Monday, April 28, 2008

Were we prepared to teach?

I returned from the APA Central meeting in Chicago last week, and a conversation I had with several philosophers there has really stuck with me. The conversation included only young-ish philosophers (those who've received Ph.D.'s within the last ten years, along with some current grad students) and the discussion came around to how well graduate philosophy programs prepare students for their future careers. As we all observed, the Ph.D. is largely a research credential, but most programs at least make some effort to develop their students' teaching abilities. At the same time though, it was nearly unanimous (especially among those who had tenure-stream jobs) that few programs do enough to prepare students for specific pedagogical or vocational challenges: teaching large courses and/or large numbers of sections, designing courses, writing good examinations, serving on committees, etc.

What was clear to me afterward is that, for the overwhelming majority of academic philosophers, their jobs are quite different — in their day-to-day rhythms, patterns of work, even fundamental professional expectations — from what they were trained to do in graduate school. One participant in the discussion put it very nicely: "They trained us to replace them. But what else should we expect from graduate faculty? That's probably all they've ever known." In other words, graduate faculty train graduate students to do the work of graduate faculty at Research I institutions. Yet only a tiny minority of philosophers have that kind of academic position.

I've long wondered if our discipline takes the right approach to preparing future faculty. Needless to say, the evidence from my discussion at the APA is largely negative. Yet I thought we could take a modestly systematic approach to this question here at ISW: In the comments to this post, I'd like to hear whether those in the profession feel their graduate school training has prepared them (or is preparing them) for the jobs they have (or will have). I'd appreciate people being as specific as possible: I'm curious about teaching, obviously, but I'd also be interested in anything else you think is relevant to the performance of your professional duties. I'd also be interested in hearing from people at various career stages, to see if there's a larger evolution in how grad programs prepare people for work. Thanks -- I look forward to your input and reflections. (And since I can imagine people wanting to be anonymous in comments, I'd appreciate your helping keep everyone straight by commenting as Anon 1, Anon 2, etc.)


  1. Since I didn't go to a Leitner rated school, I really have no hope of getting a job similar to that of my grad faculty. Instead, I'm tenured at a large community college.

    I used to think that I wasn't prepared to teach by my grad program -- and in the formal sense I wasn't -- but, I do find myself explaining things in terms used in my grad classes and I know I based several policies in my logic course on policies from my grad faculty.

    Could they have been better at preparing me to teach, hell yea -- but, was I unpreared, no -- I think not.

  2. i'm a graduate student at a leiterespectable department in a big public university. i think our department actually does a good job training us for the kind of jobs we'll (hopefully) have. here are three ways:

    1. we teach a lot, at all stages of grad school. we're fully responsible for our classes, designing them, teaching them, grading, etc. few of us ever TA. when we get out of here, doing other work while teaching is old hat. the students we teach are roughly at the level that many of us will be teaching in the future.

    2. the department offers some "pre-professional classes." there's a course on teaching philosophy. but many of the students are disappointed by the kind of instruction that particular course provides. there's sometimes a class on writing for publication.

    3. there are opportunities for committee work. lots of us have experience doing committee work, teaching, and writing at the same time.

  3. I suspect that since so many philosophy courses are idiosyncratic to the instructors' interests (i.e., there really isn't something like a totally standard intro to phil or intro to ethics class, etc., as compared to say psych 101 or american history), with teaching goals and methods that vary so much, it might be hard to get much in the way of standardized guidance here. I suspect the usual method of someone learning to teach is by trial and error and hopefully a little reflection to lesson the errors.

    Martin Benjamin used to teach a course on how to teach philosophy.

  4. I'd have to say that my department really isn't preparing me to teach. They have prepared me to skillfully present philosophical material, how to be a philosopher. They are also quite open to discussions about teaching, but I think in most cases, they really only present material rather than teaching it.

    But, for example, most of them think of themselves as teaching writing, but they only assign papers. They provide guidelines for the paper, but don't usually do much to teach the students how to go about writing it. Very few offer low-cost writing assignments, outlines, rough drafts or other projects that give students experience with the process of writing.

    The students for whom writing is easy are rewarded with good grades, but those who don't understand how to construct a philosophical argument aren't really provided with guidance beyond the assignment (which usually is not that detailed). I think what happens is that good students are rewarded for writing well rather than writing being taught.

    There is a lot of research on how to teach writing and how to use writing to teach critical thinking, and I don't see that my professors are familiar with that research. I think there is still too much focus solely on the presentation of content with the idea that students will somehow become critical thinkers if they can repeat back the arguments of historical philosophers.

    I was prepared to know my subject area well and give good lectures, and maybe lead interesting discussions. As a TA, I was given opportunities to grade for my professors and to teach my own courses. But I don't think those things are the same as teaching to increase student learning. You need to understand a little about how people actually learn to teach well, and that I had to learn on my own.

  5. I am a 5th-year grad student at a Big Ten university, and I must say, they do a great job (so far as I know) at preparing us to teach. We begin as discussion-section leaders. Responsibilities here include leading Friday's class period, grading, and student advising for two sections of a low-level philosophy class. Then we move on to teaching our own sections of the introductory logic course, which involves lots of prep but minimal grading. Finally, we are "upgraded" to Intro to Philosophy, where we teach one semester from the course supervisor's syllabus, before going on to constructing our own. All in all, I think our program prepares us for successful careers as teachers, no matter where we end up.

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