Philosophy Inside and Outside the Classroom

Read an interview in which I explain how and why I do philosophy outside of the classroom (and how that relates to my teaching and research).

My Teaching Philosophy

Building Thinking Skills

I believe doing philosophy provides us with valuable skills, including the ability to have productive discussions about contentious issues, the ability to carefully and rigorously analyze and evaluate arguments, the ability to speak and think clearly and precisely, and the ability to ask useful and perceptive questions. My classes are aimed at helping you build these skills (not just memorizing and regurgitating terminology or what so-and-so has said).

Building Academic Skills and Habits

Part of college is learning how to learn: learning the basic academic skills and habits that will enable you to succeed in future schooling and work (not to mention life!). To achieve our goals and make a positive impact on ourselves and others, we need to be able to push through frustration and challenges, meet deadlines, organize our schedules, ask for help when we need it, and work collaboratively with others. I design my classes so that they help you develop these skills and habits, because I want to set you up to succeed even after you leave my class.

Activities and Practice

We develop skills through deliberate practice: by setting ourselves a task, trying to achieve it, and responding to feedback about how we've done. Since a major goal of my classes is to help you develop skills (such as reasoning skills), you'll do a lot of practice both in class and in assignments. And, since you don't learn skills just by hearing someone talk about how to do something, I don't do a lot of lecturing. (When I taught my daughter to ride a bike, there's a good reason I didn't just tell her to read a book about it!) Instead, I'll often give you a brief demonstration or explanation of a concept or skill, and then you'll do various activities or exercises (debates, small group discussions, role-playing activities, practice problems, etc.) to practice your skills, test your comprehension, or apply what you've learned.

Free Expression and Inclusion Policy (with exercises)

This is the policy I use in my classes to promote both academic freedom and inclusive learning. I developed it by adapting some language and ideas from Carleton College's policy and the PEN center. Some language is borrowed from the Saint Paul College Free Expression and Inclusion Policy, which I helped develop. I'm very grateful to Wendy Roberson for helpful feedback and consultation. Following the policy there is an exercise we do on the first day of class to clarify our expectations of each other and brainstorm strategies for productive discussions. Others should feel free to use or adapt the policy and exercises for their own courses.

The Policy

Free Expression and Inclusion Policy:

As your instructor, I am committed to two core values in all class discussions and activities:

(1) Free Expression: a class environment should be places where ideas relevant to course goals can be freely and productively explored and critically examined, even if those ideas are unpopular, controversial, uncomfortable, or offensive. This is important because getting at the truth about complex subjects requires the freedom to explore controversial views, and participating in democratic civil society requires the ability to engage productively with those with whom we (sometimes passionately) disagree.

(2) Inclusion: a class environment should be a place where all students are welcomed as equal participants and in which those who have been historically marginalized (unjustly excluded) are actively supported and engaged, regardless of (among other things) their race, nationality, gender/gender identity, sexual orientation, political views, (dis)ability, class, and religious tradition (or lack thereof). This is important because all students have a right to an equal opportunity to learn, and by working to understand and engage with diverse perspectives, especially those that are often unjustly excluded or ignored, we will develop as learners and as people.

I will work to conduct all class activities and discussions in ways that help promote these goals and, because I cannot succeed alone, I will expect you, as students, to actively promote them as well.

This means you CAN expect that:

    • I will remind you that we all have a responsibility to actively promote a class environment where everyone, including those with historically marginalized perspectives, has an equal opportunity to meaningfully engage in learning. Power dynamics inside and outside the classroom can lead to some groups or individuals feeling their perspectives are ignored, excluded, or marginalized in class activities or discussions. To promote both free expression and inclusion, all of us – especially those who are not part of the marginalized groups -- should aim to address these impacts in ways that encourage understanding of those marginalized perspectives and how they contribute to the course. I will also design course content and activities that productively engage all students and support students in navigating challenging learning experiences.

