Teaching Statement

Teaching Statement

I have been teaching long enough to know that an activity that works beautifully in one class may fall flat in another section of the same course, that the same reading selection that generates lively discussion for graduate students may elicit silence from undergraduates, and that an exercise producing thoughtful written philosophical responses from philosophy majors may not generate the same results from non-majors in the same class. As a result of these observations, I do not have an overarching “teaching philosophy”, but rather, operate under a set of working assumptions about my teaching practices that are constantly under review. I believe that excellent teaching requires the ability to read the class as a whole as well as learning from individual students, and adjusting one’s methods and materials accordingly.

My goals for my students include a mix of long-term and short-term goals. For the short term, I expect students to improve their ability to “do philosophy”. This goal is connected to specific student learning objectives related to assessed student classroom performance, such as developing philosophical reasoning skills through spoken or signed classroom discourse, discourse analysis, and formal in-class presentations. In written mode, my students do philosophy through close readings of challenging texts (including argument schematization), and writing assignments in a variety of standard philosophical styles — explicative, argumentative, and analytical. Depending on the course, they may also be required to write in less common genres, such as dialogue, meditation or poetry. The long-term goal I hold for all of my students is to develop a lifelong habit of philosophical thinking — this holds for undergraduates taking a general education requirement as well as graduate and professional students. As an applied ethicist, another long-term goal is for my students to cultivate the ability to recognize ethical issues in various aspects of their lives and to think through these issues in a philosophical way.

I know from experience that teaching in a bilingual small liberal arts college such as Gallaudet University is markedly different than teaching at a Research 1 university such as the the University of New Mexico, where I had full teaching responsibility for classes of 50-60 students as part of my graduate student responsibilities. Larger class sizes mean a different apportionment of time to the tasks of teaching — even if the total amount of hours expended per course remains the same. I am aware of the need to modify assignments and approaches to grading in order to manage the workload of larger classes; I have a collection of strategies that I’ve honed through the years to help me make these adjustments. One example is my Philosophy Paper Feedback Form, a document that breaks down the assignment grading criteria into categories that provide students with specific and measurable feedback on their papers.

One assignment I would keep — despite the additional time commitment required — is to require each student to come to my office for a brief conversation during the first week of the semester. I do this for two reasons: first, to get to know students better so that I can refine my teaching approach to this particular class of students; and second, to remove one potential barrier to student success early in the semester. Not all students are familiar with the norms of what being a university student entails or the expectations that professors hold for their students. It is my job as a professor to establish expectations through clearly written syllabi with student learning objectives and assignments directly related to the achievement of those objectives. I also believe that it is my job as a professor to teach students the norms of the academy — particularly with regard to the disciplines of philosophy and bioethics. Requiring all students to come to my office early in the semester makes students feel less intimidated about visiting my office later on if they are having difficulty. I have found (anecdotally) that this holds true for both undergraduate and graduate students, especially those from under-represented groups. Students from under-represented groups (namely students of color and women) have told me that my approachability is one reason I have successfully recruited them to the philosophy major at Gallaudet (and previously, at the University of New Mexico).

My teaching methods range the gamut from service learning to standard lecture format with supporting visual materials — even in seminar style classes I typically lecture briefly at the start of class to situate the reading and explain my goals for that particular class meeting. I frequently start my classes with a question, using a number of methods to prime student thinking, including in-class writing exercises, paired and small group discussion, as well as large group discussion. Since I give weekly online quizzes on the reading assignments that are due before class, students are usually prepared for focused discussion. I am also a big fan of using narrative and richly detailed case studies for teaching ethics.

Like most academics, my research interests shape the content of what I teach. Sometimes the opposite happens, and questions that occur when thinking about teaching come to influence a professor’s research agenda. This happened to me when I began working at Gallaudet University. Teaching philosophy in a second language is challenging; teaching philosophy in a language and modality that does not have an (as of yet) identified philosophical tradition, such as American Sign Language (ASL), is especially daunting. Even though I had worked with signed language interpreters throughout graduate school to access my classes, along the way creating a philosophical lexicon in ASL that I brought to Gallaudet University students, I had not had the opportunity to really do philosophy in ASL. This led to the start of what I now call my “Deaf Philosophy Project”.[1]

The question I began with was what does doing philosophy look like in ASL? This led to asking what does an argument look like when it is signed? And, are there formal conventions that mark the introduction of an argument, or the appearance of an argument? Following that, I began doing two things. First, I talked with my students about these questions, connecting our discussions to my writing process about this topic and providing them with a transparent example they could use when crafting their own papers. In so doing, I also showed these deaf and hard of hearing students how to connect philosophy with their own identity community, piquing their interest in the discipline. Second, I developed a series of exercises with handouts aimed at the process of “doing” and “talking” philosophy in ASL. These in-class exercises provide specific guidance with examples, practice opportunities, and feedback through open-ended reflective questions on such topics as summarizing an argument, serving as an interlocutor, developing objections, responding to objections, and so on. I have had so much success with these meta-philosophy assignments that I’ve since modified these assignments for philosophy and bioethics courses that I teach in spoken English.

One of my strengths is teaching to a diverse student body. Because of its unique nature as the only liberal arts college for deaf and hard of hearing students in the world, Gallaudet University has a truly cosmopolitan student body, enrolling students from all fifty states and numerous countries around the world; this amount of diversity is unusual for a small liberal arts college. In addition to the usual professional responsibilities of teaching students with learning, psychological, and physical disabilities, I also have to manage communication accommodations. I have taught courses where I’ve dealt with as many as five different communication modalities used as disability accommodations in one classroom: close vision interpreting, captioning, spoken language interpretation into English, tactile interpreting for deaf blind students, and signed language to signed language interpretation (ASL into British Sign Language). All of this is in addition to managing a bilingual and bimodal classroom. Working with this many variables has made me a better and more responsive teacher to all students, not only those with disabilities.

I believe that teaching is a lifelong process for educators as well as students. To this end, I have consistently participated in teaching and learning workshops offered by my home institution, as well as sat in on colleagues’ classes for ideas and inspiration. Outside of the classroom I have held office hours in a variety of public locations on and off campus, and have hosted senior thesis discussion groups to help students learn collegiality in addition to improving their writing. I have also encouraged and supported student scholarship by working with them to produce excellent presentation of their work at conferences and workshops.

In my life as a philosopher and scholar, the activities of teaching and research are mutually supportive. I am passionate about the need for excellent teaching in all institutions of the academy, and am constantly challenging myself to improve my abilities in this area, even after decades of being in the front of the classroom.

[1] The name is an ASL gloss and doesn’t carry the jarring connotation that this would in English. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a sufficient English translation, and so have left this as is — partly in the hope of conveying how different the two languages and modes are.