Volume 15, 1992
Edited by Arnold Wilson, University College, University of Cincinnati
As a graduate student in philosophy at Syracuse University, I participated in an educational experience the uniqueness of which is made more evident almost daily since my leaving there. Of course, my philosophical education was excellent, but it was the training I received about how to teach which differed from most approaches to graduate education encountered before or since.
Besides describing the system in which I learned to teach, this essay aims to demonstrate the applicability of this system to other graduate schools in philosophy (and beyond). Although the details of the system used by the Syracuse Department are peculiar to their own situation, the model which underlies their implementation of it can serve as an approach for other departments at a variety of levels. Perhaps the most general and important feature is the creativity and open-mindedness in addressing problems and solutions that is inherent to the system. The system automatically puts graduate instructors in an environment where discussing the teaching of philosophy becomes as important in context as discussing philosophical issues themselves. Whether one wants to change course content, course administration or instructor evaluation techniques, the experience described in this essay should suggest that given sufficient motivation, ways can be found to change almost any aspect of a course for the better.
There is often a lack of formal instruction on teaching for the graduate student in philosophy. Just as many recent undergraduates suffer from the shock of being thrust into the role of teaching assistant in graduate school, many if not the majority of recent graduate students suffer an even greater shock when they are thrust into the role of sole instructor of a class of undergraduates in their first faculty positions. College-level instructors and beginning TAs need many skills. For example, one must be able to produce a complete and explicit syllabus, as, more and more, syllabi are being viewed as contracts between student and teacher both by students and administrators. One must also be able to prepare lectures, write tests and assignments, grade large volumes of student work, and hold office hours, as well as finding time to pursue one's own research interests. Since much of this work is not required of TAs in many graduate programs (where TAs are merely graders and study-session proctors), it is desirable to provide an opportunity for TAs to learn some of these skills while in graduate school. The teaching assistants and teachers suffer when put to work without these skills fully developed, often internalizing bad teaching habits born of nervousness and inexperience. To make matters worse, the students they are teaching often get substandard performance, at least at first, from their instructors. In a discipline such as philosophy, which already "enjoys" a reputation of otioseness among most undergraduates, a bad experience with an unprepared instructor can be all that is needed to extinguish any flicker of interest in a student.
I am not claiming here that all recent graduates are poor teachers. In fact, most of the graduate students I went through school with were capable teachers. Likewise, I do not doubt that there are other fine student teachers in graduate schools throughout the world. What I am claiming is that in most cases, these graduate students are good at what they do through no fault or credit of the school they attended. They either are lucky enough to have some natural affinity for teaching, or they are personally concerned to achieve excellence in teaching and work hard at their skills. At Syracuse University, the Graduate School has taken curriculum-wide measures to combat the inexperience of new teaching assistants. In an innovative and successful manner, the Teaching Assistant Program, directed by Leo Lambert, provides incoming Teaching Assistants with two weeks of intensive training to ward off the problems associated with being thrust into the role of college teaching assistant. The program also provides follow-up help throughout the Teaching Assistant's stay at Syracuse, and while the program is good, more is needed, especially at the discipline-specific level of instruction.
Accordingly, the Philosophy Department at Syracuse University has its
own innovative and successful program to combat the problem at a discipline-specific
level. This program has developed over the years under the direction of
Professor C .L. Hardin, and should be a model of a successful program for
producing experienced and highly qualified teachers right out of graduate
school. In this essay, I will explain the development and current state
of the Philosophy 187 system, and show that these approaches to training
graduate students to teach can be adopted in any graduate school where
teaching assistants are used.
