Applications for college teaching jobs, whatever the discipline, typically require a “Statement of Teaching Philosophy.” Since my discipline happens to be Philosophy, perhaps my statement should instead read: “Statement of Teaching Philosophy Philosophy.” At any rate, here is mine from 2005:
My teaching philosophy is to involve students in a non-dogmatic, passionate, logically tight, and historically informed pursuit of wisdom whose main purposes are to learn how to think about and appreciate the mysteries of the universe and live morally in it.
An important element to this end is that students actually see a non-dogmatic, passionate, logically careful, and historically informed philosopher at work. If we praise Socrates, for instance, we must behave like Socrates. Students must also see that a philosopher looks for inspiration and ideas everywhere, even in the thoughts and experiences of those less knowledgeable and experienced. I have certainly learned from many of my students (even children) and will continue to do so. If I am unwilling to learn from my students, why should I expect them to want to learn from me? No one has a lock on wisdom.
As teachers, we must be keenly aware of our motivations. Let me recount a true story of my first course as the primary instructor. The usual plan is to be evaluated by the end of the quarter. But about two-thirds of the way into the quarter, I began to worry. What kind of “scores” would I receive from my students? Although the class was going reasonably well, how could I be sure that my students liked me? I already had good TA evaluations in previous logic classes, so why was I concerned in my first attempt at teaching solo? Eventually, my worries and rationalization so overcame my good sense, and I decided not to have my students evaluate me. Lo and behold, after coming to this decision, the class went brilliantly. My teaching became markedly better. I was relaxed. The students sensed this and opened up. There was a rapport between myself and my students that simply was not there before. What is the moral of this story? Simply this: as teachers, we must be aware of our motivations. Do we care more that our students learn or that they like us?
I now believe (whereas I did not previously) that if a class is not going well, it is most likely the fault of the teacher and not the students. Surely, I was the one to blame for the first part of that logic course. And thus, I take student evaluations very seriously. For the most part I find that they are helpful and perceptive. For example, in my modern philosophy classes, I now spend less time on substance and more on causality and personal identity. Also, student comments have confirmed that my decision to change the critical thinking text was the right one. I even bought some new clothes on a suggestion by one of my students! But regarding certain issues, my flexibility extends only so far.
I believe that the kinds of assignments we require of our students are vital to what we accomplish as teachers. And, because there are many objectives in teaching—developing skills, imparting knowledge, building self-confidence—we need to vary assignments accordingly. For example, take-home papers often provide students an opportunity to develop confidence. But students also need to express their ideas under the pressure of time and other distractions; hence, in-class examinations are needed as well. Moreover, I have found that in varying the kinds of assignments required I can really see the progress that each student is making. Some students are very comfortable taking a week to write a paper while others tend to do better under strict time-constraints.
Also, I am wary of pedagogical gimmicks and trends. Some of the pedagogical techniques I use or plan to use certainly sound gimmicky. For one, I sometimes require that each student write a dialogue with two or three characters, each of whom is supposed to represent one of the philosophers they have studied in the course. So, for example, in writing on early modern views of God’s relation to humans, a student might have Anne Conway and Spinoza as disputants in a trial with Leibniz as the judge. For another, I have used folktales from around the world to introduce students to philosophical ideas and problems before discussing the standard philosophical texts. But such techniques, though increasingly more common, are not, to my mind, gimmicky. Dialogues used to be a common form not only for essays but also for textbooks. The classic text on the theory of counterpoint in music, Steps to Parnassus, is written in dialogue form. It remains both a fascinating read and exceptionally clear. Students of philosophy still read Plato’s dialogues and find them, as a whole, to be deeply rewarding. The impact of such dialogues would surely be less if written in standard essay form. As a case in point, compare the interesting presentation in Berkeley’s Three Dialogues as opposed to his more pedestrian Principles of Human Knowledge. At the same time, sometimes I use folk stories as a way to introduce philosophical material. In my own life, my father, an immigrant from the Ukraine, told my family many Slavic folktales, a number of which are unfused with philosophical meaning. It is certainly telling that when I first heard of Leibniz’s complete concept theory of substance in college, I was neither surprised or confused as my classmates were. For I became aware of such an idea through a folktale in which a sorcerer Tsar had a book in which all the events—past, present, and future—of each of his subject’s lives were listed.
I have found certain techniques that really seem to benefit students. I have also learned that the input of students can only help and not hinder teaching. I am still learning and trust that this process with never stop. May I redescribe my teaching philosophy a few years down the road?
I received many interviews using this Statement of Teaching Philosophy. Perhaps this “statement” didn’t enhance my job application as a whole, but I do know it didn’t harm my chances. What do I think of it now? Well, I agree with my 2005 self; however, there are few things I would add. First, I would make clearer the point, paradoxical as it sounds, that students like us more when we are not so concerned that they like us! Second, many teachers don’t take student evaluations of their teaching very seriously. That’s a mistake. I believe that most students take evaluating their professor seriously. If anything, students back off of negative comments, so as not to jeopardize their professor’s job. I’m serious. Taking evaluations less than seriously is also a bit arrogant, too. Students can be remarkably accurate in their assessments. They can be remarkably inaccurate too! However, if a teacher consistently receives poor evaluations on the online site Rate My Professor, for instance, steer clear of that professor’s classes. Trust me. Third, I would point out that I hate to waste students’ time. Often they are paying good money for their education, while working part-time and sometimes full-time. A fun teacher with lots of stories is simply that, fun. Movies can also be a waste of time. In the time it takes to show The Matrix, for example, the students could learn a helluva lot about Spinoza. This is of course apart from the fact that most college students have already seen that movie. Fourth, I would discuss the surprising amount of diversity (in terms of culture, religion, interests, experiences, and race) found in any classroom, even in a classroom of students who “look” pretty much the same from the lectern perspective. Fifth, in the 2005 statement, I never provided examples of teaching gimmicks and trends. I won’t do it here, either. Can you think of some?