Statement of Teaching Philosophy

This is pulled from a May, 2009 post. This eventually went on to become my official teaching philosophy submission for my current position. Looking back, I am quite happy with it. I still very much believe in these things, and have not significantly changed my view. However, it also shows me how I fall short in my practices. For that reason, it serves as a useful navigational tool in helping me improve my methods.

Something I’ve been working on for the last couple of weeks is a statement of my teaching philosophy. Although I’ll probably make some minor changes, this is pretty accurate.  

‘Teaching Philosophy’

Kamran Swanson

 

I.                   Philosophy

II.                Practice

III.             Justification

IV.             Conclusion

I. Philosophy

 

I find it among the most interesting peculiarities of education that the problems and methods of evaluation most often found in the school have the aim of ensuring that the student understands a concept, whereas those people at the pinnacle of discovery in a discipline must figure out ways to deal with unknown concepts. In the first case, the student is given a problem to solve. In the second case, the explorer must figure out what the problem is. It has been said time and time again, from Plato through Darwin and beyond, that the majority of the task in the act of discovery is in understanding what the problem is. And yet, such little class work is devoted to the construction of problems.

It might be thought, and not incorrectly, that this makes sense: we must first learn the concepts well, and then we can be explorers. We remember back to when we were undergraduates, and we knew people (perhaps we knew it in ourselves) who disdained philosophy classes, because they wanted to create their own philosophy. But we learned after time that we can’t see anything beyond the sight of the giants until we understand how to stand on their shoulders. The originality found in starting from scratch makes one feel like they are breaking new ground, but it is only because we are unaware of the thoughts that have been said time and time again. Learn what has been said already, and then go beyond: then be original.

This is all well and good, particularly within the academic disciplines that we educators know and with which we are comfortable. But they ignore an important truth: in the very diverse and exciting world in which we live, our academic disciplines, as profound and as interesting as they are, only scratch the surface in terms of all the problems and frontiers of understanding that present them selves. It is hard for me to construct a new response to contemporary philosophical issues, because I have not read everything there is to read about these problems. But I also must deal with mysteries for which no academic work has been done: who I am, what I believe, and how I will face the unique situations and problems that present themselves uniquely in my life that have not been anticipated.

In order to succeed on this perspective, of trying to find solutions to problems which themselves lie in mystery, what is needed is the ability to construct a problem, not the ability to recall unassociated information databases. And yet, this problem-creation skill is rarely taught outside of graduate school. But why should this be relegated to graduate school?

The keystone to my teaching philosophy is precisely in this. It is a philosophy that is influenced by both philosophers I have read, teachers I have had in the past, my own experience as a student, and years of conversation with my mentors. It puts in second place the comprehension of subject matter, and in first place the way in which humans deal with ambiguities. In practice, my classes focus on writing problems, arguing to a solution, critical reading on very difficult texts, and argumentative discussion.

Another aspect to this philosophy deals with Curiosity, and is influenced by American Philosopher John Dewey. Under this view, human beings are naturally curious creatures, and that it is due to curiosity that humans seek out new knowledge. Curiosity is specifically a desire to learn. It is an emotion, and the interesting thing about emotions is that they can be stoked or eroded. If a student possesses curiosity, they will learn because they want to. If the student does not, they will, at best, learn because it is the means for other goals. In the prior, it is exciting; in the latter, it is merely necessary. According to Dewey, curiosity erodes when it is no longer useful. When the teacher presents questions that dance on the border of a student’s comprehension, then curiosity is stimulated. When a teacher gives answers, curiosity is no longer needed. In the prior, the student’s mind grows naturally. In the latter, the student’s mind is full of ideas, but with little understanding of how the ideas relate, and without the motion of the mind that induces the contemplation necessary to figure out how they connect.

II. Practice

In practice, then, these are the methods that can be found in my classroom:

1. Argumentative Essays. In terms of graded work, the Essay is the keystone of my philosophy classes. An Essay, I tell my students, comes from the word ‘to assay,’ meaning ‘to attempt.’ The Germans adopted Essay to replace their term Versuch, which also means ‘to attempt.’ But in the German, it has the alternative and useful meanings of ‘to tempt’ and ‘to experiment.’ This may seem like pedantry, but it is essential to one of the two goals of the Essay. First, it is an exploration into an unknown concept. The goal here is not mastery, and it is certainly not the possession of a clear answer. At best, the goal is to clearly articulate a problem, so the ambiguity is not in the meaning of the question, but in the possible answers; the goal is to construct a question for which the answer is not obvious at the beginning. It is the setup of a critical inquiry into one’s prior beliefs, not an attempt to justify what was already believed.

Charles Peirce, one of Dewey’s mentors, described an important concept that inquiry is not properly understood as the pursuit of truth, but as a psychological phenomenon that is better understood as an escape from the emotionally irritating form of doubt to the calm state of belief. In order to engage in legitimate inquiry, one must face a case of legitimate irritation: not the Cartesian “doubt” of claiming one knows nothing, but the feeling that “I don’t know, and the current answers do not satisfy me.” Without that feeling, all inquiry is merely a re-justification of prior biases. This is simply a case that humans naturally recoil from unpleasantness and move toward pleasantness.

