Teaching Statement

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I wanted to write something more personal for my 700th post, but this is a really heavy grading week, so I had to find something I wrote a while ago. Syracuse University has an Outstanding TA award every year, and I was awarded it in the spring of 2003 during my last semester as a teaching associate (basically a TA in terms of pay and benefits who teaches a class, which means they consider me faculty at TA pay with no benefits). I've since moved down the lowerarchy into adjunct status. I had to write a statement about my teaching, and this is it. I haven't edited what I submitted very much except to paste together aspects from different parts of the overall portfolio and to remove references to items in other parts of the portfolio.

What follows is my reflection on why I teach, why I teach philosophy, why I do it the way I do it, and what I've learned in the process. I've also added a few items of what I've done since then in brackets. In other words, it's a window into my thoughts about one of the top two or three things I put my energy into, and I've therefore got a lot to say about it. Most academic jobs require a statement like this, which is one reason they require it for this TA award to save people work later. By the time I go on the market I think I'll have to revise it significantly.

If you make it to the end (it's not short), you'll notice that it starts to degrade into summaries of particular kinds of teaching not related to university teaching. Those come from summaries on later pages in my teaching portfolio. I wanted to include them here, but be warned that it seems to end quite suddenly. My conclusion of my main teaching statement ends before that stuff starts. So don't think anything got cut off.

Teaching in general is a highly worthwhile task. I love to see students get excited about learning. I consider it a privilege to be part of that process.

Philosophy is a difficult subject to teach. Some of the obstacles are in the subject matter. Some obstacles are from culturally conditioned attitudes to philosophy. I very much enjoy teaching philosophy, and part of this enjoyment comes from the joys of overcoming these obstacles and seeing the students excited about philosophical matters. It thrills me to see students reflecting on their lives and on issues that have nagged thoughtful people for millennia. A large part of my enjoyment, however, comes from students who never see why this material excites me so much. Just seeing them develop intellectually in skills that will be invaluable in many different aspects of life makes teaching a course like this seem worthwhile enough. [I had only taught one course at the time. I've now taught four different courses since, though they've all overlapped with each other in terms of content.]

Many people see philosophy as a useless waste of time. I disagree quite strongly. The content of philosophical thought can be very interesting on many levels to someone like me, but I have asked these questions throughout my life. Even if someone sees nothing interesting about philosophy, I would still argue for its importance. Philosophical questions come up in every other discipline as people consider why they do certain things and as they give reasons for doing things. Questions in philosophy relate very clearly to questions in physics, biology, neuroscience, political science, psychology, religion, and many other fields.

Aside from any concern from the content, however, a philosophy course is more than anything else an exercise in reasoning. Critical thinking skills are essential to any college-degreed employment and, just as significantly, to everyday life. We evaluate our decisions and our motivations. People often give reasons for or against certain courses of action. Responsible citizens of a democratically-governed society have to be able to consider what counts as good or bad reasoning to weigh the options for political participation. Ordinary life requires the kind of thinking modeled in philosophy classes. For this reason, I enjoy seeing students grow in their ability to think carefully and honestly, and I tell them that if they get nothing else out of the class, at least they can learn these fundamental skills. I have found that the best way to learn these sorts of reasoning skills is in a context of ongoing study of material rather than simply studying the reasoning skills as the content. The context helps provide a frame for the critical thinking skills and allows repetition as the same strategies and techniques arise with different topics.

Despite having a family of four [five now!], with two children under two years old [now both older than two but one just barely under zero, the way we measure age], I make a great effort to be available to my students. Besides regular office hours, I find myself meeting with students on my days off to go over work with them. I enjoy seeing the progress of a student�s paper from the early draft to a final product when I have had a chance to help them see what would be necessary to produce a better paper. I have seen countless papers improve from B- work to B+ or A- work, just from spending some time helping students see what else they can do on a paper.

When I teach, many concerns come together, and it has taken me a few years to settle into an understanding of how best to deal with many of them. What am I doing when I teach a philosophy course?

One important thing is to communicate the material to the students in a way they can understand it. I have found some helpful techniques for doing this. One helpful tool is to find examples from the ordinary student�s life to illustrate philosophical questions or problems. I have found that student interest is higher when I begin a class with this sort of thing. I have seen a whole classroom become convinced that they know hardly anything just from a few simple questions about what they plan to do after class. If I press them on how they know they will not fall and break a bone, needing to go to the emergency room, they have no answer. I raise questions about the nature of human experience by asking a female student if she thinks I will ever know what it is like to grow up female in the United States or by asking a black student if I could ever know what it is like to be black. When considering the basis of morality, I have frequently encountered resistance to any idea of any moral truth, so I ask students if it is ok to torture helpless infants merely for the fun of it. This kind of vivid case, because it is so abhorrent, brings the fundamental issues to the fore instead of allowing distractions from the fact that people disagree on some moral questions.

