Thursday, April 17, 2014

My teaching statement

Below is a draft of my teaching statement.  It's part of my application dossier that I'll be sending to schools when I apply for jobs.

The Definition of Philosophy 
I define philosophy very broadly as simply the study of ideas and the relations between ideas. I find this rough definition pedagogically useful, as it allows me to draw from a variety of sources, both traditional and unconventional, ordinary and esoteric, in order to illustrate philosophy at work, and to give my students different ways to practice philosophy.

The Value of Philosophy 
If you are reading this, then you probably already believe that philosophy is valuable. If you do not believe that philosophy is valuable, then I probably won't convince you otherwise. I will however, give you two arguments that I give my students when I discuss the value of philosophy. 

James's Dad's Argument
1. Philosophy is valuable only if it directly provides some sort of substantial material gain.
2. Philosophy does not directly provide some sort of substantial material gain.
3. Therefore, philosophy is not valuable.

 James's Brother's Argument
1. Philosophy is valuable only if resolves long standing issues and debates that are part of its subject matter.
2. Philosophy has not resolved (at least not to my knowledge) such long standing issues and debates.
3. Therefore, philosophy is not valuable.

Understanding why both of these arguments are unsound goes some way into understanding the value of philosophy. Most of my students will agree that philosophy is instrumentally valuable. It strengthens the ability to participate in rational investigation, which is indispensible in just about every career field. Some of my students might even believe, as I do, that philosophy is intrinsically valuable. However, the former is sufficient to motivate the study of philosophy.

The Goal of Teaching Philosophy 
My goal in teaching philosophy is to train students to become philosophers. Of course, there is distinction between philosophy as an activity and philosophy as a profession. I don't teach with the expectation that all of my students will pursue a career in philosophy, but I do teach with the expectation (or at least hope) that my students will continue to practice philosophy in some form throughout their post-college life.

I hold that what distinguishes philosophy is its method, not its subject matter. While the methods of philosophy may not be as easily codified as the scientific method, it is clear that how philosophy is done is distinct from how the sciences are done. (Whether the methods of philosophy are distinct from other humanistic disciplines is less clear.) So, when I claim that the goal of teaching philosophy is to train students to become philosophers, I mean more specifically that the goal of teaching philosophy is to train students to become proficient in a certain method of inquiry. The difference between an amateur and a professional philosopher is simply a difference of degree of mastery, similar to the difference between an amateur and professional athlete. My task as a college instructor is to train my students to attain a certain degree of proficiency in the philosophical method which they can further hone in graduate school, or apply to other career fields.

The Method of Teaching Philosophy 
Now that I've stated what the goal of teaching philosophy, the question that follows is how this is to be done. As it is for all instructors, this is very much a work in progress. What I can say here is what I've tried, what seems to work, and what I'd like to try in the future.

At most universities, an Intro to Philosophy course briefly surveys topics in ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. In Syracuse, there is no such course. Instead ethics is covered in its own intro course, and there is an intro to metaphysics and epistemology course. I've taught both types of classes. I have two goals when I teach these classes: to pique their interest in philosophy, and to introduce them to an assortment of philosophical tools. I try to meet both goals by having my students apply such philosophical tools to situations that might be familiar or relevant to them. For example, one such philosophical tool is conceptual analysis. I often have my students perform conceptual analyses on ordinary concepts like sport or art.

Along with the two goals mentioned above, I also have the goal of exposing my students to well known issues in philosophy. This includes subject matter like skepticism, the existence of God, the mind-body problem, utilitarianism, ethical relativism, etc. This goal, however, is subservient to the two aforementioned goals. So, in order to pique their interest in philosophical issues, I will bring in sources to supplement primary sources. For example, science fiction movies can illustrative of the problem of skepticism in ways that are more accessible than reading Descartes' Meditations. I also use these topics as a vehicle for the introduction and application of philosophical tools. For instance, I use arguments for and against the existence of God to introduce Inference to the Best Explanation.

This approach may depart from the way many instructors teach introductory courses. Most instructors teach these classes by focusing primarily on the exegesis of primary texts. I have no problems with this method. You learn philosophy by doing philosophy. However, this seems sub-optimal to me. Consider an analogy from sports and music. One can learn to be proficient at playing the piano or playing basketball simply by learning songs or playing basketball games. But, you'd be hard-pressed to find a professional pianist or basketball player who didn't spend a considerable amount of time performing activities whose sole focus was to develop mastery of fundamental techniques. A good basketball player has likely done countless drills. Similarly, a good piano player has likely played numerous etudes.

I hold that philosophy is analogous to activities in music and sport. People can become good philosophers just by doing philosophy, but it seems that an explicit focus on philosophical method would yield even better results. I believe that the practice of doing philosophy, i.e. becoming aware of the ongoing discussions occurring among philosophers in person or in the literature and making one's own contributions to the discussion, can be supplemented with activities that sharpen fundamental techniques essential to the practice of philosophy. It seems clear that such an approach would move us closer to a more fruitful pedagogy of philosophy.

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