation practices, where I share –at least part of- the responsibility of evaluation with students. I try to promote many opportunities during the term to allow students to negotiate some aspects of their evaluation. For example, after every test I devote the whole or part of the class where I return the tests for students to read my comments and feedback, to discuss them with me, and even challenge them.

 

I also always work with test banks created by the students. Every four or five classes, I ask my students to contribute questions to the test bank. They work in small groups and they discuss what they think were the most important topics and issues dealt with in the prior four or five classes. Then, they formulate and propose questions. If they have a general consensus they are part of the test bank. Finally, for the tests I choose questions from the test bank without adding or changing anything.

 

The purpose is threefold. First, it helps students reflect critically on the topics we have discussed. Second, it gives them more control on the evaluation instruments. Third, it democratizes the already asymmetric professor-student relationship, which is so pervasive in the North American college classroom. The result is that test bank questions are always challenging, rigorous, and intellectually stimulating. Students perform with excellence in the exams as they have taken ownership of an important part of their evaluation process.

 

Students recognize the importance and pedagogical usefulness of the test bank. They say “the test bank is awesome, very helpful” (student official evaluations, Contemporary Criminological Theories, 2005).

 

Friendly Atmosphere

 

One of my main objectives in every class is to create a friendly and respectful atmosphere, as this is essential to learning. I make my students feel welcome, relaxed, and comfortable. Every lecture, every class activity conveys respect and tolerance to others’ opinions, trying to understand their logic. In my courses the other’s thoughts are part of a totality and not something complementary to my -or anyone’s- position. Students tell me that “[they] feel comfortable to express [their] ideas” (student official evaluations, Contemporary Criminological Theories, 2005).

 

As much as possible, I also try to give room to the recognition of emotions as something strongly connected with learning and knowledge. For example, in my International Criminal Justice class, when we deal with international crimes, such as war rape, torture, or forced disappearance, I create room for students to discuss the feelings and emotions that these crimes generate in them. Students have widely recognized the importance of this possibility. As one student put it –in a truly exaggerated fashion- I am “the only professor that takes into consideration the feelings and thoughts of students” (unsolicited feedback, Criminology and Criminal Justice class, 2003-04).

 

Teaching Large Classes

 

I regularly teach a large class of over one hundred students. The experience has been very successful. I have been able to implement active and student-centered activities, including writing tasks, without having to compromise my teaching philosophy. To do this, I had to adapt to a new environment, for teaching a large class does not simply mean asking students to break up in small groups to do the activities and to speak louder. It involves changing the rhythm of the class constantly, resorting to a wide variety of activities, and developing a myriad of techniques that allow me to be closer to the students. So, I alter the pace of the class every ten to fifteen minutes, by showing short films or a relevant web site, and by asking students to lead a debate or make a short presentation. My objective is to make my classes as intellectually challenging and as entertaining as possible. My students recognize this all the time. They tell me that “they never learned so much in one class” (email from student, 2004), that “group activities encourage thinking” (student official evaluations, Criminology class, 2005), that “the use of videos, group work, and other interactive methods [are] excellent (student official evaluations, Criminology class, 2005). They also thank me “for approaching it in a unique way!” (unsolicited feedback, Criminology and Criminal Justice, 2005).

 

I strongly believe that giving and receiving feedback to and from each student is an essential component of a successful teaching experience. So, I made a point of receiving an email from every student every single class about the activities and the lectures we conduct in class. This has given me an invaluable insight into the way students react to the material and activities I propose and at the same time it has allowed me to get to know them and tailor the classes to their needs, interests, and backgrounds. I have complemented this with an active policy of meeting students in my office and with an extensive use of online resources for keeping contact and engaging in discussions with students after the classes.

 

The greatest result is that I consistently have at least 90% of attendance in every class. This in itself is an achievement which I am very proud of. Students often tell me that “I make them want to come to class” (unsolicited feedback, Criminology and Criminal Justice class, 2003-04). They say that “my classes are extremely interesting and they always look forward to attending (nomination letter, 2005). Others say that “once you take a class with [me], they want to take another” (nomination letter, 2005).

 

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