teaching

Crash Course: Metaphysics & Epistemology of Race

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 13/06/2019 - 11:45pm in

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teaching, reading

Welcome to another installment of the “Crash Course” series, this time on the metaphysics and epistemology of race. 


Jacob Lawrence, “The Library”

As with other installments in the crash course series, the idea is to come up with a set of primary readings a person could reasonably complete in 1-3 weeks that provides a sense of the central developments and matters of dispute in the selected area, as background to further study in it.

The key here is to provide a set of readings that makes sense together, not to just make one-off suggestions. Here’s a great example of the kind of answer we’re looking for, from our crash course on the epistemology of disagreement; note that it contains several works, organized in a particular order. Additionally, while resources like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy are very useful, please refrain from including reference materials in your list.

As an additional source of information, I’m happy to share this schematic of current debates in the metaphysics and epistemology of race put together by Quayshawn Spencer (University of Pennsylvania). You are welcome to suggest sets of readings on the M&E of race in general, or on any significant debate within this area.

Thank you.

The post Crash Course: Metaphysics & Epistemology of Race appeared first on Daily Nous.

Representation at the APA

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/06/2019 - 11:26pm in

Tags 

research, teaching

“41 of 45 the APA’s officers, or 91.1%, are from research universities. While I understand that research plays a central role in the discipline, this strikes me as potentially a missed opportunity in several respects.”

Those are the words of Marcus Arvan, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Tampa, in a  post at The Philosophers’ Cocoon, written in the wake of the American Philosophical Association’s recent elections.


Anni Albers, “Orchestra III”

Professor Arvan isn’t objecting to which candidates won. As he says, he was “pleasantly surprised that a number of people I voted for were elected.” But he thinks it would be good for the APA if it paid more attention to the disparity in the types of universities and colleges its officers work at. Why?

He writes:

First, as someone who works at a liberal arts university, my sense is that philosophers at institutions like mine face a distinct set of challenges—many having to do with pressures in higher education to marginalize the humanitiesmajor and program closures, increased administrative and assessment burdens on top of high teaching loads, adjunct dependence, and so on… My sense is that if we want to preserve the discipline of philosophy and have it flourish in the decades to come, it may be very important for professional organizations like the APA to be sensitive to these unique challenges, in ways that (I think) only representatives from such institutions may be well-placed to understand. By a similar token, I think it would probably make a great deal of sense to not only have ample representation by faculty from liberal arts universities, but also from community colleges—as faculty in those environments almost certainly have professional challenges of their own that professional organizations might help with.

Second, I think that expanding representation in the boards of professional organizations may help faculty from non-research universities feel more included and valued in the profession—and, by extension, graduate students and job-marketeers seeking such jobs. For my part, I have heard on multiple occasions of how faculty from “teaching schools” can feel left out or marginalized in the profession–ranging from how they feel treated at conferences (viz. “People just ignore me when they see my nametag”) to how the vast majority of prestigious prizes in the profession are for research rather than for teaching, service, to grad students being told by faculty in their highly-ranked programs that jobs at teaching schools are undesirable, and so on. I think, in other words, that more representation from faculty at different kinds of programs might help our discipline become less hierarchical, demonstrating more to its diverse membership that what we all do is valuable (and valued).

He also suggests it would be good to “seek out and include philosophy PhDs who have left academia for positions on the board—philosophers who are still interested in the profession, but who (for whatever reason) have pursued ‘alt-ac’ careers.”

Professor Arvan refrains from possible explanations for the disparity he notices. Part of it may be owed to institutional incentives: certain types of schools may steeply prioritize service to the school over service to the profession. Part of it may be owed to the way jobs are structured: higher teaching loads may leave professors with less flexibility in their schedules for fitting in additional service work. There may be other factors at work here. It would be especially useful to hear from professors at institutions that are not “R1“-type places as to what they think is the explanation for the representational disparity, and what they think should be done, if anything, to change it.

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Managing Teaching Assistants — Help Sought.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 06/06/2019 - 8:55am in

A team working on developing a short handbook for professors about how to manage TAs – this being, like so many other teaching-related matters, something we have little training and guidance in – asked me to come up with a few comments to start of the process. Below the fold are the initial thoughts which, with your help, I can revise to provide them with a starting point. Please comment away as you see fit – most of you have either managed, or been, or had, TAs, and have some sort of insight into what goes well and what goes badly, and what might be good advice for the professors who supervise them.

