Never Trained How To Teach


I was never trained or advised how to teach. I just imitated what I liked about my own teachers… Once I said in a lecture that some philosophical problem was very hard, and nobody knew how to solve it. Such a remark would have strongly motivated me, but the look on most of the students’ faces said “So why bother us with it? Go away and solve it, then you can come back and tell us the answer.” Extrapolating from one’s own time as a student is a tempting but unreliable way of working out what undergraduates want and need.

That’s Timothy Williamson, Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford, in an interview by Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina) at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher?

The interview topics range over Williamson’s life and career, from his youth in Sweden, up through how “as a first-year undergraduate, I started eyeing the job I now have, at lectures by A.J. Ayer, its then holder,” through graduate study, earlier jobs, living the philosophical life, and trends in philosophy.

I thought the above remarks on teaching speak to two related issues in the profession: philosophy graduate students typically receive no formal instruction in how to teach (see here and here), and professors sometimes have a bad habit of assuming that their students are like them (which is generally not true).

Williamson continues:

I try always to give an honest answer to an honest question. Sometimes other students are annoyed at what they see as a digression that won’t help them for the exam. Many students want to be given a series of bullet points. I find it impossible to reduce philosophy to bullet points; when I try, the points always grow into curving lines logically intertwined with each other in complex non-linear ways. I also dislike selling philosophy to people fundamentally uninterested in it, by disguising it as something it isn’t. But if I can help them engage with real philosophy, even if only at a very elementary level, that’s intensely rewarding.

I don’t think these attitudes are particularly uncommon. It is a lot of fun to take a question from an interested student and follow the line of inquiry wherever it happens to go, even if it takes you off the planned path for the day. That can be done in skillful ways that draw more students in (at the very least by seeing their professor take their remarks seriously), but also in ways that alienate students who sense “tangent” and tune out. We shouldn’t expect graduate students to be able to intuit how best to employ this or other teaching techniques.

Good philosophy teaching can create more philosophy students and majors. In an era in which philosophy departments are worried about being closed down owing to low enrollments, it seems irresponsible of the profession to not emphasize teaching skills more.

In the current American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Teaching Philosophy, Steven M. Cahn (CUNY), writes, in “How Teaching Should Matter”:

Like other academics, philosophers pay lip service to the importance of teaching, but as a recent report published in Teaching Philosophy demonstrates, practice does not always accord with principle. If teaching is to receive its due, graduate departments need to change how they prepare candidates for faculty positions, while departments seeking new members need to alter criteria for making appointments as well as strategies for encouraging strong performance.

First, graduate departments should require all aspiring faculty members to take a course in methods of teaching. Such courses should involve discussing and practicing all phases of the teaching process, including preparing syllabi, motivating students, clarifying ideas, organizing materials, guiding discussions, constructing examinations, and grading papers. Emphasis should also be placed on the importance and multifaceted nature of a teacher’s ethical obligations.

In a separate piece in the same issue, “How Teachers Succeed,” Cahn offers his view on three qualities that make for a successful philosophy teacher: the ability to motivate student interest in the topic, the ability to organize the presentation of information effectively, and the ability to communicate clearly. It is worth a read.

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