Derek A. Michaud
December 23, 2021
I continuously revise my teaching methods and syllabi to be as responsive as possible to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues. But this is, importantly, not an add-on to my content considerations. DEI work is philosophy work. And philosophy work is pedagogy work. DEI is not a special aspect of a course or even a unique course of its own. Instead, DEI informs how everything is done all the time. Being truthful to the diversity of human experience is the starting point. Without this, one risks the tokenism that reduces diversity to formal abstraction or seeks the lowest common denominator. By treating texts and students as the unique beings they are, the actual inclusion of differences is won. By being genuinely open to different experiences and perspectives, equity is cultivated in the classroom and, I hope, beyond.
My doctorate in religious studies included work in the core texts and motifs of the philosophical and religious traditions of the Middle East, South and East Asia, and Europe. Therefore, Incorporating diverse texts and topics has been part of my teaching from the start. This is what drew me to teaching “World Philosophy” (PHI 107) at the University of Southern Maine in 2012, and I continue to include representative texts from the Greek, Arabic, Sanskrit, and Chinese philosophical traditions in my “Introduction to Philosophy” (PHI 102) course. As Bryan W. Van Norden has convincingly argued, the typical western canon has unjustly excluded the philosophical inheritance of most of the world. This not only gives an inaccurate picture of philosophy as a practice but too often means that students do not see recognizable faces or hear familiar voices and are dissuaded from the study of philosophy.
I have expanded the texts I teach to include philosophies native to Africa and the African diaspora in the last decade. My “Introduction to Philosophy” courses now regularly include reflection on, for example, the traditional philosophy of mind of the Akan people of West Africa. Not only does this allow my students to see that philosophy is human rather than Greek or German, but it also offers a compelling contrast to the mind/body dualisms of the Western canon (Platonism, Cartesianism, etc.). While I am not an expert in Africa’s texts, traditions, and languages, I continue to learn and bring what I learn and the learning process itself to my students.
In response to their dismal lack of representation in the Western canon, and in professional philosophy, I include texts by female authors in all my syllabi. For example, Elizabeth of Bohemia and Simone de Beauvoir are regulars in my “Introduction to Philosophy.” When I inherited “Ethics” (PHI 230) at UMaine, one of the first changes I made was adding the care ethics of Carol Gilligan to the established parade of Aristotle, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Mill, and Nietzsche. In response to the recent work of Sarah Hutton and others involved in Project Vox at Duke University, my “History of Modern (Western) Philosophy” course will feature texts by four women, Elizabeth of Bohemia, Damaris Cudworth, Anne Conway, and Émilie du Châtelet. They have been unjustly left out of the usual story of this period of European philosophy despite their well-known engagements with and sometimes brilliant challenges to the male canon. I take this step because it is essential that my students (male, female, and nonbinary) have non-male role models too. But it is also simply factually incorrect to act as if there were no significant female philosophers in early modernity. That is, attention to the actual diversity of my subject leads to more inclusive practice in the classroom too.
In response to recent student feedback and my preference, “Ethics” will also include non-western texts. For example, in conjunction with Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, we will explore passages from the Lúnyǔ (Analects), the Mengzi, and the Xunzi. Along with Mill, we will review selections from the Mozi.
In addition, my courses problematize the canon by continually integrating our texts for their contemporary applicability. For example, rather than glossing over the patriarchal assumptions in Aristotle’s ethics, we talk about it and explore ways to adapt his insights without accepting his values. Moreover, making the true partnership between J. S. Mill and Harriet Taylor clear through readings and discussions helps to show that women have long had a more significant role in philosophy than has often been recognized.
In response to the #MeToo movement and increased public attention during the previous U.S. presidential administration, I added misogyny as a “Contemporary Moral Problem” (PHI 100). Since this issue touches on so much else (economic justice, violence, etc.), we devoted a third of the course to reading and discussing Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford, 2018). While eliciting significant resistance, often in ways that helped illustrate Manne’s point, many of my students expressed deep appreciation for including a sophisticated treatment of a moral issue they face every day.
My approach to teaching has remained remarkably consistent over time because it is all about being adaptive, flexible, and creative. This is a crucial aspect of my pedagogical inclusiveness as students do not all respond to the same techniques in the same ways, and every classroom is different. What works one semester might not the next, a lesson we have all learned in extremis during the pandemic. Above all, though, listening is my number one skill. For, it is only by getting to know my students and hearing their needs, expressed and implicit, that I can make the kind of corrections on the fly that make a course really “work.” I am perhaps most proud of how my course evaluation scores were higher for the spring 2020 semester than my overall average despite the sudden disruption of going fully remote in March. I believe this demonstrates success in adaptation and flexibility as a pedagogue.
