My primary pedagogical goal is to create a learning culture that enables students to grow in virtue and wisdom. Being a full-time educator for more than nine years has enabled me to hone strategies that are effective for students of virtually all backgrounds, religions, ages, and aptitudes.
Philosophical inquiry begins and ends with good arguments. Therefore, my courses are exercises in understanding, critiquing, and producing arguments.
One tool that has worked well for me is assigning philosophical papers in a classic “disputation” format. I pose a clear, yes/no question for students to answer. They state their thesis, list objections to their own view, and then argue for their view before rebutting objections. The disputation format not only requires argumentative clarity and brevity but inculcates the virtues of epistemic humility and charity while presenting of one’s opponent’s view. To my surprise, these disputation papers are the single best-reviewed assignment I give. One medical ethics student wrote: “I loved writing the papers. It helped me look past the surface and see my true position on each subject/topic.” (PHL200 2015) Students have even asked me to assign more such papers(!)
Rigorous argument is new and challenging for many students. Therefore, my courses aim to inspire students with the many personal and academic benefits of philosophical reasoning.
One motto that I have found useful in the classroom is this: “demand everything; forgive anything.” This motto indicates the paradox that students need to be challenged but they also need kindness when they face various struggles such as poor health, personal and family issues, or socio-economic and other disadvantages. I’ve found that a combination of clear goals and unlimited patience is very effective in spurring high-performing students to go grow while encouraging students who enjoy fewer advantages to excel beyond what they might have imagined.
Making Learning Enjoyable
The first day is crucial for setting expectations. I promise students that I will make the course as enjoyable as possible, and ask in return that they take responsibility for their own learning.
I use humor and a personable approach to conversation to keep the classroom environment fun, even when the work is difficult. Epicurus argued the virtuous life is the most pleasant life, so we try to enjoy acquiring virtue. One student reported: “The course was really interesting, and the teacher was very engaging. I expected this gen-ed to not be fun, but he made it interesting, fun, and I learned a lot about how to think differently about things.” (Asbury, Intro to Philosophy, 2015)
Introductory Course Strategies
Introductory classes are an opportunity to show students the benefits of a philosophy major or minor. In week 3, I present a verbal and written case for majoring in philosophy. By the end of the semester, I tend to recruit approximately 1-2 philosophy majors per 30 student class. For example, one student switched her major from music to philosophy after taking my virtue ethics course. She did not think of herself as a “philosopher” – but realized in that course that philosophy would not only be more challenging but could help her become a better writer and musician.
Introductory classes are primarily a chance to invite students to become more self-reflective thinkers who know themselves within their context of history, tradition, and culture. To this end, I assign mostly primary sources (such as Plato, Augustine, and Hume) and coach students and how to read well, take notes, and discuss well. Thematic focus is eclectic (including Socratic wisdom, the soul, the problem of evil, existence of God, scientific reasoning, skepticism). For a change of pace and to reduce workload at midterm and finals, we also watch and analyze films such as the Matrix, Toy Story 3, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the Tree of Life.
Class time is 2/3rds interactive lecture, usually following a slide show that is available online before, during, and after class. The remaining 1/3rd of class time is teacher-lead discussion that accustoms students to the normal aporetic feelings of confusion and vertigo that come from doing hard philosophical work. In lectures and discussions, I aim to help students follow the argument and gain insight into these timeless topics.
Another technique that has worked well for me is to allow students two tracks for earning participation points: “Internal processors” post weekly on a Wiki discussion board while “external processors” speak in class. This allows external processors to talk more in class and encourages internal processors to articulate their thoughts in writing. One characteristic comment from a student: “I have a tough time thinking outside the box in a philosophical manner so this course really challenged me. I am grateful that the internal/external processor idea was put into action because I freak out if I have to talk in front of the class.” (2015)
Upper Division Course Strategies
Upper division courses are slightly different. I make the pitch for earning a philosophy minor, and include a broader range of contemporary sources. Class time is 1/3rd interactive lecture, with 2/3rds cooperative discussion and student presentations.
I assign upper division students to complete “Critical Readings.” They meet in groups ahead of time to collaboratively interpret the reading for the day, answering six specific questions such as ‘what is the author’s thesis?’, ‘what is the main argument?’, ‘what are the main objections?’ and so on. The group presents its Critical Reading results and kicks off the discussion. Students appreciate that all my assignments require and reward philosophical thinking. One student said: “None of the assignments are busy work.” (Asbury 2014)
Students consistently report enjoying my classes and oftentimes choose to study more philosophy. On my RateMyProfessors.com profile, the three most common descriptions students have chosen are “hilarious” and “inspirational” and “participation matters.”
Nevertheless, every semester I learn something new and slowly improve teaching techniques. For example, my first year of teaching, I required everyone to speak in class to earn participation points. Students complained that the class was “geared toward external processors” so I changed this requirement. I am always experimenting with creative ways to elicit student participation in the immersive work pursuing virtue and wisdom.