One semester is a very short time to make an impact in a student’s life. I have students who are struggling with mental health issues and with confidence in their identity. I have students whose priorities are formed by insecurities and by the desire for recognition. At its best, a philosophy classroom can offer tools to these students. New philosophical concepts and perspectives can help us make sense of ourselves and of our place in world. Good pedagogy is the foundation that enables us to share these concepts and perspectives with our students. It equips us to engage with our students where they are, mentally and emotionally. Crucially, it requires us to center our approach around each individual student and to care for their whole person.
At the core of my pedagogical methodology is backwards design. I begin with the big picture goals, the skills I want my students to acquire by the end of the course. I then consider what readings, classroom activities, and assignments might help my students acquire those skills, as well as the social and psychological barriers that might prevent them from doing so. In the end, I aim to have a structure for my course that will work at both ends—on building the community, trust, and engagement that are necessary to overcome anxiety, apathy, and marginalization, and on building the philosophical skill set that will help my students acquire new concepts and perspectives, learn to challenge assumptions, and learn to engage in constructive philosophical dialogue with peers (in person, online, and in written argument).
With these goals in mind, I structure most classes around discussion and I center assignments around reflection, awareness, and clarity of expression. In my current bioethics course, for instance, students craft creative philosophical reflections on the readings on an online community whiteboard, using words, pictures, links, clippings, arrows, and drawings. I ask a student or two each class to present their reflections to the class, and we then use these reflections as a springboard for small-group and whole-class discussions. In terms of written assignments, my students practice philosophical writing before writing papers for grades, including writing introductions to fake papers and grading past students’ papers with my rubric. In order to build community, I reserve time in the first few class periods of the semester to get to know one another on a personal level—learning names, sharing stories, and chatting about hobbies and passions. Throughout the rest of the semester, I routinely break my students into small-group discussions. I also hold three one-on-one meetings with each student (at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester), in part to make sure that each student feels seen by their teacher and feels comfortable asking questions. When I teach difficult concepts, I design hands-on, engaging activities. When I teach Aristotle's views on the relation between function and the good, for example, I have my students build paper airplanes out of different materials, fly them across the room, and then discuss the relation between the airplanes' ability to fly and their status as good or bad airplanes.
Individual students learn in different ways, and college students today learn differently than college students even ten years ago. It is essential that teachers adapt to technological shifts and stay mindful of the waning attention of students who need more variety. I aim in each of my courses to incorporate podcasts, video clips, blog posts, and documentaries as centerpieces to discussion. In environmental ethics, for instance, we watched a short documentary on the Anthropocene and discussed the tenability of the dichotomy between human and nature. In bioethics, we listened to a podcast about Henrietta Lacks before discussing the conditions under which medical consent is valid. In my online courses during the pandemic, I have simplified and streamlined the user experience on our learning management system and have introduced new ways to engage with one another and build community (like reading reflections on Miro, our community whiteboard). In general, I try to vary the activities within each class. Lectures, when offered, are short and serve the purpose of structuring discussion. Typically, I will cycle through small group-discussion, class discussion, presentations, and my own reflections and takeaways within the space of one class period.
The goals we set for our students are not always the goals that our students set for themselves. I use our three one-on-one meetings to make sure that my students are thoughtful and deliberate about the time they spend in the course. In the beginning of the semester, I have each student list their goals and their anxieties. In our first meeting, I offer tips and ask what I can do to help. Mid-semester, we meet again in order to track the progression of their goals and to see if their worries are subsiding. At this point, I once again offer tips and ask what I can do to help. At the end of the semester, we meet once more and debrief. How did we do? What is left undone? What can the student do to achieve their goals once the course is over?
As I said, good pedagogy is student-centered and cares for the whole person. Teaching is performed best when the teacher can purposefully shape constructive relationships with students (and foster relationships among students) that are open, respectful, and full of intellectual curiosity. My goal is to help my students to reflect, to take new perspectives, to challenge their existing ones, and to make room in their mind for continuing growth. Part of this is philosophical conversation, but a lot of it is the hard work of building community, trust, and curiosity.