“The point of philosophy is to start off with something so simple as not to seem worth saying, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.”
– Bertrand Russell, The Philosophy of Logical Atomism
Philosophy is sometimes hard to believe, something that can be our greatest resource as teachers. The best philosophical arguments move effortlessly from simple starting points to challenging conclusions, and nothing gets students interested in doing philosophy like confronting them with arguments that move this way and inviting them to think hard about how we got from there to here. Once they are hooked, our job is to help improve the way that they think about argument and evidence, and when we can do this, we give them something that they can take with them wherever they go and whatever they will do.
This simple idea shapes the way I approach the classroom. Classes are spent carefully working through arguments, trying not only to understand why philosophers have said what they’ve said, but also what might be said for saying something else. We spend a lot time looking at different kinds of argument and evidence, and work together to build arguments, take them apart, and build them again. This “workshop” model creates a space where students feel safe to take risks and challenge themselves, and promotes a collaborative learning community. Students come away more confident thinkers, better able to participate in thoughtful conversation, with a better understanding of what it means to support beliefs with good reasons and a deeper appreciation for why this matters.
Outside of class, I ask students to spend a lot of time thinking and writing about philosophy. I work hard to pick readings that are fun but challenging, and ask students to work just as hard learning how to think and write clearly about what they read. This process begins with short writing assignments, where students are asked to summarize important philosophical claims and the arguments that have (or could) be provided in their support, and culminates with a research paper, where students are asked to think and write creatively about these philosophical claims and arguments. I work closely with them each step along the way, meeting with them throughout the semester to work on the mechanics of good philosophical reading and writing.
My teaching philosophy is simple, but I think that it has been effective. Work hard to get students excited to do the hard work of doing philosophy. I think that this simple way of thinking about teaching has made me a better teacher and has made my students better students. I am happy that my colleagues consistently remark on my ability to create fun and challenging courses. I am even more pleased that these courses continue to attract wonderful students, who believe that they are coming away from our time together better students and better people.