Favorite Teaching Experiences 2016-17

The school year is wrapped up at some places, and about to be wrapped up at others. We could use some positive vibes around here, philosofriends, so please share some of your favorite teaching experiences from the past year.

Mine was in my Contemporary Moral Problems course, which I was teaching for the Honors College here at South Carolina. I normally eschew student presentations in my undergraduate courses, but I thought I’d try something different this term. I gave my students a lot of freedom in selecting their final paper topic, encouraging them to choose a moral or political problem related to their major course of study, or their personal interests, or something in the news recently that had gotten their attention.

They had to submit a proposal on their topic and basic approach to it to me for approval and then give a brief presentation on it to their fellow students, getting critical feedback from them before the final draft of the paper was due. Mainly out of time considerations, I prohibited the use of Power Point (which I personally usually use for talks) for these presentations. Doing so prompted more substantive preparation from the presenters, I think, as well as a more interactive dynamic between the presenting student and the students in the audience (at least more eye contact, the presenters not yet acculturated into the usually terrible practice of reading a paper aloud to those assembled). The students in the audience knew it was their job to ask tough questions and make constructive comments, and they did, getting exposed to new ideas and topics and helping each other improve their papers.

The result was a wonderful little philosophy conference on a broad array of topics, including immigration policy, the impermissibility of killing even in self-defense, the importance of music education, the legalization of LSD and the promotion of altered states of consciousness, the halo effect well-known atheletes sometimes benefit from when they run into trouble with the law, and various other topics.

It’s not particularly innovative, I know, but nonetheless it was an enjoyable pedagogical success.

How about you?

[in case you need something stronger than heartwarming teaching tales]

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Elizabeth Picciuto
Elizabeth Picciuto
7 years ago

A student from last semester tagged me on Twitter. He had been a first-year in my Contemporary Moral Issues class. He let me know that he had made an argument in an op-ed in the campus newspaper about campus protests using the principles of Just War Theory he had learned in class.

Was just lovely to see someone take what he learned and apply it thoughtfully to an everyday problem he was thinking about and experiencing.

John Protevi
John Protevi
7 years ago

I had a student in my “States of Nature” course who asked me if I had any French works on John Locke. I told that yes, _L’Amérique de John Locke_ by Mathieu Renaud had just been published and she could borrow it for her term paper. So that was fun by itself but then the paper was a delight, with several remarkable insights, including that the closing of the American frontier meant that if you were going to uphold the Lockean proviso for private land ownership the national slogan had to switch from “Go West, young man,” to “Land of Opportunity.” (She noted that this was not an empirical claim about the origins of the phrase “Land of Opportunity,” but simply a conceptual note that the phrase fits the changed political economy after the closing of the frontier.)

Sara L. Uckelman
7 years ago

Favorite teaching experiences this year? Too many to count.

1. The number of logic-based bad-up pick-up lines that my intro logic tutorial came up with.
2. The wedding proposal that happened in tutorial.
3. The day one of my philosophy of math students said something along the lines of “who cares about things like ethics and stuff, THIS is what really matter!”
4. The day my intro students got hung up on the question of how to know whether proper names in English should be formalized with predicates or constants and in the course of twenty minutes without any input from me basically rehearsed all of the arguments from Frege to Fara without having read any of them in advance.
5. The number of students who have confessed to me that “actually, this logic stuff is rather fu.”
6. Getting to tell students that, yes, in fact, you CAN write your dissertation on philosophically interesting aspects of your favorite comic book series. If I can tell them straightfacedly that I’m writing on philosophy and fanfic, then they are more than welcome to write a comic-book-based dissertation with me.
7. The number of times I’ve bumped into a student on the street and rather than awkwardly ignoring me they ply with me questions about logic.
8. The student who would run out during our half-way break in the two-hour seminar and who’d come back with oreos.
9. The number of times I was able to write up a bunch of questions on the board and sit back in my chair and do nothing while they talked amongst themselves in a way that genuinely grappled with all the questions. One day I had to leave early in order to catch a train up north; I left them to their own devices for the second hour and have no doubt that they continued to talk in my absence.
10. Group meetings with my undergraduate supervisees, listening them present their ideas to each other and ask and receive questions.
11. Every single one of the student presentations in my 3rd year seminar. They put in so much work and effort and enthusiasm, and produced some work that was really impressive.
12. The day I had to bring my 5yo along to tutorial, and she came armed with stickers to reward those who answered questions or worked hard. I hadn’t realized how motivating stickers were amongst the 18yo crowd, but everyone competed to be awarded a sticker by the end of the class.
13. My students’ willingness to stand at the whiteboard and make a mistake in front of everyone else in the tutorial.
14. All of the questions they asked me that I didn’t know the answer to, and had to go find the answers to. (I had no idea there was anything like continental philosophy of math before.)
15. The students who wanted to add a topic to the syllabus that I wasn’t confident covering myself, who took it upon themselves to find and present the relevant information.
16. That look of marvel when we finally proved that 1+1=2.
17. Convincing a mathematician that philosophy of math was actually something she cared about.

I could keep going. I adore teaching, and I have had such fantastic students this year. My six hours in the class room (and 3 office hours) a week are some of the most satisfying hours of my life.

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
7 years ago

Nothing unusual or spectacular but:
1. The students who, after doing poorly on their first (or second) philosophy paper come to office hours and begin asking the questions I encouraged them to ask from the beginning.
2. The students who, after being quiet for the first half of the semester finally start speaking up and asking the best questions of anyone in class.
3.The student who, despite doing well on the first two papers still wants to meet to talk about the final paper because she cares about getting things right.
4. The most energetic class discussion of the year, centered around this fan-made video for a Wierd Al song (in conjunction with Susan Wolf’s Meaning in Life and Why it Matters https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExLB7uNPp5s

V. Alan White
V. Alan White
7 years ago

There was one student, facing life-threatening issues and missing classes, who returned to get help and succeeded. That stands out–all credit to him. Not the first such case I’ve seen, but every one is unforgettable. But there are so many for so many other reasons that are unforgettable.

