Right before teaching for the first time as the sole instructor, I attended a small workshop designed for first-time instructors. In this workshop, the professor who led the session said something that I take to be the most insightful teaching advice I have taken so far. She said, ‘Teach the real students in your classroom, not the ideal students in your mind’. This advice reshaped what I understand from teaching.
When I teach intro to philosophy classes, I try to keep in mind that most of the students will probably never do any academic work after they receive their college degree. That is why, both the challenge and the prize is to teach them something valuable for their non-academic lives. To this end, first, I try to show what the philosophical method is and why it is useful and fun regardless of the content we are working with. For example, in my Introduction to Moral Theory, the first reading assignment is Nguyen and Williams’ “Moral Outrage Porn”. I chose it because it starts with the conceptual analysis of porn, a concept that all students are familiar with and have ideas about, and then builds a moral argument on this analysis. This way, students see how non-academic issues can be evaluated from a philosophical perspective and why it is relevant to even laypeople.
Once I get their attention, I proceed to teach some important skills. The first one is the ability to articulate their own thoughts with clarity. This is a very ambitious task, and I don’t expect all of them to master this skill. However, I aim to see them make some progress, even at a minimal level. To this end, I spend a fair bit of time on argument extraction in class, since I believe that the best way to learn this skill is through imitation. As we go through the famous passages for certain philosophical views, they see how the prose and logical form relate to each other. This may be costly in terms of class time, but I nevertheless do it, because given that most of the students do not do the readings for various reasons, including the fear of old texts, I think it is the only way for them to overcome this fear and actually learn how to read.
The second important skill I hope to teach my students is to be able to see the weaknesses of their own arguments. This is a natural next step to argument extraction, but it still requires some extra work. Students have an easier time in understanding why a particular argument is weak, but it is harder to see that one good objection is not always a necessary reason to withdraw from a view, given that most of the views are subject to legitimate objections. Until they understand that most of the best philosophical arguments to date have strong opponents, it may be frustrating to hear objections to their own views, but once they understand it, they become much more comfortable with the weaknesses of their own views. This is one of the most important skills that I can teach as a college instructor since it means teaching students to be tolerant and patient to opposing views without getting defensive and dismissive.
Not all students are taking the intro classes as electives though. Some of the students are already philosophy majors, or sometimes they become philosophy majors after taking the class. I think as an instructor my responsibility to them is to provide a strong roadmap of the field and my time outside the classroom. I also think that it is important to be generous with verbal encouragement in front of their peers, and so that their different position does not go unnoticed.
Other than students' different levels of interest in philosophy, there are a number of factors that I take into account when I plan and lead the class. The academic background is one of them. At Syracuse, the classroom is very heterogeneous in terms of the academic abilities of the students due to socio-economic differences. This is another reason to focus on the basic skills I mentioned above, instead of aiming tasks only academically well-prepared students can possibly achieve. I am also very alert about the power dynamics in class and I make sure that the students from oppressed groups feel comfortable speaking. Since I usually teach classes that require discussion of controversial topics such as patriotism, gender, and race, I pay extra attention to make the classroom a safe environment for all the students.
I am new to teaching and I know that I make mistakes. One of the main ways I learn about my mistakes is feedback. I give a mid-term evaluation every semester and ask my students what they need in order to make the class more productive for them. I think it is not only helpful for me to reconstruct the class according to their needs but also it communicates to the students the idea that their voice is heard and it matters. One recent change I made after the student feedback is about the assignments. Last semester, I asked students to write response papers, six in total, on the readings they choose. My goal was to make sure that they read at least six papers throughout the semester and give some critical thought. However, they ended up writing very superficial essays without putting any work in it. But it had not occurred to me to change this assignment until two of my students commented at the end of the semester that the least productive aspect of the class was response papers. So, this semester, I replaced the response paper assignment with more structured and guided assignments.
Another important variable is the culture. While in the US there is a big emphasis on an interactive classroom, I find students far shyer than the ones in Turkey, where inclusivity is not one of the main concerns. I think it may be because making mistakes is less tolerated in American culture, and so I try to provide a classroom where students know that making mistakes is OK. I think one disadvantage I have, namely being a nonnative speaker who makes linguistic mistakes, turns out to be an advantage on this issue, as my students see that it is OK to make mistakes and ask for help, as I do in the classroom when I forget a word or misspell it. This is the most important condition for creating a productive classroom where everyone can learn.