In my experience, the aptitude of the best students is largely the same, whether teaching at a big state school, a small liberal arts college, or an Ivy League university. The ongoing challenge is to conduct a class that is at once sufficiently demanding for the strongest students but still accessible to conscientious students of all ability levels. In order to do this I have developed specific techniques for promoting a participatory, interactive classroom environment.
I have two broad aims for my courses: to introduce students to new ideas that challenge them to become more reflective, critical thinkers; and to help them develop skills that will prove useful in their other academic and non-academic pursuits. With this in mind, I select readings on topics that I myself find worthy of continued reflection. These readings provide an occasion to practice and develop general skills of careful reading, textual interpretation, analytic writing, and critical discussion. Even students who find no intrinsic value in the subject matter will benefit from developing these skills, which they will need for any future coursework in the humanities or social sciences. And, beyond the classroom, the ability to read critically and communicate clearly will prove valuable in a variety of careers and life pursuits.
One selection that I have found to be particularly effective is Rae Langton’s “Maria von Herbert’s Challenge to Kant” (a shortened version of her “Duty and Desolation”). After the students have read parts of Kant’s Groundwork, this article gives them a model of how to engage with historical texts: first by interpreting the text, then by applying that interpretation to a specific case, and finally by showing how we can use and modify the interpreted view in a way that enriches our own moral judgment.
My teaching style works best when students come prepared with questions and comments, so I incentivize this by requiring short ‘reading response notes’ that students submit before each class. By making the students accountable for each reading, this assignment helps them to establish good study habits early in the semester. It also provides an outlet for participation and critical engagement by those who are reticent to speak up in class.
Because reading philosophical texts requires a specific set of skills, even students who have been very successful in other classes can find themselves struggling in their first philosophy class. One semester, I had two such students visit my office hours in the same week. In each case, we worked through the first few pages of the next assigned reading. I asked the student to explain what the author was doing, paragraph by paragraph, with an eye for important elements like definitions, conclusions, and counterarguments. This experience inspired me to provide students with reading guides for required texts. Rather than giving a descriptive outline of the text, these guides tell students where to look for key arguments and objections and what kinds of questions they should be asking themselves as they read. Many students have reported that these guides were helpful, and so I’ve continued the practice for subsequent classes.
Students, even very talented ones, frequently come to college with a distorted picture of the purpose of writing. Too often they have learned to write within a very rigid structure, and they think of writing as an attempt to satisfy a fixed list of criteria. Because of this, many students try to create a ‘faultless’ essay, which is often of little value either to the student or to the instructor. An important goal of writing instruction is to get students instead to see writing as a tool for intellectual exploration. By trying to explain and argue for ideas in essay form, students are led to think through the assigned texts and bring their own voice and concerns into engagement with the problems addressed in course readings. That puts students in a more active role, allowing them to engage in the activity of philosophy, rather than learning about it passively.
For my classes, I construct essay assignments designed to help students develop a more engaged approach to writing. One effective technique is to set a maximum word limit on essays, rather than a minimum. This encourages students to focus on whether specific details serve the purposes of their essay, rather than on how to fill the requisite number of pages. It also discourages excessive use of quotation, forcing students to find succinct ways of summarizing an author’s position in their own words. Even for essays designed to assess mastery of specific course content, my prompts are designed so that the exposition and interpretation of authors from class serve to set up the student’s own evaluation in the end.
I work to make my classes challenging but also rewarding and accessible to students of all backgrounds and abilities. I’ve found that providing students with incentives and tools for active participation gives the best chance of meeting the students where they are, while always encouraging them in the aspiration to achieve more.