Monday, November 10, 2014

Why undergrad teaching is not a "necessary evil"

Over at Philosophers' Cocoon, Marcus Arvan expounds on how we should see undergraduate teaching as something more than a "necessary evil" we tolerate in order to engage in philosophical research. (How come no one ever says we tolerate undergrad teaching in order to do university service?!)

Marcus observes that teaching demands that we set aside jargon and get back to intellectual basics. This forces us to grasp, in a non-technical and intuitive way, what's appealing and unappealing about a philosophical position or claim: 
when teaching Kant's moral/practical philosophy, it's really easy to get sidetracked by Kant's technical terminology, etc. But, when teaching a first-year undergraduate course, getting mired in that stuff is a recipe for disaster. Students tend to tune out. In order to get them to tune in, the challenge is to explain, in the simplest and most intuitive way possible, what Kant is up to, and how his theory is philosophically motivated. - 
This 'cutting to the chase' makes us better researchers, Marcus notes.

I'm intrigued by a second point Marcus makes in defense of undergrad teaching: Undergrads, not having been heavily immersed in the discipline, don't take a problem or argument seriously simply because those in the discipline do. They have, Marcus points out, good BS detectors, and have to be won over to thinking that a position or argument merits esteem. Undergrads thus serve to keep their instructors 'grounded,' we might say, not taken to flights of intellectual fancy. That said, I'm ambivalent about this point: Sometimes this BS detector is also an immaturity meter: Students may not take an argument seriously due to ignorance (philosophical or otherwise) or philosophical inexperience. Indeed, part of our job is to help them see the force of unfamiliar or obscure points.

Why else is teaching more than a "necessary evil"? I'd add two points here: First, teaching can be a source of challenges no less compelling than those we face as philosophical researchers. As I've argued before, our profession would benefit enormously if our teaching culture were more like our research culture in certain crucial ways.

Second, there's been lots of talk about 'public philosophy', the public face of the humanities, and so on, in recent years. I'm often struck by how those who advocate for a more public role for philosophy overlook their most public role of all — their role as philosophy educators. After all, in teaching, we have a semi-captive audience with at least some willingness to be persuaded of the value of philosophy. Our students are our most important 'public,' and each time we teach, we are doing public relations for our discipline and our profession. Teaching is thus a necessary evil only if showing that philosophy is worthy of study and worthy of respect is a necessary evil too.


  1. Hi Michael: Thanks for the kind discussion of my post. I agree with your commentary on my second point. I wasn't suggesting that undergraduate students always or even usually have good BS meters (as you note, many of their concerns, intuitions, etc., often seem rooted in immaturity). My point was merely that because they are outsiders to academic philosophy, *sometimes* they "call BS" on us in a very helpful way. I also agree with your final point, that undergraduate teaching is an important way of doing PR for the discipline. As far as I'm concerned, the more we engage with undergrads and the public, the more relevant we make ourselves--and being seen as relevant is something our discipline increasingly needs in the current educational environment.

  2. Who would be so self-absorbed and delusional to think that their philosophical publications and research are so important that their value is greater than teaching undergraduates?

    If someone is a truly awful teacher, it's hard to understand how he or she could be a decent researcher.

  3. If I hadn't taught service classes to undergrad non-majors for years, there's a lot of ways in which I wouldn't have developed as a philosopher -- both in terms of research and in terms of "public philosophy".

    I started uploading classroom lectures into my YouTube channel ( 3 1/2 years back, and I've continued -- my main channel now has about 15,000 subscribers, 550 videos, and over a million views. Students, lifelong learners, even some other profs watch them (and comment) because they make tricky philosophical texts and thinkers accessible, without doing much "watering down".

    If I hadn't served a kind of "apprenticeship" teaching all those service classes, there's no way any of that would have occurred.


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