Teaching Statement — Beau Branson
In keeping with the emphases of my research, my teaching centers on the skills of close reading, and critical logical analysis. Regardless of whether they pursue Philosophy further, students will leave my classes having improved on two of the most highly valuable, and highly transferable, skills there are. Against Philosophy’s reputation for impracticality, I emphasize the practical value of the skills Philosophy exercises, and continually bring discussions back to concrete implications of the content we study through dynamic, hands-on activities.
A good example of a hands-on activity revealing the relevance of philosophy is an Original Position role-playing game I developed for the Political Philosophy section of my Intro courses. I put students into “societies” of 5-6 per table, and each is dealt a character card specificying their character’s age, race, gender, disabilities (if any), sexual orientation, strength, intelligence, etc. Each table gets a society card specifying a type of economy, yearly cost of living, base income, and various income multipliers on income depending on the prejudices in that society. Cards are dealt face down to illustrate Rawl’s idea of the Veil of Ignorance, and before they turn them over students must first debate laws governing taxation, discrimination, etc. Having students discuss their experiences after such games and activities, helps them see the practical importance of these philosophical ideas in a concrete way, increasing their engagement when it comes time to struggle with interpretting a difficult text or untangling a complicated argument.
After getting students to buy into the importance of a topic, I teach close reading skills primarily by modeling them. Especially for historical texts, I sometimes give students copies of readings I have personally marked up in detail, so they can see what I have highlighted as important, how I have marked ideas as connected, comments and questions I have written in the margin, and what I have left unmarked as less critical. In other cases, I will select key passages of a text, and work with students sentence-by-sentence during class to reconstruct the argument in premise / conclusion form. Since students are often not explicitly taught close reading skills in high school, I believe being taken through this sort of exercise – and particularly seeing it modeled by their professor – is critical. In my experience, it noticably improves the quality of student performance in terms of ability to identify the logical structure of an argument, as well as focusing students on analyzing that logical structure, rather than simply its conclusion, or rhetorical power.
I typically begin semesters with a brief, highly focused talk on logic, tailored to the course and level of the students, explaining the ideas of truth functions and truth tables, so they can see why validity is essentially “mathematical” and objective, not a matter of opinion. Throughout the semester, after reconstructing an argument, we either use an online validity checker for symbolic reconstructions of arguments, or Venn diagrams or other diagramatic means of examining (in)validity. To hammer home even further the point that validity is not subjective, I ask students, “if a Christian and an atheist typed these exact same symbols into this validity checker, would the computer say ‘valid’ to the atheist and ‘invalid’ to the Christian?” Or, “would it make sense for a Christian and an atheist to use different Venn diagrams to model the exact same argument?” And so on. This encourages students to engage with the actual logic of the arguments they are assigned to evaluate, and results in less focusing on an argument’s rhetorical power, or whether they agree with its conclusion.
I have successfully tailored this general approach to different contexts, from small classes at Notre Dame, to the large lecture halls of KBTU’s General Education Faculty and International School of Economics. Though most of my students will not pursue Philosophy further, they leave with marked improvement in their critical reading and thinking skills – two of the most highly valuable, practical skills for almost any field they might pursue.