In this interview Michelle Catalano, Instructor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, talks about growing up upper middle class in Illinois, crowd surfing, the halo effect, finishing college in two and a half years, entrepreneurship and philosophy, working with Anna Alexandrova on Libertarian Paternalism at University of Missouri, Philosopher’s Cocoon and the American Association of Philosophy Teachers, shadowing, lecturing, pedagogy 101 and the science of teaching, backward design, flipped classes, active learning, learning, high impact educational practices, student centered teaching, her attitudes towards research, teacher salaries, teaching tracks, tenure tracks, volunteer adjuncts, whether she is going to pursue a PhD, Public Philosophy Network, Justin Weinberg and expertise, impact, the Office, the Good Place, and her last meal…
What do your parents do?
My mom stayed at home until we went to school and then she started working increasingly more at the local elementary schools as a special education assistant. My dad has worked at the same large corporation for over 30 years. He started in engineering (which was his college degree) and then switched over and spent most of his career in marketing.
What was your childhood like?
My childhood fits a very stereotypical model of the upper-middle-class lifestyle. Most of my memories consist of playing with my brother, hanging out with cousins/friends, occasional family vacations, and basic stuff like that. I went to a private Catholic school for grades K-8. We always lived in the metro-east (which means “on the Illinois side”) suburbs of St. Louis and the year before I started high school my parents moved to a different suburb which had a better public school system. I was excited to go to a new and big high school with more people, amenities, opportunities, etc. I actually still live in that same suburb today! My wonderful parents also still live here but my very cool and talented brother eventually moved away to Los Angeles. He’s my only sibling and we are less than one year apart (which is apparently called being “Irish twins”).
What does your brother do?
Many years ago he packed up and went towards Hollywood and is now a music editor for film (including Atomic Blonde) and television (including Blacklist). He just recently started up a beer brewing company with his friends in Nashville, too.
Cool. Did you get in trouble as a teenager?
For sure, I did all the “troublesome” things as a teenager but I didn’t do them to the point of complete recklessness. I was having a good time while also being mindful about long-term consequences and my future. I was always maintaining excellent performance in school so I think that gave me a protective halo effect and allowed me to fly under the radar a little easier. At 16, I had already gone to my first frat party and crowd-surfed at a concert among other things... but I really was being careful about taking calculated risks and being intentional about steering clear of serious trouble. I felt like I was one of the few people revolving between both worlds of partying and also being a successful student getting good grades. Even now as an adult, I still enjoy the balance between having fun/new experiences and also working hard at my job. Without that balance, I would probably get completely bored or just get burnt out on working too much or get sucked into the higher education temptation of taking myself way too seriously.
Were you into sports? Favorite subjects?
Throughout middle school, I played on all the sports teams only because they weren’t selective at all. When I started at the bigger public high school where they had tryouts, I did make the soccer team my first/freshman year but I only played for that one year. I didn’t tryout the following year because I was getting more involved with the non-athletic student organizations.
I never had one favorite subject that I preferred over the others- I liked learning everything!
Interested in politics?
Not really. Although I was always very open-minded, I realize now in hindsight that I grew up having a quite sanitized view of the world since no one in my family/school ever provoked me to debate societal issues or encouraged me to shake up my web of belief. Even the honors classes at my high school did not even come close to a decent standard of critical thinking or deep engagement of real-world controversies or problem-solving or much of anything beyond memorization and superficial research. I graduated high school a half-year early and was very eager to move on. By the time I got to college, I wanted to soak up knowledge and expose my mind to everything and think outside the box and just fill up my intellectual blind spots as much as possible.
Half a year early? What was the rush?
I’m energetic about accomplishing things and I don’t like wasting time. While I was in college, I totally dedicated my time to learning as much as possible and as fast as possible (both inside and outside the classroom). It only took me 3.5 years after graduating high school to get my first master’s degree- I completed the undergraduate degree in 2.5 years by taking crazy overloads and then I finished the master’s degree in 1 year directly after that. I was 21. I see a challenge and I enjoy trying to figure out how to overcome it so that I can move on the next one. I try to look where everyone else is not looking and see what’s going on there. It gets me into trouble sometimes but for the most part it has served me well. In terms of ambition, I’m slowing down a bit now that I’m getting older but I think I’ll always have the inclination to gravitate towards difficult or overlooked problems with an eye towards how to handle them “like a boss.” I had this discussion with my students this semester in the context of confronting wicked problems... we talked about the difference between having an apathetic attitude towards these problems versus being proactive and aiming for success with fortitude yet also grace and patience by starting with small steps. Now that I’m a teacher, I take seriously the obligation to be a role model to them for the latter. I’m not going to solve any wicked problems on my own but hopefully I’m planting the seeds for the next generation to be inspired about confronting problems (everything from the bigger wicked ones to their smaller individual ones) and stomping them out. So, you asked what the rush is… accomplishing as much as possible and also making as much progress as I can through others until I run out of steam, I guess.
In high school, did you start thinking about what you wanted to do for a living or what you wanted to do in college? Any sign you'd grow up to be a philosopher?
Yes. I think a lot of my tendencies towards philosophy were always there but, unfortunately, I didn’t know it existed as a discipline until after I got to college. Going all the way back to when I was really young, I was always intensely curious and had lots of questions to ask (even though I frequently didn’t ask the questions out loud). I also remember being skeptical of what adults and authorities said particularly when they seemed “so” sure of something. I pondered what went into “good” choices and what really “mattered” in life and, well, basically still do. Delving a little into my personality, I’m an INFJ according to the MBTI test… Based on what I’ve read about INFJ (which is only 1% of the population), it’s not very surprising that I ended up gravitating towards a vocation that is so idealistic and value-driven. When I found philosophy in college, I knew it was a great fit and it gave me that forum for mental stimulation and rigorous challenge that I had been looking for. To me, it also had an element of charm and romanticism given that it was so rare and unique and enigmatic relative to all the other fields of study. At the same time, it was also this bold and authentic and extreme space of ruthless truth-telling. I immediately added it as my minor but I had already picked entrepreneurship as my major.
