“In the pursuit of learning, every day something is added. In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.”
~ Tao Teh Ching
What I’ve Learned about Teaching from My First 10 Years as a Professor of Philosophy
As an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy over the past ten years, I’ve taught ethics, logic, political philosophy, epistemology, aesthetics and visual studies, environmental philosophy, philosophy of religion, philosophy of love, as well as many variations on Philosophy 101.
And, I have taught these courses at a diverse range of colleges with students from a diversity of backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, professions, etc. From my old-fashioned Socratic perspective, all of these branches of philosophy are so many paths to the same goal, being the enlightenment of the human soul via its transpersonal discovery of itself as spirit.
Articulated by the Perennial Wisdom, as in Plato’s enduring Allegory of the Cave, no higher joy can be experienced but the discovery of the infinite virtue of wisdom, or Truth beyond any of the tragically comic goals of Money, Power or Fame which by default dominate cave life.
In what follows, I offer some heartfelt reflections of what are to me the most important lessons I’ve learned in trying to live up to my still-unfolding vision of an effective teacher of philosophy.
Initially, I did not feel like I was a natural teacher. Teaching used to be painful, awkward, filled with effort. But I loved philosophy and scholarship and I had had magical transformative experiences in college seminars and so I knew the excitement that could be manifested and touched in that unique space of dialogue which happens when the conditions are right. I had experienced the power of the medium to transform.
Now teaching has become my vocation, my calling, and I love it more and more every year. I feel like philosophy and teaching have never been more exciting, more important, more relevant, more ambitious and more realistic. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to teach and to learn from my students.
Last year, while meditating on some of my frustrations about teaching, I had an insight that allowed a shift in my whole approach to teaching to finally become self-conscious and therefore more effectively pursued.
After ten years of teaching, I was feeling at once better than ever about my pedagogy, and yet as disconnected as ever from my students. What is going on? I kept asking myself. Is this disconnection something that has just happened, or is it something that I’ve just become aware of for the first time?
Inspired by the teaching approach of life partner, yoga instructor and philosopher Jen Taylor, I was beginning to understand the feminist perspective that education needs to be more personal, that philosophy needs to be more embodied, and that rationality needs to be balanced by heart wisdom.
It can be very difficult to get to know your students personally, especially in the part-time, adjunct teaching circuit. There’s barely enough time to cover the material in the curriculum, let alone to have a real relationship with the students.
Well, the insight I had turned that right around, because the voice in my head told me in no uncertain terms—you have it completely upside down. We think that we are too busy working on the curriculum to get to know our students, but the whole point of our vocation should be to get to know our students, and the so-called subject-matter is really just a tool to do that.
Teaching is all about relationship, which in turn, needs to be the new focus of social and economic development. As we move into a post-consumerist, post-growth economic era, the leading lights are telling us that we need to replace a society based on the consumption and acquisition of things to a society based on the cultivation of relationships.
This pedagogical insight I had last year signals another shift in my philosophical disposition away from Aristotle and towards Plato.
I consider myself an old-timer in my Socratic perspective that teaching philosophy is a form of spiritual midwifery, the original psycho-therapy, the turning of the soul, versus the imprinting of beliefs and information and technical-conceptual competence, which we call literacy. Logic, reading and writing, argument and justification—all these things play a role in my teaching and curriculum, but I feel that they need to be balanced by attention to emotions, to other forms of thought, and intelligence, and with engagement with the chaotic proliferation of digitally-mediated forms of thinking and reading that are exploding on the scene.
I hear colleagues complaining from time to time about how students cannot write a single coherent sentence, or cannot follow basic logical inferences, or do not have the discipline to read, or that they watch passively their professor in class as if she were a television or an iPad.
I used to share these grievances, but not anymore.
Actually, I’ve never been happier with my students; not per se their literacy but their true openness to the challenge and opportunity that loving wisdom—self-knowledge—as a highest goal offers life.
In an age of information anxiety, digital retribalizing and rampant technological addiction, many are concerned that, as Marshall McLuhan predicted, the values and cognitive habits of literate culture would take a back seat to the electrical extension of the human nervous system.
