In more than a decade of teaching, I have demonstrated my commitment to excellence as an educator and in recent scholarly work I have begun to formulate the lessons I have learned. In my essay “Beyond the One-Dimensional University: A Marcusean Critique of Outcomes Assessment,” I draw Herbert Marcuse’s critical theory of education into dialogue with José Medina’s “epistemology of resistance.” There I explain, “Ideally, institutions of higher education would offer students the possibility of developing a kaleidoscopic consciousness in the service of creative self-discovery. This kaleidoscopic consciousness would emerge through engagement with literature and art that embodies subaltern histories and perspectives.” My pedagogy is inspired and guided by this ideal. The way I structure the syllabus, the way I teach in the classroom, and the way I engage students outside it are all oriented toward developing individuality and uncovering hidden alternatives to the world we live in.
To this end, I strive to include non-canonical, non-Western, and critical perspectives in my syllabi. By doing so, I hope to offer students more conceptual resources and a greater appreciation for their own epistemic limitations, thereby encouraging them toward and aiding them in their own journeys of creative self-discovery. In my Ethics in Theory and Action course, for example, students read selections on feminist care ethics by Virginia Held, chapters on cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah, and large selections from the Analects of Confucius. These readings all work to disrupt the sense that canonical Western ethical frameworks, from Aristotle to Kant, are the only or the whole story. Even when I teach historically-oriented courses within the canon of Western philosophy, I augment our readings with critical approaches and non-canonical texts. For instance, my Modern Philosophy II course includes selections from Susan Buck-Morss’ Hegel and Haiti and connects Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic” to a reading of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. This attention to diversity of perspective and alternative narratives is not lost on my students. As one wrote in their evaluation of my Modern Philosophy II course for Spring 2018, “I especially liked how you emphasized how works like The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass are outside the traditional ‘cannon [sic] of philosophy’ but that it is important to look at because it shows people that philosophy and Enlightenment ideas did not reach.”
In general, my classroom pedagogy is focused on providing an example of enthusiasm, humor, and seriousness of purpose in approaching questions of fundamental belief. I strive in my classes to make the material accessible and entertaining. Moreover, I work to ensure that my class is participatory and discussion-based. Thus, even though I present basic background information and concepts to offer students an overview of the terrain, most class time is spent discussing issues raised by the readings. As a student put it in their evaluation for Fall 2017, “Always engaging us students by asking our opinions and comments about the material was a great way to keep us on our toes. In doing this, we all benefit by understanding the topic more and learning about different viewpoints about the material. Sharing your own experiences and opinions makes this class more personable and easy to relate with helping many to understand the harder concepts of this course.” Often, I break the class into groups and ask them to develop arguments for assigned conclusions as well. In this way, students teach one another and get practice interrogating and analyzing philosophical positions. Such exercises also help them to see their own philosophical and ethical commitments from many different perspectives and to aid one another on the path of understanding and creating themselves.
Students sometimes struggle to see how philosophy is relevant or important in their lives. This is particularly the case at D’Youville College, where most of the students major in health care fields. For such students, who often enter with limited literacy skills, philosophy texts can be dry and difficult. Thus, I try to help students understand philosophical ideas by connecting them to narratives and ideas with which they are more familiar and find more exciting. “Dr. Absher is a very good teacher in philosophy. I thought the class would be boring, but he makes it really interesting and taught us to view certain topics in different ways in order to understand them from all points of view.” In Philosophy and the Human Condition, for example, I show films and bring in other material from the news and popular culture to help students connect readings to their context and personal experience. I also assign regular reflections in which students must relate our reading and discussions to issues in the news and their own lives. Recently, for example, a student used Plato’s Divided Line and the appearance/reality distinction to discuss racial profiling. Reflections such as these give students the opportunity to see philosophy at work in the world around them and to begin to develop the kaleidoscopic consciousness which is my primary objective. Students regularly approach me to say that they are challenged to think more deeply in my classes and they appreciate the freedom to express and think through their own opinions in this way.
Just as my syllabi and in-class presentation are oriented toward the goals of expanding student perspectives and encouraging them to know and be themselves more deeply, so too my evaluation of students is guided by this purpose. Thus, as I conceive it, student assessment serves to aid students in evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, identifying areas where improvement is necessary, and charting their progress toward their own learning objectives. Assignments in my classes are designed with these aims in mind. I assign reading questions to ensure that students read and develop study skills and habits, reflections and essays so that students may formulate and defend their opinions at length and apply the ideas to their own lives, and exams to assess students’ comprehension of course content. Assignments are evaluated with the aim of alerting students to important deficits and encouraging intellectual growth. Student evaluations show that students find my grading and feedback clear, relevant, and fair. A student expressed this in their evaluation for Spring 2017: “Very good teacher. Made me work up to my full potential, so things were challenging, but he was very fair with grading and helped my understanding.” Inside and outside the classroom, my pedagogy is oriented toward the goal of encouraging students to develop a greater sense of self-understanding.
My dedication to effective pedagogy extends beyond the confines of the classroom. In the summer of 2013, I took part in a workshop and training for online courses. Since that time, I have regularly offered Ethics in Theory and Action as an online course. Of my online version of this course, one student wrote in their Spring 2018 evaluation, “Taking an internet course is not as easy as in person, and I’m sure that instructors feel the same way about teaching it. I want Dr. Absher to know he nailed it! This man embodies ALL that instructors should be.” I look forward to developing more online courses in the future and expanding my skills as an online professor. I also now serve as the faculty advisor for the Philosophy Minor at D’Youville College and several of my students have gone on to become majors or minors in Philosophy. Even though students do not often enter my classes viewing philosophy as a vital interest, many come to see its importance and value in their lives.