Interesting major! Didn’t even know that was a thing.
It was a specialization, technically. Entrepreneurship was initially attractive to me because you could work for yourself and express original & creative ideas… but then I ended up discovering that those things I liked best about entrepreneurship could also be manifested just as well in philosophy. The analogy is that as an entrepreneur, you sell your ideas for money and as a philosopher you give them away for the sake of things like advancing the frontiers of human knowledge, improving society, enhancing wisdom for yourself and for students, etc. If someone had explained philosophy to me in those terms early on then I would have been “all in” from the beginning but since I had only declared philosophy as a minor no one ever gave me advice about it or pushed me towards studying it more. I eventually figured it out for myself which was maybe even better that way. At that point, philosophy was still only on paper as my minor… but it was also in my heart as potentially much more.
What did your parents make of your decision to pursue philosophy?
This is funny to me because I don’t think my parents even realized I was doing philosophy until I got my full-time job. They knew I was continuing along in school for a long time but I’m fairly certain that for a while they thought I was getting a PhD in business. I apparently didn’t do a good job of communicating with them about it at the time!
I ended up continuing with philosophy because I felt like I wasn’t done with it and I guess I felt secure knowing I already had something useful to fall back on just in case. Also, I perceived an attitude in the business discipline of almost neglect to any issue of normativity- and all I wanted to do was delve right into it. (This actually still motivates one of my beliefs that business ethics requirements should always be taught with philosophical rigor as philosophy courses, but, anyway…). Over the past couple years I’ve brought my parents up to speed and they know very well to tell people that I ”teach philosophy” when they tell people what I do for a living. My dad pushed practical careers early on but overall my parents were supportive of me and my brother pursuing what we’re passionate about and allowing us to figure out how to reach our potential in our own individual ways.
Where did you get your MA? Who did you work with? What did you work on?
I stayed local and I got my MA in philosophy at the University of Missouri- St. Louis (UMSL). The same year I started they were piloting a brand-new online Business Ethics course for business students and I wonder if maybe my MBA background made me seem like a good fit to be involved with that (as a teaching assistant). It sure worked out perfect for me!!! I previously wrote at length about navigating my path (from UMSL to my current full-time job at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) on the Philosopher’s Cocoon last year.
Why didn’t you share your identity?
At the time, I wrote it anonymously because I didn’t think my identity added any important element to the story. I had also just gotten my full-time job so maybe it crossed my mind that I shouldn’t do anything that could make that awkward in any way. Here and now, I don’t mind connecting the stories since it fills in a lot more of the details of what it’s really like to be a philosopher as a part-time adjunct. More generally, though, I just like doing things anonymously and I think we need more of that and I try to do as much as I can anonymously wherever it is possible. I love the idea of the journals where you can submit articles anonymously- I think taking away the variable of getting credit can be good for sharing and spreading ideas.
Interesting! So, who did you work with at UMSL? What was your thesis on?
At UMSL, Dr. Berit Brogaard (who I remember was the very first person you interviewed on this site!) was one of my professors for at least two classes there. My thesis was “Evaluating Libertarian Paternalism” and it revolved around the debate on discerning the appropriate conditions under which “nudges” are justifiable given what we know about the well-established findings from behavioral economics. I asked Dr. Anna Alexandrova to be my thesis advisor after completing an independent study with her on the philosophy of economics. Before that, she was the professor of my pro-seminar (which was the course for first-year graduate students) on the topic of happiness. My interest in the philosophy of economics intersected with her interest in the more general philosophy of social science so it was a lucky privilege for me to be able to cross paths with her at that time. I have her recent book on my shelf right now and it is at the top of my summer reading list! Since my time at UMSL, I’ve enjoyed reconnecting with fellow students (mostly at conferences) who are now settling into their own jobs. It took me 5 years to complete the MA so I saw lots of students come and go and while I was there I missed out on the opportunity to build friendships since I did not live on campus and I already had family obligations beyond my school obligations.
So does that have something to do with why you didn’t pursue a PhD?
I ultimately did not apply to any PhD programs because, at that time, my spouse and I had already bought a house and had our first child and put roots down in Edwardsville where both of our parents were living nearby. Also, as I was finishing up at UMSL, I immediately started having consistent, part-time adjunct work at a few community colleges and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (which I ended up doing for the next 7 years). Being an adjunct at SIUE was ideal since I had already been living there and I had already gone there as a student for my undergraduate degree and first graduate degree (before going to the MA philosophy program at UMSL). SIUE has been a special part of my life for many, many years and it truly does feel like a home. Over those 7 years, part-time work was a great fit in my life as a married mother. I did always wonder whether I would ever be able to transition into a full-time career and I did have concerns about the instability and unpredictability of being an adjunct. I wondered whether I would be able to “keep my foot in the door” and I never really knew what kind of schedule I would have from semester-to-semester. The entire time I was holding out hope for a full-time teaching “dream job” and SIUE was always my first choice but I thought it would be a “one-in-a-million” opportunity for something to open up that I could apply for… sure enough, it did! SIUE is a beautiful campus with great people and I couldn’t ask for a better department- I am thankful every day to be a part of it! Our department is fairly big and there is a clear need for teaching positions like mine because of the required gen-ed course that we teach. Getting my full-time position as a faculty member at SIUE was most certainly my “biggest break.” I started as a student with them in 2002 and they also gave me my first adjunct position back while I was still in grad school and so I am abundantly loyal to them and they’ve been there for me since the beginning. It’s rare that I work in higher education and that I’ve never had to relocate anywhere for it.