While basic literacy is of course an essential component of educational training, and the overwhelming focus of much of education from kindergarten through high school and college, the psychological process of enlightenment requires more training than mere literacy. In fact, I have come to believe that the road blocks to philosophy understood in the classical sense, is not significantly helped by more training in literacy, to the contrary.
In my experience, students are suffering from a general numbness of their mind-soul-body, and a skepticism about wisdom caused by exposure to an infinity of perspectives and informations and beliefs now not only available, but compulsively consumed by them almost every waking hour of their young lives. With monkey minds already racing and exhausted and filled with judgment and fear, the last thing they need is more material to memorize, or more theories to digest.
They need an opportunity for their mind can rest and feel safe and where they can learn to slow down their thinking and to get in touch with the many questions in their souls which our educational culture’s obsession with achievement and success has quite effectively suppressed. I would concur with Wittgenstein’s quip that “In the race of philosophers, the winner is the one who comes in last.”
They need a place where they can feel safe to open up to the uncertainty in their minds, and they need to feel confidence that there is some way out, that real clarity exists, and that the unexamined life really isn’t worth living. And Socrates was right about that: this is the single most difficult idea for people to grasp.
As I discovered in graduate school, phenomenology can paradoxically get mired in abstraction, and the high road to Reality can end up being the ultimate obstruction to accessing Reality, and to living realistically. Hypertrophication of the left-brain, linear-sequential style of cognition is an occupational hazard for rationalists and, if you accept Buddhist philosophy, a primary scourge of human existence.
The simple educational antidote is to offer students opportunities for new perceptual and cognitive experiences through different kinds of meditation.
For example, the Blindness Project I assign asks the student to blindfold herself for four to eight hours and to follow a series of instructions. Defamiliarizing the student to her most ordinary reality is not only wildly entertaining, usually involving learning partnerships, great stories and memories but gives the student more real insights into perception, cognition, epistemology, philosophy of mind, etc. than reading 500 pages of Husserl or Heidegger.
I know from experience that the papers and projects which are inspired by this exercise, are far more interesting, far more philosophical and personal and concrete and relevant, than papers and projects based merely on reading and talking.
For the Technology Abstinence Meditation Project, students are asked:
Choose a technology/medium, or a combination thereof, that you use, on a daily basis and that is important to you. Do without the use of that medium for a period of 100 hours (approx. four days). Some examples of media: email, cellphone, Facebook, instant messenger, video games, television, cars, clothing, typography, spoken language, digital screens, shoes, i-Pods and stereos, refrigerator, as well as mood-enhancement technologies such as caffeine, salt, alcohol, etc.
The results are always fantastic, and the dramatic experiences the students have with being able to experiment with their perceptions—with their life—in this way makes very real the theoretical discussions we end up having about such topics as the history of technology, orality and literacy, freedom and addiction, concepts of progress, truth and happiness.
The most complex theoretical and hermeneutical issues are brought alive and made accessible by having a connection to the ways a student thinks and feels about the texture and questionability of her everyday emotional landscape of fear and hope, meaning and effort.
Meditation generally has become a core part and principle of my teaching. Interestingly, this is something that my students initiated and also taught me the virtues of. After I kept mentioning the benefits and potential of meditation in one of my classes last year, the students practically begged me to teach them to meditate.
Afterwards, they encouraged me to make it a regular part of the classroom experience of philosophy.
Consequently, in addition to the experimental projects, more traditional sitting meditation has become one of my favorite, and most effective teaching tools. Once or twice a week, my students practice a 20-30 minunte Vipassana meditation—a powerful, simple, free, practical antidote to addiction, distraction, ADD, depression, anxiety, etc.
In my experience, students tell me that the meditation practice is the singularly most useful and important thing they get from the class. In addition, meditating at the beginning of each class relaxes the students (and myself) allowing us to be especially open and receptive to critical inquiry, to emotions, to cognitive uncertainty, and able to handle more gracefully the interpersonal angst that frank unknowingness can entail. And it allows me to nuance and dial in the content and emotional mood of the class. In other words, it dramatically improves the depth, quality, honesty, peacefulness, relevance and fun, of the subsequent dialogue.
