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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Joe
Joe
4 years ago

This neglect is not accidental, it is a byproduct of our tacit understanding of what a “real” philosopher looks like, and of the not-very-subtle reward system which encourages people to think of themselves in extremely narrow terms. A “real” philosopher produces ideas and disseminates them to their professional colleagues. They don’t teach, grade papers, or mentor students. Such activities are seen as regrettable necessities by an alarmingly large number of my colleagues, and I’ve had to sit silently at gatherings of “famous” philosophers as they openly joke about avoiding teaching-related duties.

I think that this ethical imperative to improve our practices is not going to motivate real change until the structural stuff changes. And that structural stuff runs very, very deep.Report

DocFE
DocFE
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

A sad but also kinda funny comment from a student captures this: “You don’t seem like a PhD in philosophy doc…” “Why, and is that good or bad?” I responded. “Oh no, it’s really a compliment. Most PhD’s talk about things no one but them could be interested in and you bring us interesting questions that are part of our lives!” She was a lesbian and we dealt with the topic of gender. But the overall point was the class wasn’t about me, but about them. This was how I tried to orient all my courses while still covering the important philosophical figures and literature.Report

Matt
Matt
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

In my second year of grad school, I told one of my professors that teaching had been my favorite part of grad school so far and the thing I was most looking forward to in the future. I will never forget his response: “I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but never say that aloud again—especially if there is a faculty member nearby.”Report

David Concepcion
David Concepcion
4 years ago

If anyone would like a team of teacher trainers from the American Association of Philosophy Teachers to come to their department and do a workshop, please contact me. Dave Concepcion, [email protected]
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Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  David Concepcion
4 years ago

I co-hosted one of these one-day workshops at Pitt recently and I cannot recommend hosting one of the AAPT workshops highly enough! The AAPT facilitators are incredibly thoughtful and knowledgable about philosophical pedagogy. The workshop we requested focused on inclusive pedagogy, so that is an option if your department is particularly interested in inclusivity.Report

DocFE
DocFE
4 years ago

I guess I was lucky. At Loyola U in Chicago, as a grad student I took classes on teaching and an internship (we call it now). The teaching class was two semesters: the first was to sit in on a professor’s classes, observe, and prepare two lectures of our own for the year (I had, oddly, Plotinus and Marx!!). There were 4-5 of us in class, so 8-10 classes were our guest lectures. Following each we’d meet on Fridays and the professor and other students would critique each lecture in a positive way to increase awareness of what we needed to change and do. The second semester we all got our own classes (Intro) to, teach and were reviewed by the prof a number of times after he attended lectures. Questionnaires were passed out to students and the prof met with him to discuss the semester’s classes. The results were shared with me and the others in private. I felt I got great insight into my ability to teach and to watch a great teacher in action (our prof). The professor was Dick Wesley and I thank him for all he taught me about teaching.

My other lesson in teaching was to watch (after 13 years as an adjunct or lecturer) the finest teacher I ever observed (and no slight to the other great teachers I had) at Ripon College when I was a visiting assistant prof there in 1988, Seale Doss. I learned more from working with him and watching him, especially in coaching senior phil majors’ thesis presentations, than I can say. He taught me and shared techniques that I used for the rest of my 35 years as a teacher.

I have nothing but praise for Loyola’s grad student teaching internship and coaching, as well as what I learned from Seale Doss, Dick Wesley, and many profs, especially Brendan Liddell at Bradley where I was an undergrad phil major, and Fr Ed Maziarz also at Loyola.

More departments ought to add a teaching internship to their grad programs.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
4 years ago

Unfortunately, the lack of teacher training, not just in philosophy but across all disciplines, seems to be the norm. Combine the widespread over estimation of one’s own teaching abilities with the relatively low status of teaching compared to research, and there is not much push from the faculty themselves for more training (or even constructive feedback; student evals don’t count). Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
4 years ago

