Statement of Teaching Philosophy

In my mind, teaching should provide opportunities for multiple types of learning that unfold in response to how students enter the classroom (or engage the digital space). I like to use the phrase, “Filling the Chalkboard,” to capture my perspective, as the chalkboard represents the space where the teaching meets the students: where plans change to best fit the class.

It is in this collaborative space that instructors can read the positive or confused looks on students’ faces and react accordingly. Filling the chalkboard with sketches and definitions just is meeting my students head-on. It is where my pedagogical goals are molded and shaped to the students in the room so that they learn more, learn more easily and see their teacher cares.

Of course, I do not just fill the chalkboard in my teaching, but it is a key component in my attempt to 1) model it for them before I 2) practice it with them before I 3) expect it from them. In class I first pose questions (often in form of an outline on the board), then work to answer some before sowing the seeds of the class answering later questions together (often in supervised small-group work) which prepares them for completing future readings and assessments on their own.

This sort of modeling and reinforcement is also at work in other types of learning opportunities that meet the needs of students and seek to support successful learning. For example, I like to provide online reading quizzes (in both online and face-to-face classes) to students before class, not so much to grade their comprehension, but to provide them with resources that help them frame their reading and how they understand it (part of why I allow two or three attempts). Providing access to these types of questions on a weekly basis also gets students used to the way I ask and frame questions. I have found that this type of exposure prepares students for exams, ensuring that they do not have to spend time interpreting my phrasing, but rather demonstrating their learning and comprehension to their best abilities.

At the macro level, filling the chalkboard is a hope that, in my teaching, I will keep aiming for students and not merely toward my own most precise way of putting things. It is the hope that I am not teaching passive students who could be best served by a mere handout, but that I am teaching autonomous individuals who can, through their questions and comments (and facial expressions) help guide our class as well. The chalkboard is the physical space in which I, as a teacher, am responsive to students. It is the place where, after the class, someone could come in and see something different than my lesson plans, something unique to our class, our space, and our time (they would get a glimpse of how my pedagogical plans unfolded).

And that, to me, is the beauty of philosophy: because it is about a process (and not about a canon of facts) we get the privilege of using that dynamic learning space to open up and lay bare our inquiry about the world. Somehow, through reading and talking about how others thought of things, we are able to think about the world in a way that we never had realized was possible before. In my experience, students shine when careful planning means spontaneous revision inspired by the students as they are when they enter the classroom.

 

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Question Roll 2: Integrating Pedagogy

Question Roll (posing a different question to students each day) has great pedagogical potential. It provides 1) a real world connection, 2) space for active learning and 3) space for engaging diverse classrooms.

I began the 2014 summer with a challenge: understand particular course elements that seem non-pedagogical (think administrative or assessment elements) in ways that contribute to students meeting course outcomes. In the previous post I talked about the general social benefits of Question Roll. Here I’d like to move beyond the general and talk about three specific ways Question Roll supports student learning. I present them briefly followed by an example from my Introduction to Philosophy course. The Pedagogical

Benefit I: Real World Connection

In the collegiate classroom, coursework comes alive when students can find connections to their everyday lives and can feel how their study influences how they think about their own worlds (so often understood as fundamentally distinct from their classroom studies). When developed as part of the lesson, seemingly benign real world Question Roll questions can serve as a bridge between students’ academic and non-academic worlds. The key is a question that students won’t immediately perceive as academic: whether they’re answering about their favorite breakfast food or some freedom they didn’t have living with their parents, they think of the answer as distinct from LEARNING (and in much the same way hollering, “present” is for traditional roll call). It’s up to us as teachers to find a question that will, in addition, connect to the lesson of the day. But to make the real world connection requires that students first think of the question as outside of their learning and then connect them up later. Poised at the beginning of the class, Question Roll is ideally positioned to play this seemingly extra-academic role that forms the basis of the real world connection.

The Pedagogical Benefit II: Space for Active Learning

The more you can sell the question as non-academic the more space you give the student to be an active learner: space to make the connection between the question and the content of the day on their own. This helps students in a couple ways. On one hand, it helps them engage (as they’re looking for the connection in the day’s activities). Further, making those connections is the very process of connecting a piece of their academic life to a piece of their non-academic life. Space for active learning, then, both motivates students own understanding of course content and normalizes academics by helping students bridge the apparent gap from real-to-academic (that feels all too real for students that have struggled in traditional learning environments).

