What You Wish You Knew When You Started Teaching Philosophy


The fall term is almost upon us, so let’s talk teaching.

Are there bits of teaching wisdom you’ve picked up over the years that you wish you knew when you were starting out? Please share them in the comments, and spare your colleagues (and their students) some missteps, misconceptions, and misery. Thank you.

Relatedly, I thought it might be a good time to share some previous teaching posts:

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Min
Min
2 years ago

Most lower-level students will not read most of your comments on their papers, so don’t spend a lot of time making extensive comments on them. You can always offer to meet with students to discuss their papers if they want more feedback.Report

Marcus
Reply to  Min
2 years ago

This is definitely important to keep in mind to avoid grading burnout, which is bad for both you and your students.

One approach I have taken to deal with this is requiring students to tell me what they want feedback on and only providing feedback on that one area. They can choose ‘no feedback’ as well and I don’t judge them for it.
Importantly, that ‘one area’ of feedback should be forward looking (i.e., ‘constructing a thesis’ or ‘supporting claims’) and not merely about the assignment itself (i.e., not ‘did I use this term correctly?’). But you should still provide an avenue for feedback on performance on the paper, which I do through a ‘checklist’ students have before starting the paper and I use for grading. As long as they meet all the requirements on the checklist they pass. And that includes things like accurately using relevant concepts.Report

Aaron Lercher
Aaron Lercher
Reply to  Min
2 years ago

If the instructor’s comments on a student’s paper respond to that student’s ideas or arguments, then the student is going to read these comments.

If students write papers without ideas or arguments to which the instructor can respond, then one might consider giving the students assignments that provide a structure for their’ papers. Some paper assignments I give include a suggested outline, with paragraph-by-paragraph hints. (This is like a series of exercises in a math book, telling you the steps to fill in a complex proof.) In philosophy, students will have to use judgment in how to start such papers, and at each step. So this isn’t doing the paper for students.

Other assignments I give are much looser.Report

Colin Heydt
Colin Heydt
2 years ago

So many things. Here are two related ones: 1) you haven’t taught it until they’ve learned it, and 2) if you want to know whether they’ve learned it, relying on a sample of the five or so students who always raise their hands is…um…not effective. Consider cold-calling along with other forms of assessment.Report

A grad student
A grad student
Reply to  Colin Heydt
2 years ago

I’m not quite sure I agree with, or see the reasoning, behind (1). Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but it seems to imply that the instructor has failed to do their job (teach) if the student failed to learn. This ignores the fact that the student is also partly responsible for learning the material, eg., by showing up prepared for class and not screwing around on Facebook during lecture. Maybe in writing (1) you’re making a background assumption that the student made a good faith effort to learn? If so, that’s fair. But even then, and unfortunately, student ability plays a role in learning outcomes, and there are limits to how much help an instructor can reasonably give.Report

Colin Heydt
Colin Heydt
Reply to  A grad student
2 years ago

Sorry for the confusion; I was being unduly brief. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that students don’t have an obligation to work hard. What I meant was that earlier in my career I spent a lot of time thinking about teaching _material_ (e.g. “If I’m going to teach a class on the history of ethics, than I have to teach this text and that text and this text”). I didn’t spend nearly enough time thinking about whether students would actually learn and remember the things I covered in class. If they’re going to comprehend a novel concept and remember it, then it needs to be introduced with a few illustrative examples; they need to be asked to recall the information a number of times over the course of the semester (i.e. spaced, retrieval practice); connect it to other things we’ve talked about; apply it in new situations; etc. When I started to pay real attention to what it actually meant for a novice to learn something new, it totally changed my orientation to course design and classroom practice (e.g. I cover a lot less material than I used to, but engage with it more thoroughly in the hope that students might actually remember it six months from now). Does that make more sense?Report

a_grad_student
a_grad_student
Reply to  Colin Heydt
2 years ago

Yes it does, thanks!Report

A grad student
A grad student
2 years ago

In my experience, when interacting with students in the classroom, it doesn’t always help to emulate what my own professors have done. Find your own style and keep what works.Report

L. Bernhardt
L. Bernhardt
2 years ago

– A great many undergraduate students operate with the sincere belief, consistently reinforced by their prior education, that confusion = failure. As a result, you may often see a room full of bright, capable people just fall apart at the first really challenging text or task presented to them and give up. You will make better headway with them (especially in a room full of non-majors taking a service course) if you can make it clear that part of what your class is about is about is learning how to respond to confusion. It’s OK if they don’t immediately understand something — your job is to help them hone the skills they need to grapple with their confusions and (maybe, eventually) overcome them. Getting this out in the open early can really set the tone for a good classroom experience.

