Talk About Teaching and Learning:
January 28, 2014, Volume 60, No. 20
What I've Learned about Teaching from Other Faculty
Karen Detlefsen, Philosophy
Penn’s faculty is a fount of exciting teaching ideas. I learned this early in my time at Penn when my students would regularly mention the virtues of one professor or another. Recognizing the opportunity to improve my own abilities in the classroom, I would probe: What makes a given instructor so good? What does she do so differently than others? What do you think you’ll remember about his course long after you graduate? From these early conversations, I amassed a lot of teaching tips—tips about techniques and approaches I could adopt in my own classrooms, and a recognition that not everything that works well for one professor, or in one field of study, could work for me, or in philosophy.
Valuable as those word-of-mouth ideas were, I have recently gained much more insight by sitting in on the classes of some of Penn’s master teachers. What prompted this practice was a year-long workshop I attended on “Teaching Large Lectures,” run through Penn’s Center for Teaching and Learning. As part of our ‘homework,’ I attended a few colleagues’ classes. Observing teachers in diverse fields of inquiry has allowed me to draw lessons from an especially wide range of teaching styles. Here are just three of those many lessons.
The Value of Connecting Abstract Ideas with Student Lives
What—if any—cancer risks are associated with frequent cell phone use? This was a question that Gary Bernstein from physics posed to a group of mostly freshmen in order to set the context for the lecture. With this problem set, there followed a discussion of highly abstract and complex material covering radiofrequency energy—a discussion that ranged well beyond the immediate question of cell phone use, though it addressed that issue, too. Gary might have simply launched into the abstract material, seemingly disconnected from student lives, but then he might also have quickly lost the attention of his audience. Instead, by starting with a question highly relevant to the students, and continually referring the abstract concepts back to the concrete opening problem (and other such problems introduced throughout the hour), he held a rapt audience.
Much of my own teaching is in 17th to 18th century philosophy, and much of this is in the abstract areas of metaphysics and epistemology—stuff far indeed from the daily concerns of the 21st century young adult. In order to maintain as engaged an audience as possible, I have tried to take a page out of my physics colleague’s playbook whenever possible: start with a question or scenario highly relevant to our students’ lives, and then show how seemingly moribund philosophical texts help to address precisely this question or scenario, often with highly compelling insights. For example, when teaching Hume’s epistemology, I ask students if they believe that to be held morally responsible for their actions, they must also be free either to perform or not to perform these actions. Consistently, a large majority of my students believe they must be free in this way. I then spring the surprising claim: Hume believed that moral responsibility requires that our actions be determined, and he believed that our being determined is perfectly consistent with our being free. From this direct connection to a matter of significant importance to the students’ lives, together with Hume’s own puzzling beliefs, we move into a discussion of Hume’s more abstract theory of belief formation and related topics, which help to explain and make compelling his beliefs about responsibility—material that might have captured the students’ interest less vividly had I not tied it directly to issues directly relevant to them.
The Value of Students Studying the Very Foreign
Still, I cannot always find that significant and compelling connection between my students’ lives and early modern theoretical philosophy. Moreover, I think teaching the very foreign as foreign, and giving students the opportunity to venture into new and strange territory, can yield valuable results.
I learned this from Tamara Walker in history who sets an assignment for her students to write a fictitious letter from the perspective of a 16th century colonial subject—slave, colonial officer or Indian. In doing so, she requires that her students leave behind their own perspectives as fully as possible in order to explore a world and way of being very foreign to them. Providing students this opportunity to expand their horizons so far beyond the familiar has obvious educational benefits, and I have adopted the spirit of this approach in my own teaching.
When teaching Leibniz’s metaphysics, for example, I prepare my students for this often strange material by noting the extraordinary advances he made that helped pave the way for subsequent innovations in human thought. With Leibniz’s intellectual power and lasting legacy established, I then lead the students through his baroque, and often bizarre, metaphysical system, explaining the brilliant and rigorous reasoning behind that system. I have two aims with this exercise. First, I aim to get students to understand that there are often very solid reasons behind very foreign ways of thinking, reasons they can strive to understand and appreciate, even if the results of those reasons do not resonate with them. This patient and charitable exploration of, and appreciation for, how very foreign ways of thinking can emerge is a valuable skill to develop because it permits a fuller understanding of both the past and less familiar contemporary ways of thought. But I have a second goal as well, and that is to show students an example of a fertile and brilliant mind that produced many, many ideas that have fallen by the wayside, but that also produced many ideas that significantly shaped major innovations in subsequent centuries. In doing so, I hope to encourage a willingness in our students to engage in risky yet rigorous thinking, understanding that failures (often many and spectacular failures) are to be expected when producing successes.
Enthusiasm Comes in Many Forms
I have vibrant memories of one of my own undergraduate professors slowly prowling back and forth at the front of the classroom only occasionally making eye contact with the members of the class, simply running a constant narrative for the duration of the class period. This might seem to be a formula for disaster in the classroom, and yet we students were captivated from start to finish. What made us so was our professor’s unmistakable love of the material and the artful way he designed the flow of the narrative to draw his students into the material. Occasionally, he would conclude with a “cliffhanger” to be taken up the next class, though we certainly didn’t need the cliffhanger to be encouraged to return.
This professor’s enthusiasm didn’t fit the model of a dynamic bundle of physical energy directly connecting with the individuals in the class, but it was clearly enthusiasm nonetheless. In my observations of my own colleagues, and in my many discussions about teaching with them, I have come to think of enthusiasm as a combination of a delight in the material we teach together with a desire to somehow draw students into sharing that delight. Whether it be that dynamic bundle of energy, or the quietly delivered story designed to keep the students in its thrall or the weekly chat sessions (distinct from office hours) where groups of students can meet the professor at a local café to pursue ideas discussed in class, there are a myriad of ways we can express our enthusiasm as teachers. Seeing so many models of this by observing other professors has suggested to me new ways of connecting with my students.
Watching my colleagues in action in the classroom has been, and will continue to be, an extremely valuable source of teaching ideas as I continue to learn what does and doesn’t work for me, and how to adapt innovative techniques to my own philosophy classroom.
Karen Detlefsen is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Education in the department of philosophy in SAS.
In 2007, she received the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Award for Distinguished Teaching by an Assistant Professor in SAS.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.