I have developed a wide repertoire of techniques to complement my strengths and help my students meet their potential as critical thinkers. From humor, storytelling, examples from science, history, and the arts, Socratic questioning, close reading, and commentary to the formal analysis of logical arguments, I use many strategies to connect with students’ prior knowledge. In all cases, I have three primary goals: (1) guiding each student to and through an exploration of course content for themselves, (2) exposing them to the true diversity of philosophical views and the experiences, assumptions, and arguments that support them, and (3) inspiring them to critically engage their world and themselves. We study philosophy, including classic texts from the past, not merely to know what others have thought but to become thinkers ourselves.
My research is deeply textual, historical, and contextual. My methods in the classroom are thus traditional yet supplemented with a variety of technologies and learning techniques to expand on lectures. In first- and second-year undergraduate courses, I typically introduce new topics with historical and contextual lectures supplemented by PowerPoint slides (including critical terms, text, images, maps, and diagrams), handouts distributed before class via learning management system (LMS), and, where possible, video. For example, before jumping into the theories of a presocratic philosopher like Thales, I set the scene by discussing the roles of myth in ancient Greek thought and how Greek speakers were positioned geographically to learn from the mathematical and astronomical developments of Mesopotamia and Egypt too. This accomplishes two important goals at once. First, students learn that philosophy does not happen in a vacuum. Every argument has a context and answers specific questions that arise out of the unique experiences of individuals and societies. Second, students are primed to appreciate the contribution of Thales because they can relate to the questions that motivated him. No amount of yammering on about the problem of the One and the Many lands with an audience without an appreciation of what’s at stake. Telling the story gives students purchase on the arguments.
Once the stage is set, I like to model close reading of arguments in the classroom. Ideally, this becomes a dialogue between instructor and students in response to Socratic questioning during lecture. Still, sometimes they need to walk through the argument, especially at the beginning of the semester. I come prepared to speak throughout and hope that I do not have to. Over the semester, I expect increasingly active dialogue as our earlier topics become the context for the later ones. We never entirely leave a topic behind, though, encouraging comparison and developing an eye for nuance.
I carefully coordinate all of this with manageable assigned readings on our topics for the day. Recently I have found that low weight reading quizzes (multiple choice and true/false type questions) completed before class on our LMS and automatically graded to give immediate feedback goes far toward addressing the perennial problem of not doing the reading.
In most of my courses, I utilize discussion posts or blogs to extend in-class discussions. I design discussion posts to give students practice summarizing and assessing arguments in written form. Since they are public within our course, they also give students a low anxiety opportunity to contribute to course discussions. By requiring original posts and commenting on the posts of others, a more cooperative learning community forms over time, with much of the learning happening peer-to-peer. I have also found that shy and/or introverted students find this a helpful way to participate without unnecessary anxiety. Often students warm to being active participants during class through positive experiences online.
Given the realities of 21st-century academia, most of my students come with little to no previous experience with philosophy, religious studies, or even the humanities in general. Often, mine is the only course in these areas they will take at university. Some of my students are early in their studies and are the first generation to attend university in their families. For them, simple things like explaining academic conventions like office hours and syllabi go a long way toward inclusion and fostering equity in the classroom. With these concerns in mind, I make a special effort to be comprehensive without being reductive or simplistic in my first- and second-year courses. For example, in “Contemporary Moral Problems” (PHI 100), we discuss as wide a range of views as possible on all issues. Only disrespect for each other is ruled out from the start. I have found that my job of inspiring a love of wisdom is made automatic when an environment of respect for all is maintained and insisted upon. When students feel comfortable raising their own questions and concerns, their own passion adds fuel to our work together. Moreover, only this kind of respectful openness to hear each other out provides the means to practice inclusion truly. One does not appreciate the diversity of the human condition without allowing your neighbor to speak to their experience too. This is how my philosophy classroom can, at its best, become a space for equity too.
Finally, I have found that an essential part of my pedagogy is encouraging students to live the examined lives that are their inheritance as human beings. This means celebrating their accomplishments, empathizing with their struggles, and always advocating for my students as we work together to achieve course objectives and their own goals. At the risk of cliché, I was fortunate enough to have several essential instructors who made all the difference in my life, and it is the most incredible honor of my life to have done the same for others.