    • I will remind you that we all have a responsibility to actively promote a class environment where everyone can feel free and welcome in discussing controversial topics and expressing controversial perspectives relevant to the course. To help everyone develop their understanding and get closer to the truth, we will be working together to examine issues and arguments for a variety of different perspectives, including those that are unpopular and potentially offensive or upsetting. Discussing controversial issues productively is a skill that takes practice to develop, so we should expect that we will all make mistakes sometimes. Whenever possible we will work together to remind each other to conform to standards of civility and we will do so in a charitable and non-shaming manner. Reasoned and relevant comments that help us examine controversial arguments or ideas are valuable and legitimate ways to contribute to productive class discussions, even if they happen to offend or upset an individual or group. On the other hand, the value will be undermined if the contributions are not relevant to the course goals or they are expressed or presented in needlessly provocative or hurtful ways. We will work together as a class to distinguish these productive uses of free expression from the unproductive ones.

    • I will be eager to hear your questions or concerns about the class and support you in doing your best. I will be happy to talk to you about any questions or concerns you have about the class, including any times you feel upset about something I have said or done. If you find that course activities elicit reactions (such as trauma) that interfere with your learning, I will be ready to collaboratively discuss the fair options for supporting you. When doing so, I am committed to taking your concerns seriously and making reasonable accommodations that are compatible with course goals and that reflect a fair standard applied to all students similarly affected, though I cannot fairly exempt you from course work. Keep in mind that I cannot support you if I don't know about your concerns, so it is your responsibility to let me know if you need support.

    • When grading work in which you defend your own view on a controversial issue, I will grade you not on what view you argue for but instead on how well you argue for it using the skills and strategies we learn in class. None of your comments in class discussions will affect the grade on your assignments.

    • I will often push you to explain and justify what you say. I will do this in order to give you practice explaining and critically evaluating your own views and the views of others.

    • I will typically not tell you what I think about the controversial issues we discuss. What matters is not what I think but that you work to build the skills required to make your own well-reasoned judgments. So, you should not assume that any comments I make are expressions of my own view; instead, they will often be feedback I am offering you to give you practice articulating and defending your views regardless of whether I agree with them or not.

However, you CANNOT expect

    • never to be offended or upset by class activities or discussions. While everyone will be expected to express themselves in ways that promote free expression and inclusion, sometimes you might feel offended by things others say even if they express themselves in a respectful and civil manner. Productive learning experiences can be unsettling and uncomfortable, because they challenge us to critically examine our own beliefs, values, and assumptions. Teaching and learning effectively requires managing the discomfort that is a natural side-effect of academic and personal growth. In cases where someone feels offended or upset about a class activity, those involved should take a step back and take time to reflect on their feelings, needs, and impacts on others and seek out a productive and collaborative way to address them (for example, meeting with me in office hours).

    • that all ideas will be treated as equally plausible or worthy of course time. Getting at the truth about topics we’ll discuss requires being willing to examine uncomfortable, unpopular, or controversial views. That is why academic freedom is important in colleges and universities. However, that does not mean all ideas are equally plausible or relevant to the course. For instance, Logic students interested in discussing political philosophy in depth will be referred to office hours, and demonstrably false claims (such as that the Earth is flat or that immigrants are likely to be criminals) will be labeled as such and not dwelled upon. I will use my judgment to guide the discussion in the ways that best use our time to achieve the course goals, but I encourage you to email or come to office hours if you have questions or concerns about this.


Discussion Exercise: when directed, each group will focus on one of the case studies below. Read the case study and questions out loud together, then discuss the questions. Finally, work together to write down at least one rule or guideline for good class discussions that would address the challenges in the case study. (If you finish, you can take a look at the other cases, too.)

A: The class is having a discussion about the morality of same-sex relationships. While examining an argument about the issue made in one of the readings, a student explains why they think the argument is a good one. Another student, Connor, rolls his eyes and makes a scoffing noise. Connor consistently does this during the class when people make comments he disagrees with. When asked by the teacher if he has thoughts to share, Connor very confidently explains why he thinks the other students’ views are “clearly wrong.” How might Connor’s behavior impact the class discussion? Is there advice you’d give Connor about how to make his contributions to the discussion more productive? In what ways is Connor’s attitude getting in the way of his learning? What role should the instructor have in addressing this situation?