The Pedagogical Benefit III: Space for Diverse Student Realizations

Providing space for active learning is also a great benefit to diverse classrooms. I don’t explicitly tell students about the question-course content connection (at least not at first). The more time you give them to think about the question, the more individual students will come to realize and understand the connection on their own. Whether diversity in the classroom stems from:

-some extra-prepared students and others who haven’t done the reading

-some students with a knack for your discipline and others without it

-discrepancies in comfort with the English language

or any other set of differing expectations, every minute you don’t make the connection between question and course content explicit is more space for each student to find that connection on their own. Some will quickly see the connection (if they’ve done the reading, feel comfortable with English, or have a knack for philosophy, for example). Others will take time, perhaps only seeing it once you explain the connection near the end of class. But that’s a very different scenario than, say, asking students explicitly to make the connection. Bright and/or brave students will always answer more quickly, and that can make methodical and less social students simply quit trying to answer questions even in their heads (as they know student X will always answer first).

And it is important to note that since Question Roll is layered on top of traditional teaching, it won’t affect students’ ability to understand your material. It will simply give them another way of connecting to that material through a real world avenue.

With Question Roll, then, no one explicitly makes the connection at all. This gives students the time to knit together an understanding of their own, whether they do it in the first minute of class or the last. If our goal as educators is students who can think and make connections for themselves, Question Roll is a low-risk opportunity to encourage diverse groups of students to begin making those connections.

THE EXAMPLE

Take an example Question Roll question from an Introduction to Philosophy discussion of the Problem of Evil: “What’s one thing you didn’t realize was great about your parents’ house until you left?” Students respond (with answers often aggregating around food, bills, and laundry). We then proceed to the classic Problem of Evil, where students discuss why an All-Good, All-Powerful deity might allow evil (pain, suffering, disease, murder, genocide, etc.) to exist. We consider several responses (i.e., ways it might make sense to understand an All-Good, All-Powerful deity countenancing the existence of evil), and it is in one of the responses that students can find their connection to the Question Roll question.

The response: without evil, we couldn’t recognize Goodness. In other words, if we were surrounded by goodness at all times, we wouldn’t understand that our world was good. This generally takes a couple forms, from the more intellectual (that we need evil in order to understand goodness, a sort of point about dichotomies and the nature of human understanding) to discussions of character (that humans couldn’t develop moral character unless there was some evil to overcome or choose against). Explicit connections are saved for the end of class, where we return to the initial question and how not realizing things were good at home might have been because of a lack of contrast.

First, then, the example here provides a real world context: an example that each student provided of the sort of reasoning exhibited in the class response to the Problem of Evil. Whether the response makes sense is, in part, the question of the way in which their own example makes sense. Second, because the connection wasn’t made explicit, students were afforded the opportunity to make their own connection between the Question Roll question and the response to the Problem of Evil. That’s just the sort of active learning we relish in our classrooms. Finally, because the connection wasn’t made explicit until the end, it provided all students (prepared or not) an opportunity to come to their own understanding, meaning that the connection could be made from a multitude of diverse viewpoints in the class.

Put it this way: Question Roll offers up a space for students to work their way towards understanding connections between seemingly disparate contexts, and does so with minimal impact on the lesson itself.

Question Roll, to sum up these last two posts, helps with specific pedagogical goals (as laid out here) in addition to developing the class dynamic (as laid out in the previous post). In the first case, it can provide students with real world connections along with the space to make those connections on their own. It is an active roll that encourages critical thinking across contexts, all while accommodating diverse levels of student preparation and engagement. In the second case, it develops community between students and teacher and with each other along with breaking down barriers to initial student commenting that helps remind students that they are not simply individuals, but part of a dynamic social learning space where their contributions are valued and important for our goals as a group.

In short: Question Roll helps students learn by helping them connect with teachers, classmates, and actively engage course content in ways the work for them.

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Question Roll 1: Building Community

Rather than a traditional roll merely asking students whether they’re present, I pose a different question to each student to begin class.

“What’s something you’ve learned so far this semester?”

“What was your favorite breakfast as a kid?”

“What’s something that helps you study?”

I call it, “Question Roll” and have found it to be a simple and powerful pedagogical tool.

