Writing for My Students

By Barrett Emerick

For whom do I write philosophy? Personally, more and more the answer is for my students; I want to write about things that can matter to them and in ways that can connect with them.  That hasn’t always been my answer.

When I was on the job market, one of the hardest questions to prepare for was how I understood the relationship between teaching and scholarship. I couldn’t figure out a way to move beyond a generic answer about how I would try to teach material relevant to my research; teaching was a necessary part of academic life and so I’d structure courses and reading lists around the issues and materials I wanted to engage in my own work.  In that way, my teaching would serve my scholarship (but not the other way around).

I was very fortunate that year to secure a good job at a small liberal arts college: St. Mary’s College of Maryland.  Perhaps the single most important difference I found between teaching at St. Mary’s and teaching as a graduate instructor at a large university was the chance to work with the same students over multiple semesters.  As a graduate instructor, I almost never worked with students for more than a single semester.  As an assistant professor, I discovered not only the joy of getting to work with the same students over multiple semesters, but I developed a much more nuanced and complete answer to that question: how do I understand the relationship between my teaching and my scholarship?  My answer was enhanced at two points during the lead-up to tenure.

The first was when I was assembling my third-year review and writing my personal narrative, in which I had to paint a picture of how my time at St. Mary’s had so far unfolded.  In doing so it became clear that (for me) a better way to understand the relationship between teaching and scholarship is that being a good teacher entails being an active scholar.  All of my courses are writing-intensive, and almost all of my assignments require my students to critically engage with contemporary texts and argue for their own position, which is of course what I aim to do in writing for publication. I say this on my syllabi, where I tell students that as a class our efforts will not be just an academic exercise in which we merely study what others have thought but that instead our project will be to join an active and ongoing conversation, aimed at understanding the world in order to be better situated to make it better.  In other words, I’m asking my students to do fundamentally the same thing that I do in my research (I’m just doing it for a more demanding audience). So, the better I am as a scholar, the better equipped I’ll be to help students pursue the same project.

The second point came last year when I was assembling my tenure file and (again) writing my personal narrative.  I had continued to reflect on that question (and am continuing to do so now, while on sabbatical).  Today, my answer is not just that to be an effective teacher I need to be an active scholar; I also understand part of being a good scholar as a result of my work as a teacher.  Here’s why: my students generally have great taste.  (One of my favorite comments from my course evaluations is, “More Sally Haslanger please!”) They don’t shy away from difficult texts as long as they are worth the work (and when they aren’t they let me know). And, they are moved by texts, affected by them, in ways that are meaningful and worthwhile. In fact, I think that philosophy’s potential to connect with students is one of the main reasons why it’s worth teaching at all.

So, as I’m thinking about what kind of scholar I aspire to be, it’s helpful to recognize that I want to write things that my students would value.  In short, my students should be part of my intended audience.  Of course, I want to write things that professional academics will also value, and I anticipate writing some pretty wonkish, technical papers in the future that might really only appeal to other specialists. Obviously, there is value in that as advancing the disciplinary conversation can be worthwhile, both directly and indirectly, in ways that are impossible to foresee.  However, as a general rule, I want to write in a way that will resonate with and be meaningful for smart, hard-working students. I hope I’m on my way to doing so but regardless of whether I succeed it seems so crucial to make that my goal. I should strive to write philosophy that has the potential to reveal important features of the world that might otherwise be obscured, that can help my students to better understand themselves and their place in society (and that thereby leave them better able to empathize with others), and that say true and vital things in ways that have the potential to actually affect what they care about, what they believe themselves to be capable of, and how they live in relation to others.

It is not lost on me that my opportunity to become both a better scholar and a better teacher is greatly facilitated by having secured a good job that has allowed me to do both.  This has larger implications for academia: if administrators care about hiring excellent scholars to teach their students, and if others are like me and find that good teaching and scholarship go hand in hand, then administrators must end what the AAUP calls “the casualization of academic labor.” If I’d had to work as an adjunct, and move year to year, I wouldn’t have gotten to know my students in ways that allowed me to write for them (nor would I have had the time or energy to do so, while consumed by the job market and trying to make ends meet).  I’m certain that I’m a better scholar as a result of having the time and stability to meaningfully engage with students year after year, and to come to see them as fellow scholars and a primary audience for my work.

Barrett Emerick is an associate professor of philosophy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.  He is affiliated faculty with the Environmental Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies programs.  His research is in social philosophy, moral psychology, and normative ethics, focusing in particular on gender, racial, and restorative justice.

 

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