The Teaching Workshop

The Teaching Workshop: Failure on the Value of Historical Views

One of the best things we can do to improve our pedagogy is share and think seriously about our teaching failures–our missteps, our lost opportunities, our unfortunate blunders in the classroom. So, for this installment of the Teaching Workshop, Michelle Saint shares a situation in which she failed. Have a failure of your own to share, or questions to be answered? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook.

The situation:

I’m teaching a 300-level large lecture class. For about half of the students, this is their first philosophy class. The class’s first third is primarily focused on the history of the subject, while the final two-thirds focus on more contemporary works. We’re in the first third of the course, and I’m introducing a philosopher to the class. This theorist, I point out, is incredibly influential. Just about everything on the subject written afterwards is written with this theorist’s work in mind.

A student stops me by raising his hand. I call on him. He says: “So, wait, all we’re going to do in this class is read what other people have said? Why should we care about these people’s ideas?” He’s clearly exasperated; he obviously does not approve of my course plan.

What I did:  

When the student asked his question, I felt frustration, because it seemed to me as though I had just explained why: this ‘other person’ is historically significant! Everything else we will be reading in the term is built from it! This put me at a disadvantage: I wanted to say, “Didn’t I just explain why?” Additionally, I could feel time ticking away: we were already behind schedule, and I knew this question was eating up time I needed to cover other material. Finally, the student’s tone put me on guard: his question struck at my expertise, at my ability to shape the syllabus appropriately. So, the first thing I did was take a deep breath and put on a smile.

I said, “I can totally get why it’s frustrating to spend so much time on what other people have to say, when you feel like there’s so much you yourself want to say. But this is how it is with philosophy, and really with just about any intellectual work. We can only join the conversation once we know what the people who came before us have said. Otherwise, there’s a good chance we’ll just repeat mistakes previous people have made. So that’s why we’re looking at this philosopher’s arguments…” and then I transitioned to the scheduled material.

Why this was a failure:

Everything I said was a waste of breath. The student did not look satisfied, and in fact he dropped the class a week later. None of the other students were engaged. I gave a boilerplate answer, and it was clear from my demeanor I was more interested in getting back to the topic as I had planned to cover it than in taking the issue seriously.

What I wish I had done:

At that moment when I took a deep breath, I  should have realized I had a choice to make: either I could refocus the discussion on answering the student’s question thoroughly, or I could make clear why I did not want to.

Suppose I had decided to take the student’s question seriously. After taking my deep breath, I could have said, “I get that. So, let’s consider: why are we doing this? What’s the point of studying what other people have said?” I could have directed the students to brainstorm in small groups. Then, I could have brought the class together as a whole and asked some students to share their answers.

The downside to going this route is time: it would have put us even further behind schedule. But the upside, I believe, would be significant. Asking the rest of the class to answer the student’s question would have given them an opportunity to think seriously about the nature of philosophy and the value of studying it. The value of the class’s reading list would be supported by the answers provided by the other students. This would have reinforced my authority, and it would allow for more voices in the room to contribute to the discussion.

Or suppose I had decided to make clear why I did not want to discuss the student’s question. After taking my deep breath, I could have said, “I can get why you might find that frustrating. What you’re asking about is pretty foundational to how all philosophy is studied. I don’t have time to give you an answer, because we have a lot of material to cover today. But you’re welcome to e-mail me or stop by my office hours if you want to talk more about why philosophy is studied the way that it is.”

Going this route would have meant shutting down a discussion, but sometimes that’s the only way to keep a class running. It would have allowed me to assert my authority, by providing declarative statements about how my class matches the way philosophy is studied. It would have made clear that I am open to student inquiries outside of class hours. And it would have allowed me to get the class back on task quickly.

I can’t be sure that either of these two routes would have satisfied the student who asked the question. You can’t please everyone all the time, after all. But I believe they would have offered better alternatives than the route I actually took. I tried to get the best of both worlds: I tried to respond to the student’s concerns while also avoiding too long of a tangent. But all I really did was fail to commit to one strategy or the other.

My questions:

Which of these two routes would have been best? Is there a third route I am ignoring that would have been even better? What can I do in the future to anticipate the concerns this student raised, before it comes up as a disruptive question in class?

Additional Resources:

Do you have an answer to these questions? Join the conversation in the comments below, email us, Jennifer Morton and Michelle Saint, at PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook. Remember, the best answers are constructive and specific.

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