**Update: comments now open (sorry!)
I'd like to continue my series (see here and here) in response to Matt DeStefano's plea for more autobiography by discussing teaching. As usual, I only offer up my strategies as things that seem to have worked well for me. I don't pretend to know whether they will work for everyone, but still, they seem to me to be worth sharing. So, here goes:
1. Try to get students to do philosophy in the classroom as much as possible.
In my experience, this one is key to both student learning and satisfaction. Lecturing puts students to sleep. At most, they just sit there and your lecture goes in one ear and out the other. If you have to spend the entire class lecturing (e.g. you have an enormous class with hundreds of students), try to make the lecture as interactive as possible. I'll never forget how one of my professors in grad school, Houston Smit, used to ask the class questions during his lecture and walk up and down the aisles listening to student responses and asking for students to respond to others' answers. The class was huge, but it worked wonders. Students were engaged. Even if they didn't answer, they could see when others had ideas similar to their own, and see how well those ideas withstood philosophical scrutiny.
2. Don't "give them the answers"; press the case for every position as hard as you can, and help them come up with "the answers" themselves
I never assign "textbooks" in my classes -- only original sources -- because textbooks essentially tell students how other philosophers have thought about the views/theories covered in the course. It's my belief that exposing students to secondary commentary is counterproductive in a thousand different ways. In brief, it prevents students from thinking critically for themselves. It's one thing to be told that utilitarianism seems to have a problem with justice; it's a much better thing to figure it out for oneself. It's one thing to be told that ethical relativism is absurd; it's another thing to see if the arguments are actually compelling (I, for one, think they're not!). Textbooks "shut students down", giving them the impression that philosophy is information to be absorbed (e.g. "here are the arguments, here are the objections") rather than a process of thinking philosophically for oneself. Almost nothing, I think, undermines the excitement (and point!) of doing philosophy more than presenting it to students in this way. Instead, I try to make the strongest case for every view we consider, and I merely challenge students to come up with and evaluate their own objections (almost always, standard objections are hit upon in the process!).
3. In smaller classes, group activities work wonders.
When I first arrived at the University of Tampa, I had a rough awakening. Instead of meeting for the usual three hours a week (which is standard everywhere else I've been), our classes meet for four hours a week. Since I teach exclusively on Tuesdays and Thursdays, this means that all three of my classes (I have a 3/3 load) meet twice a week for two hours apiece. You can only imagine how soul-crushing it is for everyone aboard in this setting -- where, more often than not, many students are non-majors and so rather disinterested -- to sit through two two-hour lectures a week, even if discussion occurs often. In order to make things more lively, I now have a semester-long group competition for bonus credit. I break students into groups of 2-4 and spend about 1/3 of every class period having groups answer 2-3 pre-planned questions on the reading and/or material I just lectured on. The students are required to write out their group's answers, which we then discuss as a class. When I first started this practice, I was afraid students would think I'm being lazy, having them do work rather than lecture for them. But I was wrong. My student evaluations have been markedly better ever since I instituted the practice, and it leads to great class conversations.
4. Daily reading-response assignments work wonders
If you can do it (i.e. if you have small classes), asking students to (A) summarize an idea/argument from their reading and then (B) motivate a philosophical question or worry about it, also works wonders. In my experience, one of the most common experiences philosophy instructors have is their students coming to class completely unprepared, clearly not having completed or thought about the daily reading. In addition to the daily group assignments I have, I find that the daily reading responses I require effectively resolve this problem. Students find very quickly that if they don't read the assignment and think about it a bit, they'll get a failing grade on these assignments. This in turn gives them incentive to actually complete the reading. As in (2), when I started this practice, I was afraid that students would react negatively, and complain about having too much work. Much to my surprise, students regularly make explicitly appreciative comments in my evaluations on how their reading responses helped them to understand the material.
5. Prepare lectures as the semester goes on, not before the semester -- and don't just repeat the same lectures from semester from semester.
I've heard, at least anecdotally, that some people try to get their lectures completed before the semester even starts, and, if they've taught the course before, just use lectures that they've prepped in the past. Neither of these practices have worked well for me. I find that my mind isn't fresh with the material, and the lectures come off as "canned." Instead, I always prepare my lectures the day before I give them, and I always revise them substantially from semester to semester. This admittedly takes a lot of work -- yet I find it not only makes for better lectures (in that I'm continually pressing myself to understand the material better); I also find, surprisingly enough, that it seems to make me a better researcher. Why? Well, and this is probably one of the most surprising things I've learned about myself, I tend to come up with research ideas (ideas I've gone on to publish!) through prepping lectures. I came up with the idea for this paper by prepping for my course on human rights, the idea for this paper by trying to come up with an intuitive way to understand Kant's moral/practical philosophy for my intro to ethics course, and the idea for this paper on free will when prepping for my intro class. Prepping, even for undergraduate courses, can make you rethink your own preconceptions about material and even return you to doing research in areas that you might not ordinarily do research in (I literally had no interest at all in the problem of free will prior to teaching it in my intro classes).
6. Don't treat students like disengaged little children. Challenge them to work harder; they will appreciate it...as long as you give them ample opportunity to succeed.
The "disengagement compact" that many instructors and college students evidently tacitly strike -- i.e. low standards for good evaluations -- seriously ticks me off. So does the common assertion (which I've heard come out of many mouths) that "students are lazy." I've found, to the contrary, that if I show faith in students, challenging them with high standards but ample opportunities to succeed (I permit unlimited paper rewrites), that a vast majority of students will "raise their game" in response to high standards, provided I give them clear directions and opportunities to improve. I believe my task as a teacher is not to "punish the stupid" with bad grades, but to try to bring out the best in all my students (both the bright and not-so-bright). I tell you this: you'd be pretty surprised how much a "not so bright" student can improve if you give them unlimited paper rewrites. They want to be better, if you give them a chance. Yes, it's a lot of work (grading paper rewrites sucks, to be sure), but it works. If you care about your students -- if you want them to enter the real world as capable adults -- then the extra work is worth it. Plus, students will give you awesome evaluations. Nothing, in my experience, makes a student happier than putting in hard work, seeing their own marked improvement, and getting a grade that reflects that hard work and improvement.
6. Bring your research into the classroom.
Seriously, it excites students. It helps them, once again, to see philosophy as something exciting to do, not merely study like a dead artifact.
Okay, guess that's all I have for now. Anyone else have strategies to share?