Carried out in the practice of essay writing, I spend considerable time focusing on the problem of both the writing assignment, and the problems that the various philosophers were responding to in developing their views. The beginning of the essay introduces not a topic, but an argument: and worthwhile arguments are directed at questions that are either controversial or that the audience did not know existed. Therefore, the introduction of an argument is the construction of a problem. Introductions are meaty: they raise a topic that the student believes is important, discusses the issues at stake and the theoretical background that will be used in answering the question. If the student knows the thesis at the outset of the writing assignment, they are on the wrong track. Although the thesis of a paper should be found at the beginning of the paper,

The vast majority of a student’s grade is based on three argumentative essays. There is no other major mode of evaluation. Multiple choice tests or examinations on knowledge are both useless and counter-productive to my goals.

 

2. Small Group Discussion, and Discussion Leaders: Another essential element in my course practices comes in small group discussions and the use of discussion leaders. The use of small group discussions is not something unique to my class, of course, but I believe the manner in which the discussions take place are. This is admittedly influenced by my time in the Marine Corps: to teach people how to lead, they must be put in positions of leadership and given autonomy. A practice I have is that every few days, we choose groups and a group leader. The group leader is in charge of creating questions and stimulating conversation. One freedom that the leader has is to take the group wherever they wish in the building for the period, informing me of where they are going. They then have the freedom to figure out how to begin the inquiry. After about 15 minutes, I begin making rounds to the groups, inspecting, like a Sergeant, how the ‘training’ is going. If the conversation has veered off course, I pass notes to the leader, suggesting directions they may take. Generally, I stay vocally silent, while madly scribbling notes as needed. In the beginning of the semester, the conversations are stunted, students are intimidated, and it does not look on the surface that much work is getting done. But by the end of the semester, the conversations are wonderfully productive, and the students feel like they are responsible for their own education: which they are.

Generally, these student discussions come before the topic’s lecture day. The reason for this decision is that when a student is not invested in the ideas, the text often seems dry: Kant is generally not known for his dramatic writing. But once the student has committed to some interpretation, then the lessons, even when they contradict what the student believes, at least hit something, and the student begins to put their ideas in motion. That doubt-inducing irritation discussed above is produced.

III. Justification

There are critics of this philosophy. There are many who claim, or believe, that in order to think excellently, one must have a large battery of accurate information at one’s disposal. I will not argue this view. However, I will say it is an incomplete view. A complete education needs to focus both on the content of what is thought about, and thought itself. However, from the conversations I have had with students and faculty in a variety of places, but particularly at Harold Washington, it seems there is no shortage of professors who focus on accurate comprehension and recall. And as a result, there is no shortage of students who believe that this is what makes someone a good student.

            In the end, the justification for this method does not lie in theory, but in practice. It is essential for free-thinking people that they are capable of looking at situations anew and constructing their own answers from their own perspectives in the most intelligent manner possible. If the person is in the habit of looking to the opinion’s of others, or does not understand how to think through new problems, then one will be incapable of contributing original and valuable insight from one’s own point of view.

            Much of what I know about dealing with ambiguity only came after years of non-academic and academic work, and reading many philosophers of epistemology and education. It is an opportunity that I know many people will not have the opportunity to repeat. If my education ended with my undergraduate degree, I too would probably have never learned this lesson, so it is generally safe to assume that there are many other students out there who would benefit from this type of instruction. I believe there are few more valuable things that I could do with my life than to teach this lesson to as many students as possible who would not receive it elsewhere.

IV. Conclusion

 

          All of this is not to say that I do not teach content. I certainly do. But I believe the best way to do that so that it is genuinely valuable is to encourage the students to learn it on their own. I step in and suggest corrections in their interpretations, but ultimately the interpretations, and their thoughts, are up to them.

When the mind lacks interest or beliefs on a subject, and when it does not care about the questions that our thinkers were trying to solve, then the ideas absorbed in class are static and dead. Some students are capable of absorbing them well, and even get excited with the absorption. They feel proud when they realize that they clearly understand the difficult concepts taught. The professor is satisfied because the student is clearly advancing.

My classes do not generally provide that consolation. Ambiguity is confusing, and our inability to come to clear, definite answers is discomforting, and at times almost depressing. Whereas most education focuses on bringing clarity and conclusion, all I offer is an honest appreciation of the limits of our knowledge. But we are limited in so much, and it is only an arrogance that lets us believe differently. How many times have we heard people proclaim, “I hate ignorance”? And some are even offended at the suggestion that they are, in fact, ignorant on many important things. I am not afraid to offend in that way. Wisdom, according to Socrates, is that type of knowledge that seeks to know which beliefs are justified, and which are merely hollow.

I would like to end with two quotes, that I present to my students frequently throughout the semester. These quotes, I believe, strike at the heart of my teaching philosophy.

“Not the truth in whose possession any man is, or thinks he is, but the honest effort he has made to find the truth is what constitutes the worth of a man. For it is not through the possession, but through the inquiry after truth, that his powers expand, and in this alone consists his ever growing perfection. Possession makes calm, lazy, proud—

If God had locked up all truth in his right hand, and in his left the unique, ever-live striving for truth, albeit with the addition that I should always and eternally err, and he said to me, ‘Choose!’—I should humbly clasp his left hand, saying ‘Father, give! Pure truth is after all for thee alone.”

-Gotthold Lessing, Eine Duplik, 1778.

“A new species of philosophers is coming up: I venture to baptize them with a name that is not free of danger. As I unriddle them, insofar as they allow themselves to be unriddled—for it belongs to their nature to want to remain riddles at some point—these philosophers of the future may have a right—it might also be a wrong—to be called attempters (Versucher). This name itself is in the end a mere attempt and, if you will, a temptation.”

            -Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886.


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