Saturday, August 4, 2007

Should professors share or advocate their views in the classroom?

I’d like to raise this issue, explore the possible pros and cons, and find out what others do. In the past, I’ve generally sought to present the two or more sides of an issue (e.g. abortion, God’s existence), present what I take to be the strongest arguments for the positions, the key objections, and leave it at that. Lately, I’ve been a little more open about my own views. I find it difficult not to share my thoughts because, of course, they are my views and I care about these issues. I’ll kick the discussion off with just a few thoughts on this question.

The benefits of sharing and/or advocating our views include:

1. We are being honest and open about our views and why we hold them, which I take to be an important way to model philosophical thinking for our students.

2. Doing so works against students’ concluding that philosophy is just a matter of “opinion,” which I take to mean that there is no true answer to the question at issue, and one can just decide what to believe based on personal preference.

The cons include:

1. Students are hypersensitive, and often with good reason, about professors seeking to enforce their views.

2. Many, if not most, students are afraid to disagree with their professors. They fear it will hurt their grade. This can put a serious damper on discussion in the classroom.

3. When evaluating a course at the end of the term, students often express appreciation for the professor’s “impartiality” or “fairness,” because he or she did not share or advocate his/her own take on the issues.


  1. Mike,

    Great post -- I actually thought about putting one up about this myself! I'm a bit limited for time, so I'll be brief for now.

    I almost never share my own views in the classroom, and when I do, it's a slip. In fact, I feel very strongly about not sharing my views with the class. On your points:


    1. I agree with you here. But for me, I can accomplish (1) by letting them know that I do, in fact, have these views, and that I feel very strongly about them.

    2. I think I can get around this one by being very clear that (a) I do have strongly held beliefs and (b) that I believe that a strongly held belief should be backed up well, and that I hold myself to that standard. I am also very honest with them about the fact that some of my beliefs, in my opinion, are not backed up sufficiently, and I feel odd about them, and that in some cases I have no good reason for doing what I do, and so when I do these things I feel a terrible sense of lack of integrity.


    1. Yep. They sure are, and for good reason. I do feel as if in my classroom, being vocal about my views disarms me pedagogically. Those who agree with me will then just become my 'yes' men and women, seeing everything I say as automatically sensible, and those who don't agree with my basic beliefs will turn me off, seeing me as yet another indoctrinator.

    2. I argue very passionately on both sides, and because students have no idea where I'm coming from, I've never really had a problem on this one.

    3. I think this is true.

    I always say to my students that on every issue we discuss, I have strong beliefs in some direction. However, I tell them that although "Chris" would love for all of you to share that view, it's not "Dr. Panza's" job to make sure that this happens, or to even set up an environment in which that may be likely (or more likely than if I don't tell them my views).

    That said, I am open to the fact that for some, advocacy teaching may work for them. I doesn't work for me. I feel very, very uncomfortable when I feel as if "Chris" is poking through. I much prefer the role of unbiased critical thinking moderator. It's what works for me.

    Sorry for the quickness of the reply here, I look forward to hearing responses on this one.

  2. I think there's an important difference here between 'share' and 'advocate'. It matters very much how you make your views available to students, and I guess I share but don't advocate very hard. I rarely say much substantive about my own views in class discussion, in large part because of Mike's second worry (that stating my own position will put the brakes on further inquiry and discussion.) However, I occasionally make some of my own research available to students when it's relevant to course content. I prefer this for several reasons. First, they digest my position in its entirety rather than my trying to describe and defend it off the cuff. Second, since I'm directing them to something outside the immediate discussion, there's less of a tendency for those hypersensitive students to feel bullied. Finally,and this is something I mentioned in my earlier post about how to integrate research and teaching, making available my own research dispels a tendency I've observed, namely, that students think that philosophy is something that other people do. If I, as an instructor, constantly reference only Aristotle, Kant, famous contemporary philosophers, etc. then students may conclude that the 'we' that constitutes the classroom (the instructor and the students) are entitled to observe philosophical dialogue but only to participate in it as second-class spectators. But if they see that I (an actual flesh-and-blood human being that they already know) am contributing to that dialogue, then the message is that 'we' can contribute and philosophy isn't just for others. I also think that making my work available to students indicates that I'm excited about the material I teach, which I hope will rub off on them.

