If you can't explain an idea clearly, you don't understand it. One's teaching strategy must vary according to student ability, but the core skills remain the same: one must be able to evaluate arguments and to express ideas clearly.
In my classes, students develop analytic skills through practice, not just by example. In upper-division courses, I ask the students to produce a "One Pager" each week. For a "One Pager" students must define any important terms and produce a formalization of the principal argument. I typically begin class by motivating the problem, and then through a series of questions I have the class attempt to formulate the key arguments. Through guided class discussion, we then raise and reply to objections. In the process, students develop both philosophical competence and confidence in their philosophical abilities. They see that by slowing down and clarifying arguments, they can refute what might have at first appeared to be an unshakable position.
Although there are a variety of profitable styles in which one can write philosophy, I think that the quickest route to profundity in philosophy is to be as clear as one possibly can. Unfortunately, most students receive far too little feedback on their writing. The reason why is clear: It takes a lot of time to provide detailed feedback. In upper-division courses, I take the time. In the first part of the semester, I assign two papers worth only a few grade points. The first paper simply asks the students to write a one page paper explaining an argument—the core of any paper in our discipline. I make extensive stylistic comments. It comes as a surprise, but the students discover how difficult it is to be clear. On the second assignment, I ask the class to write a two page paper that explains an objection to an argument. Again, I do not ask for evaluation. I merely want the students to work on clarity, showing precisely how an objection functions as an objection. Here, too, I reply with extensive feedback.
From experience I learned that teaching is by far the best heuristic device, since it forces you to work through an issue from the inside. My exams ask the students to do just this. When trying to explain an idea clearly, any gaps in your understanding will be immediately apparent. On the midterm and final exam, I typically ask for explanations of key arguments and objections. And I assign longer papers that ask for evaluation. On the longer assignments, I focus my comments on content. Three years ago I started providing typewritten comments for each student. This allows me to say more and to say it more clearly. As a result, I saw tremendous improvement from nearly my entire ethics class. Many of my students appreciate the effort:
- "The extensive comments on our writing also helped a great deal." (The Good Life)
- "Dr. Smuts provides more extensive written feedback on assignments than any other professor I have had at Temple. He is genuinely interested in doing his part to make his students better writers and better critical thinkers. He is in the absolute top tier of professors I have had here at Temple." (The Good Life)
- "Great feedback on papers. Very helpful!" (Mosaic I)
- "His method for grading our papers was extremely beneficial to my writing." (Philosophy of Film)
- "Aaron Smuts is a fantastic professor. I've never had any professor be as thorough in evaluating and commenting upon papers." (Philosophy of Film)
In addition to providing more written feedback than is customary, I give more tests and quizzes than is standard in philosophy. At the beginning of each class, unless a "One Pager" is due, I give a quiz that asks the students to explain a key phrase or example from the reading in a sentence or two. The quizzes are graded with a check or an x. It takes less than 10 minutes to grade a few classes worth. In lower division courses, I find that quizzes are essential. They help verify that students are doing the reading. In addition, the quizzes serve as an early warning for students who may be having trouble. Further, the quizzes make it clear that I expect everyone to work on the readings. Many students have told me that they appreciate the quizzes, since they help keep everyone on track.
One of my principal ambitions is to become a great teacher. To maintain enthusiasm in the classroom, I've tried to teach a wide variety of courses on big questions that overlap with my research interest, courses that I would have enjoyed taking. So far, I've taught over a dozen different philosophy courses. My numeric evaluations have been consistently excellent. And my students have been encouraging. In my second semester of full-time teaching, students in my philosophy of death class wrote:
· “He was very easy going. It was made very clear that we could ask a question or make a comment and not feel stupid. It was a fun environment!! He is one of the best professors I've had and many people feel that way.”
· “Great course. One of my favorite of my college experience. Great instructor.”
· “Phenomenal teacher. One of the best in the department.”
The following semester, students in my philosophy of film class noted:
- "His enthusiasm for the material made it easy to get interested and stay involved. He was also extremely capable of paving an accessible route to abstract concepts. Dr. Smuts is the best professor I have had."
In my course on the good life, students remarked:
- "He is in the absolute top tier of professors I have had here at Temple."
- "[His] overall zeal and enthusiasm for the content inspired a similar excitement within me to actually engage in the texts as much as possible. Smuts is flawless."
A student in the philosophy of love wrote:
- "My favorite professor thus far in my academic career. I will continue to take his courses until I graduate."
Having had the opportunity to teach courses that I wish I could have taken has provided me with one of the things I wanted most out of an academic career.