Thoughts on teaching survey

I enjoyed taking the Teaching Perspectives Profile survey, though I often wasn’t too sure how to answer the questions. For example, I teach mostly “value theory” courses such as ethics, social-political philosophy, and philosophy of law. I do want students to develop a richer understanding of ethics with a sincere hope that this helps them to develop their own moral views with care, which will enable them to make positive change in their lives and society. But I do not think that I should tell them which values or beliefs they should embrace, or whether society should be changed in this way or that. That part is up to them. My job is to help them identify better from worse arguments, to help them see nuances not obvious to them before, and to challenge them to reflect on their own views. I want social change, but I have to trust my students to discover their own place in that in a way that is good for them. My scores for “Social Reform” were, then, understandably lower than the other areas even though this is something I care about deeply.

Social-political assignment

(The beginnings of) An Assignment for Social-Political Philosophy: Marijuana Legalization

One of the best ways of gaining a more thorough understanding of key competing social-political theories is to see how they would play out in relation to contemporary debates. With this in mind, each student must do the following, over the course of four weeks:

Project weeks 1-4

  1.  Find articles—both academic and popular media sources—that make the case either for and against the legalization of marijuana in the U.S. Post the three that you think best articulate arguments that can be indentified (even roughly) as utilitarian, libertarian, social conservative, and/or liberal (of a Rawlsian sort). As you post the articles for your classmates, highlight specific arguments and identify which theory is being used. Each article will probably make use of elements from more than one of the competing theories, so please be careful to identify and label specific arguments (e.g., one or a few paragraphs) in the articles.
  2. Review what your classmates have posted and pick two (each should be from a different student) and say whether and why you agree that the arguments highlighted are labeled correctly.
  3. Develop and post your own analysis of the facts and arguments given in one of the articles. In short, should marijuana be legalized or not? In doing this, base your position as clearly as you can on analyses of the above listed social-political theories. Draw on your class readings and the postings from all students. Limit your posts to the equivalent of two single-spaced, typed pages.
  4. Respond to at least one of your classmates positions, identifying its strengths and weakness. Limit your posts to the equivalence of two single-spaced, typed pages.

Liberal Arts Values

One of the goals of a liberal arts education is to expose students to new ideas—although mere exposure is probably not the ultimate objective; rather, it is a necessary ingredient in helping students become well-rounded, critical, and autonomous thinkers and better democratic citizens. Education that allows students to live and think within the comfortable confines of their inherited worldviews is education that too often fails to provide students with the tools to embrace and navigate the diverse world in which we live. The aim is not necessarily to get students to reject the views they bring to college, but to help them to critically analyze and develop their beliefs. Confronting new, unorthodox, and sometimes even initially strange ideas and perspectives provides a contrast class against which to critically compare already held views. As students confront new situations and diverse cultures they gain a greatly expanded set of concepts and theories from which to draw, thus better enabling them to understand and empathize.  It is not, then, simply the exposure to new ideas that matters, but the importance of this to the other values of a liberal arts education.  Importantly, without care new ideas could be simply memorized as needed for an exam, only to be quickly forgotten or, worse, to have no impact on a person’s thinking at all.  Perhaps the point is, then, that just as more conversation is not always better conversation, the value of being exposed to new ideas can be had only in the context of, for example, critical thinking and personal growth.


Critical thinking and puzzling (“problematizing”) is essential to the creation of autonomous thinkers and able participants in a democracy valuing diversity.  Why?  The straightforward answer is that if a person confronted with new ideas is unable to critically appraise those ideas, he or she will simply reject any challenge to his or her own beliefs, will simply embrace the new claim and hence be manipulated at will, or will be utterly incapable of building a coherent worldview that draws carefully from their inherited and new views. The result is paralysis or the lack of integrity.

One of the often overlooked steps in critical appraisal is being able to find the fault lines—the weaknesses as well as strengths—of competing positions.  This is different from simply saying that something is bad because it doesn’t fit with one’s already held views.  Problematizing is not a cynical, arrogant enterprise aimed at scoring points against an opponent.  Educators must equip students with the ability to identify the premises and underlying assumptions of claims to then identify where potential weakness and strengths exist.  Engaging with students (as opposed to announcing one’s own evaluations) and modeling critical thinking (as opposed to cynicism or arrogance) is crucial.   

Liberal Arts Values

In the days following our first discussion on the meaning of liberal arts, I’ve been thinking about which of the characteristics we cited as important matter the most to me. My trouble has been that no single idea has quite captured what (again, to me—anticipating that there will not be a firm consensus among us all) is the core difference between teaching/learning in an explicitly liberal arts context and teaching/learning in what has become the more common university context.  When I contrast my prior teaching experiences with those here at UMW I notice three things that an emphasis on the liberal arts seems to entail: 1) maximizing exposure to new, different, and competing ideas; 2) critically evaluate those ideas; and 3) constructing one’s own view, noticing connections between otherwise disparate disciplines.  I certainly do not mean to suggest that institutions that do not see themselves primarily as liberal arts colleges ignore these—they do not. However, I think that it is these three elements that, taken together, mark a significant focus of the liberal arts. To put them differently, they are breadth/exploration, active engagement with ideas (not just passive acceptance from experts), and inter- or trans-disciplinarity.