Awesome! How has your teaching changed since you started? What hasn't changed?
Besides the special feeling of nostalgia I get from being inside a classroom space, I can’t really think of anything that hasn’t changed. There is so much that HAS changed that I will try to limit myself to sharing some of the most significant things. The fact that teaching is a process of constant evolution is precisely what makes it so appealing to me as a career. Maintaining innovation and creativity for yourself is crucial when you are faced with the prospect of re-teaching the “big three” (logic-intro-ethics) over and over and over again. Over the years, one big change has been viewing myself as a teacher (almost in the K-12 sense) focused on the importance of interpersonal interactions rather than viewing myself as a higher education philosopher focused on the cold-hearted transfer of my analytical expertise. Another big change happened when I started getting involved with the American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT). They’ve been a fantastic resource and support. While I was meeting people in the AAPT, I also started investigating the principles of pedagogy (from outside philosophy) a little more methodically and I realized that I had been woefully underprepared on how to be an educator.
When you started teaching, did you like it?
At first, teaching was not something that came natural or easy to me even though I liked it right away. Some people are lucky enough to be talented teachers right from the beginning, but I had to put a lot of effort into it and looking back now with hindsight, I wasn’t very good. I was still not very good when I went through my “lecture like a robot” phase and only now that I’ve been doing it for well over a decade I can say that I have developed my own style, I am comfortable with teaching brand new material, and I am confident that I’m providing an effective learning experience for most of my students. Someone from another department told me one time that it takes about 3 years to truly “make courses your own.” I think that’s about right for me if you define it as full-time dedicated teaching for 3 years. I have a friend who taught high school English and she said she really found her groove around the 3-year mark. I know I’m drawing upon anecdotes here but anecdotes are sometimes all we have when it comes to sharing teaching wisdom with each other whilst just trying to survive the daily trenches of our teaching demands.
Let’s be real- you can read all the SOTL in the world and still be a shitty performer in front of students. The science of teaching is somewhat well-developed but the art of teaching is another story. I think there is always so much to learn about the art of teaching- enough of it to continue honing and adapting and keeping us consumed for an entire career. Plus, when it comes to teaching, there is just always room to be more knowledgeable, more charismatic, more everything! And, a lot of it is basic stuff- being a good storyteller, fostering inclusive spaces, and so on. Do you want to know what I think is one secret of excellence in the art of teaching? I’ll tell you! The best teachers are the ones who really understand that excellence in teaching boils down to how deeply you are willing to invest in authentic human connection with students. And, guess what? They don’t show us how to do that in grad school… right?
I think another great thing we can do to foster excellence is to observe other teachers throughout our career but especially at the beginning. In other industries, this is called “shadowing” and it’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do in order to learn how to do a job. I recently observed someone else for an entire semester and it was extremely valuable! I don’t like observations of teaching based on just a one-time sit-in because it’s not enough time to see what’s really going on in there. I unfortunately never had my own teaching mentor but about a year ago I heard Dr. David Concepcion say something interesting at an AAPT workshop about how he learned from another teaching guru by deliberately following him around at as many conferences as possible to glean his insights. Dr. Concepcion doesn’t know this yet but my plan is to now just follow him around at the upcoming AAPT conferences by attending his sessions so I can glean HIS insights. Well, if he reads this then he’ll know… but that’s ok! The overall idea, though, is that we can be learning from each other in the same way our students are learning from us.
In my department, we sit in on each other’s classes. I was also a TA in grad school for years before I taught my own class. Did you teach in grad school?
I did not have a lot of teacher training in grad school beyond teaching as a TA for their online Business Ethics course.
What types of things do you learn at these teaching and AAPT conferences?
A few years ago I went to a non-AAPT interdisciplinary higher education teaching conference where the keynote presenter said matter-of-factly that “lecturing is educational malpractice” while speaking about the evidence-based research on what we know about active learning. I started wondering if I was the only person in the room that didn’t know this yet and then I thought “wtf, why didn’t anyone tell me this until now?” I didn’t meet another philosopher at that entire conference and it makes no sense for the vast majority of us to go around individually trying to figure out these things on our own. There are many philosophers in the AAPT who are well-versed in the SOTL but if we are just looking within our own departments, most of us are probably too busy with other obligations to devote our time to thoroughly investigating pedagogy. I’m not saying that we should all be experts in all areas but teaching is a distinctly important topic considering that almost all of our job descriptions include some degree of it. Still, there’s this attitude that it’s acceptable to be completely ignorant of effective teaching strategies. It’s kind of perplexing to me.
Any favorite texts to teach?
One specific and recent change that completely reformed the way I teach critical thinking was finding and using the textbook Intellectual Empathy: Critical Thinking for Social Justice by Dr. Maureen Linker. I think it’s worth mentioning in case any other critical thinking teachers out there are currently on the lookout for something fresh and different to use in their course.
It feels like there are hundreds of these books released every year and somehow they end up in my mailbox! What's so special about the Linker book?
