See teaching materials here.
More than anything else, my approach to teaching reflects an ongoing commitment to communicate the relevance of abstract philosophy to life in the real world. This shows up in my theoretically-oriented classes, where I strive to find connections between philosophy and cultural controversies, and in applied classes, where I take every opportunity to be a salesman for philosophic theory.
As an example of the first half of this commitment, let me describe a course I developed first for Loyola, an intermediate-level course for non-majors called Philosophy of Knowledge. The epistemologist has a set of standard theoretical topics to teach in introductory epistemology courses, but I decided that these would not meet the needs of my students. Instead I decided to feature a mix of issues in epistemology, the philosophy of science, and the philosophy of religion unified by a running case study: the controversy between Galileo and the Catholic Church. The example is effective in dramatizing the origin of early modern epistemology in the scientific revolution and in illustrating the relevance of various theoretical questions to the ongoing controversy over cultural relativism. In the latest version of my Introduction to Philosophy class (Philosophy of the Human Person), I also begin the semester by showing students how contemporary cultural and political controversies (e.g. abortion and inequality) often turn on disagreements about ethics, epistemology, and even metaphysics. In the remaining semester, we then dig deeper and deeper into these branches, starting with ethics and ending with metaphysics.
I could say more about how I have pursued the same strategy in other courses, but for now I invite you to examine my syllabi for Introduction to Philosophy, History of Modern Philosophy, and Free Will and Determinism courses, all of which manifest a similar approach. On the flip side, I’ve also made an effort to draw attention to theoretical questions in “applied” courses such as Practical Logic and most recently in my ethics courses, Making Moral Decisions, and Ethics and Social Justice (which I teach to students in Loyola’s nursing doctoral program).
Many philosophers enjoy the challenge of motivating students to rethink parochial opinions they have absorbed while growing up. I do sympathize. Oddly, however, students in many colleges are especially uncritical in their acceptance of a crude form of relativism, to the point where it is the new parochial conventionalism. A second hallmark of my teaching, as it happens, is an increasing insistence on encouraging students to overcome this complacency, to see how philosophy is a serious discipline that offers not only interesting questions but sometimes, at least, the prospect of answers.
Students who think that philosophy is nothing but a succession of exploded theories will never be convinced that our field has anything relevant to say to the world. They will agree with politicians who say we need more welders and fewer philosophers. Of course it is true that philosophic consensus is often fleeting. But in my courses I try to emphasize what progress philosophers have made, if only in their refinement of philosophic questions. I stress what makes philosophers think that it is at least possible in principle to answer their questions. I stress analogies between our field and the sciences (without reducing the former to the latter). I emphasize this particularly in my ethics class, Making Moral Decisions. I begin this class not by discussing ethical theory or controversies but paradigm cases of moral virtues and vices that most people agree about, with the aim of collecting data by reference to which ethical theories can then be tested before controversies are discussed.
The above is my teaching strategy. Now for a quick word on tactics. I devote significant time to finding ways to present philosophy in an inviting way. I use a wide array of technology to make course material accessible and to facilitate my interaction with students both in and out of the classroom. This includes the use of Powerpoint presentations, iClickers, online discussion groups, AdobeConnect recordings of lectures and slide presentations, and regular Excel-facilitated grade reports during the course of the semester that let students know their current average. I use Doodle surveys to encourage students to meet to discuss paper drafts before their deadline. This past fall I convinced over 60% of my students to show me drafts or outlines. In the classroom, students complement me on my engaging lecture style and interactive classroom presence. Some say I am funny.
I have some evidence of the modest success of my approach. My average rating as an instructor from student course evaluations since the fall of 2010 is about 4.05 out of 5. I don’t necessarily put stock in student ratings, but I do find it interesting that these ratings have held in spite of the fact that I give out very few “A” grades. Typically about one tenth of my students in a given semester are taking a second classes from me (Fall 2014: 12/100; Spring 2015: 12/100; Fall 2015: 6/60; Spring 2016: 7/59; this semester it is low because I am teaching a lot of freshman). I find that the more I communicate my expectations to students (especially by sending regular grade reports), the better students get at seeing how they get the grade they earn.
