Thursday, February 17, 2011

Teaching Philosophy Revised

Here's a new draft of my statement of teaching philosophy, which I am planning to revise and use as part of my application for the Elizabeth Baranger teaching award. Feedback welcome!

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

            Philosophy courses provide excellent opportunities to teach skills and habits of mind that are central to a liberal arts education.  Those skills include abilities to analyze and evaluate arguments, to formulate reasonable views about complex issues, and to articulate and defend those views both orally and in writing.  Such skills help students become responsible citizens, valuable employees, and thoughtful human beings.
            The ability to analyze and evaluate arguments is fundamental for many fields, including not only philosophy but also career fields such as science, medicine, and law.  It is also essential for formulating reasonable, nuanced beliefs in a time of extremist commentary.  Philosophy courses provide excellent opportunities to teach these skills both because philosophy is a highly contentious discipline and because philosophers attend explicitly to the norms of argumentation.  I help my students acquire these critical thinking skills in several ways.  For instance, early on in a course I teach a lesson about how to analyze and evaluate arguments.  That lesson establishes a framework for talking about arguments that I continue to use throughout the term.  I also require students to write a number of Reading Responses in which they choose an argument from one of their readings to analyze and evaluate.  I use a peer-review system for these assignments in which students receive frequent feedback on their writing from one another in addition to the feedback they receive from me.
            Critical thinking skills are essential, but students should also learn to think synthetically and constructively.  Philosophy courses are well suited for teaching those skills because they give students opportunities to present their own views both in written work and in class discussions.  I prefer essay topics that are related to but not identical to topics we discuss in class, so that students can use ideas that we have discussed but cannot simply restate them.  When students receive their first essay assignment, I teach them a few simple ways to improve the clarity of their writing and give those tips simple names so that I can refer to them throughout the term.  I also work to ensure that students feel comfortable sharing their ideas in class while at the same time helping them to improve their oral presentation skills.  I tell them from the beginning that it is okay to be wrong in a difficult field such as philosophy, and that it is generally more productive to try out a view and see where it leads than to remain forever sitting on the fence.  I reinforce this message by taking students’ ideas seriously, pointing out their merits and raising concerns without shooting them down.  At the same time, I ask students to avoid selling their ideas short; for instance, I ask them to avoid the weak phrase “I feel like...” in favor of the more forceful “I think that...” and to avoid expressing statements as if they were questions.  I work to build student participation into my lessons as much as possible so that students come to class expecting to speak.
Many topics of debate in our society have at their heart philosophical issues.  For instance, debates about whether alternatives to the theory of evolution should be taught in public school science classes often turn on the question of what distinguishes science from non-science, which philosophers of science call the problem of demarcation.  I aim to help my students develop a more sophisticated perspective on those debates and a greater appreciation for the importance of philosophy by highlighting such connections.  In one case, I gave my students a New York Times op-ed piece by Deborah Tannen and asked them to comment on it in light of Karl Popper’s philosophy of science.  I was thrilled to see that they were able to identify what appears to be an ad-hoc maneuver by Tannen to save her favored theory--a no-no according to Popper.  I then gave them the option to write a Reading Response in which they applied Popper’s philosophy to Tannen’s article and gave their own view about whether they agree with what Popper’s theory says about this case.
I aim to persuade my students that they need philosophy to think about issues they care about.  In addition, I aim to give them skills that will allow them to think clearly and carefully about those issues and to be eloquent in sharing their thoughts with others.  Such skills are vital not only in the workplace, but also in private life and democratic society.

No comments:

Post a Comment