PHI 187--The Course
At Syracuse University's Graduate Program in Philosophy, there are two levels of teaching assistantship: junior and senior. Junior Teaching Assistants perform the more traditional "TA" duties--handling small discussion sections of a professor-taught course, grading assignments for that course, and meeting on a regular basis with the professor in charge of the course. This seems to be the standard role of the teaching assistant at many graduate programs in philosophy. However, at Syracuse, a junior TA with experience will often get the opportunity to become a senior teaching assistant and become involved with teaching Philosophy 187-- an introductory metaphysics and epistemology course entitled "Theories of Knowledge and Reality." Historically, as a 187 TA, a graduate student is responsible for delivering all the lectures and doing all of the grading for two sections of roughly 30 students each. The total enrollment of 187 has been at least 500 per semester, so about ten graduate students, overseen by a faculty Advisor, are responsible for running the course each semester.
The course structure, with some guidelines, is defined prior to each academic year by the senior TAs and the Faculty Advisor. Those who have taught the course before offer suggestions about which topics should be covered, what questions should be allowable on exams, attendance policies, and so forth. Each graduate instructor must prepare his or her own syllabus (making choices about what material to present and in what order), decide when exams and quizzes will be given, set grading criteria, and decide what sorts of presentations or other classroom activities to employ. In addition to these duties, one of the more experienced 187 TAs is chosen by the Faculty Advisor each year to be the Administrative Coordinator for the course. This TA is responsible for nearly all of the mechanical operations of the course during the academic year, from ordering the textbooks for the entire course, to scheduling the exam rooms and times to assigning the various available sections to the TAs working for that particular semester. While the Faculty Advisor is always informed of decisions and procedures, the course is supposed to be effectively run by the Administrative Coordinator and the other graduate students. At least once per semester, a meeting is held between all 187 instructors and the Faculty Advisor, which is an open forum for discussion about the course and how it might be improved.
As described above, Philosophy 187 was a sui generis chance for
graduate students to teach their own course, to be involved in policy decisions
for that course, and to discover on their own what style of teaching best
suits them. The collegial atmosphere that exists between the 187 TAs has
provided an invaluable resource for instructors to discuss issues of pedagogy
with others covering more or less the same material, to compare one's grading
criteria with others, and to discuss with one's peers how to handle the
unpleasant aspects of teaching, such as how to deal with cases of suspected
cheating. The 187 instructors are as autonomous as they want to be with
respect to most of these decisions: the Faculty Advisor is willing and
ready to offer advice, but does not stipulate responses to these situations.
Teaching Philosophy 187 is as close an experience to teaching one's own
course as one could have.
The Curriculum Changes
For some time, the course was presented in five basic sections: Logic, The Existence of God, The Mind/Body Problem, Perception and the External World, and Free Will and Determinism. As with almost any experience in teaching a course, various graduate students involved in teaching Philosophy 187 began to feel that the texts available for the course were inadequate. Many of them felt that the course texts contained either irrelevant or inaccurate materials, and that the materials that could be found were incomplete. This typical instructor's problem, which is often addressed by having the student buy several texts for an introductory course or putting up with a sub-optimal text and wishfully thinking about writing one's own text, was met head on by the Faculty Advisor and the 187 instructors. At first, it was decided to supplement the existing texts with a booklet on the logic needed for the course written by the Faculty Advisor and some of the graduate students. After the success of the logic supplement, two of the graduate students, Jan Cover and Rudy Garns, began work on a complete text for Philosophy 187. The Faculty Advisor obtained some funding for them to work on the project over the summer, and the book was produced a chapter at a time. The ever-growing text was sold to the students through the local copy center. As Cover and Garns wrote the textbook, they received continual input from eight to ten instructors who were using the book as it was being completed. This allowed instructor input to the text that could be incorporated into the text at each subsequent printing. Also, when the project was finished, there was finally a book which was tailor-made for the course as it is taught at Syracuse University. The book, Theories of Knowledge and Reality, has since been published by McGraw-Hill, and is currently used elsewhere as well.1
