“Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously only in relation to his students – even himself.” — Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

My Philosophy of Teaching …

One thing that I take from nietzsche’s aphorisim is that one cannot teach effectively without possessing a facility to identify with students in a crucial way. To succeed as a teacher, one must be able to look at, think about, understand, feel, live, and breathe the subject matter under investigation in much the same way that one’s students do. This view is, in a sense, extraordinary. For it implies that, as one acquires a specialized knowledge and becomes more expert in a field, teaching becomes harder rather than easier. To take all things seriously only in relation to one’s students also commands a respect for students; such respect must run deep enough to recognize and then cultivate in students the idea that they are ultimately responsible for their own education. When I think about the teachers who influenced me the most, I realize that they all shared a common thread. What my best teachers seemed to do — whether in the classroom or the laboratory, whether on-line, in the office, on the telephone, or in the hallways — was to excite me about the subject-matter in a way that facilitated my own understanding of it. By translating their own passion for their field, they helped me grasp its import and relevance, they lent clarity to my own analysis, and they challenged me to think about the subject in as many different ways as possible, including ways other than the received view.

I teach issues at the intersection of law, ethics, and technology. During more than 15 years of university teaching, I have offered classes ranging from seminars of thirty students to lectures with enrollments of nearly eight hundred. I have employed a number of different teaching devices: I have used lecture notes, blackboards, overhead transparencies, powerpoint, music, video, computer conferencing, and even magic tricks to enhance my presentation style and delivery. I have also developed materials that allow students to study in a mediated learning environment from a distance. Each of these tools has its own virtues and each requires a certain mastery in order to be used effectively. More importantly, each serves a very particular function and therefore has only a limited range of successful application. Consequently, I have found it necessary to think very carefully about why I have chosen to use a particular device and how it will come across in the relevant learning environment.

Along the way, I have discovered a number of useful pedagogical tactics. Humour is one; I try to employ it wherever I can. Another is the pause. I use it when nobody seems able to answer a difficult question. Rather than providing an answer myself, I simply wait. No matter how long it takes. Students quickly learn that there is nothing wrong with pausing to think through a problem — whether one is arguing in court or sitting in front of a computer writing philosophical prose. There are other ways that I use the pause. Sometimes, when a class is overwhelmed with the complexity of an issue, rather than spoon-feeding a solution, as many teachers are tempted to do, I stop immediately. We take a couple of minutes to relax (usually, I play music). Then we go after the problem again. A third way that I pause is by changing from the lecture format into small discussion groups. Whether the subject is law, philosophy, or technology, the issues always lend themselves to a dialogue. The small group discussion format provides an added dimension to the more typical classroom dialogue by allowing and encouraging students to participate in a manner that is more inclusive and, perhaps, less intimidating than the larger setting. By testing their ideas in this more comfortable environment, students get to know themselves better as they get to know each other. Once the groups have fully contemplated the issue, we usually re-group and hear highlights from the smaller group discussions. Tactics such as these, though sometimes difficult to implement in larger classes, are important and worthwhile. When students see that a professor respects them enough to try innovative teaching methods that include talking with them, rather than merely talking at them, students begin to take seriously not only their professors but, more importantly, their studies.