As a teacher, I strive to instill in my students some of the fascination with philosophical questions that drew me towards them. I want to provide students with a sense of the complexity one encounters as one tries to address such questions and help them develop their abilities to analyze, clearly express, and assess complex arguments – in philosophy and beyond.
Frequently, I learn as much through my interactions with students as they do. Teaching is a mutually beneficial activity. Realizing this keeps one humble, open-minded, and enables one to better see and attend to one’s students, their individual strengths, weaknesses, and needs, and to adjust one’s 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.
Teaching is an art, mastering it a life-long task that requires enthusiasm, practice, and a set of techniques. In the following paragraphs, I outline two techniques I have successfully used in the past. I also invite you to consult my website (https://rajarosenhagen.info); it contains more teaching-related material, including examples of student contributions. (The following password lets you access the protected area: Theaetetus149a.)
The first technique involves tasking students with submitting summaries that are to reflect the main argumentative structure of an assigned reading on just one page. I provide students with guidelines on how to select what is important (available on my website), explain how to identify argumentative patterns and connectives expressive of logical relations, and mention typical pitfalls. Each week, I provide extensive comments on some summaries and meet with students to talk about their work, aiming to see each student twice per term (if the setting allows it).
Few students do this well right away. But due to this technique, their writing frequently improves drastically. Students typically appreciate getting detailed feedback on their writing. And since the feedback focuses on just one page, for 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 per text to everyone motivates students, yields samples of good summaries and succinct overviews of all readings discussed, which helps students as they prepare for exams and allows them to quickly revisit arguments they may have found particularly interesting.
I developed 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 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 amazing (for examples, consult the teaching section of my website). 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. Moreover, student contributions are often witty, funny, and thus highly memorable, which 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 atmosphere, which leads to an overall increased willingness both to participate and to tolerate philosophical complexity.
These techniques were designed to serve very specific purposes: helping students improve their writing skills and increasing students’ motivation to participate in online discussions. However, as indicated, both techniques yield many further benefits. As a primary instructor, I plan on implementing these and similar techniques 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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