Statement of Teaching Philosophy
The only truth I know is that most truths are uncertain
I believe teaching is the art of learning, unlearning, and re-learning. It is a process that enables students to re-imagine a reality by reappraising it. This insight is the source of my inspiration and teaching philosophy. It has guided me in all the graduate, senior undergraduate, and freshmen introductory classes that I have taught since 2004. Toward this end, each class has been an exercise in critical thinking, conceptual framing, synthesis, and simplicity. My methods and the degree of application of these principles have varied with the type of class and the disciplinary training of the student cohort. But the teaching philosophy and its principles have remained consistent.
In my pedagogy, critical thinking means the disciplined application of criticism not just to academe, but also to life in general. It pertains to the interrogation of accepted reality through new evidence, counterarguments, counterfactuals, and the construction of alternative reality as viewed through diverse institutional and cultural lenses. In attempting this, my goal is to enable students grasp and peel away layers of the take-for-granted social reality in which they function and which bounds their imagination.
To my mind, the ability to conceptually frame the reality we encounter is a key measure of critical thinking. The challenge of education in our time is developing the ability to chart and navigate the sea of data that surrounds us. Hence the learning that I attempt to instill in my students redefines the relationship between concept and fact. It privileges conceptual thinking.
Finally, I teach the art of synthesis and simplicity. I tell my students that the value-added in knowledge production stems from tying multiple streams of data and concepts into an integrated whole and in rendering the complex seemingly simple. The true measure of mastery in any discipline is one’s ability to grasp the big forest picture without getting lost in the trees. It is the capacity to distill “thick description” into meta-principles and frame data to prove or exemplify argumentation.
I had the opportunity to teach graduate seminars at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS). In the seminar on ‘Politics of Nuclear Proliferation in South Asia’ I used role-play to encourage critical thinking. For instance, I tasked students to take ownership of pieces of scholarship during class seminars and defend them. For their writing assignments students imagined themselves as policy advisors in two of three different political settings (United States, India, and Pakistan), picked a critical policy issue (crisis, war, or proliferation decision), and wrote two contrarian briefs spelling out the conceptual assumptions behind their arguments and the evidence that could falsify them. To further the idea of alternative realities I incorporated Hugh Gusterson’s ‘Nuclear Rites’ and Donald MacKenzie’s ‘Inventing Accuracy’, examples of Anthropological and Sociological works, alongside the more traditional international security literature into my syllabus. To teach students conceptual framing and synthesis I dropped the traditional research paper in favor of a policy brief and an Op-Ed. These two writing formats with their emphasis on brevity, simplicity, and clarity helped reinforce the principle of “less is more.”
In the seminar-workshop I taught on ‘Emerging Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Supplier Networks’, I sought to bridge the politics-technology divide between scientist-engineers and political practitioners by inviting nuclear and aerospace engineers to explain the fundamentals of technologies and the methods that technologists used to evaluate evidence of proliferation. Similarly, I used docudramas with bio-terror and (nuclear) dirty-bomb attack themes to demonstrate the personal dimension of “high politics” in international security and create an empathetic learning experience. Cumulatively, the seminar style presentations, the focus on alternative realities, argumentative writing assignments, and the emphasis on taking ownership and responsibility proved effective in fostering an immersive learning experience. In my classes mid-career professionals (civil bureaucrats and military personnel) sat alongside first-time graduate students, a situation I exploited to create a learning environment that fused practitioner experience with academic research.
At Cornell my focus shifted to learning the ropes of teaching large introductory and advanced undergraduate courses. During my time in graduate school I served as Teaching Assistant in three introductory courses in international relations (Instructors: Peter J. Katzenstein, Jonathan Kirshner), one in comparative politics (Instructor: Kenneth Roberts), and two advanced undergraduate courses in US foreign policy (Instructors: Peter J. Katzenstein, J.J. Suh). Assisting the management of large introductory courses is not simply a teaching exercise. It is a lesson in course logistics. Given that introductory courses are often students’ first formal exposure to a discipline, I used a different tack to draw them into the field. In the introductory course in international relations for example, my attempt was to transform students’ fact-based understanding of international events into a theoretic frame that would enable them to ask abstract questions concerning recurring patterns in the international system and the processes that drive them. In addition, I helped them learn how to deploy theoretical frames to evaluate news and historical events around us. In the semester’s first quarter I focused on internalizing competing paradigms (Realist, Liberal, Constructivist and so on) used to theorize and interpret international political episodes. By mid-semester, I turned to the Socratic method and seminar style participation to push students beyond their comfort zone. By the semester’s third and final quarter, students were able to present readings, write and share a short one-page reaction memo with the class, and defend or contest the structure of an argument.
In the more advanced undergraduate classes in US Foreign Policy that I helped teach two yeas ago, my immediate focus was on conceptual analysis, structured thinking, and argument details. The three broad themes that ran the course of the classes were: (a) the role of multiple traditions in US foreign policy; (b) military asymmetry and US global intervention; and (c) power transitions and the meaning of American decline. Section-classes were seminar style by default. In any given week, students’ role-played scholars, made presentations, and defended findings, learning in the process to separate fact from opinion. The class followed with a critical reading of the week’s assignments. I ensured that students learned to appraise scholarship by evaluating the quality of the evidence alongside the inferences scholars had drawn from it to advance arguments. In each class students did an exercise to identify some of the hidden assumptions behind an argument and the conditions that could lead to their falsification. To hone their analytic and writing skills students wrote a review essay comparing two assigned texts and ended the semester with a memo to the secretary of state arguing a particular course of action on an issue-area of their choice. This last assignment was an attempt to bridge the discipline’s widening academic-policy practitioner divide.
At the end of each class I asked my students two simple questions. First. whether they knew anything different about world history and external events from the time they had enrolled in the class I was teaching. And second, how they knew what they knew was different. Their answers helped me evaluate whether I had accomplished my principles. And in those answers I also found the best metric for teaching effectiveness.