Teaching

See the pages listed to the right for information on my teaching in various venues.


Philosophy

I am first and foremost a teacher. I am dedicated to helping students ask critical questions about their beliefs and their existence because the unexamined life really is not worth living. It is deeply fulfilling to be a resource for students as they attempt to find their own answers to the central questions in ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics and the religious issues raised by the need to come to a degree of understanding (theology and the philosophy of religion).  The flicker in a student’s eyes when concepts become clear and when they begin to incorporate ideas in new and exciting ways is one of the most stirring things anyone can be witness to. I believe that education is a truly noble calling, and it is one that I am happy to have received. My perspective on teaching has been formed and refined by my experiences with students in a broad variety of learning venues over the years. From each of these experiences I have realized an important aspect of what it means to be an effective teacher.

Guidance

My first teaching experience was as a track and field coach. From my time working with athletes from pre-school (1996-1997) to high school (1999) and beyond (2000-2001), I have learned that to be a teacher is to be a guide. Just as no two athletes bring the exact same skills to their sport, all students bring different strengths, levels of pre-existing knowledge and interest in the subject, and native intelligences. Successful teaching is measured not so much by an objective criterion but by leading students to be their very best. This means giving individualized attention to each student as needed and finding often creative ways to spark the interest that leads to and fuels greater understanding over time. All learning begins with what a student already knows. Just as a good coach starts with basics and only later adds complex techniques, I have learned to recognize what my students bring to our class work and what they are interested in and to build from there, gradually broadening each student’s horizons of understanding to best match the learning objectives of the course in question. Since learning is a process it is critical that successes be celebrated wherever they appear. For some students this means confirming their suspicions that they are bright and “getting it.” For others, this means being engaged enough to notice the small improvements, for example, in-class participation, clarity of written work, or the profundity of their questions. I have always found that students flourish under positive reinforcement and I strive to offer detailed feedback tailored to each student’s needs, either in writing or orally during or outside of class time.

Exposure

Given the realities of early 21st century life, many, if not most, students in humanities courses are not majors in the field, nor even in any other area in the humanities. Often students come to courses in philosophy and religious studies looking to meet general education requirements for their programs and as such they have limited previous exposure to, or interest in, the subject matter. My first formal academic teaching position illustrated this reality well as I taught “20th Century Humanities” to non-traditional, business students at Thomas College (2002). These students, most of whom where close to my parents’ ages, were skeptical at first about the value of a course in art, literature, and music. They wondered, sometimes aloud in class, how this would help them in their careers as businesspeople. In response I decided to make plain my passion for the subject by letting my excitement for the material show in my lectures and in our interactions outside of class. Beyond expressions of exuberance, I tried to simply model what it is to be a “humanist.” I have found, and no more so than in this early course, that much of the most important “teaching” happens through modeling what it is to be a critical thinker, by questioning assumptions and asking for evidence to back up observations, and offering explanations that meet those standards in return. Above all, I have found that simply sharing what you have learned and the culture of learning that you inhabit gives students the exposure necessary to broaden and challenge their perspectives, helping to make them truly educated rather than merely “trained” in their major field of study. If all goes well, this exposure to the beautiful life of the mind and the great thinkers and texts that have formed western civilization for thousands of years can instill a life-long love of learning and foster an unquenchable curiosity that will serve all students well regardless of their future career paths.

Development

During my several teaching positions at Boston University (2004-2009) I have learned that in addition to the specific content of a course, work in philosophy fosters the development of critical thinking and communication skills that are essential to the success of any student regardless of their intended career path. While college students arrive with strong skills in reading and writing the discipline required to comprehend as well as to insightfully and creatively engage with the great philosophers, religious thinkers, and their texts provides an excellent opportunity to refine these abilities. Specifically, I have found it very helpful to utilize a combination of approaches to a difficult text. Typically, I like to provide an overview in lecture form to present the basic terrain covered by a text followed by a more dialogical shared close reading of particularly important passages in class. I find that by highlighting the turns in an argument in this way and providing opportunities for questions about the particularly obscure passages students begin to formulate a better, and more realistic, sense of what it takes to evaluate a complex text. By modeling attentive reading for both the big picture and how the individual parts of an argument flow together that students begin to internalize this approach and thus get far more out of their reading. Likewise, I like to assign written work that both gives students a chance to demonstrate broad understanding (e.g., via a review of a particular text) and to engage with particularly interesting or challenging details in an argument (e.g., a critical reflection paper on a select passage from a text). In addition to providing detailed feedback on the content of student papers (i.e., the degree to which they have understood their topic and source material) I also evaluate written work in terms of the clarity and soundness of their arguments as well as the quality of their writing (i.e., grammar, spelling, style, formatting).

Cultivation

Overall, education is a process of cultivation. Students need to be guided into unfamiliar material and encouraged as the make their way into an unknown world. They need to be given opportunities to meet the great thinkers and their arguments. And they need to be encouraged and given the tools to refine their abilities to think critically about their assumptions and to evaluate the arguments of others. Teaching theology and philosophy is, above all, about cultivating a critical self-consciousness that allows a student to place themselves in relation to the traditions that still inform us today. This requires of course developing a familiarity with the classic figures and their ideas – Thales, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Origen, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Husserl, Tillich, etc. Equally important however is the development of a curious and critical eye toward these canonical figures driven always by the love, and not necessarily the attainment, of wisdom.

Teaching References

Dr. Garth W. Green, McGill University

Dr. John H. Berthrong, Boston University School of Theology

Dr. Kirk Wegter-McNelly, Boston University School of Theology

Rev. Sudie Blanchard, Deacon, St. George’s Episcopal Church, York Harbor, Maine