Monday, February 14, 2011

Teaching Philosophy (Baranger Award Application Materials II)

I solicited and received nominations for the Elizabeth Baranger Excellence in Teaching Award, which aims to "recognize and reward outstanding teaching by graduate students at Pitt."  I'll be posting here drafts of my application materials.  Feedback is welcome!

The application requires a "Statement of Teaching Philosophy," which the application website describes as follows:

For purposes of the A&S GSO award, you should consider the statement to be an explication of your pedagogical goals, methods, and theories. Although you may reference established pedagogical theories, what we as a committee are most interested in is your own understanding and how you put those ideas into practice, not your knowledge of the current jargon of teaching theory. For the purposes of this award, you do not have to focus exclusively on concrete examples in this component, because your teaching philosophy should be complementary to your example of and reflection on your teaching materials and the other application materials.
One of the primary goals of this statement is for you to demonstrate, or gain, a consciousness of the processes of learning in and out of your teaching environment. However you choose to do it, let your readers know how you think learning happens, what the best ways to facilitate this are, and how you put these ideas into practice. You may choose to address some of the following questions in your philosophy:
  • What are your objectives as a teacher? What methods do you use to achieve these goals? How do you assess and evaluate your effectiveness in achieving your objectives?
  • What do you believe about teaching? About learning? How is this played out in your classroom?
  • Why is teaching important to you?
  • Focus on how you go about teaching, with concrete examples where necessary or appropriate, and a reflection on how students react(ed) to concepts and/or innovations. You may reference other materials you have submitted.
  • Share insights about teaching in your specific discipline (importance of the field, theoretical grounding when necessary).
  • It is acceptable to talk about your mistakes in order to demonstrate what you learned from them.
We recognize that teachers at different levels of teaching will have differing amounts and quality of experiences from which to draw. We are more interested in how well you were able to work within the parameters you were given. Your Teaching Philosophy should not exceed 750 words.

The following is a statement of teaching philosophy that I wrote for a different occasion.  I am not entirely happy with it, and I think that it is too focused on the subject of philosophy for the Baranger Award application (as opposed to an application for a job in a philosophy department), but it is a start:

College courses in many disciplines primarily present stories of intellectual triumphs, such as ingenious methods, surprising discoveries, and successful theories.  By contrast, a typical philosophy course primarily presents stories of intellectual failures: everyday concepts that resist analysis, simple paradoxes that resist resolution, and compelling questions that resist definitive answers.  From a pedagogical perspective, this feature of a typical philosophy course generates both challenges and opportunities.  One major challenge is to avoid giving students the impression that philosophy is pointless because it never makes any progress.  One major opportunity is to help students become more reflective and critical about their beliefs.

I sympathize with students who complain about the fact that philosophers seem unable to solve any of the major problems they set themselves.  I used to respond to students who came to me with this complaint by pointing out that philosophy does make progress of sorts---we now know that many seemingly plausible positions cannot be made to work.  However, they often find this answer unsatisfying because all of the progress philosophers make seems to be negative; we know a lot in many cases about which answers will not work, but have learned little about the answer that will work.  A better response, I now think, is to point out that this feature of philosophy tells us something important: it is exceedingly difficult to develop defensible views about many very basic issues.  As a former professor of mine put it, philosophy really teaches you that you can't just say any old thing.

Philosophy is less a body of information than a set of skills and habits of mind.  Students in philosophy courses should learn to read a document, understanding its author's position, identifying his or her argument for that position, and evaluating the strength of that argument.  They should also learn to develop their own positions on complex issues and to present cogent arguments for those positions.  These skills are fundamental for critical thinking and thus are useful not only for philosophy, but also for many professions and for everyday life.  Because philosophy is a highly contentious discipline, a philosophy course provides excellent opportunities for teaching these skills.  To some extent, students will pick these skills up naturally through the process of learning about and doing philosophy.  However, making explicit what these skills involve can accelerate this process.  In addition, it can help to give students opportunities to practice these skills and to receive feedback on their performance.

As a philosophy teacher, my primary goal is to help my students acquire the argumentative skills of a good philosopher.  In addition, I aim to help my students to understand and internalize the specific content of the course.  Educational resarch suggests that testing students on a given body of material helps them internalize that material more effectively than simply reviewing that material with them, so I give frequent small quizzes.  Educational research also suggests that teaching something to someone else is one of the most effective ways to internalize it, so I have my students review their answers with one another before we discuss them together.  This peer review method has the additional benefit that weaker students can receive more personalized attention than I can give them.  Of course, I also review the material with them myself to prevent misconceptions from taking root and to answer questions that the peer review process fails to resolve.

Another distinctive feature of my teaching, besides peer review, is my interactive style of lecturing.  My basic approach is not to provide any information that I could elicit from the students.  As a result, in a one-hour recitation with twenty students, nearly every student speaks in every session.  I believe that this practice reinforces what the students have learned better than me reciting all of the information to them.  It also keeps the students alert and engaged, which is crucial for their learning.

Teaching philosophy is an excellent opportunity to help students acquire both critical thinking skills and a reflective habit of mind. I have developed some techiniques to try to make the most of this opportunity, and I look forward to continuing to improve my pedagogical skills.

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