    As far as fairness in evaluation: There's a certain immaturity in the reaction that if a professor shares her views, this is somehow unfair. It reflects that students have stalled out in the early stages of William Perry's well-known scheme of intellectual development. There are things to be done to counteract the 'I'll get a good grade if I agree with the professor' syndrome. For instance, I've made available to students papers written in previous quarters (A papers, B papers, etc.) to give them an indication of my expectations. And in so doing, I often deliberately pick papers that argue for contrary conclusions, thus illustrating that its the reasoning, etc., not the content of the thesis, that guides the grading.

  3. Great topic

    I tend to agree with Chris on this one, the costs of advocating outweigh the benefits. But I do think it depends on the class and the situation. I'm inclined to think in the average philosophy class room unshared is the way to go. In certain applied ethics contexts though I think we ought to nail our colours to the mast though.

    So for example we have one main ethicsy course in our masters program, called current controversies in biomedical science. We recently decided to introduce a lecture on research ethics somewhere into the degree. I argued strongly that it should not be part of the current controversies course because the approach there is here is topic X here are different views assess. A fairly standard philosophy approach aimed at raising critical thinking skills. In terms of research ethics however we don't want the students to approach it neutrally, we want to sell the idea of ethical research. In other words that class is information about current best practice and advocacy for that practice. I thought it was best to separate that from the standard philosophical approach.

    I often indicate to my students at the end of a course what I think, because some students get frustrated if you don't tell. I do make a point of saying that their essays/exams will be marked on how good their arguments are, not whether I agree with their conclusions.

  4. I tend to make my views known, but like Michael Cholbi, be careful about how I do it. Now, I teach mostly ethics and politics-relevant courses (e.g., Philosophy of Law), so mileage may vary in other courses.

    Generally speaking, I don't express my views unasked, but I'm not coy about answering if I'm asked about them (and I tend to be). The major reason is what you've alluded to - I think it's very problematic to have students walk away thinking that "there are various opinions" is the whole story.

    Re: impartiality - I was originally worried about it, but never really ended up with a problem. In fact, at one university I taught at, I seem to have developed something of a reputation as the liberal professor who conservative students took classes with. I even got comments about how, even though I was obviously wrong about everything, I was fair with other students' views (something to the effect of "a liberal, but an OK guy" showed up once...). For what it's worth, being careful to give credence to the important parts of students' positions, draw them out as serious arguments (and point out things like, "ah, we disagree about *this* premise, but of course anyone who accepted it would hold your view...") seemed to go a long way.

  5. Great comments so far.
    I agree that the distinction between advocating and sharing is an important one, which is why I raised both in the post. My own view is that in a graduate course, there is nothing wrong with advocating and in fact it should be done. This prepares grad students in philosophy for their professional lives as philosophers. I had many professors advocate their views in class as a graduate student, and enjoyed it.

    In the Spring of 2007, I taught an upper division course dealing with applied ethics. The first day of class I told them that since this was an upper division class, I would tell them my views and why I hold them, which I generally (at that time) did not do in my intro level courses. I emphasized that philosophers argue and disagree, and that they should feel free to do so in this course. They seemed to respond well, and the course had an excellent level and amount of discussion. I make an effort to have a laid back atmosphere in the class that fits my own personality, and I think they could see that I didn't need them to agree with me, and that I would not penalize them for airing a different view. Part of why this went so well is that several of them already knew and trusted me, but as the class came to do so I was very happy with the results.

    So, what I'd like to do is try this model in my intro level courses, and see how it goes.

