My goals in a liberal arts classroom are twofold. On the one hand, I strive to follow Montaigne’s advice that good teaching involves aiming for “a mind well made rather than well filled.” I view learning in general (and learning philosophy in particular) as principally a matter of developing a particular set of practical abilities. Rather than the accumulation of information, philosophical education involves gaining meaningful skills which can be used throughout one’s life. These skills certainly involve reading and writing, but also speaking, listening, acting, debating, judging, analyzing, imagining, wondering, and above all thinking critically. In my classroom, students develop these capacities in the most effective way they can be developed: through practice. Whether it is a course on aesthetics or ethics, politics or poetry, students encounter new ideas and practice using the above skills to understand the views of others and critically expand their own points of view. This process is tremendously important not only in the world of academia, but also in the wider world of civil society. By treating the study of the liberal arts as a matter of practice, students develop transferrable skills that empower them to be competent citizens. I directly emphasize this aspect of “savoir faire” in the classroom in part to challenge those students who are more eager to simply know “what’s going to be on the exam,” and view their education as simply the acquisition of another commodity. Countering this tendency by emphasizing the practice of philosophy is a cornerstone of my pedagogy.
On the other hand, I also want to provide competence with the material at stake in the course. There is a myth that still permeates undergraduate circles that in philosophy there are no wrong answers, and that everything is simply a “matter of opinion.” Yet Kant was not a utilitarian, regardless of anyone’s opinion on the matter. In addition to encouraging critical thinking, responsible teaching involves preparing students for future scholarship, which means guiding them through the requisite body of historical and theoretical information. Philosophical ideas inevitably result from the thought of previous generations, and turning to historical contexts to discover how and why various ideas developed is almost as important to me as ensuring a solid grasp of the ideas themselves.
I seek to achieve these two objectives by creating a stimulating environment that encourages active learning rather than the passive reception of information. From my own experience, I believe students can learn a great deal from individual research into topics they care about, and I try to develop inquiry-based learning strategies wherever possible. This might mean working on semester-long research projects, in which students are expected to post their accumulated research (articles, notes, ideas, outlines, drafts, bibliographies) to an online but personal “research blog,” and to make an informal presentation about their progress at midterm. This approach not only helps students develop their research in a methodical manner, it also allows me to easily monitor progress, spot potential problems and address them in class, and combat the rising challenge of plagiarism. Course lectures and readings provide the equally important background study, which serves to strengthen and contextualize individual inquiry.
I also model myself on the most successful professors I have had. While contemporary pedagogy may have a rather dim view of straightforward lecturing, in my own experience, its merits depend to a very large extent on the lecturer involved. Some of the classes in which I have learned the most have been with professors who “merely” gave lectures, but because the lectures were compelling, provocative and engaging, I was motivated to pursue the topic deeply. Furthermore, given the challenging nature of many philosophical ideas, careful explication using example, analogy, and close reading is necessary for student progress. I thereby believe that active lecturing (which involves improvisation and adaptation rather than scripted repetition) continues to play a key part in active learning.
At the same time, developing key philosophical skills like critical thinking and argumentation also requires giving students space to articulate their own thoughts and craft their own arguments. One way I foster debate involves providing illustrative challenges to the class. For example, when discussing artificial intelligence I might start the class by challenging students to prove that I’m not a robot, or when studying Descartes I’ll have them try to prove that they are indeed awake. Such “casual” opening conversations loosen students up and provide a relaxed space where they are often engaging with the material without even realizing it. I also provide ample time for questions, and encourage other students to respond to these questions and collaboratively explore where their answers might lead. Crucial to the practice of philosophy is the capacity to see issues from multiple perspectives, so I frequently solicit or provide contrary points of view to cultivate “dialectical” thinking. Carefully dispersing my own authority in these ways empowers students and helps them to engage with the material. However, I also make sure to ultimately reconnect class conversation to the texts and concepts at stake, showing how students’ ideas mesh with those of the authors’. In this way students are less alienated from the texts, and motivated to read them carefully.
These strategies have been successful in achieving my twin goals of ensuring comprehension of complex material and the development of an intellectual tool-kit. However, I also pay careful attention to student and peer feedback, as I am committed to continually improving my own skills as an educator.