Nearly everyone claims to be a dedicated and skilled teacher, but often our profession offers no real training and makes teaching—unlike scholarship—an insular practice. My work at Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship has given me the good fortunate of being immersed early in my career in the scholarship of teaching and learning. It has given me the opportunity to implement best practices, participate in collaborative faculty cohorts, frequently observe and be observed, and make intelligent use of technology in order to enhance rather than sacrifice pedagogical effectiveness.
As can be seen in my syllabi, I employ a backwards design methodology in each of my courses, starting with my goals and the specific things I want my students to be able to do. As part of this, I consider critical or threshold concepts and skills I want students to develop and try to anticipate areas of particular challenge. From there I work backwards, selecting texts and designing complimentary assignments in line with these goals. Critically, I consider what evidence I’ll have that my goals for student development were achieved as well as how I will know that this achievement came about because of rather than in spite of what I’ve done in the classroom.
Of the more than 600 students I have taught only a handful have been philosophy majors. I’ve learned that what they need is not an overemphasis on the content of the course (a natural temptation given my own biases). Instead, I’ve discovered a direct correlation between students’ ability to write well and their ability to both read and think analytically. Consequently, learning to grapple with texts—their own and others’—is frequently among my primary goals, informing the assignments I give and the focus of class discussion. To the degree possible within the specific constraints of each class, I make writing, revision, feedback, personal interaction, and the opportunity to rewrite central elements. In my current Global Justice course students write short, argument-focused ethical analyses of current events every other week. In addition to receiving my own comments, I require students to read and give substantive feedback to their peers. In doing so, students often make the conceptual leap to seeing what does and what does not make a good paper. Likewise, I have found it very effective to collectively analyze both writing samples and peer responses together. Students then rewrite their three best papers, which are handed in for a conventional grade—one of which gets developed into their final term paper.
Based on the specifics of the course, I also vary greatly the kinds of writing assignments. This past year, in addition to standard philosophical papers, students were assigned to find and explicate arguments, write unit summaries and annotated bibliographies, write reflections relating readings to outside experiences, philosophically analyze and evaluate non-philosophical texts (including texts from their other classes), analyze philosophical themes in movies and documentaries, participate on class blogs, and write morally justified policy papers. These varied assignments and the personal and in-class feedback students receive helps them to recognize and weigh the merits of the underlying (and often hidden) arguments to which they are exposed. They likewise learn to be more rigorous in their less formal evaluation of positions, arguments and values of public and private concern. This aspect of education is often overlooked given the collusion of pop-culture portrayals and the testing regimens that dominate pre-college education. These convey the impression that learning is a matter of mere trivia consumption and recall. Writing, however, is a very different skill to be developed, an academic mode of engagement—one that allows students to practice philosophy rather than merely auditing what they’ve understood from readings and lecture.
Backwards design also plays a role in how I craft individual class sessions. My classes include well-crafted lectures that make use of a variety of techniques in order to cater to different learning styles and keep both the students and me from slipping into distraction. I take full advantage of modern media and supplement lectures with student break-out sessions, debates, and opportunities to brainstorm and evaluate positions in advance of assignments. For example, a recent lecture began with an anonymous group evaluation of one students’ writing assignment. This was followed by a five minute video interview of Peter Singer by Stephen Colbert in which students were tasked with noting those aspects of the day’s reading that were and were not mentioned. In small groups students came up with what they saw as the most significant weakness in Singer’s text and then responded to one another in a collective debriefing. Based on class discussion, I then lectured on aspects of the reading that hadn’t yet surfaced or had been misunderstood, ending class with an overview connecting that day’s reading to themes from the current and upcoming course units.
Of the additional goals and methodologies that inform my teaching, I believe the most important is a spirit of openness, experimentation, and willingness to change. Rather than wait on fortune, I continue to scour the current literature, draw on the experience of colleagues, and work to make course evaluation an ongoing rather than terminal element.
Many students are convinced that most university classes are akin to sitting in John Searle’s Chinese Room—the goal is to manipulate symbols with sufficient skill to convince professors of their relative semantic fluency. My overarching goal in teaching philosophy is to give them the opportunity to experience education as a transformational means of self-exploration and help them develop the skills and dispositions needed to live a robustly reflective life. Initially, this means learning to analyze, evaluate and write arguments. Ultimately, it means learning to recognize that they are always, already involved in a dialogic analysis of what it means to be human and how we ought to respond to the rich moral texture of our lives. Observing the development of students’ academic acuity and intellectual motivation, sometimes over the course of multiple semesters, is a deeply rewarding experience, and a key reason why I am committed to the profession.