For many students, the really annoying thing about philosophy is the amount of time spent on concepts they think they already know, like “goodness” or “person”, as well as learning that they might have to make unpleasant decisions about which of their current beliefs they might have to give up. This can be frustrating, as they are accustomed to devoting their energy to acquiring new labels and concepts, not scrutinizing foundational ones, and are often anxious to figure out the “right” way to do something, rather than grapple with open-ended and controversial questions. Instead of an adversarial relationship where I interrogate them about deeply held beliefs, which can lead to frustration and even feelings of persecution, I model philosophy as a cooperative effort to collectively get clear on confusions that may undermine us without realizing it. When we think of ourselves as cooperatively engaging with these questions, others’ views become less threatening: they are other attempts to take on the same issues, ones from which we can learn and whose authors, embarked on the same project, may benefit from our perspectives and arguments in turn. Even when we fail to reach agreement on an issue, we can learn from the conversation.
Teaching in philosophy addresses distinct but sometimes overlapping needs: introducing students to philosophy in liberal education classes, recruiting new majors, furthering academic development of philosophy and cognitive science majors, and fulfilling ethics requirements for other majors. Because of my work in technology ethics, I am highly involved in the latter. I teach two upper-division courses that serve STEM majors: Environmental Ethics (PHIL 3325), and Values and Technology (PHIL 3242). My experience with these students informs my teaching methods.
My teaching is structured around the idea that by inviting students to join in the collaborative effort to understand complex issues, they can contribute something of value by sharing their perspectives, and at the same time stand to gain by considering the views of others. This can take the form of case studies evaluated in a podcast format, poster sessions where they discuss and critique their projects with their peers, and research presentations modeled on conference talks, with Q&A sessions and online forms to collect written comments students use to refine their final drafts.
My current teaching project is to increase effective engagement with assigned readings and primary texts, to which end I am utilizing collaborative PDF markup tools and student-led reading discussions, as well as collaborating with our library liaison, who participates in an experimental version of my Values and Technology class that integrates a focus on developing information literacy skills. I aim to bring similar themes of collaborative inquiry and cooperative engagement to bear in order to overcome the often-challenging (to students) task of making sense of philosophical texts.
To meet students where they are and give them the tools they need to contribute to philosophical discussions, I have developed a series of scaffolded assignments to facilitate students’ development of original research projects, beginning with an abstract template for organizing research questions, then a bibliography assignment that specifies different roles for different resources (one which has subsequently been adopted by the librarians at UMD’s library) and a rough draft peer editing workshop. These scaffolded assignments are now also used in an undergraduate research workshop I run with the Women In Computing group.
As with my research, my teaching is informed by an interest in bringing philosophical methods to bear on emerging social and technological issues, in order to make philosophy useful to people in their professional and personal lives.