Teaching Philosophy Statement
My primary goal as an instructor is to help students take ownership of their learning experience so they may apply skills developed in the philosophy classroom to their lives and careers. Students take ownership of their learning in part by connecting traditional philosophical content, like the debate over whether we have free will, with their own experiences and opinions. They also take ownership by reconstructing arguments on their own and presenting lines of reasoning to their classmates. In conjunction with learning about themselves and their place in the world (Are you merely an animal? Or maybe an immaterial soul?), students in my courses learn how to assess lines of reasoning and respond successfully to related challenges (If you accept Thomson’s argument, does that mean late-term abortions are permissible?). To make ownership of learning a priority, I plan our classes around participation, encourage personal connections between course content and everyday life, and structure courses to fit students’ needs by taking their feedback seriously.
To ensure that my students take ownership of their learning, I design activities that get students invested in philosophical issues. I often poll students, prompting, for instance, “Raise your hand if you chose what you ate for lunch today.” Students’ initial, low-stakes votes land them immediately on one side of the free will debate: “You just said you chose what you ate for lunch today, but can we ever really make our own choices in a deterministic universe?” Students respond differently to this question, and both sides need to provide evidence for their answers. This prepares students to not only offer their perspective on an issue but also provide good support for their perspective, whether in the context of offering opinions in a different course or recommending a strategy in the workplace. We then critically evaluate both sides and connect students’ views with views of like-minded philosophers. Beyond opportunities to express opinions, I provide other means of investment through media like movies and comics. In some classes, I use a clip from Food, Inc. to launch a discussion about whether we should eat meat, a decision we face at every meal. Before assigning papers, I display a familiar Calvin and Hobbes comic to demonstrate what not to do – don’t take Calvin’s advice that “the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity”! Students then contrast Calvin’s standards with the standards in a supplied rubric and learn how to improve their writing. These methods appeal to opinions or affinities that students already have and use them to give students a stake in serious philosophical engagement.
In addition, I create an environment that requires students to provide the framework for our discussions by using philosophical methodology. For instance, I give students a conclusion, ‘So, we may infer that the universe was created by an intelligent designer’, and their job is to find three premises from the Hume text that support this conclusion. Students individually reconstruct this argument and polish their results in pairs. Finally, we all construct the argument together and evaluate the most plausible version. This activity requires students to identify lines of reasoning that are merely implicit and offer reflective critique. Students initially find activities like this challenging but gradually improve with consistent effort during the semester. After students leave my class, continue their studies, and begin their careers, they will be given conclusions: ‘This will be the most successful marketing strategy for this product’ or ‘This processor offers the best balance between low energy and high performance’. They will be responsible for understanding the implicit lines of reasoning supporting these conclusions and should assess them critically and charitably. My students will be ready to do this because of their practice in my classes.
Students also take ownership of their learning by drawing personal connections with philosophical content. I assign reflection papers that prompt students to connect course material to their lives: Would Kant approve of your weekend plans? Have you found logical fallacies in your friends’ Facebook rants? Understanding philosophical ideas in the context of their lives gives my students motivation to invest personally in the course. This enables them to better retain the ideas we discuss, which, in turn, equips them to hold well-reasoned opinions and live more reflective lives. Students in my ethics class should leave with a informed opinions about theories of right behavior. Students in my metaphysics class should understand the merits of different accounts of personal ontology. And all my students should be able to appreciate the motivations behind views that oppose their own and provide thoughtful responses to related challenges.
To ensure that my courses promote student engagement, I regularly seek student feedback. Offering feedback is itself a concrete way for students to exercise ownership by shaping the course. I learn whether students feel safe participating in my classes and whether the environment is conducive to their learning by collecting student feedback several times during the semester. The feedback helps me address students’ concerns and interests while upholding my pedagogical goals (so, no, we won’t watch a movie every day) and encouraging a responsive classroom. After receiving their input, I tailor activities to suit different groups of students in order to better accomplish my learning objectives. Some groups of students request more whole-class discussions; others, more small-group discussions. Since both methods involve ownership of learning, I am happy to modify activities to promote ownership in different ways, even if it means structuring various sections of the same course in the same semester differently. My students report that the classroom environment is “fun” and “safe” but also “thought-provoking” and “challenging.” When many students from semester to semester volunteer these particular adjectives about my courses, I am increasingly confident that I create successful learning environments.
When my students take ownership of their learning experience in the philosophy classroom, they not only learn about significant views in, for instance, epistemology or philosophy of religion. They also become better reasoners and problem solvers, comfortable engaging with new or unfamiliar lines of reasoning. It is important that my students take responsibility for class material and relate it to their own lives, so I create an environment that gives them opportunities to contribute to the discussion, draw personal connections with the material, and shape the direction of the course by offering feedback. These strategies not only aid in philosophical training but also equip my students to extend their reasoning skills beyond the bounds of my courses to their other studies, everyday lives, and future careers.