Teaching Statement | Joshua Synenko, PhD
As a teacher, my ultimate hope is that students develop the will to act autonomously, and, above all, to articulate their own demands for knowledge and practical experience as opposed to simply meeting expectations. My classrooms therefore foster skills for self-governance, collaboration and collegiality. True, classrooms can be psychically charged spaces. In responding to the unpredictability of leading a classroom, I believe my first responsibility as an instructor is to initiate dialogue as an end in itself. Lecturing as a form of storytelling with the aim of active listening is one part of this equation. Another, however, is inviting students to participate in conversations and to draw from their own knowledge base. To carry out both of these tasks simultaneously, my teaching style involves frequently asking questions and staging provocations with the aim of giving students an opportunity to engage. Providing this opportunity is my ultimate goal whether the class includes 12 students or 200. Verbal contributions allow me to rephrase the student’s thought by connecting to a larger discursive field. If I achieve this goal with any degree of success, the student will leave feeling empowered.
I have devised numerous strategies for teaching lectures, seminars and tutorials. To challenge the perception that lectures are impersonal, for instance, I tend to devote a large portion of my lectures to conversationally extrapolating from selected information offered on slides. By including sparse but pertinent information on the screen, and to use the screen as mediation for my own thoughts, I am able to make the necessary connections while affording myself the time to offer useful illustrations, interventions, additions, and anecdotes. I also consistently use visual media to invite a deeper analysis or historical touch point. In seminars, I generally opt to foreground discussion and debate using textual and visual resources. I then leave students to debate amongst themselves, and re-direct to core themes and problems whenever appropriate. In workshops, my aim is to facilitate collaboration, engagements with technology (i.e. digital and spatial media), and problem solving. In tutorials, I rely mainly on group work or informal discussion. I also encourage weekly tutorial self-evaluation and opportunities for commentary and peer review, which has been tremendously helpful.
My assignment scheme varies to meet the level of the course. Working mainly with undergraduates, I find it extremely helpful to assign a research proposal several weeks beforehand as a way of establishing a dialogue with students about their work. In my opinion, assessments in core classes require less focus on self-directed research and more on structured writing assignments, tests and group participation. I have experimented with roundtable discussions, debate teams, ethnographic projects and research creation exercises, and also with alternative evaluation methods such as peer assessment, professional development (i.e. publishing and conference organizing), and technology-enhanced experiential learning.
I have been privileged with opportunities to take on supervisory roles for students both at the undergraduate and graduate level. These opportunities have been intellectually rewarding, and I believe they have prepared me for a career in graduate supervision. I have also taken on a substantial mentorship role with my many Teaching Assistants over the years. I work closely with my teaching staff to ensure consistency in evaluation, and I encourage them to pursue their research. In the classroom, I have had the pleasure of working with undergraduate students in both conference organizing and publishing initiatives. In 2017, for example, I initiated a project with Mediapolis: Journal of Cities and Culture, publishing peer-reviewed versions of student term papers from a course in Media Infrastructure in the journal’s inaugural Student Voices section. Broadly speaking, my interest in mentoring goes back to 2012, when I volunteered for two years at the University of Toronto’s Accessibility Services, working closely with a small number of students on developing academic preparedness.
As someone who identifies as belonging to the LGBTQ2+ community, I feel it is my personal responsibility to foster inclusiveness for students who are aligned with any marginalized group. I aim to make my classroom a safe space built on egalitarian principles and solidarity. In my standard explanation of participation grades, for example, I emphasize the need to balance student’s contributions with those who feel more entitled to speak than others. I also regularly connect course themes to topics and stories that acknowledge the existence of gender diversity and discrimination, historical and social causes of mental illness, and those who suffer under racism and ethnocentrism. In regards to pedagogy, I continually aim to decolonize my syllabus, to put the Western traditions and canons into sharp perspective, and therefore to counter the ableism, sexism and racism that has been perpetuated in their name. Decolonizing my syllabus thus emerges from a necessity rather than obligation. More generally, as a person, I engage in reflexive self-positioning and acknowledge my own privilege, and I am also capable of admitting when I’m wrong. I stand for justice and equality whenever I can, stay politically informed, and I make myself available as an ally for students who may be struggling.
Teaching is my vocation. I have enjoyed diverse experiences in several departments and campuses, and I have taught approximately 2,500 students. Naturally, there is much more to learn about how to become an effective teacher. Balancing the needs of students with my own responsibility to create adaptable learning environments is a cornerstone of my goals as a university teacher.