Teaching Portfolio

Teaching Statement

I wanted to be a teacher even before I knew I wanted to be a philosopher. What interested me about teaching was not merely being a font of information, but being a coach that helps students see the world in a different way. The best history teachers I've had didn't just tell me stories about the Battle of Midway or Eleanor of Aquitaine; they led me to see the world as an historian. It has been my goal to show students how to see the issues and subjects we discuss as philosophers. It is, of course, necessary to develop the foundation with facts, figures, and arguments, but those by themselves are insufficient. Students need to feel a sense of engagement, so they come to feel that philosophy matters and are motivated to develop philosophical skills and sensitivities. By focusing, in particular, on this sense of engagement, I have seen students who no one ever expected to become interested in philosophy stay after class to talk about Hobbes and Locke, Mill and Rawls.

I learned to focus on students' active engagement in their own learning well before I began graduate school. Despite the fact that my undergraduate institution had no education degree or certification program, I felt strongly enough about teaching to overcome bureaucratic inertia. Through a combination of independent study and coursework at the Graduate School of Education, I was able to squeeze sufficient pedagogical theory and student teaching into my schedule to be certified as a high school teacher. Then, I taught high school Civics and American Government in South Boston and Chicago. This was an invaluable experience, through which I learned how to engage students who were the least likely and the least willing to care about abstract issues of justice and ethics.

I began teaching at a public high school in South Boston, where I decided to supplement the standard American Government course with some political philosophy, including works by Hobbes and Locke. My mentor teacher (an 18 year veteran of the school) was skeptical about this approach, but open to the idea. I quickly learned to avoid lectures except when absolutely necessary. Unsupervised group time would also be ineffective at the high school level, and asking them to read long passages without philosophical training would simply lead to confusion and resistance. Instead, I gave them structured group work where I selected important passages and asked them to answer questions as a group. These questions helped guide the students through each step of the argument, and at the same time I could circulate amongst them to make sure they remained on task. Finally, after completing the guided work, I asked each group to give a presentation to the rest of the class that showed the relevance of their topic to our subject matter. For example, a group studying an excerpt of Locke had to show the relevance of his ideas to the Declaration of Independence. This was a multi-day lesson, but the students were enthusiastic, as was seen in one group's raucous skit about Hobbes' state of nature. My mentor teacher was pleasantly surprised by the students' reception of this approach. I allowed the students to be responsible for their own instruction and their own learning, but I did not simply leave them unattended to figure it out for themselves. The success of the lessons demonstrates the importance of allowing students to take control of their learning while the teacher serves as mediator and guide.

As a teaching assistant, I've taken that lesson to heart. While I generally eschew lecturing, I rely on it more than I did with high school students. However, even with college students, I make my lecturing as active as possible. First, I provide handouts that follow the structure of my lecture through leading questions, rather than outlining. Thus, the students are forced to remain engaged with the lecture if they want the advantages of the handout. The handouts also mimic the analyses of arguments that I ask them to do when they write papers by asking questions such as, "Why is this premise attractive?" and "What are some possible objections to this move?" These questions serve as the foundation for further discussion by the class. Furthermore, I prime students by having them submit questions in advance either by email or on the class website. Each step is designed to get students to think about the argument themselves, and help prepare them for when they will have to do this sort of analysis on their own in a paper or on an exam. They are asked and required to make a positive contribution even in those cases where they might normally expect to be passive.

I find that these methods, particularly when they can be connected with real world experience, help students both retain information and develop their argumentative skills. For example, when teaching "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" by Peter Singer, I don't simply go through the premises of the arguments or have the students engage in a vague and undirected discussion. I ask the students to tally up how much they spend per month on various discretionary purchases. Then, I provide them with information sheets from OxFam and Doctors Without Borders and have them calculate how many lives they would save as a class if they decided to contribute that money to those organizations. Students often react strongly to this information and the essential part of the lesson is to direct this reaction productively towards the various philosophical points to be made concerning Singer's article. Then, we move to a conversation about the famous drowning-baby-in-the-pond case. Having the students do the work drives home Singer's point in a deep way, and it makes them responsible for understanding the argument. I then ask them for possible objections without going deeply into Singer's article. We go on to see how Singer has anticipated many of their objections and how this strengthens the effect of the paper. It decisively demonstrates a point that will be an important aspect of their own papers and of philosophical skill in general: the ability to imagine objections to your view and respond to them. Having students discover this aspect of those who do excellent philosophy moves the students far more than simply pointing it out. Furthermore, the fact that the philosophical lesson is tied to an issue of real world significance reinforces the idea that it is important to look at the world philosophically and consider the issues that that perspective raises.

Philosophy is not simply a set of questions and canonical texts. It is also a set of skills and sensitivities. It is easy to focus on a clever argument or a devastating objection, but it is much more difficult to help students develop the skills and sensitivities sufficiently that they can make those arguments and objections themselves. To accomplish that, a teacher must require that they be active and engaged learners, which will allow them to think like philosophers do. That is the kind of teaching that I find important and it's the kind of teaching I truly enjoy.

Teaching Experience

Teaching Effectiveness