Statement of Teaching Philosophy
During my graduate studies and in my present capacity as a research affiliate, I have taught a range of courses across the fields of political science and philosophy, including undergraduate surveys in American politics, world philosophy, environmental ethics, moral philosophy, world literature, and the politics of torture. I also led a graduate seminar at Brooklyn College on the politics of the Middle East before my interests in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict led me to a more general concern with the theoretical dimensions of violence and atrocity. As a result, I have worked with students from very different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds including predominantly minority and immigrant populations in the greater New York City area as well as rural, white working class populations at a STEM-oriented institution and incarcerated Native American students at Montana State Prison.
For teaching to be intellectually liberating in Freire’s sense, it must offer students the tools to examine not only the material at hand but the basis of pedagogical authority itself, including the ethical and normative dimensions that structure classroom decisions. In the spirit of universal access, I adopt a wide variety of instructional strategies to accommodate the diversity of learning styles as well as the particular needs of my students. My approach to any course, especially those that bear on moral and political philosophy, combines active learning techniques and process pedagogy with a strong emphasis on discussion and debate. Through close reading of primary texts, mediated classroom discussion, and regular low-stakes writing exercises, I seek to facilitate the realization of students’ intellectual autonomy and to encourage the development of a healthy critical sense. Even when this aspiration falls short in application, it remains a useful ideal against which to judge the virtues of new pedagogical practices.
I believe in challenging students by prioritizing original texts, past and present. This requires a commitment on my part to work with them through difficult passages. I do this by employing close reading techniques during class and by designing group activities around a given text. For my Introduction to Ethics, I have students write a response to a thinker mimicking the style and tone of the period, but offering an alternative perspective. In this way, students learn that there are many defensible ways to read a text, analyze sophisticated arguments, and subject them to critique. Moreover, I emphasize what has been called the “performative” aspect of classic texts, i.e., the idea that canonical figures are at once historical and timeless, their work simultaneously a contribution to particular debates at a particular time and yet also eminently useful for clarifying questions that endure into the present. By the end of the semester, even those students who remain unconvinced of the value of reading primary texts will have learned to articulate their opposition on philosophical grounds.
As research shows and my experience confirms, students benefit from active learning techniques that break class time into more easily digested segments. To this end, I combine lectures and discussion with frequent low-stakes writing exercises. Discussion can be a powerful strategy for engaging students, but it also raises challenges that are antithetical to learning. Without appropriate mediation, for example, a handful of students readily monopolize discussion, allowing others to relinquish responsibility. Such a pattern can be very difficult to reverse, once established. To avoid this, I pair students for short writing responses at the outset of each class session. For example, in my Introduction to Ethics, one prompt I have used asks student to consider possible exceptions to Kant’s argument about the categorical impermissibility of lying. Providing students with the time and space to consider their ideas in collaboration with one another before discussion commences tends to instill confidence even in those who might otherwise hesitate to participate. Later, as class comes to an end, I have students summarize the most important ideas to have emerged from the discussion.
Thinking and writing are complementary skills. Regular writing fosters clarity of thought, which in turn contributes to the process of revision, and so on indefinitely. Following Peter Elbow’s work, I emphasize writing as a recursive process. In every course I teach, students must produce a research paper for which they submit three drafts as well as a preliminary research proposal and prospective bibliography. Each of these components is subjected to peer-review, in which students comment on each other’s writing and thereby improve upon their work collectively. Not only does this approach demonstrate the linkages between writing and criticism, it also places a great deal of responsibility for learning firmly with the students themselves, which is one of my core objectives.
I have lately experimented with active learning techniques beyond the classroom. Last year, for example, I took my environmental ethics class on an outing to the Berkeley Pit, a massive poisonous lake and EPA Superfund site that represents the legacy of Montana’s copper mining industry. Discussions of social ecology take on a palpable significance against the backdrop of this stark monument to the dual exploitation of workers and the natural world. Similarly, I took my ethics students to Montana State Prison, an experience intended to promote critical reflection on questions of justice, state power, and punishment. The prison looms large, both literally and metaphorically, in moral and political philosophy and field trips of this kind provide students with a vivid personal experience through which they are able to deepen their engagement with the more abstract concerns raised in the literature.
Finally, it is worth noting the ways in which I incorporate technology to advance my pedagogical goals. I have used Blackboard and Moodle ever since I first began teaching, both for my own record-keeping and for learning exercises of various kinds. For example, I have students submit major assignments via Moodle and I provide them with written feedback through the “quick grading” feature. I also use these services to post course announcements, PDF copies of readings, and supplemental audio-visual material. I have recently had success using a discussion forum, thereby providing an opportunity for students to continue our discussions outside class time. Moreover, all of my prison education work has been conducted online. Such courses are in some ways even more challenging than conventional instruction; because one does not meet with students in person, it is essential to provide constant feedback and interaction. In order to compensate for the inherent lack of personal connection, I produce short videos of myself in discussion about the assigned readings. I spend a great deal of time editing these videos and incorporating key terms, images, and music as they arise in the course of the video. To get some sense of my efforts in this regard, one such recording on the K’iche’ Maya creation narrative—the Popul Vuh—is available here.