– Also: Lecture has its place, but do make some room for action. Give your students the chance to *do* something rather than just *listening to* something.

– Related: If you want bad discussions, give vague, generic prompts and stare at them until someone talks. If you want good, productive discussions, try solving a well-articulated problem together (the tighter the focus of the task, the better), and make it your job to let them solve it while you keep the discussion on track.

– Finally: Don’t design your course around ensuring that [x] amount of material is covered, come hell or high water. Design your course around what you want your students to be able to understand and to do, and figure out what it takes to get them there. Don’t be afraid to adjust on the fly to make that happen.Report

Martin Lenz
Reply to  L. Bernhardt
2 years ago

Great advice!Report

SLACer
SLACer
Reply to  L. Bernhardt
2 years ago

Re: confusion = failure, I’ve found that I need to stress the difference between “I don’t understand X” and “I am raising an objection to X.” Sometimes students think they are confused because they disagree with something. At least some of the time, what they are doing is raising an objection — but they have never learned that disagreeing with an author is legitimate (and in many cases preferred). Try to give lots of low-stakes assignments where they can practice raising objections. In my experience, students find it empowering and class discussion is much better.Report

L. Bernhardt
L. Bernhardt
Reply to  SLACer
2 years ago

Re: confusion vs. objection — yes, I think that’s often the case. There’s also a reverse reaction: The student throws up their hands and says “this is just stupid, it’s all just wrong” when what they really mean is “I don’t get it, and I find it frustrating that I don’t get it.” It’s worth your while to push for elaboration on “this is just stupid” when a student is stuck there — sometimes, the ensuing discussion reveals a lot about the nature of their misunderstanding and opens up some space in which the whole class can learn something new.Report

DocFE
DocFE
2 years ago

I wish I had known of, or that it existed, the Sonoma Critical Thinking folks and their on-line aides. Of course, I started teaching in 1975, so maybe they weren’t there. But I encourage new teachers to access, assimilate and use their materials.

Take advantage of APA and other organizations’ aides to teaching, conferences and on line help.

Choose and use the materials and assignments you are convinced are best, helped you most and will help students most.

Keep your sense of humor and be willing to engage students on matters apart from class. Just be yourself!!!Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
2 years ago

Figure out what you want students to learn from your class.* (E.g., do you want them to get better at reading, writing, speaking, habits of thought, what?)

Teach that to them. (E.g., if you want them to learn how to get better at reading, teach them that.)

Then, assess them on that. (E.g., a multiple choice test probably isn’t an appropriate way to assess whether they’ve gotten better at reading.)

Of course there’s much more to say.

*—To figure out what you want your students to learn, L. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences is helpful. See pp. 34-37.Report

chronos
chronos
2 years ago

Teaching for my university for 12 years and I’ve never given a power-point lecture. Learn how to carry a discussion with your class that keeps their interest and that doesn’t require flashy slides on a screen. This seems to be something of a lost art. I think it can also be helpful to follow questions raised by students wherever they lead, and sticking too closely to one’s slides makes this harder to do Think of yourself as Larry King (CNN) leading an interesting discussion can help.Report

harry b
2 years ago

Find out from students who teaches well. Not the students you think are really smart, but others. Go and watch those people teach.
Ask students how they learn. Set up a google doc in which they can tell you, anonymously, what you are doing wrong.
Get someone to video-record one of your classes. Watch it with colleagues and students.
You talk too much in class. Talk less, Listen more.
Students learn better if they know each other. In smaller classes make them get to know each other. In a class of 25 everyone should know everyone else’s name by the end of week 4.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  harry b
2 years ago

