Dave Larsen, a lecturer of English at UM-Flint, is the university’s 2018-19 Collegiate Lecturer Award recipient. He shares his teaching philosophy, the influence of his colleagues at the university, and more in this Q&A with University Communications & Marketing.
What is your teaching philosophy?
I have developed my philosophy of writing instruction on two fundamental ideas. First, that the student is central to his or her own learning through discussion, writing work, and interruption or redirection. A student-centered classroom helps disrupt a top-down learning environment where a student might expect to memorize (one type of learning) and then mimic certain writing strategies. In a student-centered writing classroom, the students must also have room to experiment and play.
Second, the instructor should be de-centered in the classroom, but no less a guide in the classroom. As this guide, the instructor becomes a type of “other,” a good, well-intentioned, necessary other. This also helps students realize their own authority over their ideas and their work. They’re at the center. They hold it all together. I encourage questions and discussion, but try to avoid too many direct questions, hoping also to avoid the “prescription masquerading beneath the question mark,” as Nancy Welch describes it. Once that prescription happens, the entire student centered philosophy cracks, and the center cannot hold.
How have you developed your teaching style, how has it evolved over time?
This past January, I completed my twenty-second year of teaching writing. My training as a teacher was set by excellent mentors. Dr. Kafer (at Northern Michigan University (NMU)) would question my class design, asking when I would have them write, when would I have them work? When would the class go beyond talking and listening to doing? He would remind me to make the class objectives transparent every day and make sure my students knew them. Dr. Glenn, my English Literature mentor at NMU, told me to get students writing. “You want them to write developed paragraphs? Write with focus? Have them look for focus and development in other writing. Have them write developed paragraphs, focused paragraphs, have them write UN-developed, UN-focused paragraphs…have them WRITE.” I find that my mentors and their advice are coming back to me more and more. When I first started, I really thought I had to teach, to fill all the class time with my smarts and my ideas and fill my students with what I knew. Over these twenty some years I’ve really moved away from that.
What are your feelings about UM-Flint, in terms of the students, fellow faculty members, and overall teaching environment?
I really enjoy teaching at UM-Flint. I work in a fantastic department, English, where all of my colleagues are supportive and curious about the work we all do. My director, Dr. Stephanie Roach, is wonderful. I think not only Writing Programs would suffer if she ever chose to leave, but the university would as well. She is a fantastic teacher and mentor, a leader. She thinks about pedagogy and classroom management in ways that I often don’t.
We’ve had several great chairs in the department who support the work being done by all the English faculty. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dr. James Schirmer who did a lot of the legwork in getting my nomination for this award. The English Department atmosphere is just great. I love the mix of students I get in my classroom, a lot of traditional students but also a lot of non-traditional students, older students, veterans. They all bring such varying life experiences, and they’re all so motivated. They have clear goals.
What does it mean to you to receive this award?
It’s an honor. UM-Flint has so many fantastic lecturers. They all work so hard and do so much for our students and for the university. The lecturers here do so much more than just teach a course or two and then go off to some other job. This is not part-time work. They teach, they advise, they work on committees at all levels, they help develop curriculum, they develop courses and programs, they do outreach. To win this award, to be selected from among the group of lecturers teaching at UM-Flint, the teachers who do all of that….it’s a real honor.