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. In what follows, I highlight some of my overarching learning goals, methods, strategies and other considerations as it regards relatively small writing-intensive university courses in the humanities. It is a banal truism, though because it is so obvious it is frequently overlooked, that not all students are operating at the same level of academic and intellectual proficiency. What this means is that teaching practices call for dynamic orientations, strategies, tactics, and goals. A teaching philosophy, to be effective, must be able to identify, respond to, and accommodate heterogenous teaching situations. My own teaching philosophy is abductively geared towards the students, what they being to the course, their learning needs, and reasonable learning outcomes which best serve them in all their subsequent endeavors.
Abstractly speaking, my teaching philosophy is committed to developing knowing-how over knowing-that. I want my students to walk away from my course having improved two fundamental types of largely inalienable savoir-faire: analysis and expression. This requires selecting readings and designing assignments that disrupt the student’s tendencies to employ their ordinary and routinized strategies of reading, of 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 competency that falls within what Lev Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development.” In nuce, 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 assignments; a three to five page thesis-driven essay. The specific difference, however, and the facet 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, of the students are prepared to do this without some guidance. This guidance comes both from me and from other students taking the form of both one-on-one meetings and 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 help students to effectively analyze the texts we read because, given that their topic is unknown in advance, it demands that one 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 rigorous philosophical argumentation. 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 problem 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 my students to read and learn from my constructive criticisms rather than rush to discover their grade.
Open-ended, and therefore challenging, writing assignments help students to learn 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 political spheres of life. I do not take these to be trivial or abstractly academic skill sets with no application outside of my class or the university.
I have highlighted the writing and reading skills I try to nurture and develop in my students, I now wish to show some of the ways I work on fostering my students ability to communicate orally, both with planning and improvisationally. First, I have each student give a short presentation on either a formal or informal fallacy and make it a prerequisite for a good grade that the student develop their own examples of the fallacy in such as way that it will be most easily understood by their peers. Analyzing and distilling information about a fallacy and then synthesizing that with some real-world student-relevant example (which is a better indication of comprehension than employing stock examples) is a challenging but important exercise in oral communication. This, in conjunction with classroom discussion as a whole is a valuable way for students to practice communicating philosophical material aloud both with planning and extemporaneously. One becomes a better communicator only by communicating challenging questions, ideas, and arguments.
I also feel it is necessary to give students assessments to gauge their comprehension both during and after any given unit. I think 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.
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 with 25 or fewer students 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 plastic learning environment that builds a sense of community among class members. I make it a point to clearly state our learning goals at the beginning of every class so that our learning 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 clear that active participation in our discussions is an important part of the student’s grade. For students who are shy or averse to speaking I also make it known that if they email me their questions or concerns about our readings I will bring it up in class and that this will count towards their participation.
I make it routine to incorporate student interests and timely concerns into my courses. Often this means having a flexible and dynamic reading schedule. For example, if we a learning about moral virtues in the Nicomachean Ethics it may be the case that supplementing the writings of Aristotle with recent investigations into the habitual patterns of use and concerns of well-being relating to smartphones can provide a bridge between old and new, highlight the relevance of philosophy for everyday life, and breathe fresh life into what can become moribund scholasticism.
In closing I would like to make a few remarks on my pedagogical disposition as it relates to newfangled digital technologies. I am presently opposed to allowing students (who do not have special permission on the basis of specific learning needs) to use laptops, tablets, or smartphones in the classroom. I think that smartphone apps and other feedback tools can be used very effectively and make class more interactive and even fun. However, by and large, the positive potentials for smartphones, laptops, and tablets for in-class learning are outweighed by their negative attributes such as distraction and correlated poor retention of material unless, like any classroom tool, they are very carefully integrated into the lesson. I am open to integrating these increasingly ubiquitous technologies into my future classes but I do not want to heedlessly embrace these tools without a clear plan in place backed by empirical verification of unambiguously positive benefits, successful tactics, and proven learning outcomes.