HOW TO GET TO CARNEGIE HALL
My approach to teaching philosophy revolves around the belief that, etymology aside, philosophy is first and foremost the development of a certain class of skills—the kind of virtues that are constitutive of sound rational thought and discourse. As with any skill, the road to the virtues of rational thought and discourse is the same road that gets you to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. As a teacher of philosophy, my fundamental aim is to foster an environment of practice that is conducive to the development of such skills.
As a philosophy teacher, I extol the virtue of open and frequent discussions in class. I aim to develop tools and offer resources geared at making students more comfortable speaking in front of an audience. But while it is certainly essential that teachers of philosophy allow students to express their views, it is equally important that we help students first formulate their views. I find that it is often the case that students have yet to properly formulate their views before speaking. It is an unfortunate reality that many students—and many people, more generally—simply like to hear themselves speak. I am skeptical that allowing such open discussions always promotes rational thought and discourse.
To this end, I also try to instill the virtue of active listening. I encourage my students to take notes while they read the course material, and that they do so before lecture. Indeed, I often encourage students to withhold taking notes during lecture. Active listening requires eliminating sources of distraction that can impede proper understanding, and I am skeptical that one can be fully engaged in active listening when one is hard-pressed to write down everything said in lecture.
This often proved to be difficult for many students, and I soon realised in my teaching career that I was partly to blame. My first lectures as a philosophy teacher adopted a common approach, an approach that I now think is less than desirable: I would present PowerPoint slides, identifying an author’s main thesis, explaining how the author argues for their thesis, taking great care to identify the argument’s main premises. I would also include various definitions, some quite lengthy and complex. And even when I would inform students that these slides were really nothing more than my lecture notes, most students could not resist the urge to copy what was projected. They would do so, even when I explicitly told them that they would have access to the slides after lecture. Indeed, as you may see in my sample of student comments, some students complained that I would go through the slides too quickly, and that they didn’t have a chance to write everything down.
I now often adopt a different approach to lecture. I may write down some pertinent points on the board or in lecture slides (I don’t deny the usefulness of visual aids), but I no longer rely on slides to offer substantial content in lectures. I have since seen considerable positive results. First, students are less pressed to write things down, making it easier for them to actively listen. Secondly, having taken notes before lecture and as they read the course material, students come prepared to lecture with carefully articulated questions and comments. Thirdly, my lectures have since taken on a more organic nature. I am no longer worried about getting through the slide content in lecture. I am in a better position to field questions, which offers me a better understanding of which parts of the course material needs more focus.
Another important virtue of rational thought and discourse related to the virtue of active listening is intellectual charity. As philosophers, we seek to understand various points of view in their strongest and most persuasive forms before we subject them to evaluation and criticism. In part, this requires an ability to distill another person’s or author’s view from a series of complex ideas, concepts, and arguments. Most students—especially those at the beginning of their degrees—are not equipped to understand another’s point of view in its strongest form because they lack the skill to understand complex and unfamiliar views, more generally. To this end, I practice and encourage paraphrasing arguments. Being able to properly paraphrase another author’s view offers clear indication that one has correctly understood the view. This requires practice, of course. So, I paraphrase every chance I get during lecture: I paraphrase students’ comments when raised in class, I encourage them to paraphrase each other’s views, and I also encourage them to paraphrase their own view (especially when they are not entirely clear the first time around).
A consequence of my belief that philosophy is first and foremost the development of skills of rational thought and discourse is, I hope, apparent in the atmosphere my lectures aim to convey. I aim to foster the feeling that we are doing philosophy (or at least attempting to do philosophy), rather than the sense of merely learning philosophical views and concepts. The former is active, whereas the latter is more passive. As such, my aim is to make my lectures feel more like choir practice than a traditional lecture session. Because it’s going to choir practice—and going to choir practice often—rather than passively sitting in a lecture room, that will get you to Carnegie Hall.