TEACHING PHILOSOPHY

Thomas W. Simon

Illinois State University

Department of Philosophy


 

Most pursuits involve human interactions, and the law has its fair share of them. I have had opportunities to leave academics and pursue a law career, but I rediscovered that teaching focuses on the best of human interactions. The law only probes the truth so far; teaching unleashes higher levels of truth and understanding for student and teacher. I also tried my hand at administration to help shape educational policy, but I have found that teaching offers a far more rewarding track for making a difference. Administration removes you from the action; teaching is the action. Research plays a critical role in teaching. Research and teaching feed one another, but teaching holds the central place of honor. You do not teach in order to research but research in order to teach. I AM A TEACHER. It goes in bold type to represent a shout of pride from the rooftops. This document only connects to teaching, for the printed word mediates direct communication. Here, I write about teaching. Teaching needs a real-life context involving social manifestations of voice, tone, timbre, gesture, motion--and then Eureka--something, we-know-not-what, happens among individuals searching in common for a glimmer of wisdom. When students have that glimmer in their eye, that puzzled look, that questioning and confident tone of voice, that engagement and give-and-take lasting beyond one exchange of opinions, then I walk away, head reeling, knowing that I have taught and learned. Teaching has something to do with a teacher, a great deal to do with students, and everything to do with interactions. My philosophy of teaching is guided by a commitment to four basic goals or ideals: creating an active classroom; promoting good writing, speaking, and critical analysis skills; promoting experiential education; and promoting interdisciplinary teaching and activity.

 

An Active Classroom: Teaching Teaching

I have found ways to create an active classroom from a variety of sources. One person in particular taught me the importance of helping students teach. Whenever I have students who have done well on paper teach those who have not done so well, or listen to a student teach part of a class, I think back to Lucy Batchelor. She began teaching in the Florida State Prison by shouting up to four tiers of cells from a center courtyard. Lucy started a successful prison education program by teaching one group of inmates how to teach the next group of inmates to teach the next group. She did not teach students. Rather, she taught teaching. Students learn best when they teach. No matter how large or how small the class may be, students need an opportunity to develop the teacher that resides in all of us. Student involvement in teaching ranges from guiding a class through a reading to developing a mini-course or a course within a course. Students teaching a course occurs in a variety of settings, including in jails. I have continued the prison education program that I began at the University of Florida, where, inspired by Lucy, we developed over twenty courses for students to teach in the local jails. In Spring 1997, seven ISU students in Political Philosophy taught a six week course on democracy and injustice to young people incarcerated in the McLean County Juvenile Detention Center. The students designed the curriculum and taught regular classes to twenty inmates. Before this experience, Sarah Lappin, the top student in a class of eighty, had her eyes set on a career in law. Now, she wants to devote her life to helping juvenile defenders and regularly volunteers at the Detention Center. Another group in the same class taught about democratic theories and practices throughout the world to a junior high class in one of the four week selectives at Blooming Grove Academy, a private alternative school. The projects that allow students to teach generally have the greatest impact on students. Unlike those in the class who, for example, developed an electronic democracy module, these students had live interactions with the teaching material.

Promoting teaching represents one way of creating an active classroom. Even classes with large numbers of students can become environments for active participation. I had thought that this was impossible until I assisted Michael Sandel in teaching theories of justice to 900 Harvard students. Calling on or pointing to students in a large lecture hall does not have to be intimidating. Rather, it becomes a stimulating teaching device to keep student interest levels high. Intermittent small group discussions ("buzz groups") provide valuable supplements to lecture material. Students learn a great deal from their peers by meeting in groups before and after a lecture on a topic. They soon discover a commonality of interests, problems, and questions about the material. Short writing assignments, interspersed throughout the class, give students a stake in the course. In an ethics class, students wrote a statement about how they thought they might die. Only a few saw themselves dying in a hospital. I then point out that 85% of Americans die in hospital settings. The experiential exercise makes the lecture material more meaningful. Afterwards, the students listened more attentively when I discussed the different types of euthanasia debated in medical settings.