B: The class is discussing the morality of abortion: when, if ever, is it morally permissible to have an abortion? The focus is on evaluating common arguments (both pro-choice and anti-abortion) arguments to examine why public discussions are so unproductive. To get the class started, Jason explains each of the arguments so that everyone understands them before they divide up and start evaluating them (seeing if they’re any good or not). After explaining one argument, Jason asks if anyone has any questions about the argument, which is a common one that is often raised in public discussions of abortion. In response, one student, very confidently and with scorn in his voice, says, “I get the argument, but it’s ridiculous and I don’t see why we’re wasting our time with it.” How might the student’s contribution impact the class discussion? Is there any advice you’d give the student about how to make his contributions to the discussion more productive? In what way is the student’s attitude getting in the way of his learning? What role should the instructor have in addressing this situation?

C: Student A is anxious about the prospect of discussing controversial issues such as racism and immigration, because, as a Muslim, a person of color, and a child of immigrants, she has had to endure a lot of hostility due to the political climate in the United States. People have yelled hateful things at her from their cars and told her and her friends to “speak English” at restaurants. In public discussions of immigration policy, especially on TV and in political discussions, people repeatedly throw around claims that immigrants are likely to be criminals despite the fact that these claims are demonstrably false (Ousey and Kubrin 2009; Charen 2017; Ewing et al. 2015; Nowrasteh 2015). She feels angry when the discussion is dominated by White people who have no idea what it’s like to face such scorn for being themselves or for expressing their views. She is worried that she’ll have to listen to similar things in class discussions. What could other students do to help ensure that Student A feels like a valued contributor to discussions? What are some productive ways that Student A could advocate for herself in the class? What role should the instructor have in addressing this situation?

D: Student B identifies as heterosexual and is about to enter the class to discuss moral arguments related to sexual orientation and gender identity. The class is going to focus specifically on arguments about (1) same-sex relationships and (2) using a persons’ preferred gender pronouns. Student B feels confident about her views on these topics, because she has discussed them extensively with her friends (who are also heterosexual). In fact, being a wife to her husband and a mother to her children is very important to her and she sees it as a central part of her identity. She feels a bit unsure how she should participate in the discussion in class given that she has strong feelings and, in past discussions with family, people have sometimes been offended when she expressed her views even though she tried to be respectful. What advice would you give Student B about how she could participate productively in the discussion? What can other students do to help make sure Student B feels able to share her perspective? What role should the instructor have in addressing this situation?

E: The class is discussing the claim, defended by some feminists, that there is gender oppression in the United States: that women are unjustly subordinated on the basis of their gender. The class is doing small group discussion activities in which they are first working to understand an argument about the topic and then starting to test the argument by looking at objections that might be raised to it. One student suggests to his small group that, “I’ve heard arguments like this before, and they’re no good. It’s not going to change my mind. Let’s just skip to looking at objections to the argument, because it won’t be hard to find some good objections.” The group goes along with the suggestion and they skip the activities intended to help them make sure they understand the argument before evaluating it. How might the student’s suggestion impact the group’s learning? Is there any advice you’d give the students about how to change their attitudes or contributions in the discussion? What role should the instructor have in addressing this situation?

F: The class is discussing the morality of physician-assisted suicide. Student A makes a passionate critique of an argument the class is discussing, and they state that they think the argument is “obviously” flawed. The student is very passionate in stating their position, and it becomes clear they haven’t really understood opposing views other students have offered. In response, student B says, “I can see you’ve got strong feelings about this, but I think you’re just scared to admit you might be wrong.” What advice might you give to either student about how they could more productively contribute to the discussion? What role should the instructor have in addressing this situation?