1.The professor and TAs constitute a team the central focus of which is to optimize the learning of the students in the class.

2.The TA is a beginning teacher. Ideally they would have already gone through a substantial teacher training program. More realistically, they have had a day or two of orientation and anything from no to several years of experience. One of your jobs is to help them improve as a teacher: you are a trainer as well as a manager. So you need to be able to give good, helpful, advice.

3.Talk through the class with the TA before the semester begins and continually as the semester continues. In the first conversation make it very clear to the TA what you expect of them both in the sections/labs that they will be running and in the lecture room in which you are doing much of your teaching.

4.Every TA will encounter problems throughout the course, sometimes with an individual student and sometimes with a whole section. Tell them this, and encourage them to discuss the problems with you – this will help them solve the problems, but it will also help you think better about what is going on in the class.

5.A good TA has more insight into what the students are having difficulty with and what is too easy for them; and on the dynamics in the lecture room (in which they are not doing the teaching and therefore have more mental bandwidth to take in the dynamics). Elicit that insight from them.

6.If you’re teaching in a large room make one TA sit at the back, regularly, and tell you how well students are adhering to your electronics policy; whether you are projecting enough that all students can hear; how the acoustics work, at the back, when interactive discussion happens. And whatever else they might usefully be able to tell you.

7.If you want feedback on your own teaching, ask the TA for it, but don’t expect the TA to be fully frank. A TA is going to find it difficult to tell you how bad you are, but they can tell you that a discussion prompt didn’t work well (or that it did work well); whether you are talking as little as you think you are; that you are ignoring certain hands or certain parts of the room (I have a strong tendency to pay more attention to the left side of the room; it is helpful for me to have a TA who calls my attention to that fact), that a certain explanation left students cold. Or that some of you cultural references are out of date (during my unit on abortion I always raise a remarkably pertinent true-life example involving Roy Orbison who, when I started teaching, was still known by many students but now is known by none). Convey that you are exactly as open to criticism as you are: you should be very open to it, but don’t mis-signal that it is ok for them to be critical in ways that, in fact, will piss you off.

8.Talk with your TAs about the timing of graded assignments. You want them, as graders, to be able to give their full attention to the task, and the students need feedback that is timely. Attempt to time the assignments accordingly, working to some extent around the workflow of other responsibilities graduate students have, but also, as much as you can, around the workflow of other responsibilities the students have.

Reading Philosophy: Observations & Advice

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 29/05/2019 - 12:06am in

“I didn’t know that there is a field of study that counted as sensible the questions that were always in my head. Even more amazing is that the type of thoughts I offered as answers, while ramshackle, were the same type of answers philosophers provide. I changed my major before the end of the semester. But I had a problem. I did not know how to read philosophy.”

Those are the words of David W. Concepción, professor of philosophy at Ball State University, in a great little essay at The Philosophers’ Magazine in which he shares some observations about and advice for reading philosophy. I think the situation he describes himself being in is fairly common: students often find philosophy difficult to understand and have trouble approaching and reading philosophical texts.


Alexis Arnold, “Encyclopedia of Superstitions” (detail)

Here are Professor Concepción’s observations, in abbreviated form:

  1. “There is no such thing as reading without qualification. Instead there is reading as a philosopher, historian, cartographer, journalist, and so on. Even within a discipline there is no single way to read. In part, this is because there are many sub-types of writing within each field.”
  2. “The experience of reading philosophy is strange.”
  3. “The experience of reading philosophy is often disquieting.”
  4. “To read philosophy well one needs courage.”And then the advice:
  5. “Set the stage… By gaining some understanding of the conceptual terrain within which the essay I am reading resides, I can usually make better sense of the fine-grained discussion found in the essay.”
  6. “Track the structure and voice of the argumentation.”
  7. “Assess and note progress. Some passages are particularly thorny. As a result, it is very common to read philosophy much slower than one reads other texts. Indeed, many philosophers stop at the end of sections, and sometimes paragraphs or even sentences, to check if they can restate the ideas in their own words.”
  8. “Bring it all together. I find it very helpful to write out a summary of the argument once I reach the end of an essay.”
  9.  “Evaluate. At one’s leisure ruminate on what additional reasons there might be to think the author is correct or incorrect.”
  10. “Decide. After sufficient time, move from evaluating the arguments to your own conclusions.”

