Issues in Philosophy Teach Graduate Students How To Teach

Teach Graduate Students How To Teach

by Jessey Wright and Melissa Jacquart

There are two important aspects to professional academic work: academic research and course instruction. In a graduate program, coursework supports the transfer of knowledge and development of philosophical ideas. Supervisors and mentors guide their graduate students in their first publications and teach them the norms of academic research and conference participation. Teacher training, on the other hand, is a different story.

Most doctoral programs don’t provide explicit and structured training on how to instruct or design courses. And yet, most of the academic jobs that these graduate students will   find themselves in will require them to design and teach courses, and many job committees will not consider candidates who lack relevant teaching experience. This tension between the training provided to graduate students and the practical demands of academic jobs exemplifies the state of teacher training in philosophy. This certainly isn’t a new revelation, as it is a topic that has been appearing in recent blogs (DailyNous, “Never Trained to Teach”; DailyNous, “Preparing Teaching Assistants”; Philosopher’s Cocoon, “Improving Competitiveness for Teaching Jobs”; APA Blog, “How Teaching Should Matter), and a number of publications in teaching-oriented journals (such as the articles in the 2016 Volume 1 of Teaching Philosophy, Ch 1 of Philosophy Through Teaching, and elsewhere). The shared view is that the state of teacher training in graduate programs throughout the discipline is, to be blunt, abysmal.

We, and other commenters (DailyNous, “Should Philosophers Train Graduate Students in How to Teach), feel that the most complete solution to this situation is to institute explicit training in teaching and pedagogy as part of all graduate programs. To this end, we designed a graduate seminar and have presented it in a ‘ready to roll’ format, aiming to make teaching such a seminar as accessible as possible, and present it in a way that provides a bird’s eye introduction to central topics in teaching and learning. The fruits of this project have recently been published by Teaching Philosophy.

It’s one thing to recognize this problem, and decide that offering a seminar is an effective step towards as a solution for your program. It can be another thing to get the rest of your department on side. So, to help, we’ve identified 7 reasons for including, and even requiring, a course like the one we provide in the above-linked paper, in your graduate program:

  1.  Outputs for Graduate Students: Training in teaching and pedagogy is practically useful for graduate students as they enter into the job market. One of the practical outcomes of this course is developing the core elements of a teaching portfolio, including a sample syllabus, teaching philosophy statement, and diversity statement.
  2.  Outputs for the Department: It is very probable that improving teaching effectiveness throughout the discipline, a consequence of more effective teacher training, may help address issues of low enrollment in philosophy courses, as well as “pipeline” problems (discussed here, here and here). Part of what we have done in our proposed course is highlight how philosophy instructors can make their course more inclusive, and in turn improve enrollment and diversity in the undergraduate philosophy classes.
  3.  Early Adopter Advantage: It sets your graduate program apart. At a time (right now!) when the problem has been recognized, and solutions such as our proposed seminar are slowly emerging and even more slowly gaining traction, establishing explicit and directed training can set your graduate program apart. This makes it more appealing to prospective students, and could even benefit your graduate students on the job market as your program becomes widely recognized as producing not only stellar researchers, but excellent instructors.
  4.  Available Resources are (very likely) Insufficient: Many universities have Teaching Support Centers that offer courses and seminars on teaching and pedagogy. While these classes can be a source of foundational knowledge, they are structured to be applicable and accessible to persons in any discipline. Thus, even motivated graduate students in philosophy who seek out training will not be fully equipped to handle the idiosyncrasies unique to teaching in the discipline of philosophy. Informal training through positions as teaching assistants, and mentorship from faculty who are teaching the course graduate students are a TA for, are great – but informal training lacks the rigor and focus of formal training. Additionally, the skills and capacities required to plan, prepare for, and facilitate a tutorial combined with those required to effectively and efficiently grade student assignments do not cover all of the skills necessary to teach a course. Finally, while some graduate students are fortunate enough to teach their own classes, they would be more successful and develop better skills and habits in teaching and course design if they had the practical training beforehand. After all, we don’t (typically) throw graduate students into the ‘deep end’ when it comes to research and writing!
  5.  It’s Actually Philosophy: A graduate seminar on teaching and pedagogy doesn’t, and indeed (as we argue in the paper), perhaps shouldn’t, be treated as ‘professional training’, as the scholarship on teaching and learning provides ample space for philosophical discussions and contributions. This means that a graduate seminar on teaching and pedagogy is, in fact, just like every other graduate seminar your program offers—the only difference is that the topic is one that is rarely engaged with by philosophers (which, on reflection, may be a big part of the above noted problem!). Graduate students may find a passion for engaging philosophical questions in the domain of teaching and learning, providing more avenues for publication (Teaching Philosophy, for one!), and we believe philosophers have a lot to contribute to the broader interdisciplinary literature on teaching and learning!
  6.  Better Pedagogy Makes Better Philosophy: Some of the most noticeable improvements to our own writing practices came from a workshop we organized in graduate school. During the workshop we and our peers designed introduction to philosophy courses. How did this improve our writing? When we decided that ‘writing philosophical papers’ was a core skill we wanted our prospective undergraduate students to develop, we had to design assignments and activities with that learning outcome in mind. In the process of doing so we became more aware of our own writing process & habits and identified areas for improvement and refinement. Thinking carefully about pedagogy requires carefully reflecting on and articulating the skills and capacities one is trying to teach, which in turn can inform the further development and improvement of one’s own intellectual practices.
  7. Take Responsibility: There is some work being done at a disciplinary level to address the teacher training problem. Programs like The American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT) Seminars and Workshops on Teaching and Learning in Philosophy (while an amazing incredible resource and valuable experience for both graduate students and early career philosophers) cannot be expected to resolve a discipline-wide problem on their own. If future philosophy instructors are to be as well-trained in teaching as they are in academic research and writing, graduate programs need to care about providing that training in a meaningful way.

Melissa Jacquart is a postdoctoral researcher in the philosophy department at the University of Pennsylvania, and member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy. Her primary research interests are in philosophy of science, philosophy of astrophysics, and philosophy education.

Jessey Wright is a (soon to be) postdoctoral researcher situated in a cognitive neuroscience lab at Stanford University, and a member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy. His research interests include philosophy of teaching and pedagogy, as well as philosophy of neuroscience. His postdoctoral work will examine how innovations in data handling and analysis tools are changing the capacity of neuroscientific research to produce knowledge about the human brain.


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