GENERAL VISION FOR TEACHING

The task of a teacher is to inspire and to invite into a mode of life. That is genuinely one task with two aspects. My calling is both to introduce my students to some of the most thoughtful people in human history and to model for them a reflective engagement in the life of the mind. When I am trying to figure out how to live, like anyone else, I turn to my friends and family—but my friends stretch across millennia. My students, too, regardless of their major or background, can find their lives bound up with the whole human race, but they need to be shown how to enter the conversation. This requires some interpretive and writing skills, but it also requires a certain kind of falling in love – one that expands rather than contracts the world. Education, on this view, is not a matter of conditioning people in what I want them to do but, of showing them how we, the community of reflective people throughout history, work together.

 

Teaching is not primarily the transfer of information. It is a contribution to the work a whole person does in transferring herself from immaturity to maturity of thought and life. Because it is oriented toward a whole person, it consists of several roles.

 

Teaching requires something of a theatre manager, or perhaps a matchmaker: in the classroom and through online discussion boards, I work to stage a fruitful encounter with others so that, together, we can learn to see other people not only in their radical uniqueness – of which my students are often nominally convinced already – but also in the ways we belong to those others. As such a theatre manager, I require everyone gradually to learn to identify by name everyone else in the class during the first few weeks, provided enrollment is under 45 or so. Once we know each other’s names, I require students each week to explain half a page of the text to someone else from the course outside of class. This is in part to give them practice explaining philosophy aloud before my oral final exams, in part to push them to make some friends in the class and pursue philosophy jointly. When I teach Ethics, I ask my students to bring in moral dilemmas to present to the class. These can be from books, movies, TV shows, or their own lives. The goal is to move our ethical thinking away from trolley problems and toward creative solutions in light of rich narrative background and character evaluation. Mostly, they stick with fictional stories, but recently a student brought in a current dilemma to see what his classmates would advise: he was scammed by a relative into an illegal investment; he brought friends into the project before learning it was a Ponzi scheme; the government is now investigating, and he has to decide whether to inform on his relative, likely sending the relative to jail for a light sentence (1-2 years) and losing any chance that the person responsible would in fact pay back the money invested. The student encounters this as an acute dilemma, and he led a discussion about it, in conversation with Kant, Aristotle, and his classmates, that I think helped clarify the situation for him.

Teaching also requires something of a wizard: sparking wonder, transcending time, space, and life-world to introduce students to great thinkers, showing them how to converse justly with people across the ages. In this role, I offer them a constant diet of primary texts, even in my introductory courses, but I also provide various tools to aid their reading. They have reading guides for each week of the course that include some historical context (emphasizing its link with the overall story of the course), a glossary of terms that get used in peculiar ways or remain untranslated, and a set of questions to help them learn what to focus on (and to check their comprehension). I give them reading quizzes drawn from those same questions, so they have a consistent incentive to do the reading. When we talk about art, I bring in paintings; when we work on ethics, I play popular songs from various genres, and we discuss their content; when we read Platonic dialogues, I find ways for students to act out the myths and analogies. One sequence of writing assignments is explicitly designed to help them learn to converse justly with both historical authors and contemporaries in our political community.

Teaching further requires something of a preacher: it is not exactly comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, but it’s close. My task is to clarify what seems obscure and to render obscure and challenging what seems already clear. When we read Nietzsche, my religious students need to feel the force of his objections regarding their ability to love this world; when we look at arguments for the existence of God, my atheist students need to recognize that there might well be good arguments for the unseen. One challenging aspect of leading class discussions that pertains to this role: negotiating the varying levels and kinds of authority that students have over one another. I had one student in an ethics course who was a refugee from Syria; she could claim experiential authority concerning the complexities of the situation there that no one else could match, but her engagement rarely extended to explaining those complexities. Another student in the same class was of Lebanese descent; he was particularly eloquent (which carries its own kind of authority) and especially interested in thinking about ethical examples from the current situations in the Middle East. They clashed frequently but productively, and I understood my role to be challenging each of them in a different way, so as to provide some check on their authority over the other students, thus enabling the free flow of discussion.

 

Above all, teaching requires a seeker: most people will not recognize their longing for wisdom unless it is manifest that we ourselves, their teachers, are shaped by that longing. I think the most important things I can do for students in this respect are to take their questions seriously, strengthening them as necessary, and to make at least some of my own questions public, demonstrating what the life devoted to philosophy can look like.

Concretely, I think about teaching in two ways, both indebted to Aristotle. On one side, there is the need to proceed in small steps, with frequent, sequenced assignments, so as to build good habits. The other side requires successfully navigating the economy of student life by structuring grade incentives to give them external reasons for doing intrinsically worthwhile things. (I take the latter to be a way of managing moral luck.)

[For particular examples of these concrete strategies or to see particular syllabi, please contact me.]

While I am trying to introduce my students to some of the great thinkers from world history, I am also convinced that teaching philosophy requires instilling a love for language and a concern for moral character as deeply relevant to intellectual inquiry. I am grateful to have been honored with such a calling.

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Portraits by Mark Swirsky (markswirskyphoto.com)

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Except as otherwise labeled, all other photos are my own.