  6. As an undergraduate student, I am quite open to my professors sharing there views. I am, however, cautious of where those views may take me in my own philosophical journey. I feel if a professor is respectful enough to preface their views, as their own, then I see no reason not to air them. It is always great when a professor is also willing to have those views questioned by students in office hours.

  7. Nathan you made me think of another point, namely that the worst way to advocate your views is to do this subvertly, by for example presenting weaker versions of opposing arguments.

    Mike, you are right, graduate teaching and maybe upper level is a different ball game, certainly at the graduate level I'm not shy about explaining what my views are, and why I hold them. (While keeping it balanced and open minded of course) At this level the negatives apply far less strongly.

  8. At times the forgoing discussion seems to proceed on the assumption that the choice is between advocating one’s own views and presenting the pros and cons of the relevant alternatives impartially. This overlooks what I think is in fact the best approach: advocate the view that is contrary to that of the vast majority of the students whether or not this is one’s own view. This works best for introductory courses, where one can be fairly confident about what the vast majority of the students believe. I’m upfront with my students that I’ll be playing devil’s advocate throughout the course whether or not I happen to be on the “devil’s” side on a particular issue. So, for instance, I argue for hard determinism in my PHIL 101 even though I lean toward soft determinism. Of course, this means that I often have to argue for my own position (e.g., moral realism given that most students tend to be moral skeptics), but, at least, I’m not doing so in order to convert them to my view. Rather, I’m doing so in order to get them to critically evaluate their own views. This approach, I think, offers the best of both worlds (the two worlds being: advocating your own view and being impartial). It’s not dishonest. It discourages the view that each position on a philosophical issue is just as good as another. It encourages, rather than discourages, them from speaking their minds. Etc. But I’ll be interested to hear if others see any disadvantages to this approach.

  9. I have found a successful strategy to be: maintain neutrality while covering a topic but tell the students you are happy to tell them your own considered view at the end of the topic. (This helps them see that you believe there are better and worse positions and of course it also helps them see what, in the end, the best position is!)

    If they ask me, I sometimes ask the students to raise their hands to see what they think I think. It's fun to see them get it wrong.

    On an entirely separate point, I thought this might be a good place to ask if anyone knows of a short story (or philosophical piece) about a robot being tried for a crime. I use trials in my class (e.g., the Trial of God for the suffering in the world) with students taking on the various roles, and next semester I am doing a trial of the Robot who commits some crime (to talk about free will and AI), but I'd like to have a reading to set it up. Any ideas?

  10. Eddie - the best robot stories are surely those of Isaac Asimov, sadly and predictably ruined by Hollywood, who turned Susan Calvin - the ultimate cerebral heroine - into the gun-wielding side-kick of a macho detective. She was nobody's side-kick. In the story 'Galley Slave', she deals with a law-suit against her company, based on actions committed by a robot. I think it's in 'The Rest of the Robots', but it may be in 'I Robot'. These two books were merged as 'The Complete Robot.' Technically, the robot is not on trial, but it might come close enough to suit your purposes.

    As for sharing and advocating, I do sometimes advocate, particularly in upper division classes. It is something I do occasionally and cautiously, but since everyone else seems to be wary of advocacy, I'm not going to include caveats. I'll go out on a limb and advocate advocacy.

    As Mike notes, the level of instruction matters a lot. Obviously, at an APA meeting, nobody worries that the Presidential Address might exert an undue influence on members. If you are going to blindly parrot the President of your APA region, you’ve no business being in the APA. The same is true of Inaugural Lectures, Guest Speakers etc. For many Upper Division classes, the instructor is supposed to prepare content with some degree of originality – when I compare Nineteen Eighty Four to The Name of the Rose in my Philosophy In Literature class, of course I tell the students my opinion, since I don’t know anyone else’s opinion anyway. At the other extreme, when giving an introductory survey, the speaker is not the star: students need to learn the range of possible thoughts, and learn how to decide for themselves and formulate new ideas. So the question is how to raise the bar gradually. So I sometimes do a bit of advocacy in lower level classes to prepare students for higher level classes, and also because it can be refreshing.

