Dr. William C. “Liam” Corley
Associate Professor of English
“A lesson plan is only the framework for teaching; learning
requires as much effort from my students as it does from
me. In order to learn, hesitant swimmers must be guided
by patient hands from the pool’s edge into its deeper parts.”
Over the years, my understanding of teaching has shifted
from knowledge transmission to the formation of students
as knowledge-seekers. In the beginning of my teaching
career, I was focused on covering a body of concepts and
paid little attention to the real outcome of my teaching:
students who could recreate and extend the knowledge
explored in the class and those who could not. I now utilize
more Socratic methods of teaching that provide students with a key component of learning: the opportunity to speak and experiment with ideas in the classroom.
“In order to fly, baby eaglets first learn to fall. . . Caught before impact by the swooping mother eagle, the eaglet is returned to the nest. . . The wise teacher allows students to experience moments of terror, silence, and frantic effort that can prepare them to fly. When I do all the intellectual exercise in class, I allow students to remain weak. Thrusting myself into every learning situation,
I give answers instead of strategies for learning; I am the one who is afraid of falling. Words alone will not catch me.”
Since discipline and risk are essential components of my own learning process, I give students opportunities to exercise these learning “muscles” through Socratic questioning, focused small group discussions, and online debate forums. While preparing an article about Chang-Rae Lee’s novel, Native Speaker, I had the opportunity to teach it several times. The feedback I received from students as I tested my ideas reflected the seriousness and excitement that imbued their individual study when they viewed themselves as co-creators of knowledge. In fall 2010, I involved students in my upper-division Early American Literature course in exploring matters of providence and determinism in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative one month before I was to present on that topic at the Pacific Ancient & Modern Language Association conference. Students crave significance in their intellectual efforts as much as I do. Inviting them into current research keeps me open and them engaged.
In graduate school, I was deeply impressed by a professor who responded to one of my research papers in a lengthy, typed response that spoke directly to my goals, challenges, and accomplishments in the essay. Since that time, my approach to student papers has shifted from ticking off good and bad points to writing a narrative response addressing intellectual issues. When I tally my typed remarks each quarter, I find I’ve written several thousand words of admiring, coaching, and querying responses.
A good swimmer forgets the water. Therefore, she pilots a boat without fear.
A good teacher forgets the text and gives up knowledge. Therefore, his students
continually leap into the sea, turning somersaults in the air. He too has
Ultimately, my goal as a teacher is to inspire students in my classroom to join me as co-conspirators in learning. This approach requires a great deal of practical humility that paradoxically frees me to be fully present in the classroom as a passionate scholar. With my hunger for excellence and hardheaded awareness of generally accepted standards of analytical and expository writing and research, I provide a context for learning that embraces most students. In the end, I know that for each of my students I will soon step off the stage. It is up to them to ensure that the show goes on.
Italicized portions are taken from “Chuang Tzu as Teacher: Pedagogical Insights from the Chuang Tzu,” Religion & Education 29:2 (Fall 2002): 36-48.