The Teaching of Philosophy
The following statement was prepared by the Committee on the Status and Future of the Profession, Richard Schacht, Chair, and the Committee on Teaching Philosophy, Gary Iseminger, Chair, and approved by the Board of Officers at its 1995 Meeting.
Teaching and inquiry are inseparable in philosophy. Philosophers and philosophy departments should be--and generally are--unsurpassed in their commitment to the quality of their educational efforts and programs. Both their students and their institutions have a right to expect this of them. They in turn are entitled to expect their institutions to be supportive of their efforts to provide educational experiences of high quality, and to expect students to endeavor to rise to their challenges.
These are times in which great emphasis is placed on the quality of teaching by critics as well as friends of higher education, and yet in which many forces are at work that can easily combine to erode that quality. It is crucial to the future of our discipline, our educational institutions and our society that faculty, administrators and students rededicate themselves to doing their parts to ensure that the best possible education occurs in our classrooms and on our campuses.
The study of philosophy makes a contribution that is central to the educational enterprise through its demands upon and refinement of a broad range of reasoning skills and intellectual abilities. This centrality endows the preservation and enhancement of the quality of education in philosophy with particular importance. These aims require the combined efforts of administrators, departments and instructors, and their mutual appreciation of the character of philosophical education and of the many things that affect its quality.
. Philosophical education involves far more than imparting of information about figures and developments in the history of philosophy, training in the latest techniques, or of getting students to learn the correct answers to philosophical questions, or even teaching them about alternative possible answers to these questions. The development of an appreciation and grasp of philosophical methods, issues and traditions is an important part of it; and another is the cultivation of students' analytical, critical, interpretive and evaluative abilities in thinking about a variety of kinds of problems, historical texts, and issues, both "philosophical" and commonplace. Courses in the history and problems of philosophy are most appropriately designed in a manner that is conducive to these endeavors; and successful teaching and learning in philosophy should be conceived and assessed accordingly, rather than in terms of other sorts of (more easily ascertainable) outcomes.
. The study of philosophy should involve the experience of coming to terms with texts in which philosophical issues are presented and argued at levels of increasing sophistication. Reading assignments of a substantial and demanding nature are therefore to be expected in most kinds of philosophy courses. Readings also may be expected to be highly diverse, even in different sections or versions of the same courses; for there is no single right way either to introduce students to philosophy or to structure upper-level courses in any areas of philosophical inquiry.
. Writing is of great importance in philosophical education, as one of the ways in which the abilities it fosters can and must be developed. It is crucial that courses in philosophy be structured and staffed in such a way that significant writing assignments can be made and thoughtfully assessed. These assignments may include papers of varying lengths, reports on readings, pro-and-con arguments, short-answer and essay exams (both in-class and take-home), and course diaries.
. Verbal interaction, in which ideas can be articulated and examined, questions asked, positions debated, and arguments presented and criticized, is essential both to the activity and discipline of philosophy and to philosophical education. The structuring and staffing of philosophy courses should make provision for it. Instructors (and discussion section leaders in large lecture courses) should be encouraged and helped to develop strategies for stimulating and facilitating in-class philosophical discussion and for drawing students into it.
. Since good philosophical education is instructor-intensive, it is crucial to its quality that philosophy faculty be assigned teaching responsibilities that do not preclude the forms of interaction, assessment and feedback it requires, either by the number of courses or by the number of students for which they are responsible. Practically speaking, this means that their teaching loads should be at the low end of the teaching load range for non-science faculty, with appropriate provision for assistance in large courses. (At institutions with significant expectations of their faculty in research, publication and professional activity, moreover, the teaching loads of philosophers must be compatible with these expectations.)
. Care must be taken, in the assignment of courses to faculty, to ensure that important courses-- e.g., introductory courses and other courses intended primarily for non-majors--do not suffer in their staffing. Serious efforts should be made to render the teaching of such courses attractive, and to render excellence in the teaching of such courses meritorious; and senior faculty should share in their teaching. This is of particular importance because it is often precisely through these courses that philosophy departments can have an impact upon the educational experience of the greater number of students.
. Both the courses and the degree programs of philosophy departments should be designed with due regard to the character, needs and interests of the student populations they serve, and also to the traditions and contemporary developments of the discipline (as well as the particular interests and teaching preferences of the faculty). Departments are well advised to give careful attention to the balancing of these considerations, recognizing the need to adapt both course offerings and degree programs to changing realities in order to assure the continuing vitality of the study of philosophy at their institutions.
. Institutions and departments should be supportive of efforts on the part of philosophy instructors to experiment with new courses, novel modes of instruction and new forms of teaching technology, and should consider ways to encourage instructors to make such experiments. Incentives and recognitions of a variety of kinds may be desirable in this connection, to overcome the common tendency to keep doing the same things in the same ways.
. In many philosophy departments the courses available to undergraduates beyond the introductory level are designed and labeled in ways reflecting long-established rubrics and areas of philosophical inquiry. The importance and interest of such courses to many students is beyond question. There are also good reasons to develop alternative and special-interest courses appealing more directly and clearly to non-majors. This can be done both successfully and responsibly (philosophically as well as pedagogically) in a variety of areas of philosophical inquiry, to the benefit of students and departments alike. Departments and administrators are well advised to encourage and support course development efforts along these lines.
. No class setting is better suited to philosophical and liberal education than that of the seminar. Such experiences are valuable at the introductory level as well as subsequently. Institutions of all sizes should be supportive of efforts to offer freshman seminars, senior seminars, honors seminars and other forms of undergraduate (as well as graduate) seminars; and philosophers and philosophy departments should be actively involved in their promotion and development.