I have an entire shelf of logic textbooks and most of them are very similar to each other. I’ve used several of them in my classes and the Linker book is, by far, the most provocative in the best possible way. So far, I’ve been using her book in conjunction with another “standard” logic textbook and we switch in the middle of the semester so that my students can see and discuss the difference between the two approaches. Her perspective is cooperative argumentation rather than adversarial argumentation. I like her conversational tone and the way she melds together emotion and logic. I’m greatly concerned about the debate we have amongst ourselves in our discipline about the value of logic courses to students and whether our courses actually enhance problem-solving and critical thinking skills over the long-term and for daily life circumstances. I think the prevailing attitude is that “we will let the students figure out how our analytic and formal tools are transferrable to everyday decision-making.” Sadly, I don’t think the majority of students ever figure it out. The Linker book makes the best effort I’ve seen to bridge that gap from learning logical skills to improving our interactions in the real world. I was able to successfully use a backchannel for the first time with this book; my students simultaneously participated in discussions in two different ways- both verbally and/or through a live feed on the projector where they typed input/comments via their mobile device.
I’ll check it out! So, we've talked a lot about teaching, what is your teaching philosophy in a nutshell?
My core values as a teacher are to 1) advance a standard of excellence in teaching philosophy both at my university and in the broader discipline 2) promote philosophy as an accessible and inspiring discipline of study to a large, general audience 3) help students recognize and counteract the various internal and external limitations we have on rationality 4) engage students with issues that they are passionate about and foster their ability to translate classroom skills into "real" world interactions.
Using the principles of active learning, student-centeredness, and backward design as my base goals for teaching, I also strive to throw in innovation and creativity. I’ve conducted experiential, flipped, paperless, adaptive, and online versions of my classes. I’m always on the lookout for something new to try in my learning spaces and I’m almost always happy with the results even if it ends up being just a one-time trial.
Personal and professional highlights of your career so far?
I’m glad you asked because, honestly, this interview will probably be a major highlight! I’m honored (and a little awestruck) to be included in this series with philosophers who I have the utmost respect for and who have inspired me in many different ways. That said, I feel strongly that the teaching-dedicated perspective of “what it’s like to be a philosopher” should be represented and I want you to know that I appreciate the fact that you took this unconventional step to highlight my type of career. I think philosophy teachers will automatically regard it as meaningful but hopefully I’ll be able to defend here even more why everyone else should also regard this as meaningful, too. I’m sure some people are legitimately wondering “who is that?” or “what an unusual choice!” or “wtf?” and so to them I would say “sorry not sorry” because it’s time to amplify and shine a spotlight on the significance of all the hard-working and under-appreciated teachers out there.
haha…hey, no problem! Thanks for supporting the project! Any low points?
I haven’t really had any major low points yet but, you know, the occupation of teaching can oftentimes be thankless and there have been some seriously rough semesters. Basically, my career doesn’t have a lot of big ups and downs like some famous philosophers might have- it’s just the smaller things that are going on with my students and with me on a day-to-day or semester-to-semester basis.
What is your teaching load?
4-4 is my normal, contracted teaching load (no committee/service duties) but with overloads it is usually 4-1-5. I almost exclusively have been teaching one of the “big three” (logic-intro-ethics) but now mostly Reasoning & Argumentation (which was previously named Critical Thinking and is our version of an introductory logic course) since it is a required gen-ed course for all our students. In comparison, most of the community college teachers I know have at least a 5-5 load (plus committee/service duties) but that’s almost too heavy of a load to maintain quality and enthusiasm, in my humble opinion. On the other hand, they generally have a substantially higher salary than I do! Community college teachers are really doing some hard, demanding work that goes largely unnoticed… I’ve met many CC teachers through the AAPT and I give them a lot of credit for what they do and also for what I’ve learned from them. In my experience the CC teachers have way more fun, too… big shout-out to my community college teacher friends out there (you know who you are)!!!
You do not have a 'permanent' job, right? Do you ever worry about losing your job?
I do not have to worry about losing my job because my job IS permanent! Let me elaborate. At SIUE, we have a teacher/scholar model and faculty members are split into tenure track (assistant/associate/full professors with research and teaching duties) and non-tenure track (instructors, adjuncts, graduate assistants with teaching-only duties.). My position is an “instructor” position but I’ve discovered that the term “instructor” can mean a wide variety of things from institution to institution and I didn’t fully understand the wide variation until I started attending conferences. At my institution, an instructor becomes established (with a very high level of protections) after a period of probationary semesters. Besides endangering a student, there are surely things that could threaten my job (such as severe budget cuts which almost happened in the State of Illinois when we went over 2 years without a state budget around 2015-2017), but the point is that the protection of our instructor positions is quite strong. Plus, our NTT contracts are backed by union (the IEA/NEA). I wish other institutions gave their instructors the level of protection that I have because I know they deserve it as much as I do (if not more). However, I don’t think that what we have here is even the ideal system. I contend that models of equal “teaching tracks” and “tenure tracks” would be the ideal. With a track solely for teaching, we can put professionals in positions where they can focus on pedagogy with an eye towards long-term development and enrichment. Teaching tracks are, from what I understand, more common in Canada and are becoming more common here (although still hard to come across). It’s important to note that this wouldn’t prohibit any overlap or collaboration (researchers could occasionally teach or teachers could occasionally contribute to research activities) but it WOULD help with directing teaching talent into the classrooms and with giving teachers as much recognition and stability as their researcher counterparts.
I don’t have tenure, but my job feels secure. I’m not worried, but I've had people try to convince me I should be! Like, is this written down? Is it legally binding?
