The Art of Balance in Teaching, Composing, 21/04/2014

Just a short post today, summarizing most of the philosophical work I’ve done this weekend without getting too specific. I’m applying for a few temporary positions around my neck of the woods, and so have been preparing new course ideas and outlines for the position. 

I’ve worked with many professors over the years in my own training to teach philosophy. They have all approached their classes, especially introductory-level work, very differently. But if I could group such approaches into any simple system, this is the best dichotomy I can think of: survey courses and close reading courses. 

When a lot of students bring their laptops or tablets to
classes, I like to have competitions to see who can look up
factoids for my lectures the fastest. "Jenkins! Original
publication date of the Leviathan. Go!"
Survey courses are often organized by topic, and each week will feature a short philosophical reading that illustrates a simple concept. This can often work well for teaching applied philosophy, because it roots the conceptual work in a variety of real-world situations. Each short piece of work can cover a different aspect of some philosophical problem in worldly action, like a series of papers on different environmental justice problems. Several different articles can offer several different ways to approach a problem like, for instance, tracing the complicated networks of responsibility and moral obligation in a disaster like an accident that causes heavy pollution. Even more complex would be the webs of such obligations and responsibilities in conflicts arising from droughts and floods. If you examine a complex issue from enough angles, you will come to understand it.

But for the most part, the survey course isn’t quite my style of teaching. I find that you can’t really take an idea into philosophical depth if you have only a short reading and a brief lecture to introduce it before moving on. As much as we rely on short definitions of philosophical concepts (e.g. utilitarianism, virtue ethics, epistemological fallibilism), increase ability in philosophical thought eventually understands just how inadequate those short definitions are. I’m just not a fan of conducting a whole course that’s nothing but introductions. 

If I’m teaching an introductory course on some broad topic, I’m going to find the classic works that developed that topic. I’ll stick to a central three or four that are especially pivotal, and represent the major directions that developed since then. That way, students are introduced to the classics of philosophical canon as early as possible. And because we spend a few weeks at least on each central text and topic, we can all explore it in far more detail than if I filled a semester with a survey of as much stuff as I could. That way, they aren’t just learning the classics; they’re learning why these books are classics. 

I certainly hope I can get an opportunity to actually do this. After all, it’s what I spent an entire four year degree, in part, training to do.

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