Teaching, it’s a Simple Game
Photo by Dan Addison
|John D. Arras is a professor of biomedical ethics and philosophy at U.Va. In February he received an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and wrote an essay for the occasion, from which this piece was adapted. The essay was published in its entirety in the Chronicle of Higher Education on March 24.
By John D. Arras
Attempting to halt a losing streak, the manager of the Durham Bulls exhorted his young players: “This is a very simple game: You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. You got it?!”
Most good teachers would say something just as simple about their work.
When I read about professors winning major teaching awards, I’m always struck by the disparity between their manifest greatness in the classroom and the banality of their accounts of what they do. What makes them outstanding teachers isn’t a matter of high-tech wizardry or some nifty new philosophy of education, but rather their passion for ideas, their deep commitment to students, and their ability to tell a compelling story. It’s not complicated.
Here then is a list of simple rules I try to follow in my own teaching:
My primary purpose as a teacher is to foster critical-reasoning skills and philosophical creativity in my students. I lecture as little as possible in order to focus on intense classroom discussion. I have a goal in mind for each class, but try to reach it circuitously — through probing, mutually respectful debate that gives each student a stake in the proceedings.
I also try to teach rigorous writing skills, emphasizing writing technique, critical reasoning and mastery of detail. I offer a writing workshop for each class, work intensively with students throughout the semester on their evolving papers and spill a lot of ink on their finished products.
Love what you do
I believe that passion animates all good teaching — passion for ideas and for communicating ideas to others. Teaching without passion is a crime (or at least a serious tort) against the young.
Practice tough love
You have to set high standards and explode that sense of entitlement to good grades so prevalent on campuses today. Students need to know that they’re going to have to work very hard to do well, let alone excel, in your class. But that sternness, that sense of expectation, that display of shock and awe, need to be tempered by genuine love and respect for your students as independent sources of value and thought.
Plato had it right: The love of wisdom is predicated upon the love between teacher and student. If you don’t care deeply about your students both as thinkers and as people, you’re in the wrong profession.
Keep it real
As a professor of practical ethics, I have one foot in the world of philosophical abstractions and the other in the clinic, the courtroom, the research lab and on the frontiers of global health. In my teaching I try to bring about a fruitful blending of theory and practice through the discussion of dense, complex and messy case studies viewed through the lens of contemporary ethical and political thought.
The intended effect isn’t the mere mechanical application of pre-established theory to practice, but the thoughtful intermingling of the concrete and the abstract. In my case, previous experience as a professor in a medical school and research hospital, and current consulting work with government agencies lend credibility and authenticity to my teaching.
Pay it backward and forward
Ten years ago a former student wrote to thank me for teaching him to think and see the world in a different way — in effect, for changing his life. Best of all, he didn’t even want a letter of recommendation! I immediately called my graduate-school mentor, Henry Veatch, to thank him for showing me what it means to be a great teacher and a writer of rigorous but broadly accessible prose.
I’m now “paying forward” my enormous debt to Henry by grooming my own graduate students to care not just about writing technically proficient papers, but also about the values of good teaching and critical, humane discernment. As a professor of ethics, I try to model for my graduate and undergraduate students alike a concern not just for ideas, theories and professional advancement, but also for the suffering of others.
It’s OK to be a Luddite
Although I’m sure there’s an important place for new technologies in the classroom, I generally believe that PowerPoint is the spawn of Satan. It breeds passivity in the students and it disconnects the speaker from the audience. (It also encourages professors to reduce their deepest, most private thoughts on teaching to a few banal bullet points.) Instead, I prefer to engage my students directly in a genuine conversation about ideas, whether it’s in a class of 20 or 200. This method seems to work. As one student recently wrote on her course evaluation: ‘I really love Prof. Arras’s old-fashioned style of teaching!’
Hey, is that the crack of a bat I hear?