I submitted the following statement of teaching philosophy with several of my later academic job applications. I stand by it now:
A concern with virtue ethics, important to my research, also informs my teaching. I believe that an education in Asian philosophy has the capacity to enrich, nourish and transform the whole student, in a sense that goes beyond the simple accumulation of factual knowledge. My concern with the education of the whole student is important to both the content and the methods of my teaching.
In selecting content, for courses on the traditions of faraway places and times, I emphasize that the ideas I teach are not merely antiquarian or distant curiosities. I aim to excite students by bringing the ideas and practices of unfamiliar traditions alive, showing them how those ideas and practices can speak to them and challenge them. For students who were uninterested in the fields I teach, this means showing them that these other traditions have something to offer them, something that can become a part of their lives. Conversely, for students who already meditate or wear OM necklaces, it means showing them more difficult ideas and practices in the traditions, ideas that they don’t accept or practices that make them uncomfortable. Either way, my ideal is to teach my students ancient ideas and practices in a way that will help them grow and mature — without trying to force that growth in a particular direction.
My teaching methods, too, are aimed at cultivating intellectual virtues in students: self-confidence, humility, self-discipline and the love of learning. I aim to nurture students’ self-confidence and self-respect by providing a supportive environment inside and outside class. If class size allows, I meet with every student individually and informally for ten minutes at the beginning of a semester, to make students feel more confident about meeting with me. I also make sure to write my critical comments on students’ assignments in such a way that they criticize the students’ work and not the students themselves.
At the same time, I do not see self-esteem as an unalloyed good; I use marks to show students they can do better, and I provoke the more self-assertive students in class with tough questions that challenge their confident assertions. Of all the comments I have received from students on my teaching, the one I am most proud of was “you bastard!” — for a student had said this because I had found the key flaw in his paper’s argument, the one he had hoped I wouldn’t catch. Eventually, he rewrote the paper arguing for an entirely different (and stronger) position.
Most fundamentally, I aim to nurture a love of and an interest in learning that goes beyond the information I can provide myself. A central principle underlying my teaching is to make students discover the course material for themselves. I believe that students are most engaged and retain ideas best when they have found those ideas through direct contact with the material studied.
In practice, I put the students in direct contact with course material in two major ways. First, I give students chances to discuss course readings with each other, grappling with them among themselves. In medium-large classes, if the material lends itself to such an approach, I have students engage in scheduled formal debates with each other. In slightly smaller classes, I break them down into small groups for discussion of specific points before returning to take the material up as a whole class. In the smallest and most advanced courses, students will spend class understanding the readings together as a group. This can involve reading a single text together from start to finish; for longer texts, it can also involve a collaborative tutorial approach. In this approach, students work on research papers as their final projects; after some orienting sessions early in the class, the students themselves choose selections from the readings that are most closely related to their own research projects, which they present for reading and discussion in class by the other students. Each of these approaches requires, of course, that I make myself easily available to students so that they may consult me before presenting.
Giving students such a strong role does have its pitfalls, of which I am well aware. Michael Sandel, whose classes overflow Harvard’s largest auditorium because of his renown among students as a great lecturer, offered me a maxim I cherish: “Students would nearly always rather hear themselves talk than hear you talk. But they would nearly always rather hear you talk than hear each other talk.” When students have a great deal of responsibility, it is particularly important for me to take a leadership role — pointing out (gently but firmly) when students make mistakes, insisting that students raise hands in all-group discussions so that shy students have a voice.
I also engage students directly with course material in that, as much as possible, the reading lists for my courses involve translated primary texts and original scholarly articles, rather than introductory textbooks. Naturally, many students, especially first-years and non-concentrators, may feel themselves adrift when plunged directly into a difficult primary work. To me, this is what lectures are for; effectively, in lecture, I attempt to be the introductory textbook, the resource that guides students with enough information to understand the primary sources. I also make judicious use of visual and audio materials, when they will show students aspects of the traditions they study that they will not learn through words alone. In some cases I include an introductory textbook as recommended reading, for the sake of those students who need additional guidance, but I do not require it.
In short, I intend and hope that my students emerge from my classes as slightly more fully developed people — at once more confident and more humble, more disciplined, and above all filled with a love of learning. I promote this love through various direct encounters with the course material, pushing students to engage directly with it and find the aspects that puzzle and excite them most. I know that I will not ultimately reach every student in these ways; but to do so is the goal for which I strive.