An active classroom places a great deal of responsibility on students. I had thought that only an honor's class could meet the challenge of teaching an entire unit of a course, but later I discovered that many students can take major responsibility for a class. A section of Moral and Social Issues more than demonstrated the abilities of honor's students to do so. They had primary responsibility for organizing all phases of a month of public presentations on genocide and other gross injustices. They handled the publicity and developed innovative programs on female genital mutilation and cultural relativism and many other topics. One group arranged for high school students to attend and participate in the discussions on the many cases of genocide during this century. Another group convinced a Holocaust survivor, Professor Sol Shulman, to give one of the most moving talks I have ever heard. A heartening result of this experiment came in the form of some of the students volunteering to continue planning an Injustice Studies lecture series during the following semester and others wanting to continue the research they began in the course. One measure of a successful course is whether students want to continue studying the issues into the following semester. Often, this happens with students that I least suspect of having an interest in the course. Initially, one of these students, Carrie Borowski looked skeptical and distraught. I made sure that she knew that I respected her opinions as I continued to challenge her. She rose to the occasion, producing a piece that I have urged her to publish. Then, she took inspiration from the course to collect data on the use of the death penalty for genocide during a summer independent study, getting corporate lawyers form the company her father works for to help do the research. I continue to meet with her on a related project she is doing with Professor Richard Payne in Political Science.

However, a student does not have to have Honor's Program credentials to rise to the challenge. Any Illinois State University student can take considerable responsibility for doing classroom teaching if properly guided and stimulated. Most of the teaching I do occurs within University Studies, where students take courses, generally not because they want to but because the course meets a requirement. In many instances, these students have surpassed the honor's students in what I call their teaching ability and what is, in fact, a measure of their engagement with the issues of a given class. I require them to present their material in front of the class and urge them to be as creative as possible. I worked closely with one group, whose members included African American and Caucasian students, who took vocal positions on opposite sides of the racial issue. I also gave them enough respectful distance to work out things themselves. Together, they produced a highly professional video that simulated a housing discrimination case using Watterson Towers as a backdrop. After acting out their roles in the video, they completed the project with a greater appreciation for each other. Other students performed plays that reflected their experiences with moral dilemmas. Some projects have continued beyond the course. Two students continue to try to implement an electronic voting system at Illinois State University. They began this work in a group project in Political Philosophy, under my guidance.

This type of teaching is not without its risks. On the contrary, it engages students and professors in some of the greatest risks we can venture. In creating a classroom atmosphere, at once comfortable and provocative, I encourage students to take on the unknown and to find in that encounter the great freedoms and responsibilities their education can encompass. The final results speak for themselves. In the end, students make good teachers, which is to say, they reflect and emulate the best teaching to which they are exposed.

 

Good Writing, Speaking, and Critical Analysis Skills

The promotion of an active classroom does not mean the neglect of the basics. Every course becomes an introduction to writing, speaking, and critical analysis. I take students through each phase of the term-paper writing process: thesis statement, resources, outline, first draft. I have them carefully reread their papers and the comments that I spend a great deal of time composing. It has proven beneficial to give students the opportunity to rewrite their papers. Students have ample opportunity to redo their work to "get it right," even if the results increase the grade average for the class because of their improved grades on the rewrites.

I have come to make more use of journals in classes. At first, I thought that I could skim through them since they would not require the detailed attention of a term paper. However, I have found them worthy of close reading, for the sake of the students, who put considerable effort into them, and for my sake. Journals give me an even greater respect for students. I watch in amazement at how their thought processes progress to higher levels. They begin their journals having few opinions or opinions based on gut reactions. By the end, they produce arguments for their positions. More revealingly, I discover things about the students and about myself. For example, it came as a shock to learn through a journal that one student, doing a project on homelessness, had herself spent a considerable number of years as a homeless child. Sharing that experience with me has changed the way I teach the topic. My lectures about the homeless no longer portray them as the distant Other.

