Teaching Philosophy (Fall 2016)

I organize my classes around the close reading and analysis of texts in the history of philosophy, because I think students are best able to appreciate philosophy as a way of life and the nature of philosophy as an academic discipline when they understand its history. This approach is not merely antiquarian, because studying the history of philosophy also requires students to combine philosophical analysis and logical argumentation with sensitivity to the contexts in which arguments appear and a familiarity with the different ways in which they are presented. Students need these skills for other philosophy classes, for other subjects they might study, and for the careers they will pursue after graduation, so the benefits of studying the history of philosophy extend well beyond an antiquarian interest.

To help students understand what is involved in close reading and analysis, I bring copies of a short text and read it with them on the first day of class. I often use selections from Aristotle, especially the beginning of the Metaphysics, because students respond well to his claim that “all human beings by nature desire to know.” After distributing the text, I ask students to take turns reading it line by line. We pause after each sentence, asking questions about what they have just read. I encourage them to restate what they have read in their own words. Then I point out any significant differences between the text and the paraphrase. Sometimes I propose several different interpretations of what the students have read and ask them to explain why one interpretation is better than another. By the time we finish the first few lines, students recognize the power of philosophical analysis.

When they learn to read this way for themselves, I find that students are eager to talk about their reading assignments in class. I often begin discussions by feigning ignorance, asking very general questions about what is at stake in the assigned reading. Sometimes students will disagree with one another about what is important, which allows me to play the role of a moderator. I pose questions, encourage students to participate, and make sure they do not talk past one another. I also challenge them to refute claims students think are obviously true, to call attention to the difficulty of proving the things we take for granted. Then I ask them to defend particularly counter-intuitive claims, so they see why strange and unfamiliar arguments might be compelling. Not only does this help students master the subject matter of the course, it also teaches them how to propose and justify interpretations of texts, formulate arguments in support of or in opposition to the claims of their interlocutors, and disagree with one another reasonably and respectfully.

While class discussion is undoubtedly important, a philosophical education does not take place entirely within the classroom. I use two different kinds of writing assignments to help students learn independently outside the classroom. The first is a short paper, in which students are asked to identify the part of the assigned reading they think is most interesting, explain the context in which it appears, and then formulate a response. Reflection papers are due before we discuss a text in class, so they provide an incentive for students to do the assigned reading, but the real goal of these papers is to get students to distinguish between stating an opinion and responding to a philosophical claim thoughtfully and critically. The second kind of writing assignment builds on these skills. In longer and more formal research papers, I ask students to state a thesis, support their thesis with arguments and evidence from research, leading to their own conclusions. Students learn from the formal requirements of these papers, because the requirements force students to develop their own point of view and present it in a rational, comprehensible, and responsible fashion.

By integrating close reading, class discussion, and writing assignments into classes emphasizing the history of philosophy, I try to help students become better critical thinkers, develop portable skills that will be useful outside the classroom, and appreciate what philosophy has to offer, both as a way of life and as an academic discipline.
Teaching Experience (Fall 2016)

  • I have taught students from diverse backgrounds with varying levels of preparation.
  • I have taught in small liberal arts colleges, elite private universities, and large state research universities.
  • I have taught core courses for non-majors of all levels, introductory courses for majors and non-majors, upper-division courses for majors and non-majors, and seminars for senior philosophy majors.
  • I have taught courses in the history of philosophy and topical courses in applied ethics, moral theory, and aesthetics.
  • I have taught a graduate seminar in aesthetics.
  • My classes have ranged from directed studies with individual students to large lecture courses.
  • I employ a wide variety of teaching techniques, including lecture, discussion, and online learning.
  • I have considerable experience teaching writing. I have tutored students writing papers in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences; trained undergraduate writing tutors; conducted writing workshops; and taught writing intensive courses at all levels.
  • I have considerable experience teaching research skills to philosophy majors and non-majors.
  • I have considerable experience designing and conducting student learning assessments.

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  1. SUMMER 2013 | Colin McQuillan - July 21, 2013

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