    I think one reason advocacy seems to be out of place in our discipline is because of the controversial nature of (much of) the subject matter. As Mike said, we are dealing with controversial issues like abortion and the existence of God, and it is surely not our role to indoctrinate students. We want to teach them how to think, not teach them what to think.

    But now think of areas like literature,art and music: certainly no more cut and dried than philosophy, but not deemed politically controversial. Would it be wrong for a Professor of Art to express, at great length, all the reasons she has for thinking that the Mona Lisa is the most over-rated picture of all time? If the views were well argued and well expressed, the result could be entertaining and informative. Peter Ustinov, in his autobiography (Dear Me)recounts that a zealous music teacher made him write out one hundred times 'Beethoven was the greatest composer who ever lived.' As a piece of advocacy, this is counter-productive. It offers the student no deeper understanding of Beethoven's music. A student who is really interested in music will not simply take the teacher's word that Beethoven was the greatest composer of all time, because that would be absurd. The statement about Beethoven, once made, has to be defended with astute musical explanation or else it backfires. The intelligent student who prefers Mozart to Beethoven will be motivated to mount a similar defence of Mozart. And if the student is not really interested in music, it hardly matters if they end up parroting what the teacher said. So I’m more willing to advocate when the topic is more obscure.

  11. Hey all, I was recently introduced to this blog by Justin Moss and recognize some names from some articles in Teaching Philosophy. Great work, here and elsewhere.

    My thinking is much inline with Doug's about thinking about the position that most students come in with and arguing most strongly against that. Doing so not only exposes them to the other argument but forces them to formalize and defend their own position, which in my experience tends to be maybe the conclusion with some bare intuitions, but rarely an argument. Of course, this strategy can backfire when it turns out that the students think something completely different than what you've thought, so it's best to cover your bases.

    Some discussions, though, are harder than others. For instance, I find it harder to make non-religious arguments against same-sex marriage seem convincing, mostly because they tend to be very bad arguments. I'm perhaps the same way with some arguments against voluntary euthanasia. My belief on those difficult to adopt cases is that our responsibility to help them see how the arguments go and work (or don't) trumps our responsibility to make every position seem like a live one. Some are just dead, but having the students come to that position is much more preferable than either ignoring the topic or dogmatically asserting it.

    One of my main reasons for not telling students what I think is so that I don't get thirty papers defending my view. Despite the fact that I begin my course explaining that often philosophy only gives better questions without answering those questions, students still seem quite curious about what I think. That they're curious reflects well on my goal of presenting arguments as impartially as possible, but I still wonder how well it reflects on the profession.

  12. To add to Charlie's remarks immediately above about not all issues being "controversial" because some topics are such that one "side" just doesn't have anything like a plausible argument in its favor:

    Some issues (in ethics classes) I make students pursue rather thoroughly. So, we try to find and evaluate just about every possible argument that's given about the topic and run them all through the logic grinder.

    Some issues are such that the outcome is that "all observed arguments for p are unsound." It seems to me OK to end with that rather weak, non-confrontational conclusion, while acknowledging that not all arguments have been examined (and encourage finding more arguments), this doesn't show that p is false, and some issues that could be addressed to perhaps make one of these arguments work.

  13. The question seems to ignore one perhaps very old-fashioned point: that professors shouldn't even be up there unless they have some cogent and articulated view about things. Convictions which they are expected to profess -- hence the name 'professor'. But they are also teachers, and as such have a responsibility to convey the context of their convictions -- the landscape of other opinions about the same matter. And that should be done as 'objectively' as possible. Admittedly, a difficult balancing act. But that is exactly what one should expect of someone in that position of responsibility. One or the other doesn't cut it.

  14. Mike, my comment is not nearly as lengthy as some others are however, I, as a student of yours, wish you would share your opinion in class. I am unsure that most students would be anxious or apprehensive to disagree with your beliefs either. It could lead to more discussion in your classes, especially ethics.

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