Teaching philosophy

Teaching philosophy for Kristin Rodier

Teaching Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies requires active engagement with both philosophical materials and student learning. In my courses I take two important pieces of advice from Adrienne Rich’s “Claiming an Education” (1977). First, she urges her students to take responsibility for themselves, which means “refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.” I challenge students not only to undertake difficult studies, but to undertake an active role in their intellectual expansion. Second, my responsibility as an educator is both to communicate the materials at hand and to create a classroom that values “clear thinking, active discussion, and excellent writing,” which Rich claims—and I agree—are necessary for intellectual freedom. Only when we use the tools of thinking, discussion, and writing to the full extent of their potential can we create students who learn, search out new ideas and ultimately serve others.

Lecture effectively: My lecture style is to give students two main things that they need; I always show students how the philosophical passage is structured, which aids in their reading comprehension and also makes them aware of various rhetorical styles, while focusing on why philosophers say what they do by expanding on context, definitions, and clarifying examples. I often lecture effectively by not lecturing—by creating comprehension questions that are handed out in class. I then have students model thinking by answering the questions and creating mini-presentations within the class period. I help the students formulate good answers and I clarify what was important in the passage that they may have missed.

Explore writing as a mode of thinking: In order to illustrate what I mean by “writing as a mode of thinking” I introduce my students to the idea of a “felt sense” and a “felt shift” by way of comparison; Have you ever felt like you have forgotten something but you don’t know what it is? Maybe you get a feeling in your stomach, or you feel a sinking in your shoulders? Normally we ask ourselves a series of questions like; was it my lunch? My keys? But, once we figure out what it is (my chequebook!) we experience a felt shift. And so we can analogize to philosophical work: a felt sense is when you encounter an idea or a phrase and you feel like something is wrong: you have something to say, a criticism or a problem but you may not immediately know how to express it. Often in philosophy the ideas aren’t amenable to a mental list and so I’ve adapted freewriting techniques to prompt students to be able to write out their thoughts. These prompts are a sort of guided writing meditation where the students can bring their subconscious ideas and thoughts into their conscious writing: They write until they’ve found their felt shift. Then, I have students exchange their freewriting and develop critical questions that push their peers’ views to a new level of sophistication.

Activate student engagement: I often pause during lectures to give students short breaks to discuss what I am presenting. Students will often be filled with questions and comments during a lecture but they have to suppress this energy and they often find this distracting. Giving them a few moments to discuss ideas or do a short assignment engages their understanding. This requires proper guidance as students can become frustrated because they are largely accustomed to a passive learning style.
Facilitate group safety for active and effective dialogue: In a medium-sized group I try to learn all of my students’ names and get the students to learn each others’ too. This creates an environment of collegiality and safety. In a larger group discussion I try to create dialogue between the students by creating links between their ideas. They are usually interested in looking to me for validation of their ideas, but instead I remind them of each other’s views and put their differing ideas in meaningful contact with each other. This creates a community of inquiry, not adversary.

Teaching is learning: I have been surprised at how invaluable student feedback can be about lectures and exercises; where I might believe something to be a success, the students may have found it confusing and vice versa. Regularly checking in with my students provides me with the ability to adapt to and challenge their critical thinking skills. Each time I teach I pay attention to how my presentation shapes the ways in which the students are able to understand and challenge the materials.

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