With the system of “instructor establishment” that I have at my institution, I thankfully do not have to hang my hat on verbal assurances but if I were you or most others then, yes, I would be worried! But you shouldn’t have to be and that’s exactly why the time is ripe for change. You (and many others!) deserve some kind of “official” or contractual protection! It doesn’t cost an institution much of anything to give instructors/teachers some provision for establishment/permanence after a probationary period. There can even be a system of checks and balances for quality control before granting establishment/permanence as well as requirements to participate in future professional development. Some modest raises or other incentives over the span of a career to encourage retention would be nice, too. Teachers have enough to worry about- they shouldn’t have to stress out about the assurance of their job being there for them.
As an untenured faculty member, do you feel like you can get involved with controversial projects, or take risks in the classroom?
Yes, absolutely, but only because I’m established and I have that level of protection that is equivalent to a kind of tenure. Actually, the union contract for established instructors at my institution is stronger than some of the tenure systems that professors have (or so I’m told).
But, whatever the contract says, the more important thing is that it gives our teachers a way to earn academic freedom. Community college teachers almost always have a path to tenure but at most of the 4-year institutions, teaching-only positions with real protection and permanence are very rare. I can’t even recall anyone else I’ve met at another 4-year institution who has a position like mine (with actual establishment) and usually people are confused about what I mean by it when I describe it. Academic freedom can make a great deal of difference for teachers- once I earned my establishment, I was surprised at how much of an impetus it was to try new things and pursue other supplementary projects. I strongly support any initiatives that would give instructors/teachers at other 4-year institutions a similar kind of pathway to academic freedom like I have or like the community college teachers have.
How can colleges and universities give teachers, especially the teachers whose careers are not focused on generating publications, the recognition and stability they deserve?
Thank you for asking. We do NOT give teachers the recognition and stability that they deserve. Brace yourself- I have a LOT to say about this! The difficulties of adjuncting (which I did for 7 years before becoming full-time) are real but there is already some awareness and attention on that issue. What else is going on is that even full-time dedicated teachers are often being sidelined but in different ways that are not yet as publicly acknowledged. I worry that others have not felt comfortable speaking up about this because their “full-time” positions (unfair “renewable contracts” and so forth) are too precarious and they don’t want to risk their stability. Given that I have the comfort of permanence, I feel a bit of an obligation to “carry the torch” and do the best I can to help raise awareness about the differences in what we consider “who is a philosopher” and how we regard them, rank them, reward them, and compensate them.
I want to advocate for a solution across higher education (not just philosophy) that involves structures based on equal “teaching tracks” and “tenure tracks.” Let’s explore this question of why aren’t teaching tracks (in sense of being parallel to tenure tracks) more common? A lot of the answer is cost. Consider this.… My base full-time NTT salary (since I’m a state employee it’s publically searchable information) is currently $29,000. When you think about how much education I have and the fact that I work in a very competitive discipline in academia, it’s pretty sad and it’s a darn good thing that I don’t take money too seriously.
When I tell family/friends who work in the private sector how much I make they are horrified. They automatically assume that I have some kind of luxurious university job and they are just completely stunned by the fact that my earnings are (quite literally) barely poverty-level. Most of the people I talk to in the private sector have very little idea about the difference between professors/researchers and instructors/teachers which contributes to some of the confusion. Professors (TT) at my institution make MUCH more than instructors (NTT) do. Something else that misconstrues the value of teachers is that instructors in other units (Business, Engineering, etc.) sometimes make over 2x as much as instructors in my unit (Arts & Sciences) even though we are at the same university! I’m not saying anything that’s not public knowledge because, I repeat, our salaries are publically searchable as state employees. But, you know what? It shows exactly what our society puts as a monetary value on those who teach the humanities versus those who teach marketing (or something else like that). I guarantee those teachers in the other disciplines are not 2x better than me… but, whatever. Training the next generation of society the imperative and transferrable skill of critical thinking is just not a big deal, apparently. Another disappointing thing is that students are completely indifferent to the fact that so little of their tuition money goes towards the people who are directly providing their education to them as compared to how much goes towards rock climbing walls, fancy eateries, building expansions, campus-life luxuries, and other overhead. Let’s make the math simple… An adjunct might get paid around $3000 to teach a class and if each student in a class of 40 is paying $1000 tuition then only 3 students are paying towards the person that is actually providing them with knowledge and interacting with them face-to-face in order to enhance their wisdom. The other 37 students are paying towards other stuff (administrative costs, the rock-climbing walls, the eateries, etc.). When you multiply out how many classes there are, it’s basically a truck-load of money that goes towards other expenses beyond direct instruction! And students do have some degree of governance over the way their tuition money is allocated but very, very few of them pay attention and get involved with that process which usually requires approvals through some kind of student senate. The bottom line is that NTT-taught classes tend to have the most quantity of students (intro level classes with large enrollments) and even though NTTs are some of the biggest money-generators for the university, they are some the lowest compensation-earners.
Furthermore, NTT teachers are regarded as second-class compared to their first-class TT counterparts in other ways besides cost. I strongly believe that my department respects the work I do (and I am very proud to be their colleague!) but there are over-arching institutional policies beyond our control that draw a huge distinction between the status of NTT and TT. For example, our NTTs do not have voting rights and typically have lower priority for scheduling preferences. There are also campus-cultural attitudes that reinforce this dynamic that NTT work is not as important as TT work. On the bright side, I have a lot of freedom to do my work “behind the scenes” because everyone else is focused on the productivity of tenure-track faculty members. It’s much easier for me to appear like I’m drop-kicking my standards when the benchmark standards set for me are low.
