Teaching Philosophy


I write the phrase “real world” on the board, adding my student’s comment about the text to our growing list. I pause, then add quotation marks around the phrase. A couple students now sport little knowing smiles—they know what’s coming next. I ask them how often they’ve heard that phrase used in contrast to what we are doing now, here, in school—“When you finish school and join the real world…” They’ve heard it a thousand times, and used it themselves, like one of them did just a moment ago. I ask: Do they think it’s accurate? Are we, in the classroom, in an “unreal” world? We work backwards from there—What does this phrase mean? What does it leave out, and what are its hidden implications? Why is it so pervasive?

The whiteboard is covered with comments, quotes, and page numbers—one long list, and another on the way: a review of last week’s reading of Rousseau’s Emile, and the beginnings of a discussion of our topic for this week—Dewey’s Experience and Education. What was Rousseau concerned with in his educational plan for Emile? What goal was he pursuing, and what problem was he responding to? These questions get us warmed up for a similar exercise with Dewey. As students answer these questions, I ask them for specific quotations that can stand as evidence. I record their thoughts on the board, and my students and I work together to point out complementary and conflicting ideas between the previous week’s text and this one.

One student has brought up Dewey’s concern that education should respond to the actual conditions and needs of the community by comparing it to her own education in high school—“which was focused on training us for the real world.” As my Spring 2015 course “Basic Problems of Philosophy: Knowledge, Education, and Identity,” progressed, I encouraged my students to do this connective work more and more. On our class blog, students linked course themes to personal experiences in education, to sympathetic ideas from their sociology and physics classes, and to questions of identity brought up in the latest Beyonce album and RadioLab podcast. As they became more comfortable commenting on each other’s posts, our classroom discussion also began to include more self-reflective activity. When I questioned the phrase “real world” as something outside, beyond, or after our formal education, they didn’t hesitate to enact their own Socratic interrogation as we had seen modeled in the Meno. Our discussion explored the continuity between education and the workforce, and the fundamental relevancy of skills developed in the classroom to all areas of life—including civic participation, communication, and collaboration with others.

In all of my classes, I try to develop a learning community—one where students learn from themselves and each other as well as from the instructor and material. Through online discussion, peer critiques, group writing workshops, and partnered reading exercises, my students learn to engage with one another in a variety of ways outside of group discussion. In these activities, they practice giving and receiving constructive feedback and work together to produce some deliverable analysis. I often provide opportunities for students to gain extra credit by attending university events related to our class theme, drawing on the resources of the wider institutional learning community. For example, in my Philosophy of Film class taught in Fall 2016, we read philosopher David Bordwell’s work on film narration. When Bordwell gave a talk at Emory later that semester, my students were able to identify the broad theories at work in his current research, and see film department faculty ask critical questions of a practicing theorist.

My students also learn from themselves in reflective forms of writing and assessment. In class, we share strategies for how to mark up our reading and edit our writing. For essays and large projects, I assign a brief “author’s note” in which the students examine their own writing process: What went well? What was difficult? What has improved from the last essay? These self-assessments allow my students a chance to reflect on their progress and prioritize what components of the writing process need more attention.

These reflective assignments are also part of a broader aim in my teaching to lessen the divide between “theory” and “practice”—between the content we learn and the work we do. I try to bridge the perceived gap between abstract philosophical theory and our everyday lives by encouraging my students to connect the ideas we discuss in class to other disciplines, practices, and culturally relevant material. In addition to the blog posts discussed above, I have used a “film journal” format for my students to respond to films of their choosing, and a “fallacy finding” assignment for “Introduction to Logic” that had my students share examples of informal logical fallacies they found in commercials, news stories, and television shows.

Another way I try to lessen the divide between “theory” and “practice” is to incorporate multi-modal assignments that reflect my course theme in form as well as content, such as having my students produce video essays for the “Philosophy of Film” and draft Wikipedia articles for a class on the ethics of social media. While these assignments include a heavy emphasis on technological tools, I still emphasize the essential elements of good writing—clarity, purpose, organization, creative voice, and analytical rigor. I try to maintain a balance between traditional and new media literacies, and show how these basic principles of composition apply to all modes of communication including informal blog writing, visual storytelling, and collaborative “wiki” formats. For example, the movie project for “Philosophy of Film” included both a research paper on a specific film genre and a short movie that delved into one historical or conceptual facet or representative example of the genre. The movie topic grew out of the students’ research, and the two pieces acted as complementary explorations—one in text, one using the components of visual narrative that we had discussed over the course of the semester. In “Ethics of Social Media,” after learning about the ethical stakes and practices embedded in online social spheres, my students joined the Wikipedia editing community and contributed to improving the complexity, reliability, and diversity of information on the site. In the process, they became familiar with source evaluation, editing etiquette, and best practices of style, citation, and review.

My use of technology in the classroom has been motivated by my work as a Digital Scholarship Specialist with Emory’s Center for Digital Scholarship. My work there includes co-leading a twelve-session graduate seminar entitled “Teaching, Pedagogy, Curriculum + Research,” in which we reinforce the scholarship of teaching and learning that lies behind effective implementations of technology-enhanced teaching. Thanks to this background, I design assessment strategies and learning objectives for all my technology-based assignments, making sure that they are fully integrated into the broader course goals.

My teaching philosophy is also indebted to my experience as an undergraduate at The Evergreen State College, a school thoroughly committed to non-traditional educational methods. The classes I took were team-taught and interdisciplinary, and incorporated group seminar discussion and hands-on, community- and project-based learning. In place of grades, students wrote self-evaluations and received narrative evaluations from our instructors that charted our learning and improvement over the semester. As students, we learned how to effectively bridge multiple disciplines and how to communicate those connections in accessible and impactful ways. It is my sincere goal as an instructor to foster the same kind of collaborative and engaged learning community in my own classes as I was a part of at Evergreen, and to promote reflective, creative, and critical thinking that bridges the divide between “learning” and “doing.” Most importantly, I want my students to recognize that what we do in school is not unrelated to what we see, hear, and do outside of school, in “the real world.”