Teaching Philosophy

I approach teaching with three primary goals in mind: guiding each of my students to and through their own exploration of course content, exposing them to a diversity of views and the approaches that support them, and inspiring them to critically engage themselves and their world.

As a philosopher and scholar of religious ideas, my teaching is deeply textual and conceptual in nature. My methods in the classroom are therefore fairly traditional yet supplemented with a variety of technologies and interactions to expand on lectures. Typically new topics are presented in the form of lectures. In first and second year undergraduate courses especially these are supplemented with slides, video, and handouts. My lectures almost always utilize PowerPoint slides reflecting key terms and ideas that incorporate diagrams, tables, and photographs. The proliferation of digital media has made it possible to add first person voices to my classroom too. I often incorporate video of figures such as, for example, Carol Gilligan discussing her ethic of care in lectures on her work and ideas in moral theory (UMaine PHI 230) and applied ethics (UMaine PHI 100). In this way I allow Gilligan (and others) to “speak for themselves.” For those who benefit from having them during class, I also provide handouts of my lecture slides before the class meetings they are discussed. My lectures are usually arranged chronologically in order to contextualize new concepts but I place great emphasis on the logical structure of arguments too. For example, when presenting Anselm’s “ontological argument” for the necessary existence of God in my philosophy of religion course (USM PHI 230), I break down both the misleading syllogistic form of the argument and the more accurate twelve step reductio ad absurdum. In order to encourage critical engagement with assigned readings, I often administer very brief quizzes at the beginning of class. These are not intended to be particularly difficult but successfully reward students for doing the reading before class. This, in turn, has meant that as a group we come to lectures “on the same page” making class time far more productive.

Once basic concepts and arguments have been established I use a variety of methods to foster discussion and assessment of this content. In-class discussion ranges from casual Socratic questioning during lectures to help keep students focused and engaged to working on logical exercises in small groups in my methods of reasoning course (UMaine PHI 103). In most of my teaching, I use blogging assignments on Blackboard or other similar online course management system to give students regular opportunities to respond to content in written form at relatively little cost to their final grades. Blogs are assigned to summarize and assess course readings. I provide feedback on the level of mastery of and critical reflection upon course materials as well as the mechanics of academic writing. Student posts are viewable by all registered students and commenting on each other’s work is required and highly encouraged as a way of extending discussions in the classroom. I have found that courses become much more welcoming for shy and/or introverted students when they receive positive public feedback on their posts and comments. This often carries over into increased participation in class too, contributing to the quality of discussions.

Most of my teaching has been conducted in colleges of arts and sciences within research universities. Given the realities of 21st-century academia, most of my students have come with little to no previous experience with philosophy, theology, or religious studies. Some come with little experience with the humanities in general. Often, mine is the single course in these areas they will ever take. With that in mind, I make a special effort to be comprehensive without being reductive or simplistic. In my applied ethics courses, I make sure to present arguments on all sides of whatever issue we are exploring. In philosophy of religion courses, I include at least one non-theistic religious tradition (i.e., Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism) as well as the typical treatment of classical theism. As well as broadening horizons in these ways and others I emphasize the identification and assessment of arguments in all my teaching. This is most formal in methods of reasoning where we work on these and basic logical analysis skills. Additionally, in all of my courses written work is discussed and assessed in terms of content but also spelling, grammar, clarity of expression, proper documentation of sources, etc. Many of my courses, including most recently leadership ethics (UMaine LDR 200), involve formal paper writing with feedback at several stages (thesis, outline, draft, and final) to help students develop their writing skills. In some courses, notably my introduction to religious studies (UMaine PHI 105), students practice oral communication too by giving presentations on significant theories of religion.

Finally, as a philosopher and theologian, I seek to inspire my students to embrace the examined life not just so they can get through our course(s) together, and not even so they expand their knowledge base, but because it is simply beneath their dignity as human beings to do any less. Teaching is about cultivating a critical self-consciousness that allows students to place themselves in relation to the traditions that still inform us today. This, of course, requires developing a familiarity with the classic figures and their ideas but equally important is the development of a curious and critical eye driven always by the love, if not the attainment, of wisdom. I accomplish this by radiating my excitement and remaining accessible in the classroom as well as out. Above all though, since learning is a dynamic process, it is critical that successes be celebrated wherever they appear. For some students, this means confirming their suspicions that they are bright and “getting it.” For others, this means being attentive enough to notice the small improvements in, for example, participation, clarity of written work, or the profundity of their questions. Offering detailed feedback tailored to each student has served me well as their guide. All written work in my courses receives detailed rubric scores as well as narrative comments. In addition, I take the time to correct, redirect, and encourage students in and outside of the classroom. I have found that students flourish under such positive reinforcement and often become lovers of wisdom in the process too. In fact, many students who take courses with me go to declare majors or minors in philosophy and/or religion. It is my great honor and privilege to be a resource for them as we strive together in the search for truth.

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