I often like to use something in the room as an example for the conversation. I throw my keys up in the air and ask how we know they will come down. I point to a hat or a jacket and ask if other people might see it the way I see it or if they see the colors reversed. I ask a student what would happen if somehow my brain got switched with his. If the resulting person in his body went home to my wife, how should she respond? These kinds of fun examples have seemed to help involve the students more in the topic of the discussion, and therefore they seem far more willing to participate when I ask questions or to raise objections or ask questions as I proceed through the material. I try to allow people ample opportunity to express their own thoughts, realizing that there is also content to teach. Learning other people�s opinions does not in itself teach anyone philosophy. However, it does allow people to understand better what they think and be exposed to other viewpoints. The process of dialogue is itself is so valuable that I would never want to go back to a standard lecture style for a philosophy course if I have any control over it. I just need to make sure that in allowing students to shape the discussion, I include the material that needs to be covered if it does not otherwise come up.

One way I have tried to motivate student participation from the very beginning is by drawing out their own thoughts on philosophy from the very beginning. After having them read a philosopher�s discussion of what philosophy is and why it is worthwhile, I ask them to spend ten or fifteen minutes writing about their impressions of philosophy, what philosophers do, and if they think it is worth doing. Then I ask them to tell me what they wrote about. Having been forced to think about the topic, they have something to say, and it is much easier to draw it out of them. That sets a precedent for a classroom dynamic allowing easy back-and-forth discussion throughout a whole semester. It took me a couple years before I tried this, and it worked so well that I continue to do it. [I don't do this unless it's an introductory philosophy course that isn't ethics, which most people understand quite well. It's the more open-ended courses in philosophy that get helped by this. If it's an introductory course in ethics, I ask them to write about something they did that they believe was wrong, explaining why they think it was wrong.]

Another thing I do in teaching philosophy is modeling excitement about the subject matter. I enjoy many of the topics I teach, and my students seem to be able to see that, judging by my course evaluations. I have even occasionally had some students come to office hours just to try out new ideas. It is quite encouraging to see a student leave a class with a new idea motivating them, as a student last week did when he saw how someone can see science and religion as complementary rather than in opposition. So I aim to have fun with the material while I teach.

How I choose assignments probably reveals something of what I think good teaching involves. I have replaced standard paper-writing with dialogues. Students in my classes write conversations between different characters, with each character representing a different view. Part of the assignment is to reflect all the relevant views that we have discussed and to portray each fairly. Part of it is to work into the discussion all the material that would come up in such a debate between the different views. In some ways this is challenging, but my students have told me that it helps organize the information better than a normal paper would, and they insist that in the end they know the material far better than they would if they presented it in a standard way. [I've tried doing courses with standard papers last semester, because one of my courses was 400-level, and I went back to dialogues this semester. I don't require it in my 300-level class, but the students prefer it. I require it in intro courses.]

Another tool I have used is videos. Movies are too long for an hour-and-a-half classes, unless I were to use only a part of a movie. However, television shows fit nicely and even leave time for discussion. Since science fiction authors have always been fond of addressing philosophical questions, it should be no surprise that science fiction television gives me the most fruitful sources for this kind of thought-provoking discussion. I have used episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Babylon 5, The X-Files, and Andromeda to motivate discussions about human nature, the mind, artificial intelligence, skepticism, and free will. I have found it to be effective in providing a context for raising the issues, but it also seems that the very questions I want to address get raised by the characters themselves, and it almost sneaks up on the students. By the end of a class based on a video, the class will usually find the issue to be far more vivid than before, and it can be a great beginning to a new unit, paving the way for some fruitful discussion with lots of example already at hand. [I've found that this is even easier to use in summer classes, which run even longer in a session. My evening continuing education course meets for three hours at a time, and that's even better. I've since taught ethics, using JAG, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Stargate: SG-1, Star Trek: Enterprise, and Babylon 5 for issues related to just war theory, pacifism, race relations, cultural relativism, forgiveness, and capital punishment.]

I have enjoyed many of my experiences with tutoring and leading study groups for the SAIP program [a summer study group program mostly for struggling students] and for the Football Program. [I've since tutored for men's and women's basketball as well, the latter for the first time tonight.] Many obstacles present themselves in these situations. Many of the students on the football team, particularly those who take advantage of the tutoring program, and many SAIP students have trouble with the very idea of taking a philosophy course. With the SAIP students, this affects attendance at the groups. With students on the football team, whose attendance is often required, this tendency appears more in terms of their focus and concern while they are present. Many students from both these groups see philosophy as (1) both incredibly hard and totally impractical (and therefore not worth the tremendous effort required) or (2) incredibly easy, partly from not understanding how intricate the issues are (therefore also leading to a low level of effort).

With some of my study groups and tutoring sessions I have tried to derail this tendency by changing the sorts of questions I would ask. Instead of asking what material they covered with an intent to go over it again, I asked them to tell me what they thought of the material, if they agreed with any views, what reasons they might criticize it, etc. When they had thought about the material at all, this seemed to help a fair amount. It forced them to think about it. They had not always understood the issues, though, so sometimes I did have to take them through the material. I found the best way to keep it from being a lecture from me was to ask them to tell me what they remembered from it. The success of this depended on the abilities and effort of the students involved. Some wouldn't say a thing no matter what I did and just wanted me to tell them what they need to know for the exams, but it worked on a number of occasions.

