Teaching Philosophy

Fyodor Bronnikov's "Pythagoreans celebrate sunrise" (1869) via Wikimedia.

The philosophy below was written in 2006. I have generally stuck by this, but it is verbose (wordy) and a bit "woolly" (my favourite feedback word received from the best political scientists I have had the pleasure to be assessed by). I am now trying to find a compromise between what I believe should be taught (which is essentially a Great Books education assessed by essays and exams - even 100% by examination to ensure the person receiving the assessment is the person undertaking the work), and how the academy is being pushed. Of course, there are only a handful of institutions that assess students on the basis of my preferred method. But for now, the philosophy below continues to guide my teaching. However, a decade later and after a decent period of long service leave, I am re-writing my teaching philosophy to take into account the changing times, my educational and pedagogical experience, and my reading (20th July 2017).

Having grown up in suburban and regional Australia and lived (in my earlier years, at least) Socrates' concept of the ‘unexamined life’, the conscientious study of political science has been an enlightening journey. Through the patience, graciousness and understanding of various great people who have influenced my academic, personal and professional life, I have been able to transcend the vernacular of my socio-cultural influences to achieve a broader, less polemical, understanding of the value of education in a liberal arts sense. The prospect of teaching others the value of independent and critical thinking, then, remains for me a very important component of challenging existing views of the political world.

The consequences of power relationships which exist in the political realm are ubiquitous to the extent that it is pedestrian to suggest that understanding the relationships of power which exist between individuals, groups and ‘the state’ are necessary to understand the concepts of justice, equity and freedom so often captivated by Western ideals of liberal democracy. Indeed, a typical first-year university student will often awake to the discourse of politicians and the news media and accept such positions as not only normative, but ‘right’ – despite the Dixonian understanding of the separation of powers, supported by a well-informed citizenry, being crucial to maintaining a civil society within a Westminster-style liberal democracy. Yet many students lack both an awareness and appreciation of the world beyond that which is provided by the so-called ‘common’ values expressed by contemporary politicians and journalists.

As a teacher of political science, I strive to do more than merely present students with facts and figures that they can recite under exam conditions. I attempt to facilitate the learning process, helping students to take the first step on the journey toward thinking critically and for themselves, regardless of their chosen profession, while becoming more responsible and better-informed professionals and citizens of humanity. I strive to achieve this goal within the bounds of the discipline of political science, ever conscious of good intentions which may easily lead to the polemic.

Embarking on this journey, however, requires a willingness to engage in critical thinking. As such, my classroom practices focus on fostering such critical perspectives. I encourage students to challenge not only the conventional wisdom of politics, but also their own preconceived notions, ideals and beliefs. While I am a firm believer in the pedagogical value of lecturing based on sound research, and I make every effort to cultivate discussion in tutorials through the presentation of student’s ideas, collegial critiques and interpersonal reflection, I do not regard myself as someone who simply distributes knowledge in the classroom. Indeed, I attempt to provide students with the opportunity to share in the educational experience by creating a collegial learning environment in which everyone may examine their own perspectives, biases and preconceptions without fear or prejudice - within the bounds of the academy’s normative concept of mutual respect.

Moreover, I believe that it is crucial to incorporate the ‘real world’ in the classroom whenever possible. For instance, I often ask students in my introductory classes to consider how concepts of politics and power relate to their particular courses of study. Often, students cite this approach in their evaluations as a valuable skill which will assist them in their future professions. When I am able to make the connection between theory, empirical reality and professional vocations enlightening for the students, I feel that I have truly accomplished my major goal as an educator.

As Owen Dixon once argued, the fate of liberal democracy in Australia depends upon a vigilant and informed citizenry. As a teacher of political science, I consider it my challenge to help students ‘unpack’ the complexities of the political and social interactions around them and encourage them to develop a greater appreciation of the diversity of political, social, and cultural institutions. I have often told my students that I consider my class to be successful if, at the end of the semester, they have challenged their own beliefs and can at least defend these beliefs on the basis of an empirical understanding that transcends ‘greedy reductionism’. To this end, I believe that it is only through achieving a more thorough understanding of the political world around us that we can begin to change it for the better.