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elisa freschi

This is what I do, too,
—first because I am strongly against whatever is implicit (e.g., one's teacher implicit bias against Continental Philosophy), since it implicitly influences one's listeners/readers, who will, because of this implicit-ness, not be able to develop their "immune bodies" against it (for further details, http://elisafreschi.blogspot.co.at/2012/06/again-against-implicit-methodologies.html)
—consequently, because I share Eric Fromm's view about the fact that one tends to think in a more independent way under a dictatorship rather than in a democracy.

Kris McDaniel

When I teach an undergraduate class in philosophy of religion, I do my best to hide my own views. When I used to teach applied ethics, I also did my best to hide my own views, but honestly I had a much harder time doing this, and one reason I really disliked teaching that course is that I felt ought to disguise my views (and attitudes) and really didn't want to do this....

It seemed to me that students would be more receptive to considering arguments about contentious subjects if they didn't think I was pushing one side more than the other. Maybe this is wrong though.

But I can't think of any good reason to hide your own views in a class on, e.g., contemporary metaphysics. What bad thing would happen by students knowing ahead of time that you are a three dimensionalist rather than a four dimensionalist?

Rob Gressis

I suspect that whether this is a good idea depends on the students you're teaching. If they're freshmen, this might not be a good idea, because many students at that level (at least at my university) may be predisposed to accept whatever it is I say simply because I'm the authority figure. On the other hand, by the time students are senior philosophy majors, they're usually developed enough to not follow what I say simply because I say it.

Michael J. Augustin

This is a very good question.

I adopt an approach similar to Marcus' own, and have had mixed results. In some cases, it works well, and students are more engaged for the above reasons. In other cases, it works less well, and students simply accept what I say because I am in front of the classroom. (NOTE: all undergraduates, and predominately freshman.)

It may have something to do with the material. It's hard to get undergraduate freshman excited about Anaximenes' cosmology.


I rarely discuss my own views, mostly because I don't want students to think that they have to agree with me.

I have a related question: how often do you criticize the views your students express? A couple of years ago, I had a group of students who had thoughts like "everything is relative" or "it's all just subjective, so any answer is as good as another." Typical opinions for freshmen. Anyway, I would present arguments against their views whenever they expressed ideas such as these. To my surprise, the course evaluations were pretty bad and students thought that I was biased. Since then, I've tried to criticize less while still presenting challenges to their views. I've also tried to build on what they say in a way that avoids directly criticizing the students (e.g., I'll say something like "There a lot of disagreement about morality...but...blah blah blah).

Marcus Arvan

Thanks for the comments everyone!

Anon: I criticize my students' views all the time. I've had classes full of relativists, and even a cohort of Ayn Randians (all undergraduate), and criticizing them has never adversely affected my evals. Fwiw, I think the key is how the criticizing is done. I've been in classrooms where the prof makes it clear that they think a view is not only wrong but rather so wrong that it is hardly worth taking seriously. In fact, I like that you mentioned relativism. Although I'm not a relativist, I think most of the stock arguments against it (it entails that genuine moral disagreement and progress are impossible) *are* completely biased. In response to these arguments, I have many students say, "Yes, but I agree with those implications! I do think that genuine moral disagreement and progress are impossible. Slavery was once considered okay, and now it's not!" At this point, there are a couple of ways to go. If one insists that these stock arguments against relativism are compelling -- in the face of students who don't buy the intuitions -- then I think the charge of bias is actually quite fair. One isn't being a fair philosophical interlocutor by insisting that their intuitions are wrong. (I'm not suggesting you do this by the way; I've just seen it done and want to use the case to illustrate). The key, I think, is to be simultaneously forthright about your views but also clearly *very* willing to entertain arguments you don't like rather than just shoot them down. I've actually learned a lot this way, and even changed some of my views. Whereas once upon a time I found the stock arguments against moral relativism persuasive, now I no longer do: the number of people out there who are willing to accept its "counterintuitive" implications is just so large that it's not cool for us to lean on those intuitions in the classroom. When it comes to relativism, what I do instead is say: "I'm convinced by *substantive* arguments in normative moral theory that there are universal moral norma; I'll try to show you why I think this, and let you make up your own mind." Anyway, I've found in my own case that students are open to being criticized, as long as one is truly fair about it, as opposed to "legislating from the bench" that their intuitions are wrong. (again, not saying that you do this, but I've seen it done, and in fact used to do it myself, to not very good effect).

Rob: nice point. Indeed, I have found that freshman in particular can be overly willing to accept what I'm saying. I'm not sure, however, that this is a good reason to not be forthright, for roughly the reasons Elisa gives. When I share my views and I see that they just accept them, I call them out! I say something to the effect of: "Really!? You all are just going to accept the argument I just gave? You need to be more critical! For what about this objection...? And this one...?"

Kris: may I ask why you try to hide your views in applied ethics? Is it, as you say, because you think they may become less receptive to countervailing arguments? What if you were to express your students but also prompt them to really challenge them (in the manner I refer to in my reply to Rob above)?