I take issue with Williamson’s disdain for selling philosophy to people who aren’t interested in it and I’m deeply suspicious of his talk of “real philosophy.” Perhaps I’m not being generous but I suspect both of these reflect attitudes that are huge obstacles to the goals of better philosophy teaching and increasing interest in our field.
To me that part of what any competent teacher does it to motivate interest in a subject in students who might start with no interest in the subject or even be somewhat hostile to it. I work at a community college and many of the students in my ethics classes are only there because ethics is a required course for many of our programs in health services. But many of them actually become deeply interested in the subject. In fact, I have several students each semester who tell me that they’re surprised at how much they ended up liking the course. I won’t make any claims to be the greatest teacher in the world, but I do make an effort to show dubious students why they should be interested in philosophy and it often works . Now if I have to simplify say my presentation of Kant so that I tacitly assume one reading of his metaethical views without getting into the huge debate around it, simplify Hobbes’s views on the law of nature, or skip over the act vs rule utilitarianism debate to get to a debate or issue they might find interesting then so be it. Any good undergraduate teaching will involve some simplification. I’m not going to reduce philosophy to bullet points, but I probably will ignore or put aside many of those “curving lines” to focus on the one or two that are most likely to take us on a voyage the students might actually enjoy and find worthwhile.
I also worry that talk of real philosophy carries with it an implicit dismissal of fields like bioethics, business ethics, non-western philosophy, philosophy of race, or even for many philosophy professors anything that isn’t LEMM. The problem is that these “non-core” fields are often a lot easier sell to an undergraduate than are the “core” areas. I’m not sure that’s what Williamson had in mind but I’ve seen this sort of bias at work. The department I used to work at constantly bemoaned its low enrollment numbers in upper level classes, but even though every single section of upper level bioethics they offered filled up they wouldn’t offer more than a section or two of it every semester and that was grudgingly. The attitude seemed to be that that’s not real philosophy and who cares if students are interested since we only want to serve students interested in real philosophy. I’ve also seen this at work in how people teach intro classes. I’ve known people who insist on teaching things that they know their students reliably hate semester after semester on the grounds that it’s real philosophy and if students aren’t interested in real philosophy that’s on them. Some of the same people refuse to touch on debates about God’s existence in “Intro” or skip over it as quickly as possible on the grounds that philosophy of religion isn’t central to philosophy (mind you this claim is demonstrably false if by “philosophy” we mean anything other than “stuff Anglophone philosophers of the last 100 years or so are interested in,” but I digress). I think this seriously misjudges the value of both the “non-core” and the supposedly “core” areas of philosophy, but even if doesn’t it’s not an attitude we can afford. We need to meet students wherever their interests are in the hopes that doing so will lead some of them to be more interested in the field generally. I think of my readings habits when I was younger here. As a teenager I read constantly, but hardly any of it was great literature. Instead it was a constant diet of Star Trek and Star Wars novels, Stephen King, and comic books. My parents and teachers never gave me grief for reading “garbage” they were just happy I read. And that was the right attitude. If someone had lectured me about how bad “Salem’s Lot” or “Heir to the Empire” was and tried to force “The Brothers Karamazov” or “Moby Dick” on me it wouldn’t have done anything besides dull my interest in reading. I later read, and loved, Dostoevsky and Melville because my elders had the good sense to leave my love of reading alone and to trust it might lead me to better places. I think the same thing goes for philosophy. You might not think that say the argument from design is interesting but if your students do then meet them there and have faith that that might motivate some of them to get more deeply into the field.Report

A different experience
A different experience
4 years ago

What evidence is there that most top departments are not already training their graduate students to be teachers?

I graduated from a top research program and the senior professors were very concerned with training me as a teacher. I began as a grader for my thesis advisor. We met to discuss lectures and I was taught how to grade—that involved receiving detailed comments on papers I graded with advice on what needed to be improved before I returned the papers to students. When I TA’d courses, professors would meet to go over lectures before TAs led discusssion sections. They visited my sections and offered feedback. Some profs. required their TAs to give lectures, which were often recorded for feedback. I developed and taught my own courses towards the end of my graduate studies. There too, I was helped in developing syllabi, sequencing assignments, etc.

At no point did my philosophy department offer a semester long class in pedagogy. Rather, my training as a teacher was embedded in the several years I spent as a graduate student, which was a good way for me to learn a set of skills. I know of several Leiterific programs that are equally responsible in training their graduate students. Those complaining about such departments owe us evidence that those departments systematically undervalue teacher training. I agree that some departments *might* undervalue such training—I don’t know. But even if they do, those complaining should offer evidence that such neglect is the norm rather than an exception.Report