See the whole essay for Professor Concepción’s elaborations on each of these points.

If you have advice you provide to your students about how to read philosophy, or thoughts about it you wished someone had shared with you when you were first starting out, please share them in the comments.

The post Reading Philosophy: Observations & Advice appeared first on Daily Nous.

Four reasons to graphically illustrate your research

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/05/2019 - 8:06pm in

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teaching

Academic writing is often criticised for being overly complicated and impenetrable to anyone outside of a small circle of experts. In this post Gemma Sou reflects on how communicating her research in the form of a graphic novel transformed her research practice. Not only making her research more representative and accessible to those involved, but also through reshaping her research […]

What would be useful to know about class size.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 16/05/2019 - 11:33pm in

This is as much a request for information as anything else, and I imagine that it is information that other academics want too!

Most of the courses my department teaches fall into one of four categories. There are large and small courses, and there are courses aimed at majors and courses not aimed at majors. Plenty of small courses are not aimed at majors; most large courses are not aimed at majors (the exception, sort of, is 101, which is aimed, partly at least, at attracting majors). In our context, large means 80-100 (with, occasionally, 160); small means 15-30.

I suspect, as do most of my colleagues, that more learning-per-student occurs in the small than in the large classes. This is far from certain, because we lack high quality measures of learning. We also assume that some teachers are better than others in large courses, and some are better than others in small courses, but we don’t know a great deal about who, because…. we lack high quality measures of learning.

We are not going to engage in a wholesale reform of our curriculum (that’s a prediction, not an insistence). Like most departments, though, we have some latitude in deciding how large our courses will be. The key choice that we can make is in how big to make the big courses, and how small to make the small courses. So, for example, we could keep our large courses as low as 80, and pay the cost in terms of allowing caps on our smaller courses to rise to (say) 30. [Of course we could decide to teach all, or nearly all, of our classes, as mid-sized, and if you could find me research that convinced me that was optimal I would share it with colleagues and try to persuade them, but I am putting that possibility aside to simplify things]. Because we lack high quality measures of learning, and because sample sizes are anyway small, we can’t make those decisions on the basis of what we know about our own situation, so it would be handy to have research that could tell us something useful.

But the research I have seen doesn’t tell me anything useful.

I’ve read a smallish number of studies and what they all suggest, unsurprisingly, is that smaller classes are, generally, better than larger classes (typically in these studies ‘small’ means somewhere around 15, and ‘large’ means something like 80 and more). I suppose that is helpful in one way. But what I want to know is this: does the gain from reducing class size from, say, 25 to 20, outweigh the loss from increasing class size from, say, 80 to 100?

My conjecture is that it does. Here’s how I experience it a teacher. In a class with 20 students I can know every student, make sure all of them are engaged in the class, get them all to know each other, and the costs of making them come to class are virtually zero because they nearly all come to nearly every session, and they all feel accountable for telling me beforehand if they are going to miss. Because nearly everyone will speak in nearly every class session they almost all arrive prepared to almost every class. In a class of more than 25 none of that is true, and a gap opens between the committed students (most of them, but fewer than 20 of them) and the others. There isn’t enough time in each class session for me to ensure that they are all accountable for being prepared and, at some level, they know that, and, again, fewer than 20 are fully prepared every time. I suspect that if I had better skills I could manage a class of 25, but for a class of 35 my skills would have to be much, much better than they are.

Whereas. When my large lectures have 100 students, they are pretty much indiscernible from when they have 80. I get to know more students, and more students talk in class, but a lot of work is done in discussion sections which are capped around 20 where, in each section, students get the same attention as they do in a class of 80. The largest lecture I’ve taught is 180, and that does seem substantially different from 100 or 80—more absenteeism, and actually fewer students talk in lecture than when there are only 100, and hardly any come to my office hours (far fewer than when there are 100). This semester I taught 170, and all that was true, though the quality of the work they produced was very high: in particular the online discussions were much better than they have ever been in my lecture classes, though I suspect that is partly because I experimented with making them sit in their discussion sections during lectures, and changed the settings for online discussions so they were only reading and commenting on the posts of their fellow discussion section members.