 

And since it has garnered a lot of attention in student and faculty reviews, I wanted to write about its potential for adding social benefits (like building community among students) and pedagogical benefits (as Question Roll can become part of the lesson) to traditional roll. I’ll leave the pedagogical benefits to another post and focus here on three sorts of social benefits: I) student-teacher connection, II) building community, and III) facilitating student engagement.

 


 

The Social Benefit I: Student-Teacher Connection

Lately, I’ve been opening class by answering the Question Roll question myself,* whether about a class I think they’d like, my dad’s prolific pancake-making, or a coffee shop I enjoy. Student course reviews cited this specifically as something that helped them connect with me as an instructor and set the stage for a much more comfortable learning space: “I like that he asks a question everyday. I think other teachers should do this because it makes you feel more important and like you know things about your teacher.” (emphasis added)

As such, the first social benefit: it helps students connect to their teacher, which in turn makes the classroom a more comfortable learning space (especially important for subjects like philosophy which can feel quite foreign to students).

 

The Social Benefit II: Building Community

While the student-teacher connection helps, it’s not enough for students who feel uncomfortable around their classmates (an especially difficult issue for students who have struggled in traditional learning environments, a common issue for community college populations). Question Roll affords students opportunities to connect to each other as people by adding content unique to each student. It helps each student think of their classmates as individuals they can connect to beyond simply being in the same classroom. Further, Question Roll helps students bond together by signaling the start of class, reminding students of their common connection and thereby bringing them into the collaborative space of the class.

 

The Social Benefit III: Facilitating Student-Engagement

The final benefit: it helps students talk (especially important in disciplines like philosophy where discussion plays a central role). The Question Roll question is answerable by anyone, and it is low-stakes enough that teachers can pester each student for an answer (and resort to coming back to them at the end, if they can’t think of something the first time around) since it’s not dependent on, e.g., having done the reading or understanding the previous lecture. After students have spoken once (and heard their own voice in the class) it simply makes it that much easier to speak again. And with the precedent of playful creativity (I make it a point to mention enjoying creative answers to the question every so often during a semester) students are able to see speaking up in class less as an assessment (where they might FAIL) and more as a safe space to practice engaging course material (where they can find out if they’re more or less on the right track).

 

I’ve found the social benefits of Question Roll are great: it helps students connect with teachers. It helps students connect with each other. And it helps students engage in the classroom space through their comments and question.

 

Check back soon for a discussion of integrating Question Roll into Pedagogy!

 

*-In one sense, answering the question before they need to is modeling: showing them how to substantively answer the question. It’s part of my “Model it for them before I Practice it with them before I Expect it from them”.

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How do you justify including an element in a college course? (or a Summer Goal)

I’ve been thinking about what justifies including an element (a reading, section, assessment, exercise, etc.) in a course. My first thought: each item must relate directly to learning outcomes.

But that can’t be right, can it? After all, we spend classtime on administrative minutiae (like roll and due dates) and assessments and it seems pretty straightforward that assessing isn’t learning. On the other hand, that line of thinking implies a pretty simplistic understanding of these elements (as if assessments can ONLY ASSESS and nothing else).

Perhaps, then, it’s a worthwhile goal for us as teachers to understand seemingly non-pedagogical course elements in ways that give them pedagogical value. Put another way: instead of focusing on whether or not a course element in itself relates to learning outcomes, we should focus on whether we can relate it through how we use it or accomplish its task. We know we need to assess, but if we’re careful, perhaps we can create assessments that also reinforce students’ learning.

So we try to understand course elements complexly: accomplishing their non-pedagogical goals, but in ways that help students with course content. This seems like a worthwhile goal, especially as we launch into the summer heyday of course revision and development.

In this light, I’ll talk about how I take attendance in the next two posts. I call my technique Question Roll and in addition to accomplishing its administrative task, Question Roll builds community and can contribute to students learning course content.

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Spring CV

Well, it’s that time of year again, and the CV’s been updated.

The format I use has a bit of intentional redundancy, including “Key Contributions” near the beginning that I like to highlight so anyone can see the important things in a glance at the first couple pages, then delve deeper into the document as necessary for more information and context.

Enjoy!

Hassman CV Spring 2014

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Motivating the Problem of Evil

“Should everything you read be fun?”

Students have trouble caring about the traditional Problem of Evil: whether God should have created an evil-free universe. And while discussions of free will do pique their interest, they distract from the truly motivating feature: the classical theological problem is really one of what we think our own lives should be.

