A Statement Of My Teaching Philosophy

I believe that the best teachers are both rigorous and kind.  In terms of rigor, my syllabi are usually demanding in terms of the quantity of philosophers and major topics they cover and the quality of readings that they assign.  I give comprehensive exams, demand their writing shows signs of philosophical talent for an A, and grade class participation in a way that demands of every student both high frequency and high quality participation.  But the pressures of challenging course material should be the only source of stress students endure—extra anxieties stemming from the students’ interpersonal dealings with their instructor are simply counterproductive.  Teachers should create as encouraging and helpful relationships with their students as possible to ease the strains of an uncompromisingly ambitious workload, rather than exacerbating them through apathy, carelessness, or discouragement.  To build rapport with my students, I make a point of learning all my students’ names the first day of class before we start covering any material, show up 15 minutes before class whenever possible to take advantage of the opportunity to chat informally with them, accept late work without penalties, and make myself as available to them as I can through office hours and online social media.

Kindness towards the students also involves being sensitive to the lack of a sense of separation many students have from their ideas.  Especially in the case of novices to philosophy, many students are inclined to feel personally criticized when their ideas are rejected.  I put a lot of care into fostering active class participation by making students’ forays into expressing their ideas as stress-free and productive as possible.  This often begins with moving closer in the room to students when I call on them and then making eye contact with them so that they focus on me and not on their peers.  Then restating their ideas approvingly often validates them by showing them that I understand them and that they make sense.  Often at this point, it means amplifying students’ ideas to show them that I see they have more good implications to their thought than they had even communicated right away.  Within this context, constructively and sympathetically challenging their thoughts is far more productive because the students already feel validated and successful as contributors.  My students almost invariably seem to take my criticisms and philosophical challenges as collaborative rather than combative.

The most pivotal next step is to subtly mediate the students’ vigorous philosophical challenges to each other’s by having each student address their ideas to me, rather than directly to each other.  I will go around the room discussing the ideas at hand one on one with each student and moderating a larger debate, with each student feeling validated by my display of confidence in them.  This approach usually leads to more and more participants who bring a wider range of fruitful perspectives and a lively debate since everyone feels comfortable to speak up and personal acrimony or tensions are defused through my mediation.  Of course sometimes a student’s suggestion indicates a clear misunderstanding.  In those cases, it is crucial not to be so kind as to affirm a confused idea and mislead both the student and the rest of the class.  But even in those cases there are ways to be encouraging rather than discouraging to the student whose idea you need to reject.  You can explain to them how you see they made the mistake they did, affirm their reasoning process, and then explain to them what they overlooked or did not quite understand yet.  This art of sensitivity on one’s feet can make all the difference between whether or not the student tries to speak again.

The final indispensable sensitivity when dealing with students is to remember to focus on their freedom to develop their own intuitions, even where these manifestly differ from your own.  The art is to help students formulate their own ideas as well as they can be formed and then to engage them with challenges that come out of their ideas.  You do no favor to a student with whom you agree when you do not challenge him or her with another perspective and you do no favor to a student with whom you disagree when you put the advancement of your personal opinions ahead of their abilities to develop their own ideas.  Students should never feel afraid to disagree with you or an incentive to curry favor with you by telling you what they know you want to hear.  In most semesters, I have coyly guarded my own fundamental views in order to keep students from lazily relying on me as an authority, shamelessly pandering to my prejudices, or fearing my hostility to their contrary intuitions.  Other semesters I have let my students know my stances on a given issue when bringing in a guest philosopher to debate me and be a representative for those students who disagree with me, or simply have demonstrated a daily concern for their development as thinkers over the creation of converts.  Regardless of whether I have hidden my views from the students or have been nonchalantly frank about them when asked, as long as I have maintained a student-centric attitude that was concerned ultimately with their cultivation and rarely with my own soap box, students have never shown any signs of feeling encumbered in expressing their opinions in their writing or speaking in my classes.

All of this effort in getting students to speak comfortably is crucial to my teaching style since I teach through conversation.  I usually spend the first fifteen to twenty minutes of a lecture explaining the motivation behind the major question we are covering that day and then the broad outline of the answer that our assigned reading proposes.  It is crucial to highlight what the question is before giving them an answer to it, so that they can understand why it is important.  By the end of those fifteen minutes or so the students are either asking questions and challenging the ideas already or I am soliciting such responses from them.  The rest of the period is usually driven by their questions.  Different from the Socratic method, in which one coaxes desired answers from students through careful (often leading) questions to them, I see my goal as cultivating their questions so that when I give them a philosopher’s answer it is something they were motivated to care about.  When the students’ questions lead us to the ideas we were going to cover anyway, they feel like I am responding to their thoughts and concerns, rather than that I am just dumping information on them.  The art of guiding a class discussion for me is one of stimulating them to ask the questions the philosophers are asking so that the material I am teaching is something they want to be learning and so that they are better equipped to challenge the ideas I am presenting.  When people have asked a question for themselves, they are more likely to be able to recognize a flaw in the answer given, since as questioners, they understand to a significant extent what is at stake in a satisfying answer.

My lectures are dynamic and free-flowing, given this style of teaching.  In each lecture, the presentation of the ideas follows the stream of the class’s thought, rather than a pre-fabricated outline, except in those cases where a given idea or system does not admit of such loosely structured presentation for clarity.  For the most part, coherent sets of ideas can be presented in a range of orders and with varying emphases and I find it endlessly exciting to see the various ways to weave the threads of the same philosophy together when presenting it to a different class.  Some ideas covered are frequently the same, but the fresh derivation of them through the interaction with unique students each time is an extremely satisfying, creative activity.  Then when test time comes, I hand out a complete set of my notes for the students to study from so that they do not have to spend their studying energy on hunting and pecking through the texts or their notes but can concentrate on the central themes, explained in detail as though they had come to see me or written me with questions.  Such study guides help supplement their notes and so free them to focus during each lecture on keeping up with the ebbs and flows of the class discussion, rather than stressing over their abilities to reduce it all to testable information for regurgitation on an exam.  Separating the process of actively deriving and developing the ideas together as a class from the later need to have a valuable, orderly set of notes to help with committing to long-term memory, helps students to both think vigorously and then memorize well through techniques distinctly tailored to each goal.

Your Thoughts?

  • shane

    this is really good dan. I’m not looking forward to having to write one of these of my own.

    • Daniel Fincke

      much appreciated, Shane. There’s so much pressure on these things, it’s nice to be able to run them by other eyes…

  • Lauren Ipsum

    Both my parents were teachers, and while they taught foreign languages, they held many of the same attitudes that you do. First among my mother’s edicts was “there are NO stupid questions.” So it didn’t matter if a student asked, in genuine bewilderment, if the Leaning Tower of Pisa was in France — she would answer the question seriously, and without mocking. After all, she noted, how are you going to learn anything if you don’t ask?

  • sunsangnim

    I really wish I could be in your philosophy course. Sounds like a great time!

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