So, my guess is that it is worth teaching significantly larger lectures for the sake of teaching more, and slightly smaller, small classes, at least for someone with my limited skills. Of course, my colleague have different arrays of skills than I do, and no doubt some are better with small classes, and some better with large lectures, than I. But… what I want is not evidence about whether more learning per student happens in small than in large classes, but whether there are thresholds for each kind of class that we should be attentive to in making decisions about class size.

Crash Course: Consequentialism & Deontology in Contemporary Normative Ethics

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 08/05/2019 - 10:24pm in

We’re going to try to solicit recommendations for a “crash course” on an aspect of contemporary ethics.

As with other installments in the crash course series, the idea is to come up with a set of primary readings a person could reasonably complete in 1-3 weeks that provides a sense of the central developments and matters of dispute in the selected area, as background to further study in it. Here’s a great example of the kind of answer we’re looking for, from our crash course on the epistemology of disagreement; note that it contains several works, organized in a particular order.


photograph by Derek Parfit

Today’s crash course topic—consequentialism and deontology in contemporary normative ethics—is quite a bit broader than our last one on the epistemology of disagreement, so it may be useful to give commenters some options about what to focus on: (1) contemporary consequentialist theories, (2) contemporary deontological theories, (3) a combination of 1 & 2, and (4) the important loci of disagreement between contemporary consequentialists and deontologists. In providing your answer, please let us know which of these best describes your recommendations. (Also, I think we should assume that the person taking your crash course has taken an introductory level course that covered the basic elements of the moral philosophies of major historical figures, such as Aristotle, Kant, and Mill.)

As I’ve noted in previous installments, some online resources (such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and PhilPapers) are quite helpful in learning about these areas, as are some textbooks. But I ask that commenters limit their suggestions here to substantive primary works on the subject—books and articles—keeping in mind that it’s supposed to be a crash course and not a semester’s worth of readings.

Thanks for your suggestions.

The post Crash Course: Consequentialism & Deontology in Contemporary Normative Ethics appeared first on Daily Nous.

A New Kind of Critical Thinking Text (guest post by David Manley)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 01/05/2019 - 11:04pm in

“What would it look like if we taught only the most useful skills from the toolkits of philosophy, cognitive psychology, and behavioral economics?”

That’s a question David Manley, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, asked himself after coming to think that the standard approach to critical thinking courses in philosophy departments was not as effective as it could or should be. His answer is in the form of a new, online textbook that brings philosophy together with other disciplinary approaches to take aim at more common reasoning errors using “the tools best suited to fix them.” In my opinion, this is an important, needed step in the development of critical thinking pedagogy.

In the following guest post*, Professor Manley describes the book, its motivation, and how it has worked out in the classroom.


Corinne Wasmuht, “Pehoé P”

A New Kind of Critical Thinking Text
by David Manley

My new text, Reason Better, is the result of rethinking the standard playbook for critical thinking courses. It’s about acquiring a mindset of inquiry, recognizing our cognitive biases, and adjusting our beliefs to match the strength of the evidence. You can check it out here. (Use the “Enter as Guest” button on the right, and once you’re in, view the chapters properly by clicking “Full Screen” on the bottom.)

Over the years, I got frustrated with the standard playbook for Intro to Logic and Critical Thinking courses. I felt that I was teaching students a grab-bag of items that had been handed down and were taught mostly out of convention. The material wasn’t aimed at the most prominent reasoning errors, and wasn’t using the tools best suited to fix them.

So I thought: what would it look like if we taught only the most useful skills from the toolkits of philosophy, cognitive psychology, and behavioral economics? And then I wrote the text for such a course. The result is a book that:

  • emphasizes acquiring a mindset that avoids systematic error, rather than persuading others.
  • focuses on the logic of probability and decisions more than on the logic of deductive arguments.
  • offers a unified picture of how evidence works in statistical, causal, and best-explanation inferences—rather than treating them as unrelated.

The unified account of evidence I offer is a broadly Bayesian one, but there aren’t any daunting theorems. (Without knowing it, students are taught to use a gentle form of the Bayes factor to measure the strength of evidence and to update.) It’s also shown how this framework illuminates aspects of the scientific method, such as the proper design of experiments.

I’m happy to report that there’s no need to accept the false choice between a narrow Intro to Logic course and a remedial Critical Thinking course. The course at Michigan (Ann Arbor) that uses this text– at the moment taught by the amazing Anna Edmonds–is rigorous but immensely practical. Students come away with a sense of how to weigh the strength of evidence for claims, and adjust their beliefs accordingly.

