Why I Teach

This is my post for http://whydoyouteach.wordpress.com

I never wanted to be a teacher.

I’m from a family of teachers: parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents… my parents’ friends were teachers, half of my childhood friends became teachers. Teaching was pretty much the last thing I wanted to do. It seemed so… predictable. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew I didn’t want to teach. It was something I actively resisted; I transferred from my first degree (music and performance) to something else because I knew if I stayed at music college I’d likely end up teaching.

I did NOT want to be a teacher.

So I left music college and started a Linguistics degree – a good move as it turns out, as it introduced me to multiple disciplines including phonetics and speech synthesis, formal semantics and AI, anthropology, sociolinguistics… the list goes on. When it came to my intensive project, I had such a fantastic time measuring hundreds of samples looking for 10msec differences in the length of ‘a’ in 4 words in various English accents (yes, really) that I realised I wanted to carry on with research; to always be learning. I also wanted to carry on making things for the web (which was my sideline). Luckily, I came across a research  post that allowed me to do both. Best of all, it involved NO teaching, just pure R&D.

Sixteen years later, here I am: teaching.

So how the hell did that happen?!

By accident, in all honesty. An academic in the department passed away just before the autumn semester in 2000, and I was asked to deliver his multimedia modules (they were desperate – term was only a week away) and that’s how it started.

I spent the next 5 years delivering a range of multimedia programming modules to students who were not much younger than I was. Although it was fairly mechanistic as I was told what to teach, I enjoyed it – and I think they did too. We had the same cultural references and knowledge of the Manchester social/music scene and I suppose it worked well partly because I understood them and could create assignments that they could relate to.

But I still didn’t want to be a teacher. Not really.

In 2005 I started using blogs and wikis with students in Europe as part of an EU project based around international student support, and this led to a Eureka moment. When I say ‘Eureka moment’, I mean that it was this shift towards open, connected platforms (where multiple audiences could engage in dialogue – to varying degrees of (in)formality) that led to my theoretical knowledge (of social constructivism) being transformed into a powerful experience; deep, authentic and meaningful. I wasn’t just describing the concept; i was feeling it. Through using open, web-based platforms we really were moving towards a culture of reflection, self-expression and participation. I was learning more about students as individuals, rather than just as cohorts taking particular courses. I became interested in learner identities, and found myself taking an increasingly holistic approach to education as these ‘web 2.0’ technologies allowed us to blur the boundaries between public and private, between education, home and work, between formal and informal learning. I had been using Garrison and Anderson’s Community of Inquiry model in my work on the EU project, and found that social presence was enhanced significantly when using Web 2.0 platforms. They would write about how they felt in a personal blog more readily than they would in a standard discussion forum specifically set up to discuss ‘the course’. Most importantly, they weren’t just communicating with their peers and their tutor; they were potentially communicating with the world, presenting themselves as individuals with hopes and fears and dreams – not just as students in formal education.

Social presence is the ability of learners to project their personal characteristics into the community of inquiry, thereby presenting themselves as ‘real people.’” (Garrison & Anderson, 2003:23)

The idea of ‘real people’ is key here. Once I started using these platforms in my own teaching, my curriculum changed. The starting point wasn’t the syllabus. The starting point was the individual. I’ve moved from ‘teaching’ multimedia programming into something that’s much harder to define. My courses involve transmedia production, digital scholarship, networked learning, with smatterings of cultural and media theory (Keegan, 2013). I’m still based in Computing, Science and Engineering, but fortunately there is growing recognition of the value of moving beyond disciplinary boundaries. Through connecting with others and developing our networks, we’re more open to opportunity and serendipity and multiple perspectives. I’d describe my ‘teaching’ now as based on learning to learn, questioning assumptions and opening minds to new ways of seeing; a pedagogy of being which is far more indebted to Freire than Skinner.

