Learning Through Teaching


Well, given my background I knew virtually no philosophy. So I have taught myself most of the philosophy I know by teaching it. If I wanted to learn about something, I would teach a course on it (keeping a couple of weeks ahead of the students). I have learned a lot of philosophy this way, and it’s been a blast.

That’s Graham Priest (CUNY) in the What Is It Like interview.

I’m curious how common it is for philosophy professors to learn a new subject by teaching it. It isn’t unusual to throw a few new works one might not have read yet onto a syllabus as a way of having an opportunity to read and discuss them, but that’s less ambitious than what I’m asking about, which is teaching a course you hadn’t before, on a subject you don’t know, in order to learn the subject.

Have you done this? What was the subject? How unfamiliar were you with it in advance? What level of course was it? And how did you figure out what to put on the syllabus?

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Corey
Corey
3 years ago

My sense is that it might be more common among philosophy faculty teaching at smaller institutions, but I don’t know for sure. I’m the only FT philosopher at my institution. I’ve developed courses in areas such as Philosophy of Natural/Social Science which I lacked any sort of background, as well as history of philosophy surveys in which I had some background but had a lot to learn. More recently, I’ve developed a course called Postcolonial Theory and Literature in which I’d done some scholarly work in the area, but I’d basically been teaching myself through reading and writing before I put the course together. Report

Marcus Arvan
3 years ago

I have routinely had to do this, on everything ranging from biomedical ethics, to business ethics, to philosophy of law, to the philosophies of race and gender. As Corey notes, I think this is something probably pretty par for the course at many smaller teaching institutions. I can also say that it has often resulted in some of my best, most exciting courses. Although students may not know that you are working through the material for the first time, the excitement of exploring new material can in my experience really come through in the classroom, giving the course in question a much more “organic” feel. In my experience, it’s one of the unexpectedly best things about working in a small department at a liberal arts school. In contrast to my experience at a research institution (where I only taught courses in my AOS), having to teach unfamiliar courses all over the map has been exciting for me both as a teacher and researcher.Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
3 years ago

I just realized I didn’t answer some of your main questions! With some courses (biomedical & business ethics), I had a vague familiarity with the subject matter. With other courses (philosophy of law, race & gender, etc.) I had little to no familiarity with the academic literature. What I typically do, then, is approach a few specialists in the area prior to putting the course together, asking them for good topics, textbooks, and readings. Then I give those things a look, put a syllabus together, and do what Priest says he does.Report

mhl
mhl
3 years ago

There’s a database of teaching evaluations waiting to be put together and analyzed to determine the impact of doing this. I suspect that not only would the evals often be high, but that it would subsequently improve performance when you went back to your normal curriculum.

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Clement
Clement
3 years ago

By the time I applied for tenure I had taught every philosophy course (including majors courses) in our catalog except phil of religion. It was a great experience, but now I teach a narrower range to maximize time for greater committee work and research.Report

Alan White
Alan White
3 years ago

Priest’s interview resonated with me in many ways, and this was one. As commentators above note, today this is most often not a function of instructor interest, but a practical need for expanded curriculum at more modest campuses than at R1s. But I think what Priest is talking about is partly generational as well. In my own case, back in the 80s, my multi-campus department inquired if I could teach Medical Ethics on my own campus just to see if there was interest in it. I was under no duress to do so, but thought, what the heck. So with absolutely minimal training in ethics–and none in that sub-field–I started offering it–and even now teach it as Bioethics. It was like Priest said–I got a textbook, kept ahead in the readings, and learned much more than my students in the process. Today my Bioethics course is much more sophisticated than it was then (and in part because the field itself has radically transformed from emphasizing clashing classical action theories to a more encompassing and pragmatic focus on complex reflective equilibrium about moral issues).

But my point about the generational difference is that–it seems to me–then faculty in general were more trusted to make considered judgments about whether they were capable of taking on new courses and pedagogy–they had more academic freedom to explore boundaries of sufficient expertise to teach. Today that seems much less the case: generally, if you ain’t trained by demonstrated resume to teach X, you can’t teach X (but again less enforced as you go down institutional ladders). I have no data to support this (other than the professor recently told she can’t teach philosophy any more after 50 years of doing so because of insufficient credentialing as reported on DN)–this is just an impression taken from being part of Priest’s boomer cohort.Report

Clifford L Sosis
3 years ago

I did this with Business Ethics the first time I taught it. I’d be willing to bet the same is for most people who teach Business Ethics. It is rarely taught at the graduate level as far as I can tell, and many undergrads interested in majoring in philosophy do not take it. Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
3 years ago

I did this with metaphysics. Due to my unusual background, I knew less about it than most faculty members. I even got a decent publication out of teaching it. Report

ChrisTS
ChrisTS
3 years ago

On the one hand, I find this a delightful story. On the other, I am not sure how closely this person’s experience tracks that of others who teach Philosophy.

I might not be well versed in some sub-field in which I am asked to teach a course, but I am well versed in (western) Philosophy. Priest seems to be someone who had no real background in Philosophy.

Perhaps it is just a happy story f how brilliant people can step up?Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
3 years ago

I do what Priest does for a lot of my classes.

I did not take any graduate history classes on Kant, Heidegger, or Husserl, but i have (I think successfully) taught graduate history classes on them. (Although I have never taught a full semester wholly on Heidegger, much of my recent work in metaphysics stemmed from trying to figure out how to teach Heidegger in a graduate student survey class.) And I learned enough myself from doing this to be able to make (what I hope are) useful contributions to the literature on these figures.

For me, the best job perk of being a professor is you have a lifetime of opportunities to learn new and interesting things. I have found that, for myself anyways, a great way to learn something is to learn how to teach it to someone else.

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mhl
mhl
Reply to  Kris McDaniel
3 years ago

(doesn’t apply to 8th grade phys ed teachers who are forced to teach geometry in a pinch.)Report

Eric Schliesser
Eric Schliesser
3 years ago

If I can I always try to use my courses as learning opportunities about a topic or the material that I am teaching. This means that I often teach works that are new to me. Indeed, “I have learned a lot of philosophy this way, and it’s been a blast.”Report

Jared Millson
Jared Millson
3 years ago

I’ve done it once a year for the past four years. Mostly it goes better than courses closer to my specialization—I suspect it’s because I’m closer to where the students are at. This last year was an exception. I taught a course on non-western epistemology and it was a mess. I got about half way through and had to admit that I was overwhelmed by the difficulty of the material (Indian philosophy-NYAYA). The students were great about it, but it was a struggle.Report

Shen-yi Liao
3 years ago

Like others, I think this is especially common with faculty at smaller or more teaching oriented institutions. Like others, I think it’s a great learning experience for me. Often I’m explicit with students and tell them we are co-learners.

There is actually some research about this, along with some tips for doing so, in the book Teaching What You Don’t Know by Therese Huston. I found the book helpful. Report

Sara L. Uckelman
3 years ago

While a grad student (doing logic, logic, and more logic), I was selected to TA Environmental Ethics. What I learned from doing this is that you only need to be one week ahead of the students to teach a subject adequately.Report