When I used this text last Fall for a class of nearly 300 students, I asked them to comment in their evaluations about all aspects of the course, including the text. The comments about my teaching itself were mixed, as usual. But the text and platform were just wildly popular. I don’t think I’ve ever had unanimous consent in a large class on anything before.

I’ve been hesitant to turn to a traditional publisher, because I like the TopHat platform so much:

  • There are embedded questions in each section that are auto-graded and ensure the students are doing the readings.
  • It offers a really nice UI for students with search and note-taking capabilities, and they can read the text and answer questions on any device.
  • It’s pretty cheap: TopHat charges $35 plus a $10 platform fee if the student isn’t using TopHat already.
  • Most importantly, any prof who assigns the text can change it however they like. Want the students to skip a section? Just cut it out. Don’t like the wording of a question? Just change it. It’s hard to overestimate how useful this is in a text.

The text is ready for use right now, but I’ll be continuing to improve it, so I’d be very happy to get any feedback. For the next month or so I’ll be working on an additional chapter called “Sources”, about social epistemology in a world of information overload: navigating science reporting, expertise, consensus, conformity, polarization, and conditions for skilled intuition.

Anyone who’d like to use the text for a course should email me at dmanley8@gmail.com from their academic account, and I’ll provide them with all kinds of course materials to go along with it.

The post A New Kind of Critical Thinking Text (guest post by David Manley) appeared first on Daily Nous.

The limits of impartiality in teaching applied philosophy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 30/04/2019 - 10:55pm in

In Harry’s thread on teaching applied ethics, one commenter expressed the view that teachers should not say which side they support in a debate and should think of themselves as acting as lawyers for both sides. I think Harry sort of agreed with the first point. However, this isn’t always possible and sometimes isn’t even desirable. It won’t be possible when you have expressed yourself publicly and in-print on the issue at hand. When you have, then students will know what you think. Sure, you can present the best counter-arguments to your view in their best light, and you should, and you should encourage disagreement (and discourage unwarranted praise). But they’ll still know.

Some cases, though, are more resistant to impartiality. Take the ethics of migration, for example. I don’t find it hard to present arguments for restriction as put by people like David Miller or Christopher Heath Wellmann. So to that extent, even where the students know where I stand, they also know that I think there are philosophically respectable people whose arguments need addressing and that if they agree with, say, Miller, rather than me, that’s OK. Much more difficult, I find, is when we get onto state enforcement of immigration policy. The problem here is that even the restrictionists hedge their support for restriction with an acknowledgement that states must respect human rights and the values embodied in the rule of law.

States too, at least of high days and holidays, proclaim their allegiance to those same value. So, for example, the then Conservative Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, gave a speech in his official capacity in 2013 about the meaning of the rule of law. (See also the “British values” that the UK state is supposedly commited too.) When he gave that speech, Theresa May’s “hostile environment” was in full swing, with terrible effects on the human rights of individuals and a series of parallel moves made it much harder for people caught in the maw of immigration enforcement and subject to detention and detention to affirm their legal rights. Since then, the British state has done things like using exemptions from data protection that it has granted itself to delve into migrants’ medical records in order to undermine asylum claims. I won’t provide a full catalogue of state crimes here.

So what does impartiality require of the teacher here? To invent a justification for state actions that departs from the state’s own publicly proclaimed values in order to have a position to argue against? We can only entertain in a philosophy class arguments that don’t pass the laugh test, and all we have in this case are the one-line rationalizations of polticians for really nasty policies, rationalizations that are obviously inconsistent with other things they say.

So yes, we have an obligation to present all serious arguments fairly, and we have a duty not to be openly party-politically partisan. But sometimes we must be open about what we think and there are some positions and policies that it is unreasonable to even try to find a case for.

David N. Mowry (1941-2019): “What does one say about the teacher who saved your life?” (guest post by Jack Weinstein)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 25/04/2019 - 10:43pm in

David N. Mowry, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York (SUNY) Plattsburgh, has died. 

Professor Mowry went to college at SUNY Oswego, and earned his MA and PhD in philosophy from Boston University in 1974. He began his teaching career at Plattsburgh in 1971, moving up through the ranks and retiring as a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy and director or the school’s Honors Program.

