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Set-up: In general, students enter the classroom with a composite of underlying beliefs. These beliefs, for most students, are often unchallenged notions and within the classroom they do not stay unchallenged for long given the nature of philosophy. As such, in the classroom I seek to challenge my students to reflect on the beliefs that they hold, to be honest with themselves and others about why they hold those beliefs, and to be open to setting aside a default disposition to deploy defense mechanisms in the face of opposing beliefs (and challenges). In order to pull students into conversation, I design activities, conversational topics, and assignments that challenge students to engage in critical reflection and reasoning of their beliefs and the beliefs of others. With this in mind I also approach recitation sections with an intentional inclusion of the null curriculum—subjects, histories, and questions which have been systematically, and intentionally, omitted from the common discourse and educational models. In doing so, I present students with a toolset that a) allows students to wrestle with un-discussed elements of difficult conversations and b) to lessen the deficits that may be present, and disadvantage, students from historically underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds.
Recitation Design: When designing my approach to recitation sections, I work to include several key elements. First, given that many students enroll in philosophy courses for general distribution requirements I am cognoscente of exposing students to practical materials that result in transferable skills that are relevant for their majors and society in general. This is not to say that students are immediately aware that the skills we work on are transferable, but many eventually realize that the skill sets they have developed are useful beyond the philosophy classroom. Second, I am upfront about my concern for improvement, as opposed to achievement, based models of learning. I seek to meet students where they are at the beginning of the course and intentionally work with students to improve on their skill sets. Third, I incorporate my students into the design of the course and with respect to the presentation of the course material. By this, I mean that elements of the course are left open for students to change, challenge, and modify dependent on the needs of the class. Other elements are explicitly in the hands of students, such as peer led discussions, and they are held accountable by their peers for providing adequate explanation and engagement of the material for their chosen week/topic. Finally, I incorporate elements of universal design for accessibility. Given that students learn in a myriad of ways and that there will be a plurality of views, identities, and beliefs in the class, I design activities such that they will be accessible to most, completable in various formats, and amendable to inviting reflection independent of identities and beliefs.
Learning Environment: Pulling from models of restorative practices, I try to foster an environment in which students are accountable and responsible to one another primarily. To this end, students are asked to work with one another to collectively discuss and process materials and concepts in the process of teaching and learning from one another. In doing so, I challenge them to move away from individualistic tendencies to more collective communities of learners in the project of learning how to work with one another in engaging and transformative ways. In addition to interpersonal engagement, the environment and conversations are spaces into which they can bring their whole-selves. Given the presences of difficult conversational pieces, including many that hold real-life import for students outside of the classroom, this strategy allows students to be authentic in their interactions with one another and to eventually trust each other in these conversations. Furthermore, in having students be accountable to one another difficult dialogues that could not be had as an instructor to a student can emerge on their own as peer-to-peer accountability and consciousness raising conversations.
Interactions: I work to foster an environment that is high in both support and challenge. To the first notion, students are supported enough to feel safe in engaging in sometimes uncomfortable conversations. To the second notion, students are presented with materials that can be challenging to their beliefs and comfort levels. In separating the two, students feel safe in pushing their comfort boundaries. As a trained facilitator, I mediate discussions and model behavior to encourage my students to practice patience, humility, and charity when discussing controversial topics. Ultimately, students lean into the discomfort of challenging discussions trusting that the conversation will take them, and myself, into deeper levels of understanding both about the topic at hand and about ourselves as interlocutors.
Evaluation of Learning: While I am not currently afforded the opportunity to design and implement my own measures of evaluation, I still incorporate elements of improvement, and effort, based feedback for their assignments. Early on, I ask students to reflect on where they are currently with respect to various philosophical benchmarks. In doing so, I have them name for themselves the potential they have to improve from their starting point during the span of the semester. Throughout the semester, I track the areas in which each student improves and present individualized feedback that seeks to challenge them to improve irrespective of the end “grade” they wish to earn. In doing so, students are presented with attainable goals that downplay the anxiety imbedded in achievement based approaches to knowledge, and skill, acquisition/application. At the end of the semester students receive the grade they earned but they also receive feedback about their improvements during the course of the semester and recognition for bettering their capacities for philosophical discussion, modes of reasoning, and argument analysis.
Outcomes/Goals: Ultimately, by the end of the course I want students to be more aware of their strengths, limitations, and beliefs. In gaining this critical awareness, they will hopefully have learned to honest with themselves about their reasons for their beliefs and to have formed a cohort of colleagues with whom they can continue to engage in difficult conversations. While I am a facilitator for the discussions initially, I do not want them to always need a facilitator for continued discussions. Rather, I seek to present students with materials that foster the creation, remaking, and editing of a toolbox of transferable skills including critical reflection/analysis that ultimately allows them to engage in conversations independently and to approach topics and ideas as their full authentic selves.