I’m in my final year before retirement having taught 4/4 for all of it. There is only one thing that really matters in our profession–and that is our students. Yes, we do the best we can in print and maybe we push philosophical debates to some here or there if we’re good and lucky. But we face real people with real lives and futures every class-day of our careers, no matter where we teach and who we teach and mentor, undergrad and beyond. As academics we all will deal with thousands of people who are our students over the course of a career. We owe them all the best we have to offer, and when we offer them less than that, well, shame on us. We all have some small power to make way for students to improve themselves as more reflective citizens of the world, and that is far more important than the purely philosophical contribution in publication that is typically esteemed as the highest measure of success in professional philosophy.

First we teach our students, second we teach ourselves in teaching our students, and so we may improve as teachers, and third we teach other philosophers if we are profound and lucky in publication. That’s our value-ordered station as professors–so I’d say.

7 years ago

In October, my state system went on strike. The first day, we all got an official letter from the admin saying that our pay and health benefits were cut off, effective immediately. Our own president accused us of betraying our students in a campus-wide email. I had never been on strike before and did not know when or how it would end. I walked 25,000 steps a day.
The first hour I was on the picket line, some of my students came by to say hello; they offered to buy me coffee and took pictures and posted them on Instagram with messages of support. The fraternities and sororities brought us donuts and pizza for lunch. Some physics majors (some of them philosophy double-majors) unfurled a banner from the roof of the Natural Sciences building that said they supported their professors (their building access was immediately revoked). When I was walking home, two students stopped me to just to say hello, and we ended up talking for half an hour about how messed up the whole situation was. I will always remember how after it was all over, and I came back to my first class after the strike and nervously apologized for the disruption, one of the students looked up at me and said, “Nah, you’re good.”
Many of the students at our university are first-generation; graduating from college can be a big step up on the social ladder. Teaching them philosophy in particular can strengthen their ability to think imaginatively and critically, make them more engaged in their communities, and help them reflect on the meaning and purpose of their own lives. While the political context of the strike was complex, I supported it because among other things I felt it would help preserve philosophy and liberal arts in our state system.
I agree with V. Alan White that the thing that matters most in our profession is our service to our students. I have always thought this on some level, but this past year I became to really believe it.

7 years ago

This was last spring, so I hope it’s allowed. I had an older student, probably around 60-65, in my phil of religion course at the CC where I taught (it was normal for the age range of students to to run from 18 to 60+ as I think the older students were not charged tuition). He was an observant Jew and very familiar with Jewish theology–I recall our discussion of Maimonides being extremely insightful thanks to him. He was also the definition of “crusty.” He probably spoke up and challenged me more than any other student and I was mildly annoyed until one day near the end of class when he brought his 24 yr old son in with him. “I told him, ‘you gotta come listen to this guy!'” he told me, quite animated, about his conversation with his son. His son, appropriately embarrassed, shook my hand and we exchanged pleasantries and talked a bit about what his father was learning in the course.

That man is my favorite student.

Michael Hannon
7 years ago

My favorite moment was when the students in my Ethics class said I was reading too deeply into Pharrell Williams’s hit song “Happy” when I said his lyrics were partly about ‘hedonic forecasting.’

7 years ago

This is from several years ago, and it is from K-12 education… and I was a substitute in special education in high school. The students there need all the help that they can get, and I am able to help them on any topic. The class has a high teacher-to-student ratio, and needs it even if it is essentially a study hall.

One student told me that he was planning to drop out. The other teachers didn’t hear that, but I did. I sought permission to talk to him about it — and got it. Maybe they thought that I would tell something new.

It became a philosophical exercise. First, what does it mean to drop out? This is special education, so the issue isn’t intelligence. The school wants this student to get through twelfth grade and graduate.

I told him that I had no desire to judge him; I just wanted to talk to him.

Dropping out of school indicates that one is a rebel — something that no employer wants in a worker. Many employers will hire high-school kids, but those employers insist that the kids continue their schooling. It isn’t only what one learns in high school that matters. The benefit of a diploma is in part that it shows that one can cope with at the least one of the mildest bureaucracies possible — school. Most bureaucracies are less forgiving. School is good practice.

The statistics for high-school dropouts are horrible — but I don’t want to suggest to him that he is going to be a criminal.

Second, what does one get by staying in school? I suggested that there are vocational programs in which one can learn to do some sort of job. Get a steady job that allows one to earn significantly more than the minimum wage (minimum wage jobs are ideally for people who don’t have to live on that meager pay), and one can cope with the cost of living. One can rent an apartment, have a phone, and make payments on a used car and keep its tank reasonably full — essential for stability, communication, and mobility necessary in the rural Midwest.

Third, one can learn something important — like how to figure something out. Budgeting is obvious enough. The kid is unlikely to ever have a big amount of money to budget. It is far easier to handle copious resources than few. I want him to be able to do enough math so that he can figure that it is wiser to get used stuff from Goodwill or Salvation Army than to overpay for stuff at a rent-to-own place. I want him to divide his food-stamp allotment by four and figure out how much he can spend in a week and not end up with a bare pantry.

Philosophy can address issues of survival. Working at the appropriate level of discussion can be tricky — but it can be particularly useful at some times and under some circumstances.