Monday, May 20, 2013

My Teaching Philosophy

I put a fair amount of thought into my teaching philosophy. This is part of what I used in my recent teaching evaluation portfolio; to be completed, its generalities need to be filled out with the particularities of the course commentary, but the latter would be much less generalizable.


I have found that three principles especially important in guiding my teaching.

(1) All teaching by an instructor is really guidance of the student’s own discovery.

To use the terminology of seventeenth-century philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, my task is not so much to be a maître, a source of learning, as to be a moniteur, someone who directs attention and prompts action. Especially in philosophy, it is the student’s own intellect and reason that is doing the lion’s share of the work in the process of education*; because of this I try to fill my courses with activities that direct the attention of the student to particular features of arguments and ask them to do things with it. To take one example, one element of the major project I require when teaching the Gorgias is to write short pieces in which they speculate about how the dialogue might have gone differently if one of the rhetoricians in the dialogue had chosen to respond to Socrates’ questions in a different way. I think something like this provides a very simple and basic way for students to begin exercising an important set of skills, namely, looking beyond what the argument says in order to ask why it says that rather than something else and, instead of being satisfied with simply criticizing the argument as stated, asking themselves whether the argument could be restated in a way that would avoid the flaw.

(2) Teaching is itself a form of learning.

I believe that emphasizing the self-discovery aspect of education makes for a more interesting course, both for the instructor and the student. This does increase the difficulty of the course. It is all the difference between feeding someone directly and providing them an entire environment where they can safely and easily find good food; the latter is far more complicated. Because of this I try to have the attitude of someone who is a student himself, learning from the students at least as much as they are learning from me, and thus my courses are always being adjusted a bit in light of previous experiences. Recognizing the importance of one’s own learning also requires the harder task of recognizing that an idea that seemed good does not work as well in practice as in theory.

(3) Philosophy, whatever else it may be, is civilization in the abstract.

I often tell my Intro students that they can get a rough first approximation to what philosophy is by considering it to be ‘civilization in the abstract’. Philosophy deals with all the important issues that are essential for civilized life, a life of rational science, insightful art, and just politics, and to the extent that all our students are themselves participants in civilized life, they already are doing philosophy in a diluted form. As I see it, part of my task in an undergraduate philosophy course, and especially in an introductory course, is to help students start looking around at their goals, practices, and beliefs, in order to see what kinds of assumptions, arguments, and analyses underlie them, by taking this diluted philosophy that forms the abstract side of civilized life and putting it into more concentrated form. In each course I try to link at least some of the philosophical arguments and ideas to art, literature, or politics, and structure assignments so that students will have to look at the philosophical ideas and themes with which their lives are already pervaded.

For similar reasons, I do my best to come to a philosophy course with a passion and enthusiasm for the topics I’m teaching. In my ideal course it is this enthusiasm for philosophical ideas and arguments that students will primarily take away from the course. Teaching philosophy is primarily about helping the students to develop this enthusiasm, this tendency to ‘court truth with a kind of romantic passion’ (to borrow a phrase from Mary Astell). Regardless of what they go on to do, I hope that most of my students will come out of my courses approaching everything important in their lives at least a little more philosophically.

* This is pithily expressed by Thomas Aquinas in the De Veritate (q. 11 a. 1 ad 9): “A human being can truly be said to be a teacher in teaching truth and enlightening the mind; but not as infusing the light of reason, but as assisting the light of reason in the completion of knowledge through what is outwardly proposed." The Socratic image of the midwife also brings it out clearly; midwives do not give birth for people but help them to give birth to their own.

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