If I only loved thinking about philosophy, I would simply pursue it as a hobby. So it’s mainly because I also enjoy selling people on the relevance of the field that I want to pursue philosophy professionally. Pursuing it professionally, for me, means using all of the tools and techniques at my disposal to open channels of communication between me and my students. I hope you get the chance to see me do it in person.
Download my philosophy of teaching as a PDF.
- Teaching Evaluations
- Sample student student evaluation written comments
- Complete student evaluation comments from recent classes, Spring 2012-Spring 2016 (PDF)
- The following are the complete, unfiltered written comments from students in all sections of all of my classes between Spring 2012 and Spring 2016. In the interests of objectivity, I have included comments on both my strengths and my weaknesses.
- Recent teaching evaluation scores
- Loyola University New Orleans (PDF)
- Summary of scores, Fall 2010-Spring 2016. Raw data available here.
- Colorado College (PDF)
- Summary of Scores, Fall 2008-Fall 2009
- (Earlier teaching evaluation scores from Loyola University Chicago and the University of Illinois, and copies of student surveys available on request.)
- Past syllabi
- Loyola University New Orleans syllabi
- Philosophy of the Human Person (formerly Introduction to Philosophy) (Fall 2016) (PDF)
- My updated introductory philosophy course begins the semester by showing students how contemporary cultural and political controversies (e.g. abortion and inequality) often turn on disagreements about ethics, epistemology, and even metaphysics. In the remaining semester, we then dig deeper and deeper into these branches, starting with ethics and ending with metaphysics.
- Free Will and Determinism (Fall 2016) (PDF)
- This is the second of the intermediate course for non-majors I developed for Loyola. Though the question of the freedom of the will often motivates itself with students, to maximize the impact of the course I've made it a historical survey. I begin with the ancient Greeks, working through early and Reformation Christianity, the scientific revolution, and culminate with twentieth century debates. I emphasize the role that differences in philosophical world view make in philosophers' analysis of the problem of freedom.
- Philosophy of Knowledge (Fall 2015) (PDF)
- I developed this course as an intermediate-level course for non- majors. To give it the broadest possible appeal, I used the example of the conflict between Galileo and the Catholic church to illustrate a variety of topics in epistemology, philosophy of science, and philosophy of religion. (Here I include the full syllabus, including administrative policies, while subsequent syllabi are abbreviated.)
- Epistemology (Fall 2013) (PDF)
- This is an upper-level class for majors that covers standard topics in twentieth century analytic epistemology: skepticism, the analysis of knowledge, foundationalism vs. anti-foundationalism, internalism vs. externalism, and debates about naturalized epistemology. One addition of interest here is the inclusion of several of my own published papers on these topics. I treat this as something of an "advocacy" course. I find that at least on this topic, students appreciate the fact that they see that I am actively involved in debates over the fairly abstract topics they are learning about.
- Free Will in Action and Thought (Fall 2014) (PDF)
- This is an upper-level course for majors I developed as a kind of sequel to my intermediate non-majors course. The course surveys 20th century analytic perspectives on free will vs. determinism. It examines in-depth the debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists, and ends with an examination of how the traditional debate about freedom of action develops when it is applied to questions about what freedom we have in the formation of our beliefs.
- Introduction to Analytic Philosophy (Spring 2011) (PDF)
- This is a version of a course originally developed at Colorado College. It surveys the history of analytic philosophy by first contrasting the Anglo-American from the continental approach, describing the origins of the analytic approach on the continent, and then examining major movements (early analysis, logical positivism, ordinary language, naturalism, and the new metaphysics).