I second all of these; unfortunately for most all of my career I didn’t have someone like harry to get me to reflect on some of them.Report

Alan White
Alan White
2 years ago

I wish I’d known early-on that teaching Introduction as a survey course–either as a historical or topical approach–was not ideal for most of our students–who will probably just take that course as the only philosophy they will ever have. As some hinted above in the comments, breadth of coverage will entail superficiality of representing the depth of thinking and criticism that real philosophical endeavor encompasses. Limit your intros to just a few figures or topics (certainly keeping diversity issues in mind), or, as I have argued here and elsewhere, try to present just one topic in great depth as a more realistic representation and involvement in the ways of arguing to get to the truth. It will at least realistically expose students to how to do philosophy, and give them a more coherent experience in developing those skills–as above any consideration of some particular content–so what they might develop as a consequence of that experience a way of thinking that they could translate to doing other things more carefully and, by seeing different in-depth perspectives on an issue, appreciate the virtues of intellectual humility, compassion, and honesty. Introduction to philosophy is the single most important course in our discipline in terms of students it reaches; it should be taught to give the most students the best exposure to the ways of philosophical thought and argument.Report

Martin Lenz
Reply to  Alan White
2 years ago

Couldn’t agree more. Surveys are mostly just passing without enabling students to distinguish between what might be important / relavant and what not. That’s why we tried to change our survey courses on close-reading courses, focusing on few topics but trying to have students read (nearly) whole texts.Report

Martin Lenz
2 years ago

I wish I had been more resourceful in dealing with silence in class, especially in getting students to ask sincere questions. Then I realised that asking questions (and overcoming embarrassment) can be amended with some tequniques. Here is what I try to suggest to students these days: https://handlingideas.blog/2018/09/27/brave-questions-a-response-to-sara-uckelman/Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
2 years ago

Educational psychologists have extensively tested whether “transfer of learning” takes place, and they find that for the overwhelming people, regardless of IQ, it doesn’t. Thus, when we teach philosophy, the justification has to be that philosophy is worth knowing for its own sake, not that the skills of doing philosophy will transfer over into other areas. (They could transfer, but they won’t.)

Unfortunately, though no one has tested philosophy specifically as far as I know, it looks like students remember only about 20% of what they learn in college 5 years later. So, the justification for teaching philosophy in general has to be that it’s worthwhile for 95% of students to remember a fifth of what they learned half a decade later, even though they won’t transfer this stuff to their real lives.Report

Chris
Chris
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 years ago

I would’ve thought effort or interest would’ve been more relevant to transfer than “IQ” – but what do I know. At any rate, 20% retention is much higher than I would’ve thought!Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 years ago

Thanks Jason (if I may), and I have been aware of these studies. But most traditionally-aged students have not had much experience in longer-term exposure to building critical skills that are required in gaining expertise in something, except maybe in math, and unfortunately even there applications to other areas in life are scant. Until I encountered calculus, which gave me real appreciation about how the world works over real time, the only applications that pre-calc gave me where working with shapes in terms of areas and volumes, and those great lessons in junior-high about rate, time, and distance (how many trains leaving at how many speeds did I have to calculate distance, and permutations thereof?). But teaching my 101 based on the idea of free will, and centered about the case of John Hinckley Jr., I had the opportunity to teach basic civics about the laws involved in his case, how disease-concepts lead to the embodiment of something like incompatibilism in insanity law, how the legislative reaction to HInckley moved in many cases to something like compatibilism or skepticism, all the while referring to a developing situation involving a real person–Hinckley–who moved over the years from hospitalization to limited release to his now full release with conditions. No would-be or successful presidential assassin has ever been in the positions he was and is, and my course shows how basic philosophical reasoning can get to seeing something of the whole picture of that, both justifying what happened and being critical of it. The most valuable part of my course I’ve found is just getting students to understand how government and laws work–and that’s just remediation for the lack of teaching civics in k-12. But allowing them the opportunity to see big pictures aligned with a particular case gives them a chance to see some of a forest and its many trees, and a better chance to remember how to understand all that.