Keep in mind that most NTTs are teaching the intro classes that the upper-level students start out in and typically we are the first experience and foundation to the discipline of philosophy. There’s only one time to get the first time right! Quality matters! The continuation of knowledge from one generation to the next depends on it and it’s worth attracting the most highly devoted people to it. My selfish goal with this interview is being able to convince other people that it’s time to do more to elevate the status of teaching in our profession. I know I’m not the only one doing this- over the past year even the APA has promoted a new teaching prize and they are now hosting Teaching Hubs at their conferences (I was really excited about the first one- I went and learned a lot and had a great time, too!). I feel a bit of momentum moving in the right direction for educators and I want to be a part of maintaining that momentum until we start flowing more freely in the right direction. If nothing else, this interview makes me more publically accountable to that.
By the way, there is some relevant and recent news on this topic… did you hear that Southern Illinois University Carbondale (a campus two hours away from us) announced plans to recruit “volunteer” adjuncts to teach their classes? I can’t even begin….
I agree with you about the importance of teaching, but I wonder, how do we resist the seemingly irresistible market forces (the desires, perhaps misguided, of students and parents who are paying for instruction, as well as a large labor pool) that are giving many administrators compelling financial reasons to behave the way they do?
Even if the people behind these market forces are not willing to give up their entire model, there are still plenty of ways that we can find a compromise between the ideal vision I’d like to see (of equal teaching and research tracks) and where we are currently at. As I mentioned, I make a base salary of $29,000 while administrators and other professors are sometimes making close to three figures. People working in other offices such as the student fitness center and facilities management probably make more than I do, too! I’m not saying they should earn less than they do; instead, I am pointing out the disparity to force the issue on making a determination about what is the worth of teachers. We’ve got to admit that there’s a lot we can do to make just a little progress towards pay equity for the next generation of teachers even without any major, radical reformations. Look, in places where there are opportunities to adopt drastic changes like I’m proposing, let’s do it. But, in the other places where the option to completely abandon an existing model doesn’t exist, let’s slowly push for smaller improvements for teachers to have better compensation, status, recognition, pathways to permanence, etc.
Do you worry that rearranging our priorities on a massive scale, divvying up limited resources differently, might make the quality and quantity of research worse? I mean, in a sense, lower level classes are the foundation of a philosophy department, but what we teach is often from people who weren't/aren't teaching much, so one could argue that's really the foundation?
Ok, on quality and quantity- what I’m proposing would free up more time for researchers to research and teachers to teach with as much or as little balance as appropriate. I’ll totally go along with the idea that the foundation is the people doing the research because I don’t think committing to that devalues the work of teachers. Even more, I’m all for making that foundation of research stronger! The researchers are the “idea generators” and I view what I do as being an “idea perpetuator.” The goal is to free up time and resources for the researchers to focus primarily on the generating (by creating ideas) and for the teachers to focus primarily on the perpetuating (by preserving those ideas and making them accessible and inspiring to a general audience). I work every day in the interest of generators to do their ideas justice and give them their credit and continue their legacy on a large-scale. So, yeah, in my capacity, I’m a conduit but we’re both doing challenging and important work in different ways. In fact, I could greatly benefit from closer interaction with researchers so that they can inform me about how to teach their ideas and keep me up to speed on their area of specialty. After that, I can focus on the mechanics of teaching it well for them.
I could see one arguing this might harm the future of philosophy?
Well, if we only had teachers/perpetuators then, right, this whole thing doesn’t work and everything comes to a screeching halt. But, I just don’t see any problems with letting the teachers primarily teach and the researchers primarily research while giving each their distinct and separate due. There are some examples of places with distinct and separate tracks and, as far as I can tell, it’s not threatening the future of anything.
Right. Do you worry about the reliability of empirical studies of pedagogy?
Yeah, I’ve worried a little about the reliability of empirical studies of pedagogy but we all know how to sort through studies with small samples vs. those with large samples and so forth… the good news is that there are some empirical findings that have been corroborated for decades! A case in point is active learning. The pedagogy literature shows that students do, in fact, learn and retain information better in active environments. I’ve heard an expert on active learning directly say “the NSF does not need to spend another dime on researching the effectiveness of active learning.” Yet, when I walk the halls of my building and glance into the classrooms as I walk by, the vast majority of them are delivering information by lecturing! There are soooo many other things to try!
Interesting! I love teaching, and I enjoy talking shop! However, I am not fond of, but I am not against, taking classes or doing research or going to conferences on it. For the person reluctant to dive into the research, what would you say the main takeaways are? What are the other dos and don'ts of philosophy pedagogy 101?
I’m going to answer this as simplistically as I can for those who are reluctant or, like you, just not fond of it…. Let me take little a step back, and reframe the angle to be more like this: “As a philosopher, what [insights] can I gain from pedagogy 101?” I went to a nice teaching workshop last semester and the presenter hit the nail on the head with this… She had us do an exercise where we wrote out on giant posters the different ways we can spend our class time (lecturing, showing videos, leading discussions, doing experiments, managing group activities, conducting projects, giving assessments, listening, etc.). She first asked everyone to put a sticker on the poster of the most typical ways we actually spent our time. She then asked everyone to put a sticker on the poster of the ways we wished we spent more of our time. It was so visually clear that people were doing X even though they wanted to be doing Y. So, go ahead try something new! Google “high impact educational practices” or “student centered teaching” and start from there for inspiration. There’s a huge disconnect between what people want to do and what they are actually doing in their classrooms (which is most typically a lecture). The ultimate goal should be to find what is complementary to your style given your personality and your student population. If you don’t even try then you surely might miss it. Start small! One semester I was motivated to try clickers (which at the time were a type of technology that was brand new to me) and so instead of dismissing them as not applicable to how we have traditionally taught philosophy I forced myself to figure out how I could find at least one way to use them in my intro classes. The result turned out to be fantastic and we used ended up utilizing them the entire semester in ways I hadn’t even expected at the beginning!