Another issue that I hesitate mentioning, simply because it is more complicated than it might at first seem, is my interest in the cultural and ethnic issues students in the SAIP program and the Football Program are more likely to have with regard to academics (and in particular philosophy). One thing that has brought this to my attention is simply having seen the differences between students from different economic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. Part of my experience comes from having spent a lot of time interacting with people from other cultures, including ordinary friendships at school and now even family relationships to relationships deliberately pursued across cultural lines halfway around the world in Central Asia shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union (where Muslim and Russian culture collide) and in the culturally divided city of Berlin in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Having studied racial issues in depth (from a philosophical standpoint) and from being in a mixed race family, some of these issues hit close to home. My wife is from a predominantly African-descended family from Barbados, which has opened me to these issues more than I had been before. I have to admit that it has helped little in my connecting with African Americans, whose cultural values are much more different from those I inherited and have claimed as my own than those of my wife and her family are.

Even so, I have developed a concern for students whose culture has brought them up to see intellectuals and hard thinkers either as "the man" who is out to control them or as those who can afford to be lazy and do worthless tasks because they have the money and power. I have a deep desire to communicate the value of philosophy for making everyday choices and thinking about one's life and some of the questions that affect our views of everything around us. I believe strongly that one thing keeping marginalized groups out of power in this country is this tendency not to engage with those in power on the significant issues (or perhaps the tendency to do so without careful thought). However, it is not just for future movers and shakers that philosophy is valuable. I enjoy seeing people thinking about their lives and applying philosophical techniques to everyday situations, and I like to be part of students' process of learning how to do that. I cannot say that I am very good at this in cross-cultural contexts, but I can say that I am aware of the problems and think about them enough to try to figure out how to make progress.

I have served two groups operating through Hendricks Chapel -- the Baptist Campus Ministries and Campus Crusade for Christ -- by providing a Bible Study group during the summer when staff members and chaplains often travel and cannot easily provide consistent leadership for this kind of ministry. I have found many Christian students do not know the Bible well yet consider it to be the foundational witness to their core beliefs. I am committed to help those who are interested to grow in their understanding of the Christian scriptures. I enjoy helping students see the relevance of theological and historical reflection on the faith for the ordinary Christian life. Original context and practical significance are both paramount. I have taken primary responsibility for teaching and overseeing these groups. Between the summers of 1998 and 2002, we were able to cover Jesus� final words to his disciples in the gospel of John [from the end of ch.12 to the end of ch.17], the two epistles of Peter, a large section of the prophecy of Isaiah [chs.1-27], some of the parables of Jesus, and a survey of Hebrew wisdom literature. [In 2003 we covered psalms, and in 2004 we stuided Isaiah 28-39. For the first time during a semester, I'm going to be aiding one of the student leaders with his study of the gospel of Mark this fall, probably starting in November after we've recovered a bit from the new baby. I'm participating in the group already.]

An additional class I taught twice for these groups was on Christian apologetics, which is the defense of the Christian faith. People are often asked why they believe certain things or are faced with objections against their views. With beliefs that are so significant and life-changing, this can be particularly disconcerting, so I want to help people understand reasons why they believe what they believe and to consider the resources Christianity has developed over 2000 years to deal with these arguments. I feel especially qualified for this because of the course I have taught for the university for three years, which considers arguments for and against the existence of God.

I have also given talks at the weekly meeting of Campus Crusade for Christ (Fall 1997, Spring 2000, Fall 2000) and seminars at retreats (Fall 2001, Fall 2002). [I did another retreat seminar in 2003 and will give one this year also in a couple weeks, even if it means driving an hour for that and then driving right back afterward. I gave a seminar at the northeast winter conference in Spring 2004.]

4 Comments

You have a great site and a lot of interesting content. Could I ask if the following statement at the top of your page is missing the word "as" perhaps?: "I'm much more competent a straight-talker than a storyteller"

Not to pick nits but it's a bit of an incomplete thought otherwise. (Ordinarily, I would send an e-mail on something like this but I cannot find an e-mail address on the site for you.)

In any event, I will check in often.

God Bless,
Mark S.

As far as I know, what's up there is both grammatically correct and expresses well what I meant. It's almost just like the following sentences:

I'm a much better teacher than philosopher.
I'm a much faster driver than runner.
I'm a much more important man in politics than in the church.

The only difference is that I distributed the 'a' so that it doubles and modifies both phrases directly, because that sounded better at the time than 'I'm a much better straight-talker than storyteller.' I'm not sure why. The second should sound better, since it does with the above sentences, but now that I'm thinking about it they both sound bad. I can't switch to what you say, though, because it's too long.

Mr. Pierce,

Remove the "a"s from in front of "straight-" and "storyteller, put one in front of "much" and I think you've got it.

Mark

Right, that's what I said.

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