What I did not originally intend but am delighted and surprised by, is that the mere introduction of meditation into the class room – as a method for focus—has ended up subtly changing what the whole purpose of the class is—that is, what the learning objectives are. Krishnamurti, the great Indian sage and one-time prophet of Theosophy, is credited with the saying that “The highest form of intelligence is to be able to observe oneself without judgment.”
I like this way of looking at intelligence—not all cognitive abilities of course but one form that can be nurtured within a philosophy class. I like it and have incorporated it into my restructuring of what I take to be the learning objectives of a philosophy course. So instead of thinking of this goal as “critical thinking,” my new view of learning objectives in my introductory level philosophy class is the following:
Non-violent Communication Skills
Critical Feeling Skills
Whole Systems Thinking
On the issue of evaluation, my years of teaching experience have led me to the conclusion that, with few exceptions, grades are a curse on philosophy. Every time—which is all the time—I am asked by a student, What do I have to do to get a good grade for your class?
I feel sadness and compassion for this young mind who has already been so deeply indoctrinated by her schooling, that she has almost no interest in actually learning anything. And of course the student who is asking this is ironically the one who is considered the best student, the A Student.
Believing themselves to be free thinkers, A students compete to see who can be more conformist, more disciplined in their unquestioned adherence to conventional prejudice. Even worse, that attitude of working for the grade teaches subliminally that learning for its own sake has no inherent value, but is something done in order to achieve an external reward, the grade, essentially ego gratification.
And if the student gets a good grade, she feels pride and considers herself to be smarter than the others, which is no doubt untrue and egocentric, and if she gets a bad grade, the same is true.
Hardly anyone I think would deny that the grading system in fact does teach competition. Kant said that pride can make you want to study harder, which is surely true, but the side-effect of ego inflation I think tends to undermine or reverse the gain.
One of the most difficult skills to teach, and a primary competence I wish to teach them, is the ability to have a civil, and ultimately loving conversation with someone with whom they perhaps disagree—to be open and even grateful for being proved wrong, to be open to having their own understanding of themselves challenged by someone whom you are feeling attacked by.
Well, none of this is helped by a competitive grading system, to the contrary.
I have estimated that just the concern for the grade itself wastes upwards of fifty percent of the student’s attention – that is, their mindfulness or mental energy available for engagement in learning—during the semester. Given how many energy-attention leaks the students are suffering from, this is a questionable, even harmful practice that is unwarranted by the needs of learning.
If you now reclaim that 50 percent of the wasted energy and bring that into the learning process, think of all the attention you have to play with. That’s my thinking anyway, and the results I’ve seen in the classroom seem to confirm it.
Standards-based, results-based teaching may make sense if you are studying bridge engineering, where there clearly it is very important to get the calculations correct, and there are objective conditions to be understood and grasped. But in the pursuit of self-knowledge, there is no path that could ever be standardized, and it is an unhelpful constraint to impose on the process of self-discovery.
While the teacher can set the context of safety and stimulation, substantive dialogue and genuinely helpful experimentation with perception and cognition, he should not impose any rigid expectations about what the student should be able to do or think or believe by the end of the semester.
Students are not machines.
Many teachers would agree in principle to this statement, but their teaching methods show that they actually measure their effectiveness in Tayloresque, mechanistic terms, teaching towards objectified, standardized outcomes.
But if the student doesn’t have the fear of receiving a bad grade, or the ambition to win a good grade, won’t she just blow off the class? Not in my experience. Sometimes I do have a student who drops through the cracks. But for the most part, students feel deeply liberated when they realize that fear does not have to play any role whatsoever in learning. It really tells a lot how surprised students are when they realize that the education they (or their parents) are investing all this time and money into is actually for them.
You mean, they ask, that this process is really for me? About me? That it is all about making me happy? What a radical idea! This alone can help to shift their whole understanding of what the purpose or meaning of their education is all about.
