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Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Brandon Watson

My teaching philosophy is in a constant state of development. Nonetheless, there are
three principles that I have found to remain relatively stable.

(1) All teaching by an instructor is really guidance of the student’s own discovery.

Knowledge, of course, is not directly transferred from teacher to student; teaching is
much more indirect than that. The most useful way I have so far found of viewing the
matter is to see my role as instructor in terms of practical guidance rather than theoretical
information. In the words of seventeenth-century philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, my
task is not so much to be a maître, a source of learning, as to be a moniteur, someone who
directs attention and prompts action. Especially in philosophy, it is the student’s own
intellect and reason that is doing the lion’s share of the work in the process of education1;
because of this I try to fill my courses with activities that direct the attention of the
student to particular features of arguments and ask them to do things with it. To take one
example, one thing I have had students do when studying the Gorgias is to write short
pieces in which they speculate about how the dialogue might have gone differently if one
of the rhetoricians in the dialogue had chosen to respond to Socrates’ questions in a
different way. I think something like this provides a very simple and basic way for
students to begin exercising an important set of skills, namely, looking beyond what the
argument says in order to ask why it says that rather than something else and, instead of
being satisfied with simply criticizing the argument as stated, asking themselves whether
the argument could be restated in a way that would avoid the flaw.

(2) Teaching is itself a form of learning.

I believe that emphasizing the self-discovery aspect of education makes for a more
interesting course, both for the instructor and the student. There is a sense, however, in
which this emphasis is rather intimidating. If teaching is guidance of the student’s own
discovery, it is, by its very nature, extraordinarily difficult. Moreover, there is no way to
make it not so (although, of course, one can avoid ways of doing things that can make it
even more difficult than it is by nature). It’s all the difference between feeding someone
directly and providing them an entire environment where they can safely and easily find
good food; the latter is far more complicated. Because of this I try whenever going into a
new term to have the attitude of someone who is a student himself, learning from the
students at least as much as they are learning from me. This means that my courses are
always being adjusted a bit in light of previous experiences. For instance, I start my intro
courses with a section on logic and critical thinking, but I found that students were
This is nicely put by Thomas Aquinas in the De Veritate (q. 11 a. 1 ad 9): “Man can truly be called a
teacher inasmuch as he teaches the truth and enlightens the mind. This does not mean, however, that he
endows the mind with light, but that, as it were, he co-operates with the light of reason by supplying
external help to it to reach the perfection of knowledge.” [Thomas Aquinas, Truth. Mulligan, et al., eds.
Hackett (Indianapolis: 1994) p. 85.] The Socratic image of the midwife also brings it out clearly; midwives
do not give people their children but help them to give birth to their own.

I often tell my Intro students that they can get a rough first approximation to what philosophy is by considering it to be ‘civilization in the abstract’. however basic it may be in form. Teaching philosophy is primarily about helping the students to develop this enthusiasm. Recognizing the importance of one’s own learning also requires the harder task of recognizing that an idea that seemed good does not work as well in practice as in theory. arguments. had students ask themselves about what sort of moral rules they already follow in their day to day lives. Regardless of what they go on to do.sometimes intimidated by a large amount of reflection on the nature of argument right at the beginning of the course. insightful art. by taking this diluted philosophy that forms the abstract side of civilized life and putting it into more concentrated form. Philosophy deals with all the important issues that are essential for civilized life. . For similar reasons. In an ethics course. (3) Philosophy. To reduce this I have been breaking the logic section up and distributing it more evenly through the course. One of the best compliments I’ve ever received as an instructor was from a student who said that she had never had a course that made her think so much about all the important things in her life. It was a good idea in the abstract. practices. is civilization in the abstract. part of my task in an undergraduate philosophy course. In my ideal course it is this enthusiasm for philosophical ideas and arguments that students will primarily take away from the course. I had a small set of assignments that. I hope that most of my students will come out of my courses approaching everything important in their lives at least a little more philosophically. In every course I try to find some appropriate activity that will encourage this look at their own lives and society in order to see the philosophical thought. and to the extent that all our students are themselves participants in civilized life. or the politics they follow that has connections to the philosophical topics discussed in the course. they already are doing philosophy in a diluted form. or what sort of safeguards they put into effect in order to avoid ethical risks of all kinds. I do my best to come to a philosophy course with a passion and enthusiasm for the topics I’m teaching. In my introductory courses I often have students do ‘found philosophy’ assignments. in order to see what kinds of assumptions. among other things. As I see it. and beliefs. and analyses underlie them. but the logistics of it make it difficult to put into effect successfully. this tendency to ‘court truth with a kind of romantic passion’ (to borrow a phrase from Mary Astell). and just politics. but I found that I could only get this to work when the class was small enough that everyone’s attention can be kept on the passage being read. I once tried to do guided readings of important passages in class. is to help students start looking around at their goals. that already pervades it and makes it genuinely human. the music they listen to. and especially in an introductory course. whatever else it may be. a life of rational science. for instance. where they find something from the news they read.