Reflections on Teaching at the Start of a New Semester
Today is the first day of the new semester. Last semester I returned to teaching from a year-long sabbatical. I returned refreshed and tenured (I had already taught with tenure for one semester before my sabbatical as Wabash graciously completes the tenure process in one semester). The year off was good for my research, as we generally understand sabbaticals to be. But it was also good for my teaching. It was good for my teaching as a rest. Recent research shows that the ability to do well over time depends on rest and recovery. It is good to give your mind time off from the tasks that consume you.* I took time off from thinking about teaching to focus on a book project. Ideas for teaching occurred to me in the midst of that work, but I wasn’t trying to come up with ideas for teaching. In planning for last semester, I decided to do some creative non-obvious approaches to organizing my courses because I felt a certain freedom from expectations and a willingness to do what I thought would work rather than what was the typical structure of a course.
As I reflect on how things went, I see four things that I did this semester that made for more successful teaching, four things that were made possible in part by having tenure and then having a sabbatical.
- Slowing down
- Being authentic
- Getting clearer about expectations
- Doing more introduction and transitional set-up
Each of these elements contributed to my goal in teaching to encourage students to engage in the philosophical classroom as thinkers rather than consumers of knowledge.
I taught a freshmen seminar–whose purpose is to introduce students to college-level work–on the topic of Socrates and the Examined Life. I only taught three dialogues across the fourteen-week semester. I included other texts besides dialogues, including short contemporary readings and passages from secondary literature. One day after reading Plato’s Apology, we watched the Death episode of South Park and talked about the connection between the episode and the dialogue. On another day, after reading Plato’s Euthyphro and passages from Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, we talked about whether Euthyphro was a clown or a monster and which was worse.
I wanted students to think about what it meant to read one piece of work over and over again to get to further depth and insight. Each class meeting focused on one theme or question raised by one of the three dialogues we read. One week instead of class meetings, each student had to meet with me for a half hour for oral exams in which students defended and discussed recently submitted papers with me.
Slowing down the pace of a class is part of how we teach students to think. By assigning a lot of material, we can communicate that the goal is to learn information. By focusing on a limited set of texts, students could take some time, and could see that taking the time was the point.
I don’t usually talk like this. We all put on a persona when we walk into the classroom. I don’t talk to my students the way I talk to my friends at the bar. I don’t want to get into whether there is a “real self” behind the persona or whether we are just a collection of our personas. What I mean when I say that I teach better when I am myself in the classroom is that I teach better when I do not feel like I have to put on a mask of invulnerability or perfection in order to be successful. I am who I am. I think certain things are funny and certain things annoy me. I think I teach better when I can have the responses I have and then explain my response instead of suppose I need to have a certain pedagogical impenetrability.
Part of the authenticity involves telling students my reasoning for assignments and for responses to their questions. I have found myself more willing to tell students why I hesitate to offer an answer when they ask a question that I find frustrating–usually it is a question that I think is trying to bypass the project of thinking I am asking of them. Part of what I mean by authenticity is more transparency. I don’t feel that my authority depends on hiding my purposes. I’m still trying to get my head around exactly what this involves, but I feel differently in the classroom because I don’t feel like my success depends on portraying a certain image of myself. Maybe I care less what they think of me. I did stop wearing heels this semester.**
Getting Clearer about Expectations
I attended a pedagogy workshop put on by the American Association of Philosophy Teachers at Indiana University the first weekend of last semester. One of the guiding principles of the workshop was that inclusive pedagogy requires professors to be as clear as possible about their expectations to students. The argument is that first-generation college students often lack some of the knowledge about what is expected in college that other students have, but faculty can make up for this lack by being explicit about the goals and expectations of each assignment.
I found this useful as much for preparing assignments as I did for helping students better understand what I wanted from them. I started to include a table at the top of my assignments, which I borrowed from Alida Liberman, one of the facilitators of the workshop and faculty at University of Indianapolis. The table includes Goals, Activities and Assessment.
Writing the prompt in this way helped me to think about what I wanted the paper to accomplish and helped students to evaluate whether they were achieving the goals of the paper. It also helped me explain to students why they received the grade they did. (I will say that one student commented in student evaluations that this approach was too wordy and confusing.)
Doing More “Set Up”
I think this last one is a matter of both being better prepared and thinking more about what students need in order to read and engage with the material. It is also a matter of being able to better see the course as a whole. This semester I spent more time offering information to introduce texts and figures and to show the connections between the text we were finishing and the text we were beginning. It is true that I want students to have to draw these conclusions themselves, but I think it is part of getting clearer about my reasons for assigning texts that I show them how the texts fit together and that I give them more background on the text rather than hold back information for the sake of getting them to make the connection. They still strive to make the connection more explicitly. I like them to see that the course has a rationale and to see the elements of the rationale as we proceed. It helps them to draw the threads together from point to point and across the whole course.
One reason I like to teach is that I think of it as a lifelong project. New challenges present themselves. For now, these are mine.
*This should make the case for why workers everywhere should have more time off if what businesses cared about was productivity rather than keeping workers in precarious circumstances.
**I fully support wearing heels to teach or for doing whatever you want to do, but I can’t anymore (sad face) due to my aforementioned Morton’s neuroma.