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Advice on Teaching in the Humanities and Maybe Social Sciences

I wanted to give a list of my propositions I believe about teaching in the humanities and social sciences. This is the only advice I’d have for younger professionals coming out of graduate school now who might be starting a job teaching philosophy.

1. A professor’s job should be regarded not as an informational expert who briefly encounters students, but as a model learner.

2. As a model learner, a professor should be open, transparent, and share all research publicly and especially with students. In sharing one’s research with one’s students, the students see not only informational expertise, but what it means for that scholarly discipline to be active in the life of their respective teacher. Professors are teaching-scholars for this reason. What makes philosophy teaching fun for me is when I can recall when a philosophical question was working itself in me in my writing that I can draw from in the actual class.

3. Teaching is the most important part of what it means to be a professor; it has never in my experience been research. Research makes me a better teacher, but given that many do not read the research I publish, I disagree with many graduate programs producing research-only students with no eye towards teaching as the actual real life practice of what it means to work as a scholar.

4. As a philosophy professor, I should from time to time weigh in on the ethical thinking of society and model the skills of patient inquiry and logical argument. It’s more important, however, to do this in class than in public media outlets. The threat of political opponents to dox publicly employed scholars at public state universities also means that one should be careful if one chooses to engage in scholarship of what we now call public philosophy. As a rule of thumb, the United States is not that radical of a place, and even the most benign of pragmatic articles in social philosophy can cause ire, so be careful.

4. A professor should be open to students and serve them. In a way, being a professor is both public servant to society (if publicly employed at a state university) and we serve our students first and foremost (which may also be more of an institutional norm at smaller private colleges and universities). I like to use the analogy that being a professor is like being a secular minister. We must model fairness in all we do, and we should have empathy for our students. We should always imagine that our online classrooms could be shared openly and publicly online. Skills of compassion, generosity of spirit, listening and empathy are now the most important virtues during a global pandemic where students are forced just like us to take online classes and be socially distant from each other.

5. Always be a colleague to other scholars both in your department and in your relationship with others. Be the colleague who thinks of the institution before yourself when you can. And “when you can” is the important part here, and you’ll also engage in activities that put your profession first before yourself too. There are obligations as a professional you’ll take on that do not reward you with money, but the work is somehow necessary and important to you. This is the part of being a professor that administrators do not see: volunteering to referee articles, being a journal editor, organizing conferences, helping out with grad students, reviewing books in one’s field, mentoring and networking with students, being mentored yourself, and any number of things to become the best you can be

6. Always write and compose fair standards in one’s syllabus regarding attendance, schedule, and expectations.

7. Always seek to know the local institutional culture of where you teach.

8. Always ask others about what they are teaching and when possible what they are writing about. Get to know what types of questions others find important in their disciplines. Do not focus only on yourself whenever you’re talking to them. If you’re just out of graduate school, you’ve been writing your dissertation for more than a year and constantly talking to others about your project at job talks and conferences. You’ve been really into yourself for a long time, and it’s easy not to see this blindness.  

9. Always create assignments with clear expectations. Do not teach as if philosophy is a medieval guild and only some know how to be good students. Such teaching is never acceptable where I have taught. Instead, be open about what you want students to do. Be open why they are doing it, and also let them know where and when they might struggle with your assignment

10. Always be open to becoming a better teacher and receiving the advice of veteran teacher-scholars. This is the hardest for new PhDs in philosophy who just went through graduate school as they think their experience with philosophy should be everyone else’s experience. To them, everyone should regard philosophy as the most important discipline. As most graduate programs train researchers, your job out of grad school may be to teach Logic and Ethics only. You’ll need to develop yourself, experiment with what works in real time, and most professional conversations I have weekly center more on teaching rather than my philosophical work. Nobody cares if moral realism is true or that Husserl/Wittgenstein should be read this way over another way. My Chair and Dean do care how I structure writing assignments. Pedagogical conversations will be the norm for most of your career. The more prestigious your graduate program, the more you may think that teaching is not as important as research. The sooner you realize that most jobs in academia are 4/4 or 5/5 teaching loads, and that you’ll need to develop as a teacher, the better you will be professionally.

