teaching philosophy

Statement of Teaching Philosophy (PDF)

The pinnacle moments of success I have felt as an educator come in seeing my students forge insightful connections between course material and their lives outside the classroom.  For instance, this past term, seeing a student masterfully connect issues raised by modern, philosophical skepticism with his own religious practice of Islam brought me genuine delight as an educator.  When philosophy ceases to become merely esoteric readings, but touches on subjects and methods that are genuinely applicable to students’ lived experiences, problems, and intrigues in the broader world, then I feel as though I have awakened a new potential for them—a new way of seeing and interacting with the world around them.  This potential is fully realized when students go beyond simply rehashing connections that I have sketched, but rather stake out their own novel, discerning relationships between philosophy and the world in which they live.  In these moments, I feel like I have succeeded in helping usher into being newly-awakened critical-thinkers—people who not only can, but actively try to see the world from the reflective and analytically-energized perspectives philosophy can afford.   

This is not to say the great works of philosophy are not to be appreciated and studied for their own sake.  Rather, I have found, through trial and error, that inspiring newcomers to recognize the intrinsic value of the philosophical canon is not something best achieved by attempting to directly persuade them of the discipline’s value in and of itself.  Instead, inspiring an appreciation for philosophy as such is best achieved as a byproduct of showing how philosophy can be illuminating to everyday life and the world outside the ivory tower.  For example, though warned by peers to steer clear of the topic, my introductory philosophy courses delve into the topic of racism.  We read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s difficult and subtle paper, Racisms, and discuss surrounding literature, including work by Tommie Shelby.  Despite Appiah’s essay being ripe with philosophical nuance and academic understatement, it has served as the springboard for some of the best discussions I have had in courses either taught or taken: almost everyone—even those who are not usually keen to speak—participates with thoughtful and personal contributions, delivered in an atmosphere of mutual respect.  By letting students explore how philosophical themes open up innovative ways of approaching problematic, real life situations in the world around them and how philosophical methods equip them with powerful critical and analytical tools, students can come to appreciate academic philosophy itself, secondarily or derivatively, as the engine which has the power to unleash this transformative potential.  Ironically then, in my experience, inspiring an appreciation of philosophy “as an end in itself” is not best achieved by expecting students to come to see philosophy as an end in itself.

To this end, whenever possible, I try to make classes dialogical—i.e. discussion rather than lecture oriented.  In so doing, I am sensitive to the needs of those for whom active participation comes only with trepidation.  I take pains to create a safe space for all voices without domination from a few, and I encourage alternative means of participation for those who are still not comfortable speaking up in class.  I recommend that students meet with me in office hours at least once early in the term so that I can get to know each’s intellectual profile in relation to what they care to share about their broader lives and interests; this also helps me to understand the needs and concerns of those who are reluctant to participate in larger groups.

I do, of course, lecture.  But even when I lecture, I do not just talk at the students.  I stay energetic and animated: I walk around; I pace the room; I write and draw emphatically on the board; I ask questions and I invite questions.  I sometimes use slides, but I do not only use slides.  I provide handouts for some materials but not for others.  I want to engage students, but I do not want to hold their hands the whole way.  I want to initiate their intellectual movement and development, but I will not substitute my own critical thinking and engagement for their own.  I let students know that they are responsible for not just learning the material in the sense of being able to parrot it back to me, but in terms of being able to integrate and synthesize it with the rest of what they know by drawing inferences, making connections, and asking new questions.  In my experience, I have found this goal is best supported neither by spoon feeding material to students (e.g. by providing them all my lecture notes), nor by making them do all the heavy lifting themselves (e.g. by spotting them nothing).  I recognize that certain teaching modes and media work for some and not for others, so I try to vary the ways in which I present material to reach as many students as I can, as best I can.  If a certain approach is met with blank stares or puzzled looks, I have no trouble changing gears and shifting tactics appropriately.  Of course, at times there will be gaps—sometimes I have presented material in a student’s preferred way, and sometimes I have not.  Nevertheless, in my experience, creating these gaps can often be the most helpful strategy to inspire genuine, critical engagement with the material.  Using mixed media and multiple methods to get new ideas and concepts across to students furthers this end by keeping students engaged and on their toes.

When it comes to assignments, again, I try to give students opportunities to grapple with course topics in a closer-to-home way.  In response papers, I have students relate charitable expositions of the readings to questions and concerns they bring from outside of class.  With larger writing assignments, I encourage student-initiated topics.  In fact, it is a source of pride for me to mentor independent research projects or to serve as a Socratic guide to students as they turn an incipient idea or question into an intellectually stimulating line of thought and, finally, a completed research paper.  Allowing a student to sell an idea to me—to convince me of its value as a term paper—is perhaps as valuable a lesson in philosophical argument as writing the paper itself.  In fact, it is the surprise realization, which sometimes crosses students’ faces, at how engaged they have become in a question, paper, or discussion that makes me feel best about teaching philosophy: even the cynical and relatively detached among us can be moved by the unforced force of the better argument or an intriguing, new perspective, in spite of themselves.