I believe that the professor of philosophy who takes both its history and its interdependence on current social and material conditions seriously is uniquely qualified to guide the youth toward more critical points of view, more articulate tastes, and the capacity for deeper ethical engagements with their life events and vocations. This is possible in a powerful way if I gear the study of philosophy toward those non-rational social/political phenomena which confront my students on the surface, or screens, of their world today. This means constantly re-assessing the methods by which perennial philosophical ideas can be conveyed to students most fruitfully. Addressing real concerns about the ways that ‘reading less and watching more’ inculcates the passive reception of information, however, cannot be a sheer battle of wills to make students ‘learn to read.’ If my students are more readily conditioned to think in images, it is my responsibility to see that they can they do it well. To this end, I routinely employ engaging multi-modal classroom presentations, giving equal space to linguistic and visual examples, even tipping the balance between the two heavily toward the visual in my 2018 Philosophy of Images course. In this shift, discussion is of the utmost importance. Because students today are in the habit of learning from their peers, I also make sure I give them time to explore each other’s encounters with common texts.
I formerly taught at Florida Atlantic University, a majority minority and Hispanic serving institution, which draws students with diverse aims from all social classes. I attribute my success in teaching that community, in part, to previous experience in diverse classrooms. In 2015, I began teaching Ethics and Leadership at Peirce College, an accelerated continuing education college in Inner-city Philadelphia. I was the sole Humanities instructor at Peirce, and the student population had very practical goals for their educations. Nonetheless, I worked to bring our discussions of ethical theory into line with these goals by tailoring my lectures to issues surrounding the tasks of leadership my students faced daily in their home and work lives. Completing a classroom activity on Rawls’ veil of ignorance in this context was enlightening because they did not see social equality as a means of advancing their own situations, as they very well might have, but instead as a founding principle of a free society. Expanding on this trajectory in summer 2016, I taught Applied Ethics in the W.R. Crigler Institute at Ursinus College as part of an intensive summer institute for first years from low income, non-white, or first-generation college backgrounds. Together, we explored ideas of social justice by considering social media and the movements like Black Lives Matter, which were just beginning to arise therefrom. Returning to Ursinus recently, I was touched by the lasting impact that initial college experience had for many of them.
While at FAU, I paid close attention to my cultural and class-based assumptions, approaching every member of my classroom with equal respect. I must remember that, for some of my students, I am the first person ever to invite them into the community of philosophy. I believe that my teaching gets better each year insofar as I actively listen to my students, exercising my understanding, moral imagination, and trusting that students with all manner of cognitive tendencies and backgrounds want to learn and improve just like I do. Philosophy must be tailored to the needs of whatever population comes seeking its insights or it becomes a disingenuous pursuit. The ‘genuine’ is not confined to a single tradition of ‘classic’ texts, nor is it the province of a particular Western Euro-centric tradition passed on to those of a certain socio-economic status. Rather, as a Foucaultian, I see it as a set of traditions, tactics, and tools that help my students to question the ‘furniture’ of their everyday lives—issues, obstacles, and myths that confront young Americans regardless of their cultural backgrounds, educational aims, or practical mindedness.
To that end, I have developed unique classroom models that cultivate an interactive pedagogical style. In Philosophy of Law, teams of students argue both ancient and contemporary court cases by applying contemporaneous legal theories, while remaining students serve as a jury of their peers. In Phenomenology, assignments highlight the ways in which our intentionality is guided by and in turn helps to shape our common social world. In Philosophy of Images, we regularly view famous and not-so-famous photo books before produce photographs that critique those works we viewed together. Despite the difference in our backgrounds, I always ask my students to work with me and with each other in earnest to critically evaluate the ways we inhabit our online and offline worlds. Each day, my hope is that we can question whether our current definitions of rationality and justice constitute what we could affirm together as ethical citizenship in our time.