11. As a professor, the hardest things to teach in today’s students are active reading and critical writing of texts. These two skills are becoming less and less emphasized in professional disciplines like Business such that you may have students who are about to graduate who must take your lower-division philosophy class and they cannot write that well as the younger students who are not removed from practicing writing these papers from their high school literature class. I’ve discussed this problem with multiple professor friends across the United States and Canada. Connect with writing professionals in the English department. Focus on what it means to write in your classes. If you reflect on what you are asking students to do in your class and why they are writing it, then you can create assignments that help students become better writers and readers of texts. Philosophy offers such a unique skillset that it should inform the norms of writing pedagogy. I hope our English sisters and brothers can see this someday. Also realize that offering up a reasoned-defense of a singular thesis is the bulk of the writing we implement in classes and you may have to scaffold your assignments to build students up to that type of writing. We all must remember that American and Canadian students have never seen philosophy before going to university.

12. I’ve struggled to teach active reading for many years. In online classes, I will ponder a passage and slow down reading. I model what it means to move through a passage and make students aware of just how many layers are present in a philosophical text. I move in real-time with my students and when a student says something insightful I note it. I will refer to that student’s insight over and over and show the implication of brilliant insight. So say Latesha notes that focus on the Form of Piety recalls Plato’s doctrine of the Forms. That insight elevates the possibility of teaching the Euthyphro because I do not become the one who references a prior reading of Plato’s Cave. Asking the students about what another student said makes them usually more willing to converse and in singling out Latesha, I create an atmosphere where she and all her peers see what it means to have been an active reader. I also reward the brilliance of her insight by publicly acknowledging it.

13. This probably holds for the humanities, but maybe more so in philosophy. There comes a point when a professor must step back and let students have the discussion as if they are leading it for a few minutes. When it happens, you only stoke the fire. As it is your classroom, you can step in at any time when necessary. “Great discussion, I do have other things I want to get to. We can come back to this.” However, when students start seeing the relevance of your subject matter; they will ask questions after class. That’s when you know you did something right or maybe it was a student inspired by the material and your class together. Sometimes, you can’t tell. Exercise judgment about these moments but when possible let them emerge. When students manifest the intellectual autonomy philosophy teaches its students, that’s a success that cannot be measured.

14. Always be open to student struggles. In my case, I know that perhaps other students have taken advantage of my generosity and yet in those cases where students have lost loved ones, have documented disabilities, and struggle to write—I’ve come up with unique solutions. In one case, a student had a lot of anxiety about being wrong and writing, so I told him to write the paper in my office. He came in for a week. I would read over drafts. Here he was a student athlete that would play before hundreds, and probably had an undocumented learning disability. He hated appearing stupid, and he suffered from severe panic attacks. Writing all of his papers in my office for a whole semester really helped him overcome something. I don’t have the vocabulary to know exactly what. I only knew that it was helping him. The result: he hugged me two years later as a junior at random in a hallway. Always try and accommodate students as much as possible without comprising the integrity of local institutional norms and your own classroom policies. Above all else, you’re a mentor, and young people are still learning to become virtuous and thrive.

15. As a professor, embrace King’s notion of universal brotherhood and beloved community. I am harmed when other people are harmed. Being my brother’s keeper and believing that when injustice occurs elsewhere that it is a threat to justice everywhere should be at the heart of your pedagogy.

16. Be authentic, honest and open. Young people know when they are getting brushed off. They also know when someone does not care about them. I happen to think that what feminist ethics of care identifies in the importance of relationships should be read instead as the basic ontological interdependence of being a person. Persons are in constant relationship to each other and we emerge together when people act on this shared sense of interdependence. It motivates one to care in ways that others fail to recognize this deep metaphysical truth.

By J. Edward Hackett

Philosophy is a tool for exploration and philosophical texts are always meant to disrupt and disturb one into Socratic tension.

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