Initially, some students complain that a philosophy course is not a speech course. They sometimes resent the requirement to debate or to speak in some other way in front of the class. I confess to a political agenda behind the writing and speaking requirements. I want to help mold good citizens, and with citizenship goes the ability to write well and to speak articulately. I try to respect the wishes of the shy and retiring types from Lake Woebegone. However, once they have spoken publicly, students find the experience valuable. Skills in argumentation begin with the ability to read texts closely. I devote classroom time to individuals and to the class as a whole in learning how to read an article. Then, we work through how to precisely define terms and construct arguments. I use various techniques to help students see the other side of the argument, from actually having them step into each other's shoes after a debate and argue the other side to working with them in anticipating counter-arguments and devising counter-examples.

Pre- and post-tests about basic understanding of issues provides a means of measuring teaching success in each course. The results not only give me encouragement but they also prove to be an excellent assessment tool for the students. They quickly realize that while they may not have changed their opinions during the course, their opinions have become better informed and more grounded in reason. Also, I usually give a mid-term examination, consisting of identifications and expository essays, to set a base line. Throughout the process of teaching the basics, I find different learning styles, which must be accommodated to assure that every student is performing to the best of her or his capability. Some student have active visual imaginations that can help them if they learn to use it by, for example, taking notes in a more visual manner. Students get a rough gage of their visual imaginations through a problem solving exercise designed by Grey Walter. Walter provides problems that require a specified amount of visual imagination to solve efficiently. Some students use an over abundance of visual information, thereby indicating a rich visual imagination. They can then use this "gift" to take notes in a more visual way. Also, some students try too hard in their writing and produce stilted and sometimes incomprehensible papers. So, it helps to get them to relax more by first talking through what they want to say before they commit it to paper. The wide variety of learning approaches among students provides a constant challenge to experiment with techniques that fit them best.

I challenge students intellectually. I push them, even so far as a state of confusion, to stimulate them to construct well-reasoned arguments for their positions. When students leaves a class complaining that they are more confused than ever, I know that they are beginning to question, which lies at the heart of philosophy. One student proclaimed that I questioned him so much that the thinking hurt. It proves challenging to assure a balance so that students do not feel threatened and yet become intellectually challenged about their deeply held beliefs.

So, in every course, I try to develop good writing, speaking, and critical thinking skills. Although each of these constitutes a distinct and separate skill, they enhance one another. Good writing leads, for example, to better critical thinking. Innovations in the classroom must remain grounded in the basic skills.

 

Experiential Education

A commitment to experiential education and internships, beyond professional practice, and a continuing education college attracted me to Illinois State University. I revived a largely defunct internship program in Department of Philosophy. The following examples demonstrate that the most abstract discipline has practical applications. A student completed an internship with a mental health clinic in Chicago and wrote an analysis of mental health care delivery for the poor. Another student spent time at Blooming Grove Academy to evaluate the use of democratic procedures in elementary school classrooms.

I firmly believe in extending education and philosophy into the community. When a group of students prepares and serves meals to the homeless, they develop a more sensitive assessment when it comes time to write their comparative analyses of the governing structures of different shelters in Bloomington and Champaign. These experiences sometimes change opinions about issues. Mostly and most importantly, they change people and enrich understanding. They help students develop an openness to experience that they take well beyond the classroom and beyond the university once they graduate. Such experiences can and often do change them for life.

 

Interdisciplinary

Knowledge, understanding, and wisdom do not fall neatly into distinct disciplinary categories. I chose philosophy as an area of concentration primarily because it offered the best opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary teaching and research, not as the latest fad in academia, but as an intellectually compelling concern, from my formative work in the field. I spent the early days of my philosophical career immersed in something that did not have a name at the time but which now goes under the heading of Cognitive Science. No one discipline has a monopoly over the study of the mind. Philosophy, psychology, linguistics, computer science, neuroscience, and mathematics-- all make contributions. An integrated, interdisciplinary approach makes the best sense when studying something as complicated as the human mind.