References:Mona Charen, “Good, Bad, and Emotional Arguments about Immigration,” The National Review Online. March 22, 2017. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/446016/immigration-maryland-high-school-rape-case-emotion-makes-bad-policyWalter Ewing, Daniel Martinez, Ruben Rumbaut, “The Criminalization of Immigration in the United States,” American Immigration Council, July 13, 2015. https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/criminalization-immigration-united-statesGraham C. Ousey and Charis E. Kubrin, “Exploring the Connection between Immigration and Violent Crime Rates in U.S. cities, 1980-2000). New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, “Refugee Myths,” accessed Feb 1, 2017. http://www.dhhs.nh.gov/omh/refugee/myths.htmAlex Nowrasteh, “Immigration and Crime – What the Research Says,” The Cato Institute, July 14, 2015. https://www.cato.org/blog/immigration-crime-what-research-says

Descriptions of Courses Taught (for students)

These are just meant to give a very basic overview of what each course is about and why it is important. Formal course descriptions and course learning outcomes can be found on the Saint Paul College website. Click here!

Phil 1710: Logic

I teach it: usually every semester

What's this course about?

Logic is the study of arguments. A person makes an argument when they make an inference from some claims to another: “Addie ate the cake, because she has crumbs on her face and the cake is gone.” We all make and hear arguments on both trivial and highly important issues every day. But, what makes arguments and inferences good or bad? When should you be convinced by an argument and when shouldn’t you? Logic provides answers to these questions. In this class we’ll learn concepts and procedures for evaluating arguments and inferences.

Much of the course will be focused on symbolic logic. To understand what that is, compare math. Math uses a symbolic language to represent statements about numbers: we symbolize "one plus one equals 2" with 1+1=2. We can do procedures on the symbols to determine if the statements are true (or to figure out what equals what). Symbolic logic uses a symbolic language to represent arguments that people make in natural languages (such as English or Swahili). It then provides procedures we can use to see if those arguments make good inferences. In class, we learn how to use one symbolic language and a few procedures to evaluate the logic of statements and arguments.

Why is this course important?

Being a good citizen requires being a good thinker, and doing Logic helps you develop the skills of a good thinker. The skills and concepts we’ll learn in this class will help you examine your own and others’ arguments so you can make your own well-reasoned decisions about what to think. In some cases, you’ll be able to directly apply the concepts and skills we learn to help you with real-life arguments. In other cases, the procedures we’ll learn are more indirectly valuable. Just as people lift weights so that they can build muscles that help them do other valuable things, doing Logic can help you build intellectual habits and skills that will be valuable even if you don’t ever have to do Logic again.

Phil 1720: Ethics

I teach it: usually every semester

What is this course about?

Every day we’re confronted moral questions: questions about what’s right, wrong, good, bad, or how we ought to live. What is racist and what’s not? Is abortion ever morally permissible? Should you be vegetarian? Should you lie to your friend or tell them the painful truth? What makes a good person or a good human life? Ethics, or Moral Philosophy, aims to find well-reasoned answers to these questions. In the class, you’ll explore some prominent arguments about important moral issues and, more importantly, you’ll learn reasoning skills you can use to make your own well-reasoned decisions about these and other moral issues you care about.

Why is this course important?

All of us face daily questions about how we should live and conduct ourselves. As citizens, we need to decide when, how, and why we ought to use our voices and our votes. And, coming to a well-reasoned decision about what to do is challenging. If we’re going to get at the truth and make a truly well-reasoned decision, we need to carefully examine a variety of different perspectives. Doing this takes practice, which we don’t often get (sometimes because we avoid or ignore views we don’t currently agree with). Moral philosophy provides the tools to make better decisions, and this class introduces you to those tools and gives you guided practice using them.

Phil 1722: Health Care Ethics

I teach it: usually every semester

What is this course about and why does it matter?

Ethics, or Moral Philosophy, is the search for well-reasoned answers to moral questions: questions about what’s right, wrong, good, bad, or how we ought to conduct ourselves. Responsible and competent health care practitioners (such as nurses, doctors, phlebotomists, laboratory techs, etc.) must be prepared to address many such questions. What obligations do you have to patients from a different culture or religion? When, if ever, is euthanasia or assisted suicide morally permissible? What about abortion or genetic manipulation? What’s the appropriate attitude towards disabilities and people who have them? What are moral restrictions on research on human subjects? Do health care practitioners have obligations to perform or assist with some procedures that go against their personal convictions?

