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With Bailey Szustak

Carrie Welsh 00:01

You’re listening to Ethics & Education. I’m Carrie Welsh. This is the third episode in a series about teaching. This one is about helping students develop both philosophic skills and a philosophic disposition. Being in love with knowledge.

Bailey Szustak 00:20

Here’s a way of thinking about the world and approaching problems. And so equipping students with these kinds of skills, but also the disposition of being a philosopher and being in love with knowledge, if we, you know, take it to the root of the word.

Carrie Welsh 00:37

That’s Bailey Szustak.

Bailey Szustak 00:38

I’m Bailey Szustak and I am currently a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. My research area is in aesthetics, loss of art, feminist philosophy, that kind of thing.

Carrie Welsh 00:49

Most of Bailey’s teaching experience is in philosophy. But even when she teaches other subjects like writing, she still tries to incorporate philosophy. She really wants her students to love philosophy, to both appreciate it as a skillset: a way of approaching problems; and also a disposition: being in love with knowledge.

Bailey Szustak 01:13

I’ve been teaching for about seven years now at about four different institutions of various size and funding and student population. And so over the the time that I’ve spent being an instructor at these different institutions, I’ve been sort of honing sort of my vision and understanding of what it is to teach philosophy, and how I can use the things that I’m good at or interested in to best help my students basically fall in love with it the way that I have. I’m sort of focused on like, how many kids can I get the “I love it” experience. And thinking about philosophy as not like the sort of academic thing where, you know, you get your degree in it, or you get, you know, a certain like skills or being able to write papers or whatever. But actually think about philosophy in the more general sense of like, here’s a way of thinking about the world, approaching problems. And so equipping students with these kinds of skills, but also the disposition of being a philosopher, and, you know, being in love with knowledge, if we, you know, take it to the root of the word.

Carrie Welsh 02:17

Bailey’s students come from all different backgrounds.

Bailey Szustak 02:20

In my classrooms–especially because I’ve been dealing with just a huge range of students from conservative, religious, fairly affluent, you know, mostly white demographics to mostly immigrant or international students, or first generation students and all sorts of mixes of ethnicities and gender and, you know, orientations and that kind of thing–how can I make my teaching something that every single student or as many as possible, you know, we can’t get to them all, but can find something of themselves in what we’re doing in a way that is accessible to them at this very sort of low entry level. So not scaring them off by immediately throwing them into like the Kant. And we’re going to talk about necessary and sufficient conditions and, you know, modal logic operators or things like that, but more of asking questions and thinking about ideas that are relevant to their life. And then it turns out, they’ve ended up been doing philosophy without realizing it. And then I just sort of open their eyes to like, oh, you’re doing the thing. And they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m doing the thing!’

Carrie Welsh 03:38

Rather than starting right away with the canonical texts, Bailey’s approach is to start with an entry point, a topic that the students might already be into, like identity or pop culture.

Bailey Szustak 03:49

One thing that I do is I tend to focus–especially because I’m teaching almost always introductory level courses. So I’m getting sort of the mix of freshmen, getting their Gen Ed requirements, and maybe one or two majors trying to fulfill a requirement, but it’s mostly people trying to just take the class and get through it. That will not have had any prior philosophical experience. So I usually start with a topic that is going to be something that they have some kind of access to, be it something like questions about identity. And maybe approaching that and ways of talking about representation or discrimination. Oftentimes, it’ll be centered around social justice issues and political climate, or things like just, you know, pop culture and art. So they may not be experts in any of these things. But there’s got to be at least one thing in their life. Like, ‘I really love this musician,’ or ‘I really love this movie,’ and that’s their sort of entry point. And so, start with that as a topic. And then I also like to use just a wide variety of sources and texts–and texts being very broad. This could be YouTube videos, podcasts, news articles. They do get, you know, some philosophical texts in there, we’re not going totally philosophy, I guess, academic philosophy-free. But using these more as stepping stones of like, let’s start thinking about these things that you think you have an intuitive grasp on, and start sort of challenging what you know about it or think you know about it, and asking questions that sort of pique their interest.

Carrie Welsh 05:26

These entry points are how Bailey introduces a philosophic disposition, and then builds on that to practice philosophical skills.

Bailey Szustak 05:34

And that becomes a starting point to then build into more sort of rigorous philosophical skills of like, we’re going to look at, you know, how do definitions and concepts work, how does good argumentation work? Like, how are you going to support a belief that you have? You can’t just hold the belief without thinking about it. But I’m not asking you to give up that belief, I’m asking you to have good reasons for it. And so the focus is on, you know, getting skills through these questions that we’re asking, and sort of suddenly introducing the the philosophical content, often in ways without alerting them that that’s what we’re doing at first, and then revealing it afterward.

Bailey Szustak 06:22

And another thing I like to do–and this is just from my own experience, as a student, and just as a researcher–is I don’t like to worry about things that are super, super theoretical or abstract. It’s just very hard for me to grasp on to things that like, let me think about this and application to something relevant to me. So I tried to give my students some kind of case study or experiential learning project or something like this, where they get to sort of work through it with particulars. You know, there’s, there’s parameters that I can sort of guide them through, but they can also bring their sort of own experiences into it. And then that becomes something that’s like, ‘Okay, I know what I think about in this situation, and here with the ideas that were important.’ Now, if I move this to a new case, or think about it more generally, they’ve again got that buy in at a lower level that we could then build up their interest and skill and capacity for.

Carrie Welsh 07:24

She tried this method of incorporating philosophy into an English writing class and it went really well. The students were able to personally connect with the content. And it inspired her to want to try it out in philosophy classes. For Bailey, good teaching is about the buy-in: engaging students from the beginning and building from there.

Bailey Szustak 07:32

I think the ways it paid off was, it gave them this sort of starting point and care about this sort of ethical issue, this social justice issue. This very broad abstract thing of identity and representation, or discrimination became very personal and real for them. It gave them a sort of starting point of when we were reading about it, and other articles and sort of looking at more theoretical stuff of like, ‘what is it that’s going wrong in this situation? What are the philosophical concepts we can apply, like justice and respect and those sorts of things?’ They were now like, really, really committed and interested in like, ‘this means something to me and to the people that I love.’ And so we ended up having some really fantastic conversations and writing based off of that. I assigned a personal narrative–I was like, ‘I don’t know anything about writing, I don’t know how I’m gonna grade these. But this seems like the thing to do here.’ So now I’m like, how do I use that in philosophy courses where it’s not a traditional like paper, they’re not going to, like refer to, you know, Kant, or Rawls or, you know, even people writing about things like identity or discrimination, but just like–Where’s the buy in so that we can build to these later and give them the tools to grapple with it?

Carrie Welsh 09:12

We’d love to hear from you. How do you engage your students? Send us an email or leave us a voicemail using the link in the episode description. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the rest of the series on teaching. This episode was produced by Carrie Welsh.