As it turned out, this was just the first of a string of innovations for Philosophy 187. The next major change that occurred involved an attempt to remedy a complaint common to nearly all 187 instructors. The student's grade had always been determined by performance on four essay exams. Since most instructors found the writing skills of many of the students to be wanting, it was decided that some way of emphasizing philosophical writing should become a part of the course. While it was apparent that giving the students a chance to re-write a paper would serve to enhance the writing skills of the students, it seemed inappropriate to burden the instructors with so much extra grading. The Faculty Advisor and the instructors became involved with a joint program with the Writing Program of Syracuse University to address this problem. Under this new program, the Writing program would provide two teaching assistants from their program to be available exclusively for the benefit of Philosophy 187 students. Every effort was made to find writing instructors who had philosophical background to fill these positions. The course requirements for Philosophy 187 would change from two in-class essays for each of the first two sections to include two out-of-class essays as well as two in-class essays in the first two sections. These new essays would be as- signed far enough in advance so the students could make appointments to meet with the Writing Instructors and plan their essays, and such meetings were greatly encouraged. Furthermore, an emphasis was placed on giving feedback on the graded essays, and students with low grades were encouraged (or required, at the instructor's discretion) to meet with the Writing Instructors to rewrite their essays for an improved grade. For the remainder of the semester, these Writing Instructors were available to read student's preparatory essays for the in-class exams and to help with other written assignments in the class. In addition to the help available by appointment with the writing instructors, the 187 TAs and the writing TAs scheduled weekly writing workshops, which could be attended on a drop- in basis and in which the students could get help with questions about philosophy, with writing, or both.
After the writing program resources had been available for a semester, David Oja, a former Philosophy 187 instructor who was then associated with the writing program, suggested that a writing manual designed for the course could be prepared and sold in addition to the text. As in the case of textbooks, Oja felt that the manuals available on writing were inadequate. At the very least, they did not deal specifically enough with how one should construct a critical philosophical essay. After being involved in the 187 writing program for two semesters, and talking to instructors for their feedback, he produced a student's writing manual. This manual2 discussed the aspects of a well-written philosophy essay, with salient examples, in order to give the student a resource for writing on their own. The manual was laid out in a developmental fashion, so the 187 instructors could easily assign progressive homework assignments from the manual in preparation for the first out-of-class essay. The manual also provided some relief in grading time spent by the instructors, as the instructors could often simply refer students to passages in the manual when assessing their essays. The writing manual has also been published by McGraw-Hill, to be used in conjunction with the textbook.
Once the emphasis on clear writing was addressed, a significant amount
of time was spent by the writing instructors and the 187 instructors on
planning classroom activities and homework assignments that involved more
writing. Many innovative teaching techniques were tried and reported on,
and encouraging new approaches and reports on their efficacy have been
an integral part of teaching 187. Changing the course to make it more writing-intensive
nicely illustrates the degree to which the instructors of 187 can influence
the goals and methods of the course they teach. Additionally, when the
curriculum of 187 changed to include the emphasis on writing, most instructors
found that their in- and out-of-class time was insufficient to meet these
new needs. The Faculty Advisor and the Administrative Coordinator asked
that instructors write up proposals on how to remedy the problem, and the
course content requirements were made more flexible to accommodate the
needs of the individual instructors.
