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Teaching at Wabash

A student came to my office in my first spring at Wabash and told me that I was the first professor who asked him to have his own insight into a reading.  He told me that it was hard, but he felt challenged and he liked that.  He said, “I realized I’ve just been writing reports, but you’re actually asking me to produce secondary literature.”

Gilbert Highet wrote in his book, The Art of Teaching,  that teaching is a struggle between students and teachers: the students always want to do less work and the teachers always want them to do more.  The trick is figuring out how to inspire and motivate the students to do more and better work.  It’s a lot of work to make students work and to make them engage in the task of thinking.  So I felt like my first year at Wabash College was a success when this student expressed this sentiment to me.

I read Highet’s book in college, having found it on my parents’ bookshelves.  Highet made me think teaching was a lofty, compelling and difficult enterprise.  He writes, “A teacher must believe in the value and interest of his subject as a doctor believes in health.”  Philosophy is wrapped up in pedagogical concerns at its ground because it thinks about what learning does to our very being, to what the Greeks called the soul.  That’s why it mattered very much to them, or to some of them, that they find a good teacher.  Plato recognized the conundrum of teaching: to seek and find a good teacher, one must already know what she is looking to learn, which is to say, she must already know it.  But if she knows it, then she doesn’t need it.  Once you can be sure you have a good teacher, you no longer need that teacher.  This paradox shouldn’t compel us to give up on the enterprise.  It shows us that learning takes risk.  There is a whole lot that the student does not know beforehand: Will this be worth my time?  Will this learning matter?  How will this change me?

IMG_0052Learning is a risk, and a good teacher appreciates this risk, the vulnerability of the endeavor and the trust the student must have.  I think that means that a good teacher, too, takes risks and acts out of courage.  The risk is that pushing hard and asking for a lot can go at least two ways.  On the one hand, the student could throw up her hands and walk away in frustration when the teacher says, no, not good enough, think more, think better, come to an insight.  If that happens, the pushing and demanding more fails to achieve its end.  On the other hand, the demand for more could lead to the insight like that of the student who came to my office pleased with the challenge.  But there’s equal risk in not pushing, in letting the student’s possible resignation too strongly influence the teacher into timidity.  So that’s what I mean: teaching is risky.  Teaching, like learning, takes courage.

Posts on Teaching

Check out my video lecture series on Plato’s Republic.

Courses at Wabash

  • Introductory course on the concept of nature and its uses in the history of philosophy, particularly around gender in society, using this lecture as a point of departure
  • Humans in the Age of Robots
  • Seminar on Hannah Arendt
  • Senior Seminar: Plato and Baldwin, Athens and America.
  • Freshmen seminar on Socrates and the Examined Life.
  • Plato Republic Senior Seminar: Public Philosophy In 2014 and 2015, students from this course participated in the GLCA Ancient Philosophy Undergraduate Workshop at Wabash.
  • Ancient Philosophy
  • Philosophy of Commerce
  • Philosophy of Race
  • Foundations of Modern Philosophy
One Comment Post a comment
  1. Dear Prof. Trott, Just discovered your website and ordered your book “Aristotle on the Matter of Form,” and will probably follow up with the one on community. Thank you for your pioneering intellectual work that I look forward to exploring more!

    June 12, 2022

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