As this semester winds down to its inevitable, slow, painful end, it’s time to reflect just a little on what went right and what went wrong with my teaching. I taught three classes: Philosophical Issues in Literature, Core Philosophy (Honors), and Political Philosophy. These three constituted three ‘new’ preparations for me: I last taught Core Philosophy (not at Brooklyn College) some fifteen years ago, and Social Philosophy (the second of our pair of Social and Political Philosophy classes) some eight years ago (and besides, this semester’s syllabus was drastically reworked to reflect my focus on revolutions).
My grade for this semester, I think, was a solid B. I did some things right: I devised an interestingly unconventional syllabus for Political Philosophy and picked a reasonably diverse and provocative set of readings for Philosophical Issues in Literature; I managed to spark some reasonably robust discussion in all three classes on many occasions; my reading assignments were reasonably sized; I asked questions and encouraged students to ask them as well; I provided good introductions to many central philosophical issues in both my core classes and often managed to pique interest in those areas; I often provided detailed exegeses of difficult passages and made some interesting connections with other philosophical debates. Among other things. (Says he, flatteringly.)
I got some things wrong as well: my syllabus for the Core Philosophy class could have been more inspired; I failed, as I often did, to get many students roped into discussions and in some cases, gave up on some of them; I did not give very detailed or helpful written comments on papers (though in my defense, I would say I was good at meeting students one-on-one and providing detailed feedback on their papers on those occasions); I was sometimes disorganized in my discussions in Political Philosophy class; I did not pay enough attention to the written responses my students provided me for Political Philosophy (I deeply regret this because many of the responses were excellent and could have served to spark some very interesting discussions); my discussions in my Philosophy Core were a little rushed at times; and so on.
I have now taught, on and off, for over twenty years, ten of those as a full-time faculty member. My challenges remain the same: devising syllabi that are not tedious for the students and myself; sparking robust discussion in class; coming up with an evaluation scheme that is fair and pedagogically sound; helping students with their writing; explaining difficult arguments clearly; finding ways to represent philosophical positions in a way that is fair and not superficial. I have yet to master any of these, and every semester finds a way to either remind me of my inadequacies or induce a step backwards in a domain where I thought progress had been made.
My students continue to delight, confound, perplex, and edify. They raise me up, they bring me down. I sense I am a small part in their lives, but for fourteen weeks, twice a year, they are a very big deal in mine. I will see some of them again in other classes. Others will graduate, yet others will avoid me like the plague. Some will ask me for recommendation letters, others will advise their friends to give me a pass. Our encounter, for now, is over. I can testify to the traces they have left; their lives will testify to whether I was able to make any sort of impression at all.
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