As a teacher, I strive to instill in my students some of the fascination with philosophical questions that drew me towards them. Most importantly, perhaps, I want them to understand that many philosophical questions are relevant to their own lives and that the ability to think about such questions rigorously is not just intrinsically rewarding, but a skill that is invaluable outside academia, too. I wish to provide them with a sense of the dazzling complexity one encounters as one tries to address such questions, help them feel confident in navigating this complexity, and help them develop their abilities to analyze it and clearly express what they think one ought to think about it.
Frequently, I learn as much through my interactions with students as they do. Teaching and advising students, I find, is a mutually beneficial activity and indeed, a good number of ideas for my various projects have developed in teaching contexts. Reminding myself of this benefit of teaching keeps me humble and open-minded. My aspiration is to always try and see my students for who they are, attend to them, their individual strengths, weaknesses, and needs, and to adjust my ways of communicating accordingly. Doing this well requires patience, attention, and flexibility. With respect to lecturing, I think, it requires moving away from a style of presenting material to be absorbed by replaceable students toward an increasingly attentive, interactive, lively, varied, and engaging style that equally speaks to students that differ in learning type and socio-cultural background.
In the various courses I have taught at Ashoka—and more so even during the pandemic—I have frequently spent a considerable amount of time on creating elaborate PowerPoint slides. As I did, I always made sure to include jokes, self-created animated gifs and memes, often using diverse materials drawn from Indian pop culture. This strategy has been very effective to keep students alert, entertained, and suitably impressed. This is especially true for Symbolic Logic, which for many students is a dreaded course. However, after each of the four iterations of this course that I have taught at Ashoka, I have had a number of students so excited about Logic that they wanted to take Advanced Logic classes. I subsequently offered such classes three times, working with groups of up to 10 students through introductions to modal logic, metalogic, and many-valued logical systems (including the Jaina system of saptabhangīvād and Nagarjuna’s catuṣkoṭi). Many of those students decided to work with me later—not necessarily on Logic, but about whatever they were interested in, simply because they had come to know me, my enthusiasm for teaching and explaining concepts patiently, and my unwavering support for their individual projects.
With respect to enabling students to better prepare for class, a strategy that I developed during the pandemic was to read out all the texts to them, interspersed with comments. Admittedly, this was a substantial task and while sometimes, I asked my TAs to take on some of the reading as well, I did most of it by myself. The rationale for this was twofold: for one, I think that we must acknowledge that students come to class with a range of differences in how well they already know how to read and parse philosophical texts. For another, and this was true especially during the height of the pandemic, they also came with substantial degrees of screen fatigue. Reading out the text and thus enabling them to read along and think about the material with someone else proved to be a tool the students really appreciated. As many of them have reported to me since, they found my read-outs/walk-throughs immensely helpful. Moreover, it turned out that these read-outs were particularly beneficial for students who reported to be suffering from ADHD. As some of them told me, in virtue of being exposed to the same content through three channels: through seeing me read, through reading along, and through listening, they found it much easier to stay focused and complete the readings. In fact, some of them reported that my class was the first one ever in which they managed to do all of them.
Teaching is an art, mastering it a life-long task that requires enthusiasm, practice, and a set of techniques. Let me close by listing three further tools that I have successfully used in the past. The first involves tasking students with submitting summaries that are to reflect the main argumentative structure of an assigned reading on just one page. (This is an assignment that I now often use as a way for students to gain extra credit.) I provide students with guidelines on how to select what is important, on how to identify argumentative patterns and connectives expressive of logical relations, and mention typical pitfalls. I then provide extensive comments on these summaries and meet with them to talk about it.
Few students do this well right away. But due to the massive feedback they receive, their writing frequently improves drastically. Students typically appreciate getting detailed feedback on their writing. And since this kind of feedback is limited to just one page, for me as the instructor, assisting many students remains manageable. Also, meeting with students to discuss their work provides opportunities for motivating them and for building instructor-student rapport, especially with students who might otherwise be hesitant to attend office hours. Finally, distributing well-written student summaries to everyone motivates students, yields samples of good summaries and succinct overviews of all readings discussed, which helps students as they prepare for exams or papers and allows them to quickly revisit arguments they may have found particularly interesting. [A variant of this task is to visualize the content of a paper on one page. I sometimes create such visualizations and use them for teaching. For some samples, see here.]
I started to use the second technique (originally dubbed: visualization contest) as I began to offer online courses, mainly to improve motivation and online participation. In stage 1, students are to post to the weekly online discussion board passages from the assigned reading, the content of which they take to be well-suited for transferring it to a different medium. In stage 2, students pick a passage provided by another student and transfer its content to a medium of their choice. Examples are: visualizations, e.g. memes, illustrations, or cartoons, but also poems, songs, or other works of art. In stage 3, students provide constructive comments on responses to their initial posts – but everyone is invited to join.
Since it invites them to tap into their creative potential, students typically find this assignment highly engaging. Often, their contributions are simply outstanding. Moreover, commenting on the work of their peers allows students to practice constructive peer-reviewing, frequently adds clarifications and further details, and naturally leads into substantial discussions of the issues. Also, since student contributions are often witty, funny, and thus highly memorable, this, in turn, helps them relate to and retain an understanding of the material. Finally, the positive feedback students get both from me and their peers creates a more relaxed class atmosphere, which leads to an overall increased willingness both to participate and to tolerate philosophical complexity.
The tools mentioned were used to serve specific purposes: helping students improve their reading and writing skills, reducing screen fatigue, increasing students’ motivation to participate in online discussions, and allowing them to bring to bear their creative abilities on class content. However, as indicated, they often had unexpected positive side-effects. As a teacher, I plan on using these and similar tools frequently in my regular courses. They create a learning environment that makes it easier for students to relate to the material, to actively engage with the many fascinating issues philosophy has to offer, and thus an overall experience that is both memorable and fun.
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