The Instructional Changes
Concurrent with the changes being made in the content and presentation of the course, a move was afoot to provide the instructors with resources to refine their teaching techniques. A common but unavoidable complaint was the short span of time people generally had to prepare to teach 187. TA decisions are made by the administration in the summer, sometimes leaving a TA with less than three months to prepare to teach a course on one's own. It was decided that an instructor's manual for 187 would be developed. The Administrative Coordinator received a grant for the purpose of writing and printing such a manual, and the project was underway. The Administrative Coordinator prepared a questionnaire for previous 187 instructors in which they were asked questions of four basic types: i) questions about troubles they had teaching for the first time, ii) questions about issues and concepts they felt the students had trouble grasping, iii) questions about the mechanics of the course (how they wrote a syllabus, how they graded, what types of quizzes they gave, what reviews and handouts they used), and iv) questions about any advice or helpful hints they had for future teaching assistants. When this information was compiled, the Administrative Coordinator wrote a manual for both first-time and returning 187 instructors which included, among other things, sample homework exercises and quizzes, plans for in-class activities, sample handouts for various sections of the course, tips on grading and lecturing, and general advice. In the years subsequent to the production of the first teacher's manual, additional grants have been used to update and republish the manual, and it continues to be a vital resource for new teaching assistants. The final addition to the program during my involvement was the development of a videotape-based peer and faculty review of classroom performance. This involved videotaping an entire lecture of each instructor's choice, and then reviewing the tape with the Faculty Advisor, the Administrative Coordinator, and other instructors who had been videotaped. In the review sessions, the taped instructor assesses his or her performance first, and then the others present offer their observations. Typically, the videotaped instructor is more critical than any observer, and everyone who has been videotaped and reviewed has found the process helpful (faculty members report similar results). The major benefit of having one's lecture taped and reviewed with others is beginning to see teaching as a craft which can be practiced and improved. As evaluators, we aim to get the taped instructor to focus on one aspect of teaching they would like to change in the upcoming semester. Instructors are then encouraged to be videotaped again and chart their progress and thoughts on the issue. Most instructors dread the process, but emerge eager to be taped again after they have had a chance to work on the area or areas they have targeted for improvement. Most of the instructors we studied found that easily correctable faults plagued their lectures: some did not make enough eye contact with the audience, some did not allow enough time for questions, some prepared their lectures with, you know, annoyingly repetitive phrases, and so forth. In almost every case, the instructor was unaware that he or she was behaving in the manner described, and was eager to improve that facet of their presentation. Almost everyone was struck by the diversity of effective teaching styles displayed during the reviews, and most found techniques that others used useful enough to include in their own presentations. The videotaping was somewhat costly and difficult to schedule through the University's Audio-Visual Services. Since several instructors found repeated tapings useful, the instructors and the Faculty Advisor decided it would be good if the department could purchase a video camcorder of their own to avoid having to apply for grants each semester. The Administrative Coordinator wrote a proposal, the grant was approved, and now the videotaping of the instructors is all done within the department, more often and easily.
By having a two-tiered teaching assistant system, the Syracuse University
Philosophy Department has a built-in method to ease the transition from
student to teacher. It is the senior level appointment, teaching Philosophy
187, which provides the most impressive opportunity for graduates to learn
and excel in teaching. By requiring the graduate students to run the course
themselves and to have their performance assessed by their peers, teaching
187 forces the student to be cognizant of both the administrative and pedagogical
issues that arise in teaching philosophy. By allowing the students to have
input in the direction the course will take in the future and by offering
them the chance to have multiple peer evaluations, teaching 187 gives the
student every chance to improve their teaching skills and share their particular
expertise with others. Finally, by providing a setting in which several
graduates students teach a similar course independently, teaching 187 allows
graduate students to enjoy and profit from a collegial atmosphere dedicated
to better teaching, and raises their expectations for similar experiences.
While it is obvious that not all departments can implement a system similar
to the Philosophy 187 system, many of the beneficial aspects of the 187
model can be selectively used in many set- tings, with the details best
worked out in situ. This system has produced confident and excellent
teachers in its application, and any graduate program which uses teaching
assistants could benefit by adopting the procedures that have made the
187 system work so well at Syracuse University.
Back to the Faculty Page
I sincerely wish to thank C. L. Hardin, Cheryl Patton, and Arnold Wilson
for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
1. Jan Cover and Rudy Garns, Theories of Knowledge and Reality, Rev.
Ed., 1990, McGraw-Hill Inc. ISBN 07-013294-1.
2. David Oja, Student Writing in Philosophy: A Companion to Cover and
Garns, 1990, McGraw-Hill Inc. ISBN 07-013274-7.
Copyright© Teaching Philosophy 1992. All rights reserved. Printed in USA.