Sean Smith, Department of Philisophy
TA Teaching Excellence Award 2015
HOW DO YOU ENVISION WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A GREAT TEACHER IN YOUR DISCIPLINE?
Being a great philosophy teacher means finding a balance between two pedagogical types; I call them, ‘the midwife’ and ‘the drill sergeant’. The first of these is all about kindness and listening. You have to create a safe space where students can use their imaginations to take risks and think in new ways. The latter of these is about rigor and intensity. You also have to push students and create a space that not only invites creativity but requires hard work and focus. I find myself striving for a balance of these in my approach to teaching.
YOU RECEIVED A 2014 TEACHING EXCELLENCE AWARD. WHAT DOES THIS RECOGNITION MEAN TO YOU?
I didn’t even know the award existed until I was informed by the Professor I was TAing for that term that I had been nominated by a student and that he (my Professor) was going to nominate me himself. It felt really good to be nominated. 2014 was a tough year for me and like many graduate students, validation, when it comes, can have a powerful psychological impact. However good I might have felt, what matters most for me is that the students take something away from their time in the class that resonates not just intellectually or academically, but also existentially. Intellectual work needs to empower people to be better versions of themselves; developing domain-specific expertise is not enough. To actually win the award was surprising and quite an honor. I have done my best, in my short time as a TA, to connect in a deep way with students through my enthusiasm for the content of the courses and my enjoyment of philosophy more generally. I see it as a way of life as much as anything else, and I try to embody that in my teaching. It is deeply gratifying to know that my efforts have resonated with students.
CAN YOU RECALL A TEACHER WHO INSPIRED YOU?
My teaching mentor is a philosopher at this University named Mark Kingwell. He’s been an invaluable guide and interlocutor on many fronts, pedagogical, philosophical, professional or otherwise. I count myself very lucky to have people like him in my life. I’ve learned a lot from watching him teach and his positive feedback has given me confidence where once there was uncertainty and insecurity. I should also mention my supervisor Evan Thompson. His work embodies the cutting edge of cross-cultural and inter-disciplinary research on the mind. From him I have learned how to engage non-Western modes of inquiry while staying current with cutting edge neuroscience and psychology. That kind of synthesis-oriented approach to thinking about the nature of the mind has been essential to my development as both a student and teacher of philosophy. His feedback on my work over the years has been unyielding, thorough and often devastating, but always against a background of encouragement and kindness. I have done my best to embody this approach in my feedback to my students. I owe them both a rather large debt of gratitude.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO NEW TAs?
My advice would be to not give into the temptations of cynicism and indifference. Love and respect your undergraduates. Like you, they are swimming within the currents of professional and existential precarity. Try to be aware of that, especially if you’re grading a batch of papers that is less on point than you might have desired or expected. Your tutelage to them is both a privilege and sacred duty. Have the courage to actually care about their well-being and this will empower you to deliver whatever content you are tasked with delivering in a way that will profoundly enrich your experience and theirs.