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Sarah Stroud

Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts

What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?

Some of it is stage presence, some of it is conveying what my intellectual expectations are, and some of it is trying to convey my enthusiasm and passion. I deliberately use low-tech strategies to keep it engaging. I speak clearly and with a voice that projects even in a lecture hall with 400 students in it, and I make sure that my eyes travel across the room. I think eye contact is tremendously effective in making people feel that it is their job to be engaged. I never want students to feel that they can just relax into passivity in my classes. I demand not absorption but engagement. It is not going to suffice just to understand what these philosophers were saying. Ultimately, the students will have to take a stand on an approach to ethics.

In Ethical Theory, an intermediate level class with 75 students, I reserve at least 45 minutes per week for discussion. I divide the class into groups of 4 to 6 students, and they discuss two questions for about half an hour, followed by a class-wide discussion. But each group only has one spokesperson. If I call on a group, only the designated spokesperson can speak for the group. My sense is that students really appreciate this. In a way, it is a high-risk proposition because if none of the students in a group has done the reading, then they won’t have much to discuss. It motivates them to get their act together for the following week.

How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?

I use almost exclusively papers. I can see what they are learning from the increasing clarity, organization, and sophistication of their papers. At the beginning, it is very hard just to be clear. Clarity of expression—both verbal and written—is such a prized value in philosophy, and that doesn't come easily. Students also take time to get used to our tendency in philosophy to go deeply into explaining everything in a way that many people find tedious. By the time they get to the intermediate levels, however, they have developed a better sense of where to pass over things more quickly and where to dig down and kind of unpack and disentangle things. That’s one of the things I look for in terms of trying to figure out how they are coming along with their learning: How they are structuring the essay and whether the level of depth is right.

So from the beginning, I am paper intensive. In my intro class, students write three short papers on the different philosophers that we study. Each one of the three papers is about one philosopher, explaining his views, but then on the final exam, they have to compare, contrast, and actually side with one of the philosophers over the others. For my 300-level class, I expect by the end of the term a more in-depth essay of about 10 to 12 pages. In a 500-level seminar course, I expect something that is more like a journal article, up to 20 pages.

What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?

I hope they are gaining general intellectual virtues like the skill of having a clear structure to their essays. I really view teaching and learning in terms of skill development, not in terms of mastering a body of information. I’d also like students to come away with some sense of the peculiarity of philosophy. In philosophy, we really go in-depth. Sometimes, the students are impatient with how slowly I am going, but I pretend that I don't notice and I persist because I am trying to illustrate to them something that is special about my discipline.

Something else that I hope everybody takes away is a greater appreciation for the texts that we are studying. In philosophy, it’s all about the texts. For instance, in my intro class, it's these great texts from the history of the subject: Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant. They are difficult, but they are very inspiring.

How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?

In the 300-level course, I like to include two journal articles where the second article is directly replying to and rebutting the arguments in the first. That way, they can see that nothing is definitive in philosophy. It’s not like you publish something and that is an established fact and we just build on it. I would like the students to come away feeling like they have a dog in that fight between the two people who are disputing, because in moral philosophy, it comes down to things that really matter for life.

I have noticed that even in my intro class, a lot of the students seem quite interested to hear about such scholarly disputes. They really perk up when I tell them about where I stand on an interpretative controversy or tell them that they are getting “my” Kant versus the Kant they might get from another interpreter, or that my own view of the scholar has changed over time because every year when I come back to these great texts I discover different things in them.

What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?

People often underestimate the impact that things like your speaking voice, articulation and eye contact can have. A little bit of focused attention to these aspects of your pedagogy can produce big results.

I also think there is a tendency on the part of new professors to feel they need to prepare exhaustive notes for every lecture. I would encourage new faculty members to have more trust in themselves that they don’t need to have everything written out. If you seem like you are reading an incredibly detailed prepared text, it does not give the impression that you are open to any exchanges with the students. It may also give students the false impression that they need to be getting every detail. Probably it is more important that the students come away with a clear idea of what the really important concepts are. Maybe some people are really effective with those fully written out lectures, but in general, I think they can be counterproductive.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?

Taking any class, but especially a philosophy class, is not a spectator sport. You cannot get that much out of just sitting there and receiving. What you are going to get out of a course is a function of how engaged you are. I strongly believe that everybody can get something out of simply discussing the texts we are reading. Often we have a worry or an objection upon reading a text, but we can’t put our finger on what it is right away. We have to develop our thoughts by articulating them and getting responses. This dialogic process is fundamental to making progress in our understanding. 

So, I really try to put an emphasis on the active parts that they have to do. And however entertaining they find me, the course is really not about me, it is about the texts and their engagement with the texts.

Why do you teach?

I think that as scholars, we are all about communicating. We have this mental image of the lone scholar up in the ivory tower working for years on a solo project and barely stopping to eat. We know that that’s a caricature, but I don’t know if we realize how profoundly wrong that is, in the sense that we as scholars are in fact in the business of communicating. We don’t just come up with our insights and then put them in a drawer. We send them to journals, we want to communicate with other scholars. For me communicating with students is just another huge part of that. If you are passionate about something, if you think your life has been enriched by studying something, you naturally want to do those things together with a student body whom you may be able to benefit by exposing them to an activity that has been extremely valuable for you. So for me, I absolutely would not want to not teach. I thrive on the connection with smart students. It benefits me as a philosopher.

Email Address: 
sarah.stroud@mcgill.ca
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