Connected learning has led to connected teaching which has led to connected courses. Nowadays i’m just as likely to work alongside colleagues on the other side of the world, connecting our learners through open, social platforms in projects that cross levels and disciplines (Cochrane et. al., 2014). I’m constantly learning from and challenged and inspired by those i’m connected to through online networks. The same goes for my students; they challenge me, they inspire me and I learn from them. I’m aware I may be eulogising here, and ‘free-range’ learning and teaching might not be for everybody. However, I can honestly say that now that my courses have become more like unbounded communities of inquiry where we go on a journey together, often into the unknown, I’m genuinely thankful to be ‘teaching’.

Because to teach is to learn together.

When I sat down to write this post I made a list of the reasons why I teach. It’s a long list. It made me realise that while I may have started teaching for reasons that were largely instrumental and accidental, it’s now become who I am.

Later today, we’ll be launching the first unit in Connected Courses: Why We Need a Why. For the kick-off, Mike Wesch will be in conversation with Cathy Davidson and Randy Bass contemplating the purpose of higher education.

Why do we do what we do?

What’s our CORE reason for teaching a specific class?

As a companion ‘make’ for this unit, we want people to share their WHY – specifically, Why Do You Teach? We’d love you to contribute short videos and images that we can pool together into a video like Mike’s A Vision of Students Today – except this time it’s us; faculty.

So have a think. Make a list. Pick one. Pick more than one. It’s always good to remind ourselves why we do what we do.

To find out more about how to contribute, come on over to http://whydoyouteach.wordpress.com

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Something for #whyiteach

A post shared by Helen Keegan (@heloukee) on


Cochrane, T., Antonzak, L., Keegan, H., Narayan, V. (2014). Riding the wave of BYOD: developing a framework for creative pedagogies. Research in Learning Technology. Available at: http://www.researchinlearningtechnology.net/index.php/rlt/article/view/24637. Date accessed: 13 Sep. 2014.

Garrison, Randy & Terry Anderson, (2003). E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Framework for Research and Practice (p. 23).

Keegan, H. (2013). Emerging Pedagogies. In: Fraser, P. and Wardle, J. (Ed) Current Perspectives in Media Education – Beyond the Manifesto. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 128-144. http://usir.salford.ac.uk/29556/

26 thoughts on “Why I Teach

    • Thanks Mari – glad you liked the post, and thanks for connecting! I’m really enjoying meeting new people through #ccourses – i’d be interested to learn more from you about how you think the connected approach may (or may not) work in your discipline. I’m often wondering about connected learning and how it might work in my own context (acoustics). Would be good to chat to you about connected learning in the sciences 🙂

      • Hi Helen, In my limited experience as a student connectedness is awfully rare in undergraduate biochemistry education. Even connections to other disciplines were limited to extremely close fields like biology, chemistry, or physics. The sheer amount of content delivered is huge. While labs offer hands-on experience, the connection to life outside a lab was non-existent. I think there is a huge potential for connectedness for immunology education. Planning those kinds of classes will be challenging and a lot of fun.

  1. Wonderful post, Helen! I got into teaching accidentally myself, although my mother was a teacher. I was asked to participate in a “reading group” at UC Berkeley, organized around my book, “Smart Mobs.” That sounded like a book club to me, and I certainly knew the material. But one of the students in the School of Information, where the reading group was organized — it turned out to be danah boyd — petitioned the Dean to make it a course, so she could get credit. I didn’t have much of an idea of how to go about it, and did not have any training. But I guess you could say I fell in love with the challenge. When Stanford asked me to fill in as a lecturer to teach Digital Journalism, I got involved. For a few years, I taught at both institutions — which made for an interesting contrast every week. I found my compass in “Teaching As a Subversive Activity” and my personal learning network on Twitter.

    • Hey Howard, thanks for sharing your teaching story 🙂 Lots to love here: firstly – Smart Mobs (i never told you this, but i have all of your work and you’ve always been the ‘master of the interwebz’ to me), secondly – your reading group and danah boyd (doesn’t surprise me at all that you were part of danah’s learning journey), and finally “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” – also a personal fave.

      D’you reckon you can sum up your journey in a 5 second video clip? 😉

      • Well it was Howard that brought it up – but I confess to keeping a copy on my bedside table. Good to see those words last thing at night.

