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Statement of Teaching Philosophy

While students will face many philosophical questions throughout their lives, most will have little occasion to cultivate the skills necessary to answer them. As teachers, philosophers have the opportunity and duty to provide students with the knowledge and skills to help them understand their world and their place in it. We must also do our part to cultivate a citizenry that is equipped for the difficult and controversial issues that they will inevitably confront.

I take this duty to students very seriously, and it informs my teaching philosophy in many ways. In addition to effectively familiarizing students with the subject matter of a course, I aim to cultivate in students core philosophical skills such as critical reasoning, effective verbal and written communication, and patient and charitable analysis of other’s views. I also try to show how the tools of philosophy can be profitably applied in contexts outside of our classroom.

Having taught or assisted in teaching courses of different sizes, to students with different interests, at different levels of knowledge, in different departments, and at multiple institutions, it is clear that good course design must be sensitive to these and other factors. There is no single correct way to implement a course. Still, there are some general principles that inform all of my courses. Below, I explain some of the core principles I employ to meet the course goals described above.

Organize courses around a set of related questions
In order to engage students, I orient course materials towards a theme that is framed by a small set of questions. For example, an environmental ethics survey might be oriented towards answering the questions “who or what is morally considerable?,” “how are those things to be considered?,” and “what are the practical implications of considering those things in that way?”A philosophy of science survey course might be oriented towards answering the question “what is the difference between science and non-science?,” with central issues in the philosophy of science such as confirmation, explanation, and prediction discussed from the perspective of demarcation.

By choosing organizing questions that students find interesting and important, and organizing course materials towards those questions, students are better able to see the importance of philosophical material that might otherwise strike them as irrelevant. This is especially true in low-level courses where students are less likely to be committed to the philosophical approach.

Vary classroom interactions to engage students
In addition to providing a simple theme for students, I vary the style of classroom interactions in a way that balances lecturing with community discussion and active learning activities. I encourage participation by providing a variety of avenues of classroom interaction. For example, in most courses that I have taught or assisted in teaching, I ask students to keep an eye out when reading newspapers, magazines, and websites for stories that are relevant to the issues we discuss. I reserve the opening minutes of class for students to present these materials. I also encourage students to interact with myself and other students outside of the classroom by taking advantage of online technologies such as wikis and social media websites. For example, I have held online office hours via instant messenger, and had students construct a database of news clippings related to environmental issues that were discussed in the classroom and which could then be used as source material for later projects.

Fit readings and assignments to the audience
In lower-level courses, I aim to present a variety of views and arguments on a topic and to balance views and arguments that are philosophically interesting and important with those that students are familiar with and find compelling. Whenever it will not sacrifice student comprehension, I prefer to use primary sources in order to better familiarize students with the history of the ideas under discussion. Students new to philosophy often find philosophical material difficult. Shorter reading assignments encourage students to read more carefully, increasing comprehension.

Short writing assignments that require students to clearly articulate and evaluate a philosophical argument from the readings encourage students to keep up with material while developing core philosophical skills. A typical assignment may ask a student to choose a philosophical claim made in the readings, explain it and the argument for it, and to evaluate that argument in two pages. My policy is to comment thoroughly on these papers, and to return them to students within 2 class periods. This enables my students to hone their ability to concisely explain and critically evaluate philosophical material.

In upper-level courses, the difficulty and amount of readings are increased. While readings may still cover a broad range of issues, class time is spent covering a small amount of material in great depth. To the extent possible, the students are responsible for summarizing the arguments from the readings, laying out the key issues, and presenting questions to fellow students for discussion. I serve in the role of moderator, guiding discussion or giving mini-lectures to provide useful background information.

In these courses, short writing assignments are supplemented with longer ones, and students are encouraged to write on material of their choosing. This allows students to take up those issues they find most interesting. Students are required, at least for the first set of papers, to come to a tutorial to discuss their topic and receive advice about how to proceed with their project.

Evaluate student’s work transparently
It is important that students understand the grading standards and, in turn, the grades they receive. To this end, I provide grading rubrics and, where appropriate, sample answers for each assignment given. In addition, I make it a matter of course policy that students are expected to discuss any questions or concerns about their grades with me. I emphasize that this is a natural part of the grading process, and reiterate this aspect of the grading policy when returning each assignment. This policy has made students more comfortable approaching me about their grades.

Be Prepared to Change
While I am pleased with the learning outcomes of my courses and sections so far, I realize I have much to learn about teaching, both from future colleagues and future students. In order to realize my teaching aims, I must be willing to revise my teaching style, assignment structure, grading policies, and readings in order to best serve my students. In light of this, I keep notes on which lectures, readings, and assignments stimulated students, and which concepts, arguments, and issues students had trouble with. By keeping detailed notes and relying on them to customize my courses, I am better able to construct classes that keep students interested while also achieving my teaching aims.

Copyright © 2010 John Basl – Please do not reuse or redistribute without permission of the author

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