Sheldon Wolin once wrote that the study of political theory invariably promotes “education that is civic and populist”—democratic in the broadest sense. Like any worthwhile intellectual endeavor, it aims to unsettle received wisdom, ideological conceit, prejudice, and presumption. It is surely the case that what is taught remains at least as important as how it is taught. Since taking my first faltering steps into the classroom as a graduate student, I have taken an interest in pedagogical research and find myself continually experimenting with the latest evidence and ideas. The strategies I employ are intended to empower students by kindling their critical sense and by striking at the heart of what it means to be a moral and political agent. At its best, teaching is a profoundly democratizing practice with consequences that resonate well beyond disciplinary barriers.
“At some point,” Roxane Gay writes, “you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold.” I am the child of an immigrant, but I am also a white man living in a world that still accords structural benefits on that basis alone. I grew up in a loving, stable, and safe environment. I graduated without debt from a good state school. My family frequently travelled abroad and I have lived in many different places. As a dual citizen, my Master’s degree was fully covered by the Danish government and I also received a monthly stipend simply for being a graduate student. I completed my doctorate with the help of talented mentors in a city that provides countless opportunities for intellectual growth. I have no illusions about the advantages I have enjoyed. Indeed, learning about the struggles many of my students face routinely reminds me of Gay’s call to self-reflection in this regard. When people invoke the “ivory tower” stereotype of the academy, I have a difficult time understanding what they mean; the very idea of an aloof intellectual elite detached from any real-world concerns does not even remotely resonate with my experience.
Lehman College is located in one of the poorest Congressional districts in the country. During my time there, I taught predominantly working class, immigrant, and minority students, many of whom were among the first in their family to attend college. For three years, I participated in the Freshman Year Initiative, which has steadily reduced attrition rates (especially among first-generation students) by promoting faculty collaboration and providing first-year students with a strong support network. While national trends remain slow to improve, CUNY schools regularly rank highly in terms of providing students with real upward mobility. This year, nine CUNY colleges dominated the Chronicle of Higher Education’s rankings of campuses with the greatest success in lifting low-income students into the middle class. Lehman College placed second in the nation and I am not at all surprised, given my experience. As a bulwark against the forces of inequality and structural oppression, this is higher education at its best—a profoundly democratizing force providing opportunities to structurally disadvantaged groups.
In the spirit of Universal Design for Learning principles, I make every effort to design courses that accommodate many different learning styles and in consideration of the challenges non-traditional students face, removing barriers to learning wherever possible. Regardless of what I say in class or on the syllabus, however, many students do not take full advantage of my time. They hesitate to visit me during office hours and rarely ask how they might improve their work. To counteract this tendency, I use a tripartite system including a grading rubric, minimal marking, and mandatory office hours—scheduled with consideration for student’s employment and child care schedules. This system allows me to provide concise and targeted comments to each student in much less time. Moreover, it has been a great success with my students themselves, many of whom report never before having received so much feedback from a professor.
It is also worth noting the ways in which my research springs from my political commitments. Before my doctoral studies, I spent half a year with the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in the Gaza Strip, working on the ground alongside human rights lawyers in the aftermath of the 2007 civil war between Hamas and Fatah. We met with victims of horrific violence and documented their stories. Amidst the hail of Israeli bombs and Palestinian rockets, I learned to navigate the complex cultural fabric of Gazan society from my local colleagues to the direst poverty of the refugee camps. What began as a specific interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grew into a broader concern with the reproduction of violence and structural injustice—whether in the form of Israel’s occupation or what Jeff Spinner-Halev calls “enduring injustice,” i.e., the legacies of historical injustice which persist into the present.
In 2016, a colleague and I established the rudiments of a prison education program at Montana State Prison, the first of its kind in the state. Like many carceral facilities in the United States, Montana prisons are marked by clear racial and class disparities. Native Americans make up six percent of the state’s population and yet account for 21 percent of the prison population. Inmates face immense challenges upon re-entry, including legal discrimination and a ban on applying for federal grants. While the plan was initially to teach one face-to-face course per semester for a limited number of students, a lack of funding made this unfeasible and we now offer a free online course for no college credit instead. While we investigate funding opportunities in the meantime, I founded the Montana Prison Book Initiative, a registered non-profit modeled on Pennsylvania’s Books Behind Bars program that distributes free books to incarcerated persons.
I love teaching. In particular, I love the opportunity it provides to make a real difference in students’ lives, to become invested in unexpected ways, and to share in their successes. It is a profoundly rewarding vocation.