I agree that one must be careful with how one goes about criticizing students' views, and that's where I think I've improved. I've been taking a more socratic route to criticizing students by asking them to explain a certain position they hold and seeing if other students will point out difficulties. Either that or I throw out a "What would you say about x?" (where x is a counterexample or something).

By the way, I've never been as stubborn as the kind of person you mention (that doesn't seem to be in the spirit of philosophical inquiry), and I haven't had too many students bite the bullet on simple versions of relativism.

Kenny Pearce

I agree with several people here that the level of the students matters a lot. My own policy is that the less background the students already have, the more I try to hide my views. I do this because it was what my professors did, and, as a student, I appreciated it. In an intro class, the students need to understand that philosophers disagree about everything, but they discuss their disagreements by means of rational arguments, rather than either (a) shouting/appealing to emotion/etc., or (b) 'agreeing to disagree'. I always tell students that one of the hardest, and most important, things in philosophy is the ability to come up with the best possible argument for a view with which you disagree. When students put forth views, I try to make it clear that that's what we're doing: trying to figure out what is the strongest argument an opponent of that view could make. In an intro class, I try to sweep under the rug the question of whether I happen to be such an opponent. In intro courses I also try to represent what I take to be the expert consensus (where there is one) on the importance of arguments, philosophers, views, etc., and the strongest objections to them. In upper division classes, I'm more inclined to reveal my own (sometimes controversial) views about these kinds of things. (For instance, I let my philosophy of religion students know that I think the strongest arguments for the existence of God are the argument from contingency and ontological argument, and that I think the fine-tuning argument is pretty much bogus.) But I try not to make too big a deal (at least) about what my ultimate conclusions are, in part so we can stay focused on figuring out which arguments are strongest on each side, rather than on what conclusion we're trying to get.

I haven't taught a grad seminar, but many of my professors in grad school just openly pushed their own views in seminar, and I think that's a fine thing to do; by the time you get to grad school, you should know that you are supposed to disagree with the professor, and you should have enough preparation to be able to defend your view.

Jeremy Pierce

For some reason it's easier for me to indicate disagreement with an argument I think is poor for a conclusion I agree with. I'm a substance dualist, but I don't think Descartes' arguments for substance dualism, while sound, should be convincing to a committed materialism. I don't think causal arguments for God are anywhere near as good contingency arguments, and unlike Kenny (above) I think design arguments are pretty good but the ontological argument a complete failure. I think that comes through in my teaching, but my students have no indication that I believe in God or that I'm a dualist. I think I present externalist, realist views in epistemology or compatibilism about free will and determinism in a more favorable light than I do alternatives, because that's how I see the arguments going. But when it comes to ethics or anything close to religion, I'm much more hesitant, and I never come out and say what my view is even when I do favor certain arguments over others.

I think there are least two reasons for that, at least in my case. One of the difficulties with applied ethics is that a lot of the issues are close to politics, and I always feel pressure not to be too political in a philosophy class. But I think that may also be because I happen to have a few moral/political beliefs that are outside the mainstream within academia.

People with strong religious beliefs have an additional pressure -- not to be perceived as proselytizing. When I'm teaching at a Jesuit college, that feeling is somewhat lessened, but it's still present. At other institutions I'm very conscious of it. And this comes to play in applied ethics, but it is front and center in a class dealing with God or religious belief. When I teach religious epistemology and arguments for and against the existence of God, I usually present the arguments, objections, responses, and so on without indicating any of my own views. There was a time when I was nervous enough about how it would be perceived that I asked my students what they thought my views were, once we were done and their work on the topic had been graded. A handful of the best students correctly guessed that I was a theist, but much of the class guessed me to be an atheist. I took that as a sign that I was being fair. I knew that most of my atheist fellow grad students seemed to me to be much more in-your-face about their own views on the subject, and would it be accurate to say that they weren't presenting the views fairly? It doesn't really depend on whether they made their views known but on how they presented the material, and I didn't actually have a lot of good evidence about that.

I don't know of any cases in any of my classes where someone who had been non-religious was convinced to become more religious in some sense, and I don't think anyone in any of my classes has ever accused me of trying to proselytize. I did have a student who, before taking my ethics class, had seen stuff I'd written online that she disagreed with and assumed I couldn't be fair. She was an employee of the university, and her supervisor was actually in one respect supervising me (it was a continuing ed course, and she worked in an administrative position in continuing ed). Her supervisor talked her into giving me a chance, and she turned out to love the class.

But I have seen many students report in student evaluations that the God unit of my class strengthened their faith, when they had expected that it might do the opposite. I suspect those who are more skeptical might say the same, though. That's just not the sort of thing they'd write on their evaluations. I do see students of that bent seeming pretty confident in it when they encounter arguments that support their views. So I think I would defend my approach, unless I see some good evidence that would make it wise to change something.

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