. Large lecture courses as well as smaller classes may be valuable educational experiences in philosophy as in other disciplines. The importance of discussion and writing in philosophical education, however, requires that lectures in such classes be supplemented with appropriately staffed discussion sections providing opportunities for interaction and writing assignments comparable to those available to students in smaller classes.
. When the numbers of students taking philosophy courses exceed the capacity of faculty to provide students with sufficient opportunities for discussion and with assessment of their written work, the use of advanced (graduate and even undergraduate) students as teaching assistants may be both unavoidable and reasonable. At many institutions they serve as graders, discussion section leaders and even instructors. In all such cases, it is imperative that they be given such roles only:
when and to the extent that this is not detrimental to their own studies;
when they have been carefully assessed and found qualified for the particular responsibilities in question, in terms of their command of the spoken and written language of instruction, the course material, and the interpersonal dynamics of their assignments;
when they have been properly prepared for the kinds of tasks at hand and for their responsibilities in relation to both their students and their institutions; and
with appropriate faculty supervision.
. Emeritus faculty represent a potentially valuable teaching resource, and may be involved in a department's instructional program to the benefit of all concerned. The fact that emeritus faculty typically do not bear extra-curricular departmental responsibilities may justify rates of compensation below department norms for full-time faculty on regular appointments; but departments of philosophy should not permit budgetary considerations to induce them to enter into arrangements that are fundamentally exploitative of their emeritus faculty.
. The objectionability of exploitative practices should govern decisions made with respect to the employment of persons as teaching faculty in philosophy departments on a non-tenure-track, part-time, temporary, or other irregular basis. Full-time tenured and tenure-track appointments should be the norm. While there may be good reasons for departures from this norm under some circumstances, care should be taken to assure that rates of compensation, benefits, working conditions and departmental privileges are commensurate (by departmental standards) with assigned duties, and that the duties assigned (e.g. teaching load and schedule) do not preclude professional development.
. It is helpful for continuing philosophy faculty members establish formal or informal mentoring relations with new faculty (including non-tenure-track faculty), and also with teaching assistants. This can do much to enable those who are new to instructional roles to be more effective in carrying out their assigned duties, and to develop as teachers, philosophers and members of the profession. Mentoring relationships also can be highly beneficial to other graduate students, and to undergraduate majors who may be considering graduate study and careers in philosophy.
. The primary criteria in terms of which philosophy teachers and courses should be evaluated are indicated by the characterization of "Philosophical Education" above. They defy precise measurement, and must not be reduced to quantitative measures of any kind. Student evaluations of their courses and teachers have many shortcomings; and data compiled from them and quantitative comparisons made by means of these data are highly questionable indicators of the quality of teaching. Such evaluations nonetheless are facts of modern institutional life; and in most institutions departments do well to cooperate in their collection. At the same time, departments also are well advised to supplement these evaluations with other means of course and teaching assessment. The evaluation process can be beneficial if it is conducted in a manner that is as sensitive as possible to actual educational quality, and if its main thrust is constructive (to give due recognition to quality and to foster improvement).
. The faculty visitation of lectures, classes, discussion sections and even seminars is a practice which, while far from universal in philosophy departments, can be useful if wisely implemented. It can contribute importantly to the teaching assessment process, and also can lead to improvements in teaching. Departments are encouraged to explore ways of making such visitations a maximally beneficial and minimally onerous standard practice.
. Grade inflation has become a serious problem at many institutions. The importance of grades can be and often is greatly overestimated; but as a form of feedback as well as of motivation to students, they can play a significant role in the educational process. Philosophy departments do themselves a disservice--and send the wrong signals--if most students in philosophy courses receive high grades regardless of how much they have put into their courses and gotten out of them. Philosophy teachers cannot turn the grade inflation tide alone; but they can and should endeavor to be a part of the solution rather than of the problem.
. Good advising is crucial to the success of any instructional program with many options; and it is particularly important in philosophy, in which so many course titles and descriptions are likely to be either incomprehensible or inaccurately suggestive to students. Advising should not be left either to office staff or to a single "undergraduate advisor." It should be deemed a responsibility of a department's entire faculty. Advising about course selection should be available to non-majors as well as majors. Detailed course description booklets prepared prior to each semester can be of considerable assistance in this connection.
. Provision should be made and publicized for students to have access to their instructors and teaching assistants in timely fashion, as questions or problems in courses may arise, or as they may need special assistance. The same applies with respect to the department chair, advisors, and others with student responsibilities. Regular office hours (duly observed), supplemented by the opportunity to make appointments at other times when office hours do not suffice, should be standard procedure.
. Departments are well advised to establish clearly specified, publicized procedures available to students with grievances concerning, e.g., unfair grading, inappropriate conduct on the part of faculty or teaching assistants, their treatment by staff, the curriculum and course offerings, and deviations from institutional and departmental policies by instructors. Such problems are much better dealt with at early stages, before they either develop into major crises or adversely affect the educational experiences of students.
. The seriousness of institutions and departments about the importance of the quality of teaching is reflected in their faculty reward structure. Both campus-wide and departmental hiring, tenure, promotion, salary and other such decisions must clearly reflect the differing nature, magnitude and quality of contributions made to instructional programs. It is only in this way that faculty in philosophy and other disciplines can be expected to make this a high priority, and to do all they can to offer their students the best educational opportunities and experiences of which they are capable.
Originally published in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 69, No. 2, pp. 96-100.