Julie Passanante Elman, Ph.D.
University of Missouri
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Teaching Philosophy
University of Missouri Women's & Gender Studies
Columbia University Future of Disability Studies
GWU Department of American Studies
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Teaching Philosophy
My teaching philosophy was formed through close and fulfilling relationships with mentors, through experience teaching a wide variety of courses, through interactions with students, and through my collaborative experiences with colleagues. I have been fortunate enough to study with extremely rigorous academic professionals who genuinely take their commitment to teaching and mentoring very seriously. My experience teaching diverse courses to a variety of students—from 19th and 20th century histories of legal/medical notions of sexuality to disability studies, from grade school to graduate school—for the last nine years has challenged me to think of my teaching philosophy as a perpetual process of reinvention. As an educator, I see my main objectives as three-fold. First, I help students develop indispensable writing and presentation skills that will be necessary to nearly any career. Second, I cultivate creative approaches to problem-solving and critical thinking skills, to teach students not only to memorize or understand facts, but also to develop their own well-supported critical perspectives. Finally, I help students gain a sense of themselves as intellectual producers (rather than consumers), who participate in the shared benefit of a scholarly community in which they hone valuable communication skills by working collaboratively.

To achieve my objectives, I employ a variety of methods; most importantly, my courses embrace the interdisciplinarity of American studies. They require students to learn from a diverse archive, including film, television, literature, photography, music, newspapers, legal documents, and medical textbooks, as well as their own experiences of gender, sexuality, age, class, race, ethnicity, and dis/ability. I encourage students to use their own viewpoints, beliefs, and assumptions as a catalyst for forming historically contextualized and theoretically sophisticated analyses of culture. My hope is that students consciously understand how their various identities (e.g. gender, bodily, national, racial, ethnic, sexual) work together to inform their perspectives as individuals, family members, citizens, and historical actors. For example, my “Introduction to Gender and Sexuality Studies” course encouraged students to think critically about contemporary gender and sexuality issues that were important to them, but required them to consider the historical contingence of gender and sexual identities by these categories as a focused lens through which to view American history.

My background in language and writing instruction taught me the importance of having students actively use information, instead of simply being exposed to it, and my training in disability studies has shown me the importance of creating a relaxed, safe atmosphere in the classroom to accommodate a variety of learning and communication styles. Even in large lecture classes, I design my lesson plans to actively engage students in discussion, and I make sure to validate their contributions consistently. However, I recognize that oral participation often privileges assertive communication styles. Thus, I try also to accommodate multiple communication styles, offering shyer students certain arrangements, such as having them prepare a statement before class, to minimize their anxieties and develop their confidence in their own ability to speak up in class. Finally, given that students come from a variety of backgrounds, I understand that good study skills are neither consistently taught in schools nor always intuitive. Therefore, especially when teaching incoming freshmen, I help students develop these skills by providing tools like writing guides for response papers, reading questions for primary and secondary sources, and lessons that spotlight writing and brainstorming skills such as outlining, forming research questions, and constructing argumentative theses. I also encourage students to visit office hours to receive personalized attention in handling time management or comprehension issues.
I believe membership in a scholarly community should not be a pleasure and privilege solely afforded to graduate students and professors. Rather, I believe that undergraduates should be encouraged to imagine themselves as part of an intellectual community that strives toward the mutual betterment of colleagues’ work as well as their own, by encouraging collaborative effort, mutual respect, and confidence. I have participated in and organized writing groups and reading groups that provided invaluable emotional and intellectual support while engaging in rigorous critique. In seminars, such as my Disability and Sexuality in American Culture, I have attempted to replicate this experience by forming semester-long writing groups among students working on similar research topics and by encouraging students to produce publishable work at all stages of their academic careers. I also require students to attend outside film screenings and talks relevant to my courses to facilitate students’ development of an intellectual and collegial rapport outside of the classroom as well as a connection to the larger university community. Finally, by having students participate in an anonymous mid-semester evaluation of all of my courses, I not only encourage students to take control of their classroom experience but also to imagine my own involvement as dynamic and responsive to student needs.

By emphasizing intellectual community, I bring my own passion for collaborative work to the classroom to incite students to imagine themselves as producers rather than solely consumers of knowledge. In recognition of the various ways students learn and express that learning, I employ a wide variety of assessment tools and encourage interdisciplinary methodologies. “Primary Document Analysis” papers encourage students not only to critique a variety of primary documents using theoretical arguments but also require them to think historically and intersectionally about the role of cultural representation in the social construction of gender, sexuality, race, class, and dis/ability. I have also developed non-traditional hands-on assignments to foster and reward non-writing-based critical thinking skills and to encourage student interaction with their campus environment. For example, my Disability & Sexuality seminar’s group assignment, “Accessible Dating,” requires students to plan an imaginary date with a wheelchair-using companion using only city public transportation to encourage reflection on accessibility, public space, mobility assistive technologies, architecture, sexuality and privacy. Whenever feasible, I assign an original research project that requires students to combine historical and theoretical approaches to cultural artifacts, which trains students in the creation as well as the utilization of interdisciplinary research.

Although these courses are primarily designed for imparting information from teacher to student, I have often seen value in reversing that flow, by eliciting and learning from student comments during lecture time. For example, I have always allowed students to choose the final unit of the semester in my disability seminar, and I have learned much from their interests. My lecture courses unite cultural studies, media studies, textual analysis, and cultural history approaches to the study of identity while providing students’ with historical timelines, anchored within and understood through primary materials. I often incorporate images, videos, and music via Power Point or YouTube and encourage students to participate in analyzing them collectively. Encouraging student participation even in lecture classes not only generates student interest in analyzing cultural artifacts but also helps students better understand the complex, non-linear, and historical ways culture flows. Using new tools and technologies and keeping a dynamic sense of pedagogical trends is essential in engaging students and accommodating different learning styles. Overall, I believe there is simply no substitute for a commitment to mentoring students, learning from them, and interacting with them positively, energetically, and challengingly.
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