I like experimenting! Do you do research on teaching?
Nope. I’ve never made a single publication submission. I thought about it for, like, one minute and then decided it wouldn’t help me as a teacher in terms of my interactions with my students. Going to conferences with other teachers is worthwhile and beneficial but typing up that information and trying to get a “credential” by sending it to a journal is something I have not yet found any interest in doing. I do have some publication ideas that I might follow up on in the future and having some SOTL (what you called “research on teaching”) publications might give me bragging rights amongst my colleagues but right now those are not my priorities. That said, if you teach higher-level classes (the 300 & 400 & graduate level) then it’s obvious that doing research on your scholarly interests would absolutely inform your teaching in an essential way. I would never dispute that and I’m not in any way trying to belittle that kind of scholarly activity and I just want to make it clear that it does depend heavily on what you teach. Given that I don’t teach the higher-level classes and that I’m not on the oppressively competitive job market and that I don’t care about impressing the “publication establishment” there is almost zero incentive for me to do research- even research on teaching. Any kind of research can potentially be a distraction from teaching. My job description is to teach FOR students- not FOR students FOR my own publications. If I uncover some incredible secret about teaching that will transform all future teachers of the world then, sure, I will seek to publish it but that’s a huge stretch. Am I making any sense at all, Cliff? What do you think?
Yeah, you’re making sense. Do you plan on going back to school and getting your Ph.D.?
Million dollar question! My thoughts on this have changed over the years. At first, I thought “I will eventually pursue a PhD someday when the time is right” until I saw first-hand that I’m not cut out for the demands of a tenure track. Then I thought later, quite snobbishly, “I don’t ever need a PhD to be a good teacher.” Right now, I’m thinking “I would potentially pursue a PhD someday if I could find a program that would (accept me and) be compatible with my ability to continue teaching full-time AND where I could assemble a dissertation committee that is supportive of a topic on philosophy-oriented SOTL.” That’s a tall order and it’s just not on my radar right now. ‘Pure’ research and getting a PhD on a non-teaching topic will probably never happen for me; ultimately, as I’ve already said, I don’t really think research (even the SOTL research) makes us better teachers if you are only teaching the “big three” of logic-intro-ethics over and over and over again. I have listened very carefully to others tell me why they think their PhD has enhanced their teaching but I’m still not convinced of that for myself. That’s basically where I’m at right now…In the meantime, if anyone wants to piss me off then they should ask me where I got my PhD… lol! I (obviously) really hate that question and I’m building up a nice little stockpile of smart-ass responses to it.
Don't you want to contribute to the ongoing conversation that is occurring in pedagogy/philosophy journals?
Conferences are a blast and I always enjoy them but to answer your question about the journal conversations- not really. For now, I just like listening to them and following them and being on the sidelines without making any contributions to the journals. If there’s ever a contribution that is missed, then I will be happy to jump in there and fill it in, lol!
So you’re into teaching and learning about teaching, but if you could teach an upper-level class, what would it be on? Don't you want to stay current?
I’ve wanted to teach Business Ethics again although it’s not always an upper-level number depending on where/how it’s done. If I were to teach it on a regular basis then, yes, I would definitely feel the need to stay abreast on the current literature so that what I’m teaching is reflective. But, still, I guess I don’t really know if I would be compelled to actively participate with my own contributions by submitting publications…haha, you’re doing a really good job of making me feel like I am unusual in this respect!
I don’t think you are actually! Trying to anticipate reader questions. Are you into public philosophy?
Although it doesn’t necessarily have to be an upper-level course, I am on a stubborn mission to teach a new kind of course on ‘Public Philosophy’ and also see if there is broader interest in adding it as a legitimate part of the course offerings in our discipline. I’m serious enough about this idea that I’ve drafted a sample syllabi/proposal/rationale for it and also presented a session on it at the 2018 American Association of Philosophy Teachers biennial conference this summer. As a teacher, my automatic reaction to almost any valuable topic is that we should put it in the classroom and teach it! Teaching something is how we send a signal to the world that something is important enough to be an enduring part of our curriculum and that we want to pass it along to the next generation of students. When a new paradigm gains enough motion, at some point we decide to start incorporating it into our courses. I think we are at that point with public philosophy and I, for one, am eager to try and see if it works as well as I think it will. Teaching Public Philosophy as a course has many advantages: we can inform students of the different types of public initiatives, we can have students assist in our publically engaged projects/outreach, we can generate measurable impact, we can carve out compensation for our public initiatives by reflecting it as a portion of our teaching load, and much, much more! There’s already an abundance of materials and readings and resources devoted to public philosophy. Public philosophy activities give our discipline name recognition and it’s an opportunity for members of our community to hear students say “I’m here for my philosophy class to participate in project XYZ.” Students can practice communicating our concepts to the public and can consider non-academic career paths that put their philosophical skills into practice. There’s much more I can say about this but those are some of the over-arching objectives I’m bouncing around.
How do you see the future of philosophy? Do you find any trends disconcerting? Exciting?
