Purpose in Teaching Philosophy
I believe that courses in Philosophy should focus on developing skills rather than just memorizing content. The purpose of my courses is for students to learn how to think more critically and clearly, how to analyze difficult questions and break down puzzles into more basic pieces, and to avoid the urge to jump to conclusions or be taken captive by persuasive language. Learning the major positions on an issue or the views of a historical philosophy is part of studying philosophy, but it is not enough if students aren't taught the reasoning which leads to these positions. I want students to leave my courses with an improved ability to identify the strengths and weaknesses of different arguments, recognize subtle distinctions, identify the assumptions and presuppositions in opinions they encounter, and to communicate and reason through problems with others who disagree with them. I also want them to leave feeling more comfortable discussing topics and questions which might have seemed intimidating or too "deep" beforehand. I try to ask a lot of questions, encouraging the class to draw out conclusions and reason to ideas in discussion, and try to follow and taking seriously the questions that students offer – rather than plowing through with a straight lecture. The analytical skills students learn in Philosophy are not only helpful for academic pursuits, but for the workplace and in society at large. No matter what field they go into, people who can reason through problems, evaluate the claims of all sides, use logic to persuade others, and resolve disagreements will be a step above their peers when it comes to advancement and promotion. Philosophy also offers students an opportunity to critically reflect on their own core beliefs and ideas about the world and to appreciate the reasoning behind the beliefs of others.
Introduction to Philosophy Textbook. Working on my own classroom teaching lead me compose my own textbook for PHI 101, which was published by Kendall Hunt in 2015 as Introduction to Philosophy: Deducing Answers. Other introductory textbooks I had attempted to use tended either to be large anthologies of challenging primary sources, or short and heavily narrative introductions which express an idea but not a central argument.
My goal was for students to have an introduction to philosophy centered around logically structured arguments, with the opportunity to encounter original texts (we obtained permissions in order to incorporate 35 primary sources), but also with ample explanation of the central points and arguments of these texts and study guides tailored to my own course. The book is affordably priced.
Principles of Sound Reasoning Cogbook. Working with ASU Online Instructional Designers and the team at Cogbooks, I have been authoring and developing an online adaptive learning textbook for my PHI 103 course for release in the Spring of 2019. This introductory logic textbook includes interactive online self-assessment exercises and learns from repeated student use what information is more or less helpful in enabling students to understand the objectives in each module.
My goal is to provide a resource for my students that respects their agency and encourages a sense of ownership over their own learning, tailoring the experience to fit how they learn best. At the same time, I get a clear picture of what they do or do not yet understand, allowing me to use class time more efficiently and productively.
Principles for Teaching Philosophy
1. Respect Students. I teach on the assumption that my students are serious about learning and genuinely want to think for themselves about the questions we raise. I try to avoid making statements suggesting that they only care about what is essential for an exam or a grade. I try to engage them and their questions, with an understanding of where they are coming from, rather than with a mind to get across the 'right' information. I use class time to explore the ideas students bring up: clarifying the claim they’re making, then pursuing their train of thought to see where it goes. Student reactions and questions are not interruptions in the lecture but part of the lecture. I take attendance and place constraints on electronic devices because I want to set the norm that active participation is part of the class.
2. Play with Ideas. I try to create memorable experiences in class which not only grab attention and force students to rethink their assumptions, but playfully get them to internalize a very serious question. I teach them to move things with their mind. (Think about raising your arm. Now, raise it). I teach them now to increase and decrease the size of their hands. (Move your hand close to your face. Now, move it away.) I empirically disprove mathematics and mathematically disprove the existence of motion; I swap souls with them, prove that they are all bald, and argue that the foundation of morality is good hygiene. I insist that they explain the meaning of the sentence, “Go Sun Devils!” It’s fun. There is a deep point behind it, of course. But it helps to make it fun.
3. Let Students Talk To Each Other. One challenge with my preference for teaching through dialogue is the large classroom: most students are too intimidated to speak up in a classroom of hundreds. (When I was in college, I was too shy to speak up even in classes of 20). To help with this, I sometimes ‘interrupt’ my classes to ask students to spend a few minutes discussing a question with one another in small groups of 2-4 people. After this, we come back together and discuss as a class what the groups found. This helps encourage students who might otherwise remain silent to formulate their own ideas and express them. It also makes students feel responsible for figuring out the answers, rather than thinking I’m responsible for giving them the answers.
4. Be Predictable. The subject matter in my classes is incredibly difficult. These are not easy questions, and it is not easy to understand the vocabulary and the nuanced distinctions made by the philosophers we read. (What is “supervenience”?). Furthermore, once students do understand these ideas, they may encounter them as perspective-shattering, belief-overturning, mind-changing events which induce dizziness and headaches. We are regularly casting doubt on our most basic assumptions. (Is time real? Does matter think?). We question the validity of inductive reasoning: the world becomes unpredictable. To compensate, I make my class structure as straightforward, predictable, and stable as possible. The syllabus is set in stone. Assignments and quizzes are due on the same day and time of the week, in the same weekly or bi-weekly pattern, with all the information and more laid out in an carefully organized, easy-to-find place on Blackboard, with intentional redundancy. If the course itself has clear boundaries, there’s more freedom within it to explore the boundaries of our world.
5. Choose Your Own Adventure. Because I assume that students genuinely want to learn, I offer them choices. They have choices about which particular topics to focus on during the course, and choices about which resources to use in order to learn about those topics. In all of my online classes and many of my on campus classes, students have access to online video lectures, downloadable audio lectures, substantial written notes about the content, and frequent quizzes to check their understanding. This is in addition to the textbook and (on campus) my face-to-face lectures. Students can learn by a linear process if that is what they prefer – as mentioned, I keep things organized on my end – but they can also put together whatever pairing of resources works best for them. Most assignments allow a few options of ways to complete the assignment, and most units let students pick 2 out of 4 or more core readings to focus on in the unit. Students then share what they learned with the rest of the class through discussion boards. One recent course evaluation said that my class had a “choose your own adventure” feel and that “it’s nice to be treated like an adult for a change”, and those are things I like to hear.
6. Scaffolding. Thinking more deeply and more sharply takes time and practice to develop. I give students a lot of short assignments throughout the class in order to build up their skills before big assignments due at the end of the course. These include short reflective writing assignments meant to get them thinking deeply, and more formal argument extraction assignments meant to get them thinking sharply. These assignments are usually graded on a simple pass-fail basis (so I’m not swamped with grading) but it allows them to slowly build up to major assignments (i.e., term papers) at the end of the course. Building slowly helps students think of themselves as training in new skills, rather than holding onto a fixed mindset as inherently “good at” or “no good at” something.
7. Flexibility. I teach a lot of students, hundreds every semester. Online, I teach a diverse group that includes active duty military personnel, students with serious ongoing medical and mental health issues, and full-time employees who are also their children’s primary caregiver. On campus, students are still becoming accustomed to adult responsibilities. It would simply not be possible for me to keep up with the mixed slew of worthy vs. unworthy excuses students might submit by e-mail. So, I write flexibility into my syllabus: online students have a 48-hour period after each due date to submit assignments late; they can make up for missed class attendance by coming to office hours. This allows enough flexibility for most “real life” issues. I can then save my personal attention for accommodating the most serious personal challenges. In other words, because my time isn't occupied by students facing dying computers, internet outages, missed busses, and the common cold, I’ve been available over the years for students facing documented cases of bereavement, domestic violence, sexual assault, hospitalization, deportation hearings, and other situations (like childbirth) where significant flexibility was needed.