 

1. The Traditional Problem of Evil

There shouldn’t be evil…or so the reasoning goes. If God is all-powerful, then God can get rid of evil, and if God is all-good, God wants to get rid of evil. Yet evil persists, both natural (earthquakes, famine, and disease) and moral (murder, genocide, and good old-fashioned fibbing). The Problem is an apparent incombatibility between these three claims:

a) God is omnipotent
b) God is omnibenevolent
c) Evil exists

So does that mean that God’s power is limited (i.e., God wants to get rid of evil, but just can’t)? Or that God’s goodness is limited (i.e., God could get rid of evil, but doesn’t want to)? Neither seems a good option. So the question becomes, “Could a good and powerful being want evil in the world?”

 

2. God’s Goodness and Free Will

People often think of free will as a possible source of evil: our ability to decide what to do unconstrained by external forces means that we are free to make colossal mistakes and bring evil into the world. If freedom of the will is valuable enough, then, we might deny that an omnibenevolent God wants to get rid of evil. Keeping free will in might just be more important than keeping evil out.

But students aren’t really compelled by the value of free will (most don’t think that their actions are determined and the ones that truly consider it are normally excited enough about science to feel like determinism [the denial of free will] is kind of cool). Besides, freedom of the will is at best a plausible explanation of moral evil alone (after all, what’s the connection between free will and tsunamis?).

Moreover, a discussion of free will is tangential to the Problem of Evil. On the free will view, evil is collateral damage. What students need, then, is a discussion of whether evil might be important, not as a consequence, but intrinsically. Otherwise it seems an omnipotent God could have created the truly valuable thing (the free will) without the bad consequence (evil).

 

3. Practical Evil and the Good Life

Ask students: is evil useful?

It does not take long for them to realize that pain, suffering, war, disease, and the like can certainly be useful. Pain helps us protect ourselves from damage. Infections build up our immune systems. Challenging circumstances do the same for our character: we find ourselves steeled after holding fast in the face of adversity. Rivalries amongst friends can also motivate us, even if they trace their origins to jealously or pride. And no group is ever as unified as when there is some moral or natural enemy arrayed against it. Evil can be useful, and that seems clear evidence that an all-good God might NOT seek to rid the world of evil.

But the problem is more gnarly than this. Even if evil is useful, one might worry that evil is only useful in a world where evil exists (a world with frustration, sickness, and betrayal: what good is a strong immune system in a world without sickness?). So the question isn’t whether evil could be good in some sense (it clearly is): it’s whether a world with evil can be better than a world without evil, full stop. Only that will tell us how we can understand what an all-powerful, all-good God should do.

To confront this question, students fall back on the difficulty and frustration in their own lives. They think about the difference between beating easy video games and difficult ones, between beating their little brother at chess (meaningless) and beating their older sister (profound!), between reading something easy (like the funny pages) and something difficult (like philosophy). To figure out whether they can make sense of an all-good God desiring evil, they must think about whether they’d rather live a life entirely of beating their little brother in chess, or whether it’s worth living in a world of getting whipped by their sister for years before they finally checkmate her king. The first world is stripped of evil, but it also seemed stripped of accomplishment (as everything is fun and easy). The second is, at times, frustrating, difficult, and painful. But it’s also got promise.

Suddenly, deciding whether God should have created an evil-free universe isn’t a mere theological problem: it’s the problem of which world we pick. It’s the problem of how we aim our own lives: at only fun and ease or (sometimes) at challenge and adversity.

So next time you discuss the Problem of Evil, ask your students:

“Should everything you read be fun?”

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Sample Philosophy Essay Prezi for Teaching Essay-Writing

A really nice sample essay Prezi you can use in your class:

Linky

It explains a sample that includes exegesis and evaluation and focuses on the things students seem to miss most: that the introduction should be about the essay (rather than presenting information), that the reader needs some roadmapping (I’ve also heard it called ‘sign-posting’) and that essays are best when reader-centric. I’ve found this sort of focus on the reader helps students understand the perspective and tone they should take in a formal essay.

For those new to Prezi, it’s a dynamic presentation software that uses shifts in perspective and zoom to guide presentations (free to use online, and worth checking out here).

Thanks to the Leiter Reports, source for the Sample Essay.

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