I orient my teaching toward developing the communication, reasoning and comprehension skills that help students succeed in their academic and professional careers. Additionally, I design my courses to serve as an opportunity for personal fulfillment and for students to exercise their critical imaginations.
Learning philosophy requires actively engaging philosophical ideas. There are a number of ways I draw students into these ideas. First, I often begin by assigning an exercise that gauges students’ intuitions regarding the material to be discussed. For example, I introduce Utilitarianism by having students complete a worksheet on the Trolley Problem in which they indicate if they think it would be right to divert the trolley and why. This generates a discussion about which considerations matter most for moral judgment. Second, I often have students apply abstract ideas to concrete issues. For example, while screening a series of political campaign adds, I have each student identify the fallacy of reasoning each add commits. The class then discusses how each ad commits the fallacy. Attaining a more intimate familiarity with a philosophical issue often influences how one thinks about it. I introduce the ethics of euthanasia, for example, by polling students on whether or not euthanasia is ever permissible. I then screen a segment of How to Die in Oregon, a documentary showing the experiences of patients, family members, and physicians confronting the option of euthanasia. I run the poll again and we discuss how viewing the film influenced the reasoning behind their new choice.
Guiding students through the process of developing a philosophy paper helps strengthen writing and reasoning skills as well as the ability to think creatively. During the ‘thesis workshop’ students work together to complete a worksheet that guides them in developing a thesis and supporting argument. This prepares students to write a draft, which they present to the class. The presentation helps students improve their verbal communication skills and is an opportunity to gather helpful input from peers. Additionally, having students develop their own paper topics offers them the chance to gain a deeper understanding of an issue that matters to them. My courses offer additional opportunities for such personal fulfillment. At the start of the course I often amend the schedule to fit student interests. For example, after discussing practical issues in Ethics, I have students vote via Blackboard on which issues interest them the most and assign these issues to the schedule.
I’ve found that student apathy is the biggest challenge to teaching. To help prevent apathy, I’ve made it a rule to never dismiss a student’s comment during discussion and always attempt to extrapolate relevant insight. As one student attests in an evaluation: “His willingness to take a student’s idea and work with it was very helpful. It let us look at it from our own viewpoints.” This is particularly important if a student’s comment is mistaken, since dismissing it gives the impression that his ideas are not worth considering. This often leads to apathy. I prevent this by using mistaken comments to help the class gain a deeper understanding of the theory. For example, students sometimes mistake Kant’s Universal Law as stating that a maxim is wrong if it leads to dire consequences. I then use this mistake to show how Kant’s principle differs from Rule Consequentialism. This helps students be more comfortable expressing their ideas since it indicates there is value in making mistakes. I also prevent apathy by having students relate philosophical issues to their own lives. For example, in my Critical Thinking class I have students develop a short paper examining an ethical issue pertaining to their future profession. This shows them how the knowledge and reasoning skills they attain in their philosophy class are critical for navigating ethical decisions they may face in their future careers.