i. Narrative of Teaching Philosophy
My aim as a teacher is to create an environment in which the questions of philosophy are both nurtured and contested by the life experiences and thoughts of every member of the classroom. I attempt to foster such an environment by developing courses that are writing intensive and discussion based. The deep and critical thinking skills philosophy requires and enriches are, in my experience (and confirmed by leading research in education), enhanced most successfully in a dialogical manner, in a classroom where students are given the opportunity to express their ideas freely and experientially. Most recently, I have sought to broaden this learning environment by rooting these questions in our community through activities supported by the Academic Service-Learning and Learning Communities programs at St. John’s. It is a matter of encouraging an experience in which students are able to discover the significance of philosophy through the vital and necessary questions of the world in which they live.
Teaching has been and continues to be a central concern, and the teaching of philosophy, in particular, has been a source of much joy. Philosophy is a discipline that practices and develops critical thinking skills in a unique and important manner. The questions of philosophy are not only the most basic to human experience, but also questions that most directly pertain to the person we ought to become. In an effort to develop better approaches to the teaching of these thinking skills, I have focused on three main pedagogical questions:
- How does writing develop critical thinking skills?
- How can technology enhance the learning experience?
- How does community involvement better engage the students and the questions of philosophy?
Developing Writing Intensive Courses
Most recently, my focus in the development of my teaching has been on the teaching and experience of writing. I have become ever more convinced of the formative connection between writing and critical thinking. Not only does writing foster critical thought, but also demands that the students engage the material in a more personal manner. From the beginning of my teaching, writing has always been a central concern, but my attention was directed mainly at longer, essay exams or research papers. My attention now has shifted to incorparating more in-class writing, particularly “low-stakes” writing, as well as more group writing and peer review. Working with Anne Geller and the WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) program has only made this connection more poignant. Two summers ago, I joined other St. John’s faculty in Paris for the summer writing institute. Our task was to develop a new syllabus and new writing assignments to address past shortcomings in the class performance. My time at the instituate was incredibly valuable. Not only did I learn from the WAC faculty and other professors at St John’s about their respective approaches to the teaching of writing, I was able to develop new types of assignments, new ways of effectively evaluating of students’ writing and new forms of assessing my effectiveness as a teacher of writing. During the 2009-2010 academic year, I also participated in the WAC faculty fellows program. This program teamed me up with a senior student and together we worked with our students throughout the semester on the topic of writing. The immediate feedback I received from the fellow as well as the relationship built with the Writing Center through this program has been incredibly instrumental in my present approach to working with students on how to improve their writing and thinking. My students write in a myriad of different contexts and forms, and the intensity of writing has only shown to dramatically improve their performance and interest in the courses. I am grateful for the continued support by the University and the WAC program to improve my teaching of writing. It has had the most profound impact on my courses and teaching.
Teaching and Technology
A further step in the evolution of my teaching the past two years has taken place through the use of technology in and outside the classroom. In years prior, I used technology rather sparingly and harbored much resistance to its use, concerned primarily with its negative impact on critical writing and reading skills. The only form of technology that I had used was Blackboard, but always in a very limited sense. After participating in the T3 program at St. John’s (see description in section iii), I have greatly expanded my use of technology and have discovered many of the virtues of technology both in terms of student engagement and instruction. One example of the use of techonology is that all texts and readings used for my Phil 1000: Human Person course are digital and hyperlinked through my syllabus, which is also posted digitally on Blackboard. The use of digital texts has allowed me to project passages from the texts in class and work with these passages collectively with the students, e.g., highlighting or commenting on important sections, but, more importantly, to display the “thread” of the class analysis of the relevant passages, illustrating the process by which we as a class have examined a text. Given the commitment of St. John’s to the poor, digital, on-line texts come as no cost to the students, offering a more democratic and fair form of education. Not only are the texts but also all significant written work is submitted digitally. Working the written assignments digitally enables me to provide better comments in the text, a more timely correspondance with students about their work and more accurate account of authenticity. In a relatively short period of time, I found that the level of student engagement and quality of work to have increased significantly.
I have built upon the technological skills gained through this program and completed the training course for full on-line teaching and have been teaching distance learning courses for four semesters, including the summer. There was some further resistance on my part to the idea of teaching an on-line course. I feared losing much of the intimate and personal contact a teacher gains by working with students face to face. Yet, thanks to the T3 program, I have been able to use technology in such a manner to build a type of virtual environment wherein students learn collectively and collaboratively. There are even some respects where the distance learning class is a much better experience for students. For example, the anonymity of the online discussion board postings allows each and every student to contribute, rather than a dominant few – which often occurs in the classroom. To my surprise, I have enjoyed working with students in the on-line format and look forward to further developments in this regard. The distance learning course has also improved my in-class teaching, looking to create a discussion board based assignment that would also have the advantages found in distance learning.
Student Engagement and the Community
One aspect of teaching I have enjoyed from the very beginning has been working with students outside the classroom. In my teaching experience at other universities, this type of student engagement was limited to academic activities such as philosophy clubs or lecture series. St. John’s has been able to offer many more opportunities for student engagement, some of which I list below in Section iii. Over the past three years I have been a faculty participant in the Learning Community program at St. John’s. The intent of this program is to create opportunities to meet with students outside the classroom in a non-academic environment, particularly for first year students. The first two semesters I was paired with Professor Prevallet in the Center of Core Studies, First Year Writing. During these past two years, I have been able to take the level of participation one step further and developed a full integration course. Presently, I am working with Professor Sean Murray from the first year writing program. We share a syllabus and coordinate events together throughout the semester. The feedback I receive from the students outside the classroom has a major impact on the teaching in the classroom and the types of assignments I give.
A fourth apsect in the evolution of my teaching concerns the general theme of my courses, the problem of social justice. The urban setting of St. Johns’ and the urban background of the majority of its students has been a welcomed challenge for me in terms of both my approach to teaching this material and my own research interest. Course content and material tend to investigate the meaning of social justice with increaing emphasis on questions of race, class and gender. These concerns have had a direct influence on my research in social-political philosophy and environmental justice, I regard the distinction between teaching and research as a false distinction, and it has been quite rewarding experience for me to have my teaching create the new ground for my research. For more than a year now, I have partnered with the non-profit group Immigration Advocacy Matters to form an academic service learning experience. My students lead an event, a “conversation mixer,” with immigrants working on their English skills. This event takes place at St. John’s and consists of more than one hundred participants. St. John’s students are responsible for developing the lesson plan for the event that is meant to introduce vocabulary and expressions rooted in everyday experience. The purpose of this academic service learning component is for students to think of the process of learning from the perspective of the teacher and how this process relates to the question of the human person. My hope is to strengthen this connection between the university and the community, providing students with the opportunity to see how the questions of philosophy are embedded in the world in which we live.
It has been my continued aim to create a different type of learning experience for my students, an experience wherein they are free to work through the questions of philosophy creatively, critically and personally. In such a learning environment, skills such as critical thinking and writing are given a purpose, and the work the students produce is greatly enhanced. Teaching is an activity that I enjoy immensely and I look forward to the discovery of ever new ways in which to deepen the engagement students have in the classroom.