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Teachers & students

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• Is the world eternal? YES
• Do humans have contra-causal free will (i.e., can humans do otherwise)? NO
• Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? YES
• Do humans have souls? YES
• Are there natural rights? YES
• Is it morally permissible to eat meat? NO
• Is the unexamined life worth living? NO
• Is truth subjectivity? YES
• Is virtue necessary for happiness? YES
• Can a computer have a mind? YES
• Can humans know reality as it is in itself? YES
• Is hell other people? YES
• Can art be created accidentally? NO
• Can we change the past? NO
• Are numbers real? NO
• Is it always better to know the truth? YES

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Here is a philosophical question for students and teachers alike:

What should the relationship be between students and teachers?

I’ll say a bit more to motivate the question. One model, maybe a traditional one, is that teachers are sort of “totally other” from the students: they have the knowledge, wisdom, and expertise, and they should command respect from the students and serve as a kind of challenge to the students. The icon here is Professor Kingsfield, the law professor in The Paper Chase — students do whatever they can to earn his respect, and he is constantly raising the bar for them.

A second model is the teacher as friend of the student, or a co-learner. In this case the teacher might even pretend to know less, to make the student feel as if he/she is making new discoveries along with the teacher.

I’m sure there are other models, or compromises between these two. What do you think?



  1. Heather Albee-Scott says:

    I think students, of any age, can see through the pompous insecurity of a teacher like the character in “The Paper Chase” and the obvious charade of a teacher of the latter description. My favorite, fictional teacher is Robin Williams’s character in “Dead Poets Society” who is able to engage the students, push them beyond their comfort level (as with the character played by Ethan Hawke), and demonstrate his own love for new knowledge without appearing to be an idiot.

    Out of curiosity Charlie, what do you believe the role of the teacher should be?


  2. Huenemann says:

    I’m really not sure. In my own classes, I try to play the role of an experienced guide who knows the terrain and can point out interesting features to the tourists. I think this approach makes everyone feel fairly comfortable, and I’m good at conveying my own excitement, but I am not sure that it really challenges anyone into growth (it is a tour, not Outward Bound!). I know I should spend more time getting to know the students individually so that, once in a while, I can really target their own interests and help them get into something they might have missed otherwise.


  3. Doug says:

    I believe that the method of teaching that is successful will vary depending on each individual student (and probably the subject). Some students learn with a greater rate of retention when the teacher ultimately commands the classroom, gives lectures, and offers little time for clarifications or discussion. We all had this type of teacher that gave lectures, assignments, and their was no discussion. I have met students that like this type of learning environment because they are shy, and do not want to participate, so they would prefer to be taught at, rather than taught with.

    Then there is the teacher that (at least pretends) learns with his students. This type of teacher gives the student the opportunity to progress on their own, rather than trying to retain random bits of information. However, the teacher has the ability to guide the students in the right direction. Students that are not intimidated easily may prefer this approach.

    I know I have had both types of teachers. Those that prefer to teach their students by getting them to compete and earn their respect. They do not normally teach by discussion, they lecture (these would have been my political science professors). I know I have done really well in these classes because they only require me to retain information and kiss a little-well you know; however, I cannot honestly say I retain a large percentage of the things taught in this type of class environment.

    In my opinion, the teachers (like Charlie) that I have had that guide students or learn with students are the ones that seem to help students the most. By being forced to find your own answers you are far more likely to retain the information as well as understand the issue in-depth.

    Maybe some sort of guide should be given to students that enter the academic enviroment that outlines the teachers teaching methods, that way students could choose what type of environment they would suceed in the most. Although, due to ego I doubt many teachers would acknowledge they are the lecture only type.


  4. Mike says:

    Students, like teachers, come in (at least) two modes — the learner and the certificate earner. The earner is just there to get in, get out, move on. The learner is trying to get at a different pre-determined end (usually unknown to the teacher, sometimes even unknown to the student). I think it’s best to design courses to satisfy the earners — keep the class well defined and let people know what they need to get a decent grade (don’t waste people’s time, because course requirements are not life requirements and waste is in the eye of the beholder). Then when you come across a learner, they may take more time but hopefully it’s worth the effort. During actual classtime I guess you should be throwing out signals that either group can pick up.

    It’s great to tackle these unsolvable problems once and for all in blog comments ;)

    And yes, these two categories of students are mutually exclusive, for those who were wondering.


  5. Heather Albee-Scott says:

    I agree with Doug, that students have a preferred way to be taught, and the nice thing about college is that one can actually choose their instructor, though they may miss out on certain classes. I admit, I took many classes only because of who the instructor was, which meant I took classes I may not have otherwise, but also means I missed out on certain material because of my predetermined idea of how the material would be taught.

    Charlie was my instructor 14 years ago and I do think he does a great job of finding individual student’s strengths and desired format for instruction. He also continuously raises the bar, which should be expected at an institute of higher learning.


  6. Huenemann says:

    Thanks, Doug and Heather, for your kind words. I’m on sabbatical now, and part of that means reflecting on teaching and seeing how to do things differently. Last fall in one course I had students give presentations. Some students didn’t like it, and we didn’t cover as much ground as when I hold forth, but the discussions were much more active and interesting. I think I’ll try to do more of that in the future, along with getting to know the students better. but Mike is also right — I need an escape hatch for those who are just there for credits and a grade!


  7. Mike says:

    It’s always a good idea to try to get people out of their default modes of thought. If we could prescribe something that could achieve that task every time that’d be great. Unfortunately, like we’ve talked about before I think, when a breakthrough happens the cause and effect relationship is mysterious. My current best answer to how to break people out is through little Vonnegutian blasts of irony. I can’t say that this method has been very productive but I prefer it over more obscuritanist forms of irony or even something like zen koans.

    But I don’t teach in a classroom so what do I know?

    I wish I could take ancient philosophy again from a teacher who required way too much from me instead of one who required way too little. My consolation is that I took that class on Homer with Charlie and Emil Kramer.


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