Professor Mowry seems to be the kind of professor that had a significant impact on his students. One of those students is Jack Russell Weinstein, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Dakota and host of the public radio show “Why? Philosophical Discussions about Everyday Life.”

Professor Weinstein posted a beautiful, moving tribute to Professor Mowry on his Philosophical Questions Every Day site. I read it and thought that this is something you all should see. We often discuss the ways in which philosophy can make a positive difference to the world. We shouldn’t forget that one way to do that is to make a positive difference to the lives of our students.


David N. Mowry

What does one say about the teacher who saved your life? How do I memorialize the passing of the person who plucked me out of the muck, who set me on the right path without knowing it, yet who was just doing his job? In 1987, I enrolled at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh, lost, discontented, and socialized to dysfunction. I graduated four years later, following in the footsteps of one of the most honorable and impressive people I have ever met.

David N. Mowry passed away on April 23, 2019; he was 78. When he retired, he was a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy and the founding director of his university’s honors program. Plattsburgh State is a small public university on the shores of Lake Champlain, in northern New York, an hour south of Montreal. David spent his entire career there, starting as an instructor in 1971, then becoming an assistant professor in 1974, an associate in 1980, and a full professor in 1990.

hese details are of little interest to non-academics. They tell the familiar story of a professor who becomes so entrenched in an institution that it is hard for students to think of one without the other. Their sparseness, however, hides the more remarkable aspects. Unlike most faculty who stayed in one place, David never gave up. He never became bitter. He was a beacon for student and institutional aspiration, channeling his energy into a groundbreaking honors program that accomplished something astonishingly rare in higher education: a curriculum that prioritized learning over accomplishment.

There was nothing about me that suggested I would end up in a college honors program. I grew up in an environment broken by addiction, anger, envy, self-deception and self-destructiveness, manipulation, and the complete inability to envision a future. I had almost failed my way through the number one academic public high school in the country, capping off a water-treading four years with a months-long illness that required 24-hour care. No one thought I would graduate, least of all me, but I did, and ended up at Plattsburgh State by default. They invited me to enroll in the new experimental STAR program, which I later found out stood for Student at Risk. I went hoping to write the great American novel, but was quickly drawn to philosophy by a temporary instructor who, despite years of googling, I still can’t find.

I’m pretty sure my first class with David was symbolic logic, my sophomore year. I would end up taking six classes with him and teaching a course under his supervision. I remember the very first conversation we had in class was not about logic, but about happiness. I don’t remember the exact question, but my answer was “money doesn’t make you happy. Look at Donald Trump; he’s rich and he seems miserable.” (This would have been in 1988.) David glowed with appreciation, which he always did when a student offered a meaningful response. That glow was the most vivid form of acknowledgment I had received to date.


The pond outside of David’s office. Walking this with David is almost always among his students’ favorite memories.

We would spend the next three years regularly walking around the landscaped pond outside his office. He, a dapper gentleman in a blue blazer, smoking a cigar, with a bald spot I would, ironically, inherit. Me, a thin punk rocker, with shredded clothing, towering over him, my oxblood Doc Martens plodding along to match his easy stride. David was a naturalist who would buy a piece of the Adirondack park, 45 minutes away from campus, to build a retreat. He spent years working with the state to minimize its environmental impact. I was still a New York City boy from a crack-ridden neighborhood, who thought that the fountain in the pond was nature. If he noticed the contrast, he never commented on it. Many years later, I would email him to ask what kind of telescope to buy my daughter when she became interested in the stars.

David was an Aristotle scholar, so happiness and morality were among his primary concerns. Aristotle’s fundamental insight was that a person could not be happy if he or she did not commit to a life of personal progress. That’s a modern phrasing—Aristotle wouldn’t recognize it—but what it means is that before we are happy, we have to be excellent. Aristotle argues that human beings are designed to do things. We are supposed to be citizens, care for ourselves physicality, commit to friendships, explore knowledge, and cultivate good character. Happiness is the culmination of each of us spending a lifetime doing all of these activities better and better. We are all also subject to the vicissitudes of life, what philosophers have come to call “moral luck.” It’s hard to be excellent if tragedy strikes, and Aristotle understood that his theory meant not everyone could meet his standards. He famously wrote that we couldn’t determine if a person was happy until after they died. As far as I can tell, David was the happiest person I know.