Students sense the need to take interdisciplinary approaches. Students take a course in philosophy of law because they want to know about philosophy and about law. In compiling a textbook (Law's Philosophies) in philosophy of law for McGraw Hill, I included many perspectives on law. Philosophers, legal theorists, political scientists, sociologists, literary theorists, economists, and historians each have important insights to convey about the law. While I do not pretend to have mastery in technical areas such as the relationship between law and economics, I studied with some of the "masters" in different disciplines, including Jules Coleman and Tom Ulen, two of the foremost authorities in the field. Students appreciate the varied perspectives, and it becomes incumbent on teachers to attain expertise outside of their discipline.

I collaborate with others both in the classroom and in my research to give students the greatest benefit of others' expertise. At the same time, I model for them ways in which they can learn, proposing the kinds of questions from which they might benefit. The effect of my risking positioning myself as a fellow learner in the classroom, if a more sophisticated one, is to advance our mutual endeavors in the most genuine and beneficial of terms.

 

Future Goals

Goal 1. Community Outreach. In my ideal university, I envision a course, required of all students, where students give something to the community through programs where they apply what they have learned. Volunteerism should not be only an extracurricular activity. I plan to devote considerable efforts to helping to promote student involvement in the community through the new general education program and through regular course offerings.

Goal 2. Student Culture. I feel the constant need to retool culturally. I find myself getting further and further removed from students' interests. Teaching in Japan taught me the critical importance of cultural context. Cultural differences play an important role even among individuals not classified under the labels of diversity. I have participated in and will increase my involvement in student mentoring and in Office of Residential Life programs.

Goal 3. Diversity. Given the subject matter and my work with it, I create a classroom climate in which students feel freer to articulate concerns over racial and gender issues. I need to find ways to work further with these concerns. I have sought and will continue to seek training and counsel from various sources including two colleagues who are particularly well versed in these matters, Alison Bailey and Christopher Horvath. My classes attract an above average percentage of African American students, and I want to find ways to devote more attention to their concerns.

Goal 4. Internationalization. Over the past few years, I have introduced an increasing amount of material in each course on global issues with beneficial results. . Students benefit from viewing their culture and problems from afar. They have a more balanced view of affirmative action if they first assess the role of the Japanese government in rectifying the plight, for example, of the burakumin, a group of Japanese citizens who are discriminated against because of occupations their ancestors had. Students adopt a different attitude towards the abortion debate once they see the kind of attention, or lack of attention, the debate receives in Europe. I have begun to accumulate telling examples of other legal systems, with similar positive outcomes expected.

Goal 5. Teaching Publications and Professional Activity. I have used one of my works, Democracy and Social Injustice, as a textbook and the preliminary drafts of an anthology, Law's Philosophies, which I plan to refine in future classes. I have begun an article on teaching philosophy of law that argues that textbook editing can change teaching paradigms. I have applied for membership on the Teaching Committee for the American Philosophical Association.

Goal 6. Team Teaching. Whatever its faults, the new general education program provides a rare opportunity to nurture co-teaching not only with philosophy colleagues but also with faculty from hitherto remote parts of the university. I intend to pursue team teaching plans for other courses as well.

Goal 7. Technology and Techniques. I do not know of convincing evidence that demonstrates that the widespread use of technology in the classroom appreciably enhances student learning. No technology should replace direct, face-to-face teaching. Yet, technology has useful applications in the classroom. For example, students could use teleconferencing to view and communicate with Holocaust survivors. I plan to become more familiar with technologies that I can put to use for specific purposes in courses. I am making use of the computer training courses for this purpose. Also, I began to develop a cooperative venture with theater to perform ethical dilemmas and culturally different situations. I shall attend a workshop at the University of Nebraska on the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed.

 

Summary

While my goals isolate specific areas of refinement, they derive from my profound sense of our need to prepare students to enter the next troubled century. I bring to my classes and to all of my work with students an appreciation for their abilities and potentialities. I bring, too, a sensitivity to global issues that makes the development of their abilities and potentialities a matter of urgency.

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