Why I Teach

My aim in teaching philosophy is not to turn my students into philosophers. I want to help them become philosophical. Minimally this means starting to independently and collaboratively engage tough ethical and existential questions by paying better attention to their inner and outer lives. Maximally this means helping them transform their consciousness: to see more, hold more, and integrate more of themselves, others, and the world. I suppose that may sound grandiose or fluffy, but my teaching practice is inspired by Pierre Hadot’s notion of “philosophy as a way of life,” and at the end of the day, that really is how I see the mission. In what follows, I discuss the animating spirit of my teaching practice, some strategies and exercises I use in class, and courses I hope to teach in the future.

That means starting with me.  As Thomas Merton writes,

“He who attempts to act and do thing for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love will not have anything to give to others.  He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.”

Outside the classroom, and especially during breaks between the semesters, I make a point to grow my edges and “sharpen the sword.” In addition to reading a few books about pedagogy a year, I always like to try something new each semester—a new text, a new exercise, a new assignment. My eyes are constantly peeled while reading online—from the New York Timesand The Atlantic to The Onion and Existential Comics—for news stories, essays, or images I can use to light up the primary sources students read for class. I delight in helping students make connections between ancient material and modern culture.

I also make a point to build relationships with my peers.  I currently teach in a Great Books program with 20 other professors, and I started a Google Doc in which they can post links to articles, videos, etc., that they’ve found useful for supplementing the course material. The flow of ideas is as or more important in an organization than the stock of ideas.

Finally, I have started attending conferences devoted exclusively to pedagogy. After reading Contemplative Practice in Higher Education, I was moved to attend the “Summer Session on Contemplative Pedagogy” at Smith College in 2015. The central idea of contemplative pedagogy is to make teaching more student-centered and learning more multidimensional by fostering reflective engagement with the object of study through practices such as journaling and meditation. The conference was a remarkable experience that has changed the way I approach teaching. In a similar vein, in the summer of 2018 I was accepted to participate in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminaron “Reviving Philosophy as a Way of Life” at Wesleyan University. In addition to scholarly presentations on traditions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Stoicism, we workshopped ideas for how to present philosophy to students in as practical, hands-on, and existentially relevant a way as possible. This involves getting out of our comfort zone. I think as academics—and as experts or specialists in a discipline—we can tend to lose sight of the fact that how we are affects how we teach. Philosophers in particular have a psychological propensity toward abstraction that at times borders on neurosis—I know from personal experience! I now consider my own reflective practices—running, meditation, and yoga—as part of my preparation for teaching.

Accordingly, I have begun incorporating contemplative practices into the classroom. I begin each class with a one-minute silent meditation. The purpose of this is to help students put aside whatever they were just doing—a previous class, talking on the phone, etc.—quiet their minds, anchor in their bodies and in the classroom, and focus on our brief time together. My students at Boston College live in a hectic, hyper-competitive environment replete with distraction and fear. I find this exercise helps to turn the classroom into a safe and separate space for serious inquiry, and the students seem to look forward to it. One day last year, I was running a bit late to class and told the students we would skip the mediation, only to have a young man in the front man exclaim, “No! That’s the best part of my day!” However, I make clear to the students three things at the outset: first, that these practices are not religious, and that they are free to engage them in whatever register they wish; second, that our purpose in doing them is to deepen our understanding of the material and its connection to our own lives; and third, that since such practices can often stir up strong or troubling feelings, they are free to opt out if they feel uneasy.

Let me briefly explain four strategies I use in class: two that engage students and spark debate, and two that push them to connect philosophy to today’s world.