By the time I had met him, David had moved away from Aristotle and had devoted his time to the scholarship of teaching honors. Here, some of the academics reading this will scoff. Research on teaching is reputed to be the realm of the stagnant, an unsophisticated diversion to hide a lack of meaningful work. But this is unfair. There is plenty of crap in philosophy journals too, even the most prestigious ones, and David was doing something admirable. He was externalizing his honors experimentation. He was being Aristotle and Plattsburgh State was his lab. He wanted to see whether what he tried could be replicated and reproduced, and of course it was, for almost thirty years under David’s tutelage.


The course description advertising Philosophy of Activism.

By the time David and I became close, I was a solidly standard “gifted” student, coasting through my classes on instinct and relying on my ability to think on my feet. I resisted affiliation with the honors program—I couldn’t get past the sense that it was elitist—but I ended up doing a senior honors project anyway. I spent the fall semester writing a paper on philosophy of activism and then the spring teaching an honors seminar on what I had learnt. David mentored me and stayed in the room while I taught. As an undergraduate, there had to be an instructor of record, but it was my course, and my love of teaching unfolded before me. I didn’t realize that David had been waiting for the right student to experiment with undergraduate instruction. I couldn’t see that my own presence in the program was itself the argument against its elitism.

David was a remarkable teacher. He wasn’t entertaining and he didn’t pander. In many ways, his classroom pedagogy was old-fashioned: we read and discussed primary texts; he asked leading questions; he probably didn’t write on the board enough; he tried to get the students to talk with one another. But David understood the dignity of the student better than any person I have ever met. He had a remarkable sense of what not to say in a classroom, of how to leave enough space for active minds to make their own connections. Teaching was a joy for him, but bearing witness to student learning was his greatest pleasure. It was this that led him to design his own seminar room and tables, and to commit full time to teaching small honors courses, where the students figured out how to see one another, possibly for the first time.

I learned to teach in that seminar room. I learned classroom management and how to modulate my expectations. The very first day, right before the first class, David and I had a jovial disagreement because I wanted to talk about the premeditative nature of Rosa Parks’s protest. He insisted that the students wouldn’t know who she was. I thought he was crazy, but of course, he was right. The closest we got was one African-American woman who admitted that she knew Parks had something to do with civil rights, but didn’t know what. I think that’s changed a bit since the spring of 1991. Education about the civil-rights era has gotten better, but I can’t promise anything. My students have gotten very good at hiding from me what they don’t know.

The fact is, every time I walk into a classroom, David is with me. Every conversation I have with a student in my office, I feel his presence. He showed by example that classrooms are for teaching and office hours are for mentoring, although that’s not an absolute distinction. I inherited from him the insight that every one-on-one meeting with a student is a unique opportunity. Perhaps it is too intimate to admit, but of all the parent figures I have had in my life, including the two that raised me, David is the only one I was afraid of letting down. My father acknowledges this, in a sense, anyway. When I first told him how upset I was that David had cancer, he remarked, “of course you are. He gave you everything you have.”


David and I on my graduation day, in 1991 (during a brief stint with longer hair and having no idea what to do with it), and me, in 2016. In the latter picture, I am the same age David was when we met.

Despite my increasing abilities, I still wasn’t competitive enough to get into grad school. David suggested that I apply to Boston University’s University Professor Program, an interdisciplinary doctorate that interviewed students, looking past the traditional application process. They accepted me and less than a semester into my graduate career, I was asked by the chair of Philosophy to transfer into his department. That was David’s alma mater. He too had a Ph.D. in philosophy from BU. I didn’t walk when I graduated, so I never got the chance to celebrate my degree, but twenty-one years after I received my doctorate, when I became a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor at the University of North Dakota, I had the Boston University regalia shipped to me so I could wear it for that ceremony. In my mind, I wasn’t wearing BU’s colors, I was wearing David’s.

As I progressed in my career, David did too. He was promoted to the rank of SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor. He received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching the year after I won the equivalent award at my own university. I got to write a recommendation for him! He spent some time filling in for some administrators, raised a ton of money for Plattsburgh State, and had a seminar room named after him, in the Honors Center. This, as you will see, is where he and I are still joined together.