- Practical Logic (Spring 2015) (PDF)
- This is a version of a course I've been teaching since I was at the University of Illinois, and for which I have authored my own introductory textbook. It features an in-depth examination of informal fallacies, categorized according to the positive principles of reasoning they violate.
- Ethics and Social Justice (Summer 2015) (PDF)
- I developed this course for the first time in the Summer of 2014 as an online course for students in Loyola's nursing doctoral program. It surveys major theories of justice using Michael Sandel's book on the topic, but invites students to apply these theories systematically to a variety of controversies in biomedical ethics.
- Making Moral Decisions (Spring 2016) (PDF)
- MMD fulfills the requirement non-majors have at Loyola for an intermediate-level philosophy course. I decided that the course would begin with a discussion of moral paradigm cases—murder, slavery, honesty and generosity—the evaluation of which is uncontroversial. I then used these cases as a kind of data by which to test four classical ethical theories. We would then apply these theories to contemporary controversies (abortion, war and peace, hunger and social responsibility, the environment). My overall aim is to indicate to students how controversies might be settled by appealing to analogies to the uncontroversial.
- Philosophical Themes in Ayn Rand (Spring 2016) (PDF)
- This is a unique course I developed that aims to explore the ideas of a controversial but influential figure, in a way that explores major questions in metaphysics, epistemology, moral psychology, and ethics raised in an engrossing work of fiction.
- Colorado College syllabi
- Philosophy of Language (Fall 2009) (PDF)
- Rather than teaching philosophy of language as synonymous with the history of analytic thought, I decided to offer students a survey of the field from the perspective of both analytic and continental traditions. I focused on the question of whether language is primarily a tool for social interaction, or a means of individual cognition.
- History of Modern Philosophy (Spring 2009) (PDF)
- In this intensive two-block course, I examined major early and late modern figures' approaches to theory of knowledge and the implications of their views in ethics and politics. Figures studied included Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.
- Philosophical Argumentation and Writing (Spring 2009) (PDF)
- For this course, I was challenged to combine elements of introductory logic with the analysis of philosophical problems. I decided to illustrate important methods of inference and analysis by having students read important texts in which philosophers utilize these methods. Students were given a multi-step writing project on the relationship between religious belief and morality.
- Formal Logic (Fall 2009) (PDF)
- I originally developed this course at Loyola of Chicago. It features all of the essentials of categorical logic, modern sentential and predicate logic, and a brief introduction to modern term logic. Students wrote homework online (multiple choice, translations, and proofs) using the Hurley iLrn Logic software suite.
- Environmental Ethics (Fall 2008) (PDF)
- This course was conceived as an introduction to ethical theory for students already interested in environmental issues. It began by examining evolving Western views of nature in literature and popular culture, to show that intuitions about nature are culturally idiosyncratic and in need of guidance by ethical theory. I surveyed standard ethical theories and those developed by environmental ethicists to deal with its special problems.
- Epistemology (Fall 2008) (PDF)
- This course has been superseded by my Fall 2013 Epistemology and my Spring 2012 Theory of Knowledge courses, which split the historical and contemporary components of the earlier course into two separate courses . Two thirds of the course examined major early modern figures, while the last third examined 20th century analytic epistemologists. I emphasized how contemporary views of justification were foreshadowed by developments in the early modern period.
- Sample PowerPoint Lecture Slides
- Philosophy of the Human Person, on the metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics of one side of the abortion controversy (PDF)
- Making Moral Decisions, on comparing scientific and moral controversies (PDF)
- Making Moral Decisions, analysis of an argument against abortion (PDF)
- Free Will and Determinism, on Pelagius vs. St. Augustine (PDF)
- Philosophy of Knowledge, on Galileo's theory of knowledge (PDF)
- Free Will in Action and Thought, on Strawson on the reactive attitudes (PDF)
- Epistemology, on Moore's common sense response to skepticism (PDF)
Download a condensed version of the highlights from this portfolio PDF.
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