I see a lecture as a gateway to a conversation. While I think the low esteem afforded the lecture nowadays is excessive, I rarely lecture for longer than 15 minutes, and will sometimes post lectures online to free up class time for discussion. The goals of participation in my class are for students to become intellectually self-reliant, build confidence articulating their ideas in public, grow comfortable with disagreement and conflict, and engage in spirited and respectful dialogue over complex and occasionally touchy subjects. One way I structure the classroom environment is by recognizing the shape of the class. This means, first, identifying the leaders in the class and harnessing their energy to everyone’s advantage. I enlist avid participants to give brief summaries of texts and reconstruct arguments for the class. When my students witness their peers give the best arguments for and against a certain position, they are more likely to engage in debate than if I just hypothetically defend that position in front of the class. Moreover, this serves as a barometer by giving me a chance to gauge, in real time, how well students are grasping the arguments, and to intervene if need be.

Another method I use to engage students and convey content is employing visual material. Our students work, play, learn, and communicate through electronic and digital media, and drawing these resources into class lessons helps me reach them and helps them anchor the material. For example, when I teach Cartesian skepticism, I use clips from the films The Matrixand Inceptionas well as a video outlining the “Simulation Argument” popularized by Nick Bostrum and Elon Musk. When teaching the trolley problem, I ask for a volunteer to play an online simulation of it on a computer monitor that is projected in front of the class, and have the class question his or her decisions.  When teaching Plato’s Phaedo, we study Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates.  These approaches do not replace serious intellectual engagement with the material, but they do motivate and enhance it.

I use group projects and simulations to build a classroom community and to drive students to see how philosophy connects to everyday life and public affairs. When teaching Environmental Ethics, I designed a group presentation called “Integral Ecology.”  Each group of four students was assigned a case study—such as the Keystone XL pipeline or Walmart and sustainable business—and had to investigate the issue from four perspectives: science and technology, business and economics, politics and policy, and ethics. After meeting for several weeks, each group integrated their findings and rendered judgment on the ethical issues surrounding their topic in a presentation before the class.  This pushed students to delve wide and deep into a concrete issue, debate it in an intimate group setting, and present it in an accessible way. I have used a similar format in my Philosophical Ethicsclass, in which students presented on issues such as euthanasia, health care reform, and just war theory and drone attacks. In Science and Ethics of Climate Change, an interdisciplinary course I taught last year, I had students role-play in a simulation of the global climate change negotiations in Paris. They had to act as the negotiators for their assigned countries and, based on their country’s energy, economic, emissions, and population profile, arrive at an agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The purposes of the exercise were for them to appreciate why these negotiations are so challenging, and to identify and debate the ethics and justice issues at stake.

I push students to reflect on pressing civic and cultural issues by linking class topics to current events. Around the anniversary weekend of September 11th in 2010, I asked my students to write a paper giving the best argument for why the Islamic center near Ground Zero should be built, and the best argument for why it shouldn’t. This led some of them to actually travel down to the site and observe the protests and demonstrations, which influenced their opinions. We did a similar exercise when studying the moral presuppositions of socialism and capitalism during the Occupy Wall Street protests.  While teaching Rousseau, I invited my students to attempt a 24-hour “technology retreat” and write a reflection paper applying his ideas about technological dependence to their own experience with iPods, cell phones, and the Internet. This helped them appreciate how thoroughly their lives are mediated by technology. During a unit on Marx, I asked my students to attend an on-campus lecture by Larry Kudlow, a well-known free-market economist, and to write a reflection paper from Marx’s perspective. This was during the financial crisis of 2008, and the contrast of Kudlow’s views and current events helped students understand Marx’s critique of capitalism. In all these cases, I used something many students were already familiar with to help them develop philosophical skills and connect philosophy to the zeitgeist.

In the near term, I hope to continue teaching courses in the history of philosophy and in ethics (including normative and applied, especially environmental ethics). In the future I intend to teach a wide range of courses, including “The State of Nature and the Nature of the State,” “Philosophy as a Way of Life: East and West,” and “Humanity’s Place in Nature:  East and West, Ancient and Modern.”

My teaching is guided by one of the morals of Plato’s allegory of the cave: the philosophical spirit cannot idle in the ether, but must return to the messiness of life.   When students have left my class more attentive to the inner reaches and outer limits of their lives and less mired in what William James called the “gray chaotic indiscriminateness” of the dispersed mind, I consider it a success.