When I was an undergraduate, David read me the final paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, a discipline-changing book that argued it was time to bring Aristotle’s ethics back into the mainstream of moral philosophy. In it, MacIntyre postulates that without a clear conception of virtue—without falling back on the idea of human excellence—ethical thinking will always be irrational. Virtue, MacIntyre argues, saves our moral thinking from being both arbitrary and corrupt. The last passage, the one that David read to me, was about moral dystopia, a passionate plea for creating small communities “within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” This was precisely what David aimed to do with the honors program, a fact that, I am embarrassed to admit, I didn’t realize until just now.

My second book was on Alasdair MacIntyre, although that was a total coincidence. I dedicated it to David and sent him a copy. Quite a few years later, for reasons I still cannot quite grasp, a young scholar from Iran translated the book into Persian. I sent that to David as well. He arranged to display both books, side by side, in the honors center. That shadow box now hangs permanently, in the David N. Mowry Seminar Room, in Hawkins Hall, at Plattsburgh State. When I finally saw it during the room’s dedication ceremony, the last time I saw David, I chastised him. The books are closed. They show only the covers, with my name, and there is no sign that they are his books too. There is no indication that if the students open them, they would see the room’s namesake. He waved away my concern. He wanted none of it. He wanted to celebrate me and would never assent to it being the other way around.

There are no doubt students and colleagues who will have found David arrogant (something else we have in common). He was fastidious and dignified, permanently formal and gracious. He was quiet and smiled to himself more, I think, than he laughed out loud. But he loved a good joke and was more rebellious under the skin than he would have ever let on to me. Despite appearances, he was the humblest of people and he never took credit for his own successes. His speeches at the various events honoring him were simply anecdotes and interminable lists of all those who were responsible for his success except himself. Like Aristotle, David had genuine faith in people. He liked them.

So, I take solace in the fact that despite this memorial being as much about me as it is him, he wouldn’t have it otherwise. I am pretty sure he would be livid that I am calling attention to him and not all those around him, whom he adored. The fact is, I am and will always be his student and I cannot tell his story without telling mine. Thus, we have the teacher’s imbalance. For me, David Mowry was a singular figure who has irrevocably marked my life, but for David, there were thousands and thousands of students, who came and went as the semesters changed. I was but one. I can think of a handful of people who have stories with David that rival mine: Toni; Joe; Doug; Owen and Angie; Steve; Cindy; and John, the student carpenter who built David’s seminar tables, then died tragically. John’s name lives on in a plaque David attached to the sides of tables, for all the students to muse about when they get distracted during their classes. I don’t mean to suggest that I wasn’t important to him or that I was interchangeable with anyone else. Quite the contrary: what David’s career illustrated was that it is possible to have a steady stream of students and still respect each one’s uniqueness, to see their individuality.

I am, I believe, the only student of David’s to become a professional philosopher. He was proud of this as he was all of his other students’ accomplishments. But I also know that I bear the responsibility of his legacy in a particular way, and I accept this burden with the lightest of hearts. I will spend the rest of my life trying not to let him down, happily knowing that David’s fulfillment was not dependent on my success or failure. He was more than just a professor. He seemed to balance well his work and his private life, a task I, like most academics, struggle with every day.


David as he would most want to be remembered. Photo courtesy of SUNY Plattsburgh.

David and his wife Ruth have one child, a daughter named Melissa, whom he loves beyond measure. In 1990, she was the student worker at the BU University Professors Program, which is what gave him the idea for me to apply there. She went on to get a Ph.D. and to be a college professor, as well. He talked about her endlessly, every utterance a universe unto itself, a practice that only expanded once she gave him two grandchildren, whom he adores. This was something I enjoyed in moderation, the way that most people do, when someone talks incessantly about their own kids. Then I had my own daughter and I finally understood. David talked about her, not simply because he was proud of her, but because when he uttered her name, it put her in the room next to him. Being with her was his greatest joy and I am deeply honored that he shared it with me.

David taught me a little bit about everything, including what fatherhood could look like, and I have spent the last thirty-one years playing catch-up. However long I live, however much philosophy I read, however many students I teach, David will have already prepared the way for me. I will be forever grateful for the opportunities he made for me and the life I have because of him. The fact that he did something similar for so many others, just makes it all the better. David is too great a gift to want to keep for myself.

The post David N. Mowry (1941-2019): “What does one say about the teacher who saved your life?” (guest post by Jack Weinstein) appeared first on Daily Nous.

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