Well, I’ve put all my eggs in the baskets of teaching and public initiatives so I can tell you that’s where I selfishly want to see the future of philosophy! It’s disconcerting to me that I have to explain what philosophy is when I meet people and I tell them I’m a “philosophy teacher.” And then, for the people who already know what philosophy is, the most common response I get is “wow, you don’t look like a philosopher!” There is still this vision of a philosopher as an old man with a tweed coat and a pipe getting lost in his thoughts just sitting in an armchair from within the safety and comfort of an ivory tower. I want the public to better understand the significance and value of our discipline- it’s not too much to ask and it’s also in the interest of our own self-preservation. I think better exposure of philosophy through teaching and public initiatives will help. I’ve already talked a lot about teaching but I also like putting my time and effort into public work because it gives us a seat at the table to lay down our contributions and show the world the rad skills that we possess. When I was at the Public Philosophy Network conference this past year to give a co-session on a teaching topic, there were two keynote presentations that struck me as crucial in how we should be proceeding on moving forward with public work… On the one hand, we had Dr. Justin Weinberg give a keynote on the urgency of protecting our expertise as philosophers before we set about bringing philosophy to the public pitched with messages that it is for “everyone” and that “everyone” can do it. I largely agree but if this is the case, then I am curious about the next natural step which is to define with more clarity “what exactly counts as philosophy expertise?” University professionals with a PhD in philosophy? Community college teachers with a Masters in philosophy? What? I am sensitive to this topic because I am almost always the only person in the entire room who doesn’t have a PhD and who operates in an industry geared exclusively towards higher education professionals and audiences. So, as I listened to Dr. Weinberg talk I was intensely wondering where he draws the line because… on the other hand, there was another keynote presentation by a Humanomics panel from Aalborg University who explained their current project of mapping actual “impact” in the social sciences. They developed a program that can trace/track impact for any given person in terms of the actual footprint they are making in the real world. It captures small things like the number of citations of your journal articles, how many students enroll in your classes, appearances at local service engagements and also the bigger things like mainstream news interviews or contributions to government policy proposals. This discussion of impact got me thinking…. who’s having a greater impact in the real world with their work? Is it me (with 200 students each semester and 400 followers on a “Study Philosophy” social media page) or is it a researcher (with maybe 60 students each semester and only a handful of people reading their scholarly research articles)? Impact is complicated when considering all the metrics of measurement but hearing about their project made me much more sympathetic to the idea that we need to be open enough with our definition of philosophy expertise to include researchers with PhD credentials AND teachers with Masters credentials AND people who are making acceptable impacts in different ways.
How do you maintain a work-life balance?
Well, I don’t know because I think I’m terrible at it! Since I’ve been full-time with two kids, I just haven’t figured out how to balance work life and non-work life and feel good about it. I love the fact that my job is flexible enough to be compatible with parenting (flexible hours, being off in the summers, etc.) but sometimes that flexibility hurts me when I should be spending time in the office. I’ve spent far too much time regretting the work I do at home during evenings or weekends. Managing a family and a full-time job in this modern world is almost too much to handle. I can’t figure out how all the other parents are making their lifestyle look so simple! It’s not! Maybe part of the problem is that my personality is such that I tend to get easily distracted and short-tempered when I’m busy at work even if I’m at home. For example, during the entire week 15 of the semester I am ALWAYS, without fail, an extremely unpleasant person to be around! Maybe my balance is off because I like my job too much!? At this point, I can’t imagine working outside of higher education. It’s my comfort zone where I can be around colleagues who value lifelong learning and who are (for the most part, lol) mature, intelligent, and highly self-motivated. Being around college students every day is also gratifying and just plain fun. I am grateful to work in higher education and I strive every day to make sure I’m earning my keep and that I’m providing a value-added to my institution and to the broader discipline.
What do you do for fun?
I enjoy striving for a healthy lifestyle. I’m not overly excessive about it but I do like eating nutritious food and I have a personal trainer and I occasionally jog. I even do some of the more “proactive” health care assessments such as tissue/hair strand analysis (for mineral balancing) and genotyping (such as the 23&Me analysis) mostly because I’m an information junky and I just want as much data about myself as possible. I like new experiences. I like lattes from coffee shops that do NOT have a drive-thru. I like trying original bloody marys from house-made mixes. I like farmer’s markets. I like places where beer is served. If real “symposiums” existed where people came together to hang out and drink and talk about philosophy then I think that would be an ultimate definition of fun! If I had more time, I would hike more and visit national/state parks more and travel more and read more but I just don’t have a lot of extra time right now. My kids keep me very busy… My son is super cool- his current hobbies are skateboarding, ice hockey, trying new coffee drinks, and collecting unique sunglasses. My daughter is much younger than my son and she really likes reading books and making art and also lots of things that involve nature (butterflies, gardens, etc.) so I’m hopeful that those interests will continue as she gets older. Their dad and I are fortunate to have such extraordinary and hard-working and enjoyable children! As a parent, the thing I look forward to the most is how my relationship will grow with them in the future.
Favorite books? Movies? TV shows?
I can’t remember the last time I read a fiction book and the only movies I’ve sought to watch recently are documentaries. I need to be more intentional about adding more fiction in my life! I’ve never really liked TV but my past favorites were Office and Parenthood. A little while back, I was watching This Is Us, New Girl, and Good Place but I’m not caught up on them.
Office is difficult to beat. Magic lamp, 3 wishes, go!
First, give (all types of) teachers the recognition and status they deserve. Second, unlock the mystery of apathy in the current generation of students and understand why they think they are powerless in enacting change or in making differences in the world. Third, I want someone to turn the tables and do one of these interviews of you! Maybe someone out there will ask YOU soon?
Maybe if I get enough supporters on Patreon? Tell me a joke.
Gallows humor! Last meal?
Hopefully not hemlock! Seriously, a homemade meal made with love and eaten together in a kitchen with lots of laughter and good conversation with others…. and beer, too!