In this class, you’ll explore some prominent arguments about these and other moral questions in healthcare. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll learn reasoning skills you can use to make your own well-reasoned decisions about these and other moral issues relevant to careers in health care. These moral reasoning skills are essential for being a responsible health care practitioner and citizen.

Phil 1724: Environmental Ethics

I teach it: every Spring semester

What is this course about, and why is it important?

Today humans face many pressing questions about the value of nature and how we ought to respond to threats to the natural world. How should we distribute the benefits and burdens of addressing climate change? Do racism and sexism play a role in some of our environmental policies? Should you change the way you consume goods like food, entertainment, and energy? Do animals, plants, and ecosystems matter for their own sake, or do we have an obligation to treat them well only if it benefits humankind? What duties do we have to future generations or the impoverished? How should we respond to impending species extinctions? Environmental Ethics, which is a branch of Moral Philosophy, aims to find well-reasoned answers to questions like these. In the class, you’ll explore some prominent arguments about important moral issues about the environment. More importantly, you’ll learn reasoning skills you can use to make your own well-reasoned decisions about these and other moral issues you care about.

As individuals and as a society, we have good reason to care about finding well-reasoned answers to the questions above. Doing this is challenging and takes practice, which we don’t often get (sometimes because we avoid or ignore views we don’t currently agree with). Moral philosophy provides the tools to make better decisions, and this class introduces you to those tools and gives you guided practice using them.

Phil 1770: Feminist Philosophy

I teach it: Fall semester

What is this course about, and why is it important?

Historically, women have been oppressed – unjustly subordinated – in a variety of ways. In many places and for a long time, women were legally barred from owning property. Women in the United States were denied the right to vote until 1920. Sexual harassment was not recognized until feminist introduced it in the 1970s. Marital rape was not a crime in all 50 states until 1993. The list goes on.

While some may think we have now, through changes in the law, eliminated gender oppression, Feminists contend that women are still oppressed in virtue of their sex. Women are much better off now than in the past, but there is still work to be done. They are subjected to physical violence, systematically excluded from important aspects of work and social life, denied the recognition, status, and opportunities men receive, and socially conditioned to look at themselves as inferior. Sometimes, this oppression is subtle and complicated by other factors, such as race, class, sexual orientation, and so on. Feminists aim to eliminate these types of oppression in order to bring about a more just society.

Still, feminists disagree about central questions: what constitutes gender oppression, and what we ought to do about it? Feminist philosophers aim to identify well-reasoned answers to these questions. They explore questions like: what is the nature of gender oppression, and how is it related to other types of oppression, such as racial oppression or oppression based on gender identity? How can we tell when oppression is present and when it’s not? What makes someone a woman or man? Is there a difference between a person's sex and their gender? Are women "naturally" different from men, and would it matter if they were? Is there a male bias in science and ethics? Can a pluralistic society like ours fight women's oppression while also recognizing the rights of cultures to maintain their distinctive practices? In this class, you will work to understand and evaluate prominent feminist answers to these questions, along with non-feminist critiques of feminist views. The emphasis will be on helping you develop your own well-reasoned views on the issues. Doing so will be valuable because it enables you to be more thoughtful and engaged citizen and to refine and examine your views about what you can do to make our world more just and fair.

Phil 1710: Intro to Philosophy

I teach it: intermittently

The purpose of this course is to engage the student in a number of central topics in philosophy through the examination and analysis of the writings of contemporary and major Western philosophers as well as through the close study of several fundamental issues which have arisen in the course of the development of the Western philosophical tradition. Topics of study will include areas such as the nature of human knowledge, perception and illusion, the nature of consciousness, personal identity, minds, brains and machines, freedom and determinism, philosophy of religion, and the meaning of life.

The goals of the course are to:

  • Introduce students to some philosophical questions and some prominent answers to those questions.

  • Help students develop skill at analyzing and evaluating philosophical arguments, including some prominent types of arguments they might come across in their daily lives and career fields: argument from analogy and inference to the best explanation.

  • Help students develop skill clearly, concisely, and precisely articulating their own well-reasoned positions on complex philosophical issues in both writing and discussion.

  • Help students understand and explain why philosophical methods are valuable in their own lives.