Statement of Teaching Philosophy

          There is little doubt that the nature of philosophy as a discipline has shaped the manner in which I approach the task of teaching.  As I have experienced it, compelling philosophy is replete with complexity, nuance, tentative conclusions, a continual openness to persuasive argument, and a willingness to submit to whatever the truth happens to be.  While there are certainly notable counterexamples to these attitudes, philosophy, in its best expressions, does not lend itself to allegedly definitive “once and for all times” pronouncements regarding the way things are.  Philosophical expertise is thus largely a matter of having expended a significant amount of time and effort thinking about various problems and having reflected deeply on the work of those thinkers whose work stands at the center of our curriculum.  It is hardly a matter of having all the answers or amassing a large amount of knowledge in the way that such expertise is manifested in some other professions or academic disciplines.

          Though there are no doubt more, I have seen at least two prominent ways in which these aspects of the philosophical enterprise impact my pedagogical approach.  First, they mean that students are bound to see through any pretense on the part of the teacher that he or she is the truly knowledgeable one in the room, confidently dispensing wisdom to those who need it.  This is especially true when the students are of as high a caliber as I have encountered at the University of Virginia.  Here it is rare that an instructor is able to fake one’s way through a class and pretend to be something that he or she is not, namely, the one with answers to all of philosophy’s problems.  Rather than try to resist such a predicament, I have tried to embrace it in my time as a graduate student, both when serving as a teaching assistant and in those courses for which I have been the primary instructor.  I attempt to remain honest about the limits of my own understanding, openly acknowledging that many of the readings and questions at the center of our study are difficult and perplexing, even to me.  My hope in adopting this attitude is that students will more readily embrace the process of wrestling with the material themselves and will benefit simply from making such an attempt, even if full comprehension does not ultimately result.     

          Second, and relatedly, my experience with philosophy has yielded the goal of challenging and encouraging students to think critically and analytically rather than primarily seeking the mastery of a particular body of facts.  To be sure, some knowledge is indispensable to this process.  One cannot, for example, think very critically or analytically about David Hume’s writings on morality if one has no idea what Hume said about morality.  But getting a firm grasp of Hume is only a preliminary first step, one that, in a sense, fades into the background once the inquiry truly gets off the ground. 
As I see it, it is far more important, that one be able to articulate the reasons why Hume might have believed what he believed, what problems there might be with his views, and what courses of action might be available to correct those problems.  Opening up this way of dealing with philosophical ideas seems the foremost task of anyone who endeavors to teach philosophy and it is a goal that I attempt to achieve in all of my interactions with students.

          None of this is to say that my own views or experience with philosophical problems are, or should be, entirely absent from the classroom.  An indispensable part of achieving the goals stated above is for me, as one who has engaged philosophical material over time, to give the uninitiated some sense of how I understand the issues involved in that material.  But doing so does not make me an expert.  At most, it makes me a qualified tour guide for those who ultimately need to find their own way.