Teaching involves numerous general challenges and teaching philosophy involves some special challenges. Two of these challenges often manifest themselves in two stereotypical types of students. The first is dogmatic student who regards his or her own beliefs as sacrosanct and competing beliefs as unworthy of consideration. The second is the student who regards philosophy as a matter of mere opinion and hence as being useless. Not surprisingly, dealing with the challenges has helped shape my teaching philosophy.
In the case of dogmatic students, it is often tempting to dismiss them as close minded and teach around them rather than trying to engage them. But, this is a mistake. In many cases dogmatic students can be reached by showing them that philosophy is not in the business of destroying beliefs or forcing people to convert to a specific view, such as atheism. In many cases, if a student can be shown that philosophy is about exploring beliefs they can be lead away from their dogmatism and to developing reasons in support of what they sincerely believe. Further, by exposing them to other views and their supporting arguments, they can begin to understand why other people might have different beliefs and this can help them become intellectually tolerant in cases where such tolerance is warranted.
Students who believe philosophy is merely a matter of bickering about useless opinions pose a different challenge. I address this by showing that while philosophy begins with opinions it progresses into arguments and these are not just a matter of opinion. I also show the students the historical contributions of philosophy and then go on to show them how philosophy can be useful in what they regard as their real life. For example, students are often surprised to learn that epistemology has relevance for the legal system in terms of assessing evidence and what it means to establish a claim as being beyond reasonable doubt.
While my approach to teaching has been shaped by the two challenges just discussed, it has also been shaped by various negative experiences I have had as a student and as a teaching assistant. Perhaps the most negative and hence most shaping experiences involved students being left largely in the dark in regards to such important matters as the goals of the class, what the class would cover, the way grades would be calculated and how the written assignments should be done. Such situations made me feel like I was on a derelict vessel adrift in a sea of confusion. Naturally, this was not a good feeling. One of my most painful memories as a teaching assistant was having several students break down in tears during my office hours because they had no idea what the professor was doing or what he wanted for them. Sadly, I did not know either and I could only tell them that I would do all I could to see that they were graded fairly. These sorts of experiences lead me to ensure that my classes have clear objectives, stated and fair means of assessment and an overall plan. The students might consider it something of a strange trip, but they can be confident that the ship is on course and that the captain knows what he is doing.
I consider the writing of argumentative papers a key part of the philosophical education. After all, an essential part of philosophy is being able to present both rational defenses and rational criticisms. Based on the experiences mentioned above, I believe that students need to have a clear idea about what they are expected to do in such papers. Hence, I provide highly detailed paper guides that include extensive hints, careful details and even sample papers. I have found that, in general, the students greatly appreciate this. One potential risk I have considered is that the students might be too constrained by such detailed guides. However, I think my approach is justified by using and analogy to driving a car. A student needs to learn how to drive within limits before they can fully strike out on their own. Letting a student just set out on the road without any guides might be a learning experience, but it is more likely to teach them what it feels like to crash into a telephone pole than it is to teach them how to drive properly. The same can be said of writing papers (without the actual crashing into a telephone pole, of course).
My positive experiences also shaped my view of teaching. Like many professors, I have had caring and excellent professors who made my education a positive experience. From these professors I learned that it is crucial to provide students with the extras that show one is concerned. Some of these extras are things directly related to education, such as downloadable class notes and downloadable practice tests. Some of these extras are not directly related to education, but are part of being a thoughtful person-such as my tradition of bringing candy to my classes on Halloween. The students sometimes laugh a bit at this, but the candy bags are always empty at the end of the day.
While it might seem a bit odd, my experiences as a long distance runner and a martial artist have had a profound effect on my approach to teaching.
Teaching philosophy is very much like teaching Tae Kwon Do. In the case of Tae Kwon Do people must be trained to defend themselves and practicing it develops both physical and mental fitness. While the practice of 21st century philosophy does not develop physical fitness, it does develop mental fitness. It can teach the students confidence and the ability to engage in intellectual self-defense. But, as with Tae Kwon Do, students must learn to practice control and respect for others. As with Tae Kwon Do sparring, there is always the possibility that people might lose their tempers while arguing and harm one another. As a teacher, one must guide the students so they learn to handle challenges, but at the same time ensure that no one is actually harmed.
When it comes to running you must train regularly and push yourself. If you do not, you get out of shape, grow weak and certainly do not improve. Just as with running, it is rather easy to start taking it easy when teaching. Just as with running, the consequences are equally serious. I know that if I do not keep up in my training for teaching, then my actually teaching will become rather poor. Because of this I regularly update my classes, use up-to-date examples and make sure that I am in good mental and physical condition for the classroom. While, unlike running, there are generally no trophies to win in teaching, a similar motivation is provided by the satisfaction of doing well and the shame of doing poorly.
Speaking of trophies, the rewards of teaching are manifold. Many people value making large life changing differences in their students’ lives. While I value doing that, it is usually the little things that matter most: having a student smile and say “I finally get the concept of validity” or getting a card from a student who says that although she thought my class was “a bit silly” what she learned is now helping her in law school. Often it is the many little things that make it all worthwhile. Of course, the big things are nice, too.