Reacting with Philosophy as a Process

I have had occasion recently to talk with my colleagues and faculty at the university about research and teaching. In particular, I have been talking about my philosophy comp. paper with a number of people who have varied backgrounds and interests in reference and chemistry, and I have been talking with other members of the department and the members of my faculty development seminar about teaching strategies. I am not used to spending so much time laying my beliefs about philosophical issues and teaching methods on the line, and it is intimidating. This afternoon, I had a discussion with one of my fellow graduates students about this very intimidation factor.

The conversation brought to mind a chain of events that I have witnessed happening to me over the past few months. I am undergoing a transition in the way I interact with my colleagues, superiors, and students, and it marks a new phase in my development as a researcher and a teacher.

The department recently hired a new philosopher, Jim Woodward, and John Norton, who has been advising me on my comp. papers, suggested I send Jim a draft. I balked a bit at the suggestion because I had never really interacted with Jim and wasn’t terribly familiar with his work, but I was familiar enough to know that his main interest in causation didn’t immediately overlap with my interests in chemical kinds and reference. But I had spoken with Jim a little over the summer, describing my interest in philosophy of chemistry, and he seemed receptive — he also seemed to know a bit about chemistry, which was a pleasant surprise. So after the initial shock of being asked to send an in-progress series of ideas to a renowned near-stranger, I decided to take John’s advice. Instead of blindly sending Jim a draft, though, I thought it would be good to feel out his interest and availability in person. So I went to see him in his office, laid out the main arc of the draft I had at the time, and asked if he would be interested in signing on to help with the project. He said yes, was very receptive to the idea, and even had some helpful restructuring suggestions before he ever saw the draft.

Since then, I have been in close contact with him and John about the progress of the paper. I met with them last week for almost two hours of working through examples, clarifying objectives, rehashing problem areas, and generally talking about the nature of chemical kinds. I’ve been emailing with them both on a not-quite-daily basis and coming to them when I run into walls — and telling them when I’ve encountered hurtles that I solved on my own, describing how I solved them in detail and getting immediate feedback on potential pitfalls.

This is a shift in the way I engage in research projects, and it has allowed me to open up my thought process to others in a way that I have not been able to before. My best friend in the department is also writing a paper on reference, although her focus is on kinds in psychiatry rather than chemistry, and we have run into problems in the past where one of us wants to discuss the other’s project and the one whose project is on the line gets stressed at the very thought of revealing what it is that she thinks about how reference works. It’s a funny problem, because neither of us is shy in seminars, where the stakes are somewhat higher — or at least the audience is larger. We had a number of conversations about what was going on, and I realized that I value her opinion highly enough that I was really nervous for her approval and afraid of what she would think of me if I said something she saw as wrong-headed or poorly thought-through.

This is the crux of the transition I have been undergoing: something clicked this summer and I realized that my colleagues and advisers can be really helpful resources in guiding and honing my ability to think through my arguments, rather than just evaluators of my thought processes. I have never been hesitant to discuss the products of my thought processes, so long as I was confident in the process that led me to the products. And I am not terribly bothered by being confronted with conflicting products of differing thought processes; in fact, I find it quite fascinating to work backwards from conflicting conclusions to see where a pair of thought processes converge and diverge. But I have never been very good at letting people in on the process as it happens, and this is somehing I am trying to change.

As I was talking to my friend this afternoon, I was encouraging her to visit Jim and open up some of her ideas to him. She expressed some of the same intimidation and hesitancy about revealing thoughts that are still in the oven, and I tried to describe my experiences with Jim to reassure her. I also suggested a few ways of lowering the stakes of the conversation, so she wouldn’t feel like her first interaction with him would determine whether or not he would serve on her dissertation committee and what kind of relationship they would have if he chose to sign on. And it made me realize that I need to do more of that in my own research, to be willing to acknowledge not that I may be wrong, but that I am not yet sure where the ideas I have can or should lead. Sharing conclusions has never been the problem; it is sharing the premises and acknowledging that I am not sure what conclusions to draw that is in my opinion the most intimidating, humbling, and — as I’m learning — helpful task a young researcher can take on for herself.

This lesson is translating quite naturally into my nascent teaching career. I had my first content-driven lecture last night, and after a powerpoint snafu at the beginning of the class that forced me to do a chalk-talk lecture on the fly, I had a pretty successful run of it. I had my students interacting with me and demonstrating throughout the course of the lecture that they were grasping the relevant concepts by coming up with examples and questions of the content. I am rather lucky in that the material was general philosophy of science this week, which is content that I have taught recitations on before and with which I feel quite comfortable. But there were a few moments where, because the canned examples from my powerpoint presentation were not accessible, I had to stop the lecture to say, “Hold on, I’m trying to think of an example to clarify here, give me a minute.” And sometimes the students would come up with viable examples to help me; sometimes I would come up with something on my own; sometimes I would say, “I’m sorry, I can’t come up with something right now. If I think of something later I will e-mail it to the class.” This was a hard thing to do, because it messed with the rhythm of the lecture and because the concepts are so ingrained in my own thought processes that it took some extra effort to think about confirmation and pseudoscience as foreign concepts that require examples to clarify. But it did two things: It gave my students time to process the information and think on their own about the claims I was making, and it made me reflect on the process of learning philosophy.

In my faculty development seminar this morning, the class critiqued a statement of teaching philosophy that I had drafted last spring. I didn’t remember the content of the statement very well, and I surprised myself by opening the statement with the claim “Teaching philosophy is about teaching a process more than a product, teaching a particular way of approaching problems and comparing ideas.” I got a lot of useful feedback from the class, and it was actually quite fun to be on the line and have people comparing their own views of teaching with the one I laid out in that statement. But the most striking thing was the number of people who came back to that opening line, saying it gave a clear picture of who I was as an instructor and how I approached the classroom experience. I still believe that line quite strongly, and I realized I was teaching toward that aim, albeit somewhat unconsciously, in my lecture last night.

So here is the bottom line: philosophy is a process (which is not to say I’m a process philosopher!), no matter whether you are doing philosophy by teaching, learning, or engaging in original research. As a graduate student on the cusp of becoming a professional philosopher, I am spending a lot of time thinking about that process. One of my main struggles as a researcher is to figure out how to let people help me undergo that process, rather than just asking for their evaluation of a process that has been completed. But one of the most important things in teaching philosophy, for me, is to make sure my students are engaged in the process of doing philosophy and that they know they have a network of support to help them through. I hope that being reminded of that every week will help me be more open in my own philosophical processes.

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About burstenj

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
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