Richard Charles Strong
"Teaching philosophy involves the same immense difficulty as instruction in geography would have if a pupil brought with him a mass of false and far too simple and falsely simplified ideas about the course and connections of the routes of rivers and mountain chains." — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Big Typescript, § 89
My approach to teaching is not one-size-fits-all. However, regardless of the nature of particular classes and individual students my overarching goal is to nurture knowing-how over knowing-that in the students whom I serve. I want students to come away from my course having improved two fundamental types of savoir-faire: analysis and communication. This requires selecting readings and designing assignments that disrupt the student’s tendencies to employ their ordinary and routine strategies of reading, evaluation, and communication. Of course, if students are tasked with things that are too difficult, then the unfortunate outcome will be a mixture of resigned boredom and unfruitful frustration. To avoid such an outcome I aim for a level of difficulty relative to student competence that falls within what developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development.” This means I try to take students outside of their intellectual comfort zone so that they might improve and enrich themselves intellectually, but not too far such that they feel lost, bored, or incompetent.
One clear and concrete example of aiming for a zone of proximal development is the nature of my final paper assignment: a three to five page thesis-driven essay. The specific difference, however, and the aspect that takes most students out of their comfort zone, is that I do not give the students a prompt or a series of prompts to choose from. The students are obliged to develop their own claim. This is usually not an easy task for most of the students and therefore requires quite a bit of instruction and support – not all, or even most, students are prepared to do this without some guidance. On the one hand, this guidance comes directly from me in the form of face-to-face meetings. In the other hand, it comes from a full week of in-class work-shopping of papers that begins with the development of a clear claim, transitions to the composition of a detailed outline, and concludes with the completion of a rough draft well before the paper is due. Intellectual autonomy begins with social and pedagogical support.
My paper assignments nurture student’s abilities to effectively analyze the texts we read because, given that their topic is unknown in advance, it demands that they approach and understand the assigned reading as a whole, reflect upon and evaluate the text against the world and their experience of it, and creatively respond to the reading in their own voice under the constraints of clear argumentation and structure. This assignment also helps students to communicate more effectively not only because they must develop a claim and defend it but even more so because they must decide what they themselves want to say about a difficult issue rather than select a prefigured position. I endeavor to provide as much feedback as possible on these papers and always return the paper with comments a few days before I reveal the student’s grade in an attempt to encourage students to read and learn from my constructive criticisms rather than rush to discover their grade.
Open-ended writing assignments encourage students to be more intellectually independent. The development of the suite of complementary skills needed for the task, which are both essential and widely applicable, is key not only for future academic success but also for success in student’s personal, professional, and public spheres of life. These skills are neither trivial nor abstractly academic, they are essential for developing individual human potentials.
I think it necessary to regularly assess student comprehension of course material both during and after any given unit. I believe it is particularly important to see how effectively I am guiding the students through the material before making a final assessment so that I can respond to any gaps in understanding. Additionally, it is a standard practice of mine to provide students with a general survey of what I can do to improve their learning experience around midterm so that I can respond to their concerns and make appropriate changes based on their needs before the class has ended for the semester.
I feel strongly that classes should be conducted in an interactive seminar style and not in a “sage on the stage” lecture format. This makes for a more lively, active, and flexible learning environment that builds a sense of community and group investment among class members. I make it a point to clearly state our learning goals at the beginning of every class so that our transactions are not rudderless, but I try to cover these points in such a way that the classroom discussion - in terms of clarification and complication - can be collectively addressed and allowed to develop organically based on the students’ curiosities, difficulties, and interests. I make it known that active participation in our discussions is an important part of the student’s grade. I accommodate shy students by allowing them to email me their questions or concerns about our readings. Anecdotally, it does not seem to be the case that the most talkative students always ask the best questions; providing multiple channels for contributing to classroom discussions helps to ensure that it is not simply the loudest or the most confident students who steer our conversations.
I routinely incorporate student’s interests and timely concerns into all of my courses. Philosophy matters. My job, in part, is to demonstrate its relevance. Often this means having a flexible reading schedule and adaptable lesson plans. For example, if we a learning about moral virtues in the Nicomachean Ethics, supplementing the writings of Aristotle with recent investigations into well-being relating to smartphone and social media usage can stoke interest and make the stakes of the reading more vivid. If we are learning about healthcare ethics then recent reports on the increasing cost of lifesaving medicines such as insulin will be assigned and discussed. Weaving together the old and the new (or the scholarly and the journalistic) highlights the relevance of philosophy for everyday life and animates what, for some students, may otherwise feel like moribund scholasticism divorced from any practical, so-called “real-world,” concerns.
In my current position at University of the Sciences, where the majority of students are pharmacy majors and nearly every student is in some way training to enter the medical field, I have designed and currently teach a course called Drugs and Society. In it we confront not only questions about what a drug is but also what we mean when we talk about “society” in relation to drugs and intoxication, from solemn rituals to ludic revelries. Our topics include things such as Aristotle on pleasure, happiness, and virtue, contemporary understandings of norms in relation to drug use, Habermas on the role of the coffee house in the emergence of the public sphere, debates on the nature and causes of addiction, the role of state in regulating drugs and punishing drug users, as well as the current opioid crisis. This course brings all the tools of philosophy and the humanities to bear on a subject that is immediately of interest to students.