My desire to teach and my orientation towards the value of teaching have two main sources. The first is my own undergraduate and graduate training in philosophy. The second is my experience designing and teaching courses in philosophy and working with other faculty, graduate student instructors, learning designers, educational technologists, and support staff in the area of Teaching and Learning with Technology. My own disciplinary training introduced me to practices of teaching and learning through critical discourses in which we aim at theoretical and practical wisdom and through which we produce more fully developed intellectual and moral capacities. My experience as a teacher has led me to appreciate the responsibilities I assumed in deciding to dedicate myself to these practices. It has also given me a better sense of the obstacles that present themselves to me as a practitioner and of the possible ways forward for my own practice.
The outcomes of my philosophical and pedagogical work so far include a sense that the practices of teaching and learning that resonate most with me, while ancient in origin, are also just as contemporary as are any other pedagogical practices. These, broadly philosophical and value oriented, practices continue to this day, despite challenges that have always confronted them, significant changes they have undergone, and apparent consensus in the cultural imagination that—for better or for worse—they are relics of an earlier era. First-hand experience has allowed me to see that there are also many tasks involved in seeing to it that these practices continue to flourish in new environments, which contain all the old obstacles, but have also become characterized by particular challenges we have not encountered in precisely these forms before.
I do not see the task of teaching philosophy in a historically grounded way in the 21st Century as a matter of apologetics for once venerated philosophical traditions that must respond to shifts in cultural, political, and social priorities that have brought them into question. Nor do I see this task as being one that presupposes a break with these traditions and prioritizes questions concerning what it is that philosophy and philosophers ought to be doing now. Instead, I see the task as one of developing the collective resources and the individual capacities necessary to engage in critical and productive discourse concerning unsettled questions about these traditions. Recognizing that these questions often remain unsettled within these traditions themselves, even through periods of relative stasis, can have an unsettling effect on the particular standpoints we ourselves occupy in judging them. Like the work of many dynamic thinkers whose views we tend to hypostatize as we develop striking narratives out of easily hit targets, this kind of historical work is both subversive and productive. It is expressive, I think, of a kind of irreverence for particular conventions, dogma, and orthodoxies, which enables us to come to appreciate the life of the practices that have produced them, to understand that these practices themselves are not exhausted by these particular products, and to respect the significance for participants and outsiders of easily grasped formulations that invite critical discussion.
My historical and contextual approach to reading and teaching the history of philosophy has clear effects on the way I view our contemporary situation as practitioners of academic philosophy and as members of the broader academic community in the liberal arts and humanities. We can’t tell yet how significant this period of our history will appear to have been from the standpoint of the future generations that we hope will exist and take an interest in our contributions. It is hard to deny, however, that we are living through a period of history marked by significant and rapid changes in the media through which we discover, discuss, assess, understand, generate, communicate, and organize information and ideas. Whatever views we may hold concerning the intellectually and morally relevant differences between the ways these activities were done in the past and the ways they are being done in the present, we are all doing these things in the present, with others who are doing likewise, and most of us are currently doing them in some fashion that represents a hybrid of old and new.
I would contend that we, collectively if not necessarily individually, have some degree of responsibility—to ourselves, to our students, and to the disciplinary, academic, and other traditions with which we identify ourselves—to be using these new media in specific ways. The new digital literacies that are emerging and the tools that are quickly becoming naturalized for our students (and that may be ossified for our students’ students) are currently in stages that are relatively susceptible to being informed by the values of our practices. We are in a position to influence the further development of these tools for our trade while we also develop the institutional structures needed for critical appraisal and assessment of the particular kinds of products of intellectual activity that result from their use. If we do not represent our own interests and values in these processes, we can be pretty sure that the interests and values of others will continue to dominate in determining the logic and the ethos of functioning for the tools on which our practices are dependent for their survival and flourishing.
My training as a philosopher and an historian of philosophy, and my commitment to the intellectual and moral development and well-being of my students have led me to recognize something very important; namely, that these features of my individual character are, at times, painfully far from being sufficient conditions for me to excel as a teacher in our current academic environment. In order to do my best for some of our students, I have needed to work collaboratively with equally committed partners whose training in other areas, e.g., in instructional design, educational technology, user-interface design, and technical support, complement my own in substantive ways that are directly related to my philosophical commitments and to our collective pedagogical aims. Of course, teachers have rarely done what they do in ways that are entirely separate from structures of institutional support. Universities, however, at least in the view of many of those persons who play supporting roles in relation to the instruction that goes on there, appear to operate in ways that allow many of its teachers to forget that.
I have no doubt that the kinds of skills I was forced to develop through taking on projects in online learning and teaching and learning with technology have made me a far better teacher in traditional classroom settings. I also have no doubt that these skills will become more and more relevant for effective teaching and scholarly research practices in the humanities and liberal arts over the coming decades. I do see the changes in institutional organization and structure that are well underway in higher education as posing serious questions about the survival of the practices of teaching and learning to which I have committed myself. I also see myself, however, as working collaboratively with others to whom the same questions are put in efforts to make these reorganization activities productive of structures that are at least as responsive to the core values and commitments of these practices as those they are replacing ever were.