  2. Thanks for this really inspiring post about your journey. I enjoyed reading it, and about your evolution. I love the part where you talk about how it stopped being about the syllabus and it became about individuals. I feel the same. It’s about *people* and how they become, not content and how they know it or skills and how they do it. Oooh, i am getting inspired for my own video now 🙂 I had not heard about the Why I Teach thing until i read your post btw 🙂 so thanks for that, too 🙂

    • Regarding “stopped being about the syllabus and it became about individuals,” I was curious about how my experiments (students co-teaching, blogging, commenting in forums, organizing collaborative projects) were working (or not) in engaging students in the subject matter, so I got in the habit of asking them. I quickly realized that this was not their normal experience. It took a while for them to understand that I really wanted to know what they thought. Part of winning their trust was a commitment to implement their suggestions whenever they made sense to me. Over a period of years, applying this method — and my discovery of Postman, Freire, Dewey and others — led me to a more and more student-centric syllabus. It was scary at first to admit that I didn’t know everything there was to know about teaching and especially scary to give some of my teacher power to the students. But when they came back with enthusiasm, engagement, and real thinking, I was encouraged to push more of the power and responsibility for learning onto the students.

    • Hey Bill! Thanks for commenting – glad it struck a chord. Also very happy to have found you thanks to #ccourses! Love your blog, and am really looking forward to your floating seminar – haven’t felt so excited about an online ‘excursion’ in a long time. Eager to read more of your thoughts, and especially to discussing graf with you and other like-minded appreciators/aficionados 🙂

  3. I came to teaching as a second career after being in the business world. Like you, it was never really my intention to teach, but it ended up being my life and passion. A nice accident. Great story (and love the mini-vid).

    • Hi Susan! Thanks for saying hello! I’m really enjoying learning more about other people’s journeys – especially because so many of us have come into this whole thing accidentally and yet it’s ended up being our passion…

  4. Hi Helen, Your Emerging Pedagogies chapter inspired me – particularly on how in media studies we need to be constantly challenging students to unpack their assumptions about the role of different media in their lives.

    I can relate to your experience of managing to find the ideal occupation without ever making a conscious career plan.

    • Hey Marj! Am so happy to be reconnected (remember the AoIR session?) – glad the chapter struck a chord. Hoping we can connect more through #ccourses 🙂

  5. Loved your post, Helen. Maybe more people than we thought ended up teaching ‘by accident’. I loved learning and at the end of an Arts degree (Literature and Languages) I fell into teaching by default. I think if you love learning then you feel engaged and responsible for other learners. I switched from English, French and German teaching to teacher librarianship – if I’m going to be completely honest – because I thought I could hide in the back of the library (was feeling very introverted at the time). Luckily it was not at all what I had envisaged and I love the teaching and interaction with students. Thanks for commenting on my post. Even before #ccourses started I was learning so much and getting excited by all the fantastic company!

    • You hit the nail on the head there – we love learning, so (like it or not) we love to teach. Two sides of the same coin. It’s really interesting to think about you ‘hiding’ in the back of the library, but then your interactions/teaching coaxing you out… lovely to meet you. Very happy to be connected through #ccourses and looking forward to reading more of your posts and getting to know you better!

  6. Heloukee. (I like that name)
    “I’d describe my ‘teaching’ now as based on learning to learn, questioning assumptions and opening minds to new ways of seeing; a pedagogy of being which is far more indebted to Freire than Skinner.”

    I reckon I might say that in a different way.

    I reckon I might change the verb – not seeing but being. You can reduce the word count.

    I am enjoying being me at the moment.

    Thank u for correcting my name. Mungo is feeling better now.

    • Hmm… I like that suggestion Simon. Am sat here, mulling it over.

      Still sat here, still mulling it over.

      I’m going to mull a while longer. May even edit… just trying it on for size…

      ^ (that’s 5 minutes, right there)

      Glad to hear Mungo’s on the mend 🙂

  7. Pingback: The “learner’s why” vs the “teacher’s why”Reflecting Allowed | Reflecting Allowed

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