Of course I have most of a book about this particular approach that I used in the class–just need to finish it, now that retirement–I hope–gives me more time.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 years ago

Those figures have always puzzled me. They seem to overlook the existence of graduate studies and professional schools, and/or to presuppose that postgraduate studies in general don’t build up on skills/knowledge acquired in college. But that would be very surprising. When you say “for its own sake” is that supposed to include graduate studies in philosophy too? For if philosophical skills don’t even transfer to grad school then philosophy program might as well recruit applicants who’ve never studied any philosophy. Should they? Should we also believe that teaching philosophy in grad school is useless? But then who will we hire?

Sure, it might be that graduate training in philosophy is only intrinsically valuable and serves no purpose. AND that no unique skills/knowledge are transferred from undergrad philosophy to grad school. That probably means we all don’t really know what we’re doing our jobs for AND somehow we managed to become decent philosophers no thanks to college. But again, that would be very surprising. Skills and knowledge are cumulative. Even if you don’t remember what you learned in college 5 years later, you wouldn’t have been able learn many of the things you learned right after college were it not for college. Just try starting a PhD program after high school.

Also, yes, 20% doesn’t sound that bad to me.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
2 years ago

My comment was about undergraduates and what the research says about them. Of course teaching X to graduate students in X, who plan to have careers in X, is different from teaching X to the 99% of undergrads who take that course and will not have careers in X. So I am puzzled by your puzzlement. Can you elaborate how graduate studies tells us much about what happens with undergrads, keeping in mind, if you will, selection effects in who chooses to pursue graduate studies in different fields?Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 years ago

I get that. But there wouldn’t be an oversupply of qualified PhDs if there weren’t a supply of qualified applicants to grad school in the first place. Grad school admissions must be tracking something that undergraduates have learned and will be using in grad school. Right? That’s the only point I’m making. Whether they end up having a career in the field is a different and important question. There’s still it seems a sizeable fraction of undergraduates who learn things they need in order to learn other things. And again, not just philosophy grad school—any post graduate studies they end up doing, including medical school, law school and business school.Report

Nicole
Nicole
2 years ago

Don’t take the sullen/lazy/angry/silent/whatever students personally.Report

harry b
Reply to  Nicole
2 years ago

Also, just because a student looks sullen/lazy/angry doesn’t mean that they are.Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
2 years ago

This fits with some earlier comments, but in intro level classes, don’t try to teach philosophy. Introduce students to it. Make your courses “Philosophy Appreciation”.

Those students that really want to learn philosophy will get it in their 300 level courses. For most of your intro or ethics students, this will be their only philosophy class. Show them, “Hey there are some really interesting ideas here – ideas the like of which you’ve never seen before. Aren’t they cool! And there are some more just around the corner, if you want to keep going.”

Starting out, I taught as though my students were on the first step of a path to a life of philosophy. That was a mistake. It’s a win for me if, 30 years hence, my students’ own kids tell their parents that they’re taking philosophy, and their parent says, “Yeah. I remember that class. Blew my mind.”Report

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
2 years ago

Best two pieces of advice I received, in my first-ever class taught, from the delightful Dr. Bob McCauley:
Use the students’ names, way more than you think would be normal in other conversations – go out of your way to mention their names, especially attached to their ideas (e.g. “what Juan argues about x is similar to what Brittany says, in this respect…”).
You are probably talking way too much; instead, ask them questions, relax and smile, and wait for them to answer. (I still have this problem but try to avoid it!)Report

Rachel
Rachel
2 years ago

Learning students’ names can be very hard if your first acquaintance with the name involves matching it to the face and interacting immediately. But you can learn 20 names on the first day if you study the class list ahead of time, then match to faces with a couple of introduce-yourself exercises at the start of class (during which you can also learn a lot about why your students are there and what to expect from them). And it’s well worth doing.Report

Robert
Robert
2 years ago

I wish I had known just how many students would come see or email me to discuss mental health issues, so I could have taken a course on how best to respond.Report