This is a pedagogical miracle when it happens, and there’s no reason it can’t happen every class.
As a practice in self- and group-therapy and mental training via mindfulness practice, I grade students the way that patients of therapy or students of meditation ought to be graded. They should be graded by the willingness to engage in the practice, not about what actually happens. If you graded meditation according to immediate result, it would be probably impossible for anyone to pass any time during the first ten thousand hours of training.photo: flickr/Ryan Oelke
The beauty about meditation is that it is not results-oriented, and it is a critical error to perceive it so. Mindfulness training—practicing the ability to keep your mind focused and engaged with what is actually present and real – is not the practice of being enlightened, but rather the practice of willing to remain present. Of course, the student cannot remain present, but she can try to remain present, and the effort is all I can grade. This holds true for every other exercise towards self-knowledge. I cannot look into their souls and determine how fast or slow their progress should or could be, or what form it will take. To invoke the Tao again, The straight path appears to be crooked.
Believing that the human mind is it’s own best teacher, I’ve tended to see my role as not training the mind of the student, but of firing off shot-gun spreads of ideas and provocations, randomly pushing and pulling buttons in the student’s psyche until the mind of the student somehow turns on and starts its own natural process of questioning.
The way I’ve looked at it is that if this process isn’t naturally happening, then something’s gotten stuck, and my role is help remove whatever obstruction there is which is impeding what should be automatic. Yes, I believe each student is a repressed genius, crippled by bad cognitive programming and mountains of guilt, insecurity and fear and narcissism, but genuinely hungry for truth in their soul.
Now, while I used to strike a solidly humanist-agnostic stand regarding the metaphysical basis of education, I now believe and practice philosophy as irreducibly spiritual in nature—by which I mean that the awakening of consciousness or awareness is the essence of philosophy and of life generally.
The fact that students—I would say people in general—are almost always embarrassed or hesitant to discuss their spiritual beliefs and feelings is indicative of the way in which our educational culture has adopted a dogmatic humanist-materialist metaphysical perspective on the human life.
Spirituality is default considered at best a personal issue having little to do with the health of a learning community, and at worst, a childish, pre-rational, and politically-pernicious occupation which a mature mind leaves behind as an outdated relic of human culture. But even agnosticism about the spiritual content of education is not a neutral position.
Given our culture, it perpetuates unhelpful and simplistic ideas about human beings, the natural world and ultimately everything from cosmology to ethics which rides on your expectations about such momentous issues as what happens to the self after death, or whether the human soul is materialistic or immaterial.
This issue I think gets confused with the separate issue regarding the separation of education and religion. A professor, I know got into trouble once with some administrators for teaching meditation in a class because it was seen as a violation of separation of church and state.
From my perspective, that such a confusion (of spirituality and religion) can so easily happen shows how much debate about standard college curricula could use some Spiritual Literacy 101.
As a consequence, concepts which belong to the most basic spiritual literacy make up the metaphysical underpinnings of my pedagogy, such concepts as the Transpersonal Self and the pervasive wisdom orientation of towards the soul which Aldous Huxley termed perennial wisdom. In any case, my experience has been that students are delighted and surprised that they can take spiritual matters seriously.
Only a couple of years back, when I still believed I had to conceal what I really felt and believed about teaching, I was feeling burdened and frustrated by the teaching experience and even of the value of philosophy itself.
Now, due to my greater clarity of purpose, response from students, and support from administrators trying to find better ways to connect with students, I am more confident in the value of my evolving approach.
My own evidence that the sensibilities expressed above are at least moving in the right direction as a pedagogy?
I have never been happier with my students. They are giving me the best, most interesting-to-read or hear, projects I’ve ever received. I know my classes are very popular at the colleges I teach at. I believe that I offer a place that, for the students who experience it, is the one of most safe, nurturing, stimulating and personally helpful educational experiences of their college adventure.
I think above all, they come out of my classes feeling hope in something which they had almost already given up on: namely, that life more meaningful than their education generally has allowed them to access or appreciate.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise