Thoughts on Teaching Philosophy

From the beginning of my teaching career, I’ve been very motivated to make philosophy relatable to students who have a wide rage of academic ability and interest in the subject. My favorite strategy for this is to make all philosophy “applied” philosophy. “Applied” philosophy involves taking all kinds of different philosophical theories and applying them to situations that arise in students’ everyday lives. This is quite easy to do with ethics and political philosophy. Most students have already experienced ethical conundrums: they are faced with cheating, lying, trade-offs, etc. In my discussion sections I ask them to come up with philosophical thought experiments from their own lives. These allow the entire class to apply different theories to familiar situations. “Applied” philosophy also works with other disciplines. Many students, unbeknownst to them, experience many problems encompassed by Epistemology, Philosophy of Mind, and Philosophy of Language. Whatever the theory at hand, I strive to apply it to experiences that they are already familiar with. By showing students that they can both grasp the material and apply it to their everyday lives, I hope to instill in them the value of the “examined life.”

Another strategy I use to close the philosophical polar gap is to instill in students a confidence in their ability to grasp the material. One way I do this is to show them that even professional philosophers can make mistakes. Many articles have subsequent follow-ups where the authors address problems with their views. I also tell students that they all have philosophical intuitions and that those intuitions should not be ignored. Of course intuitions can be under-formed or incomplete or unexamined, but students will have intuitive responses to what they are exposed to. Those intuitions, when properly examined, can serve as a springboard to facilitate their understanding of the material. Finally, I make it very clear that I am interested in what they have to say about any particular subject. For example, someone who is studying U.S. history would have many interesting thoughts about what Locke has to say in his Second Treatise on Government. I let the students know that I am excited to learn from them.

Overall I try and express my love of philosophy to all the students I encounter. I’ve found that passion for any subject can be contagious and students will respond to that more than anything else. Although I’m sure very few of my students have changed their majors to philosophy, I’m happy to hope that they leave my classes feeling both that they have learned something new and useful and that they have taught me something.