teaching philosophy

Pragmatism

NB draft text

As an instructor, I am not an idealist: My approach to the subjects I teach is playful, opportunistic, interdisciplinary, and engaged: A kind of techno-intellectual bricolage. In this way, I like to think that it models for students some of the ways that thought, technology, design, rhetoric, and aesthetics can play new or expanded roles in their lives. This is an urgent but undeveloped part of higher education, I think, because there are so many of us for whom granular, historically-situated and technically-specific knowledge — technics — is either anxiogenic, professionally irrelevant, or both.

In truth, universities have been here before: In 1986, Cuban’s Teachers and Machines  observed that humanists were quick to incorporate technological trends into their classes, but that the technologies themselves had almost no impact on curricula over time. Obviously, we no longer have that luxury: If universities are to survive the diffusion of knowledge, authority, and method beyond our campuses, we are well-served to recognize that thinking-with and –through digital networks and ubiquitous computation is likely very different from thinking through the alphabet. In the same way we once mastered the trappings of literacy — indices and tables of contents; galley proofs; cut-and-paste revision; tables of data — we are called now to begin to master these new technologies.

Counterintuitively, perhaps, our on-going critical engagement with new literacies need not necessarily be impossibly dull: In fact, it should never be. See “5 Instances of Serious Play: Classroom Interventions”, below.

And while there is often some levity in it, none of this is frivolous, or non-serious. To the contrary, all of it is probably more calculated than I care to admit. It speaks to my conviction, with the philosopher Greg Ulmer, that one of the tasks of the contemporary humanities is to create digital methods that sit outside the Republic‘s constraint of classical literacy. It is also informed by the work of Brian Sutton-Smith, who concluded that whatever else it may be, play is an engine of adaptive potentiation: It is an evolutionary mechanism. It is the basis of survival.

But bricolage, play, and a role for the university in helping Americans to care for their data-selves are all roughly unified, I think, by the one body of thought that has mattered more to me than any other: Anglo-American Neo-Pragmatism. The passion of John Dewey for schools as instruments for the diffusion of cosmopolitanism and civic solidarity, and the erudition (and accessibility) with which Rorty managed to offer a way past Platonism, helping us to identify ways in which the American experiment offer useful models of solidarity for the future.

In particular, I believe that the work of Richard Rorty has had greater impact on me than the work of any other single thinker. While Rorty was not interested in pedagogy, per se, he was deeply invested in the role of schools in the life of a democracy, a passion he inherited from John Dewey.

Both of these men are philosophers who were typically ignored by the institutionalized philosophers of their day. Indeed, Dewey remains outside of the main thrust of contemporary philosophy, and Rorty spent some of his professional life as a professor of Comparative Literature at UVa. Their outsider status served them well, I think, as both labored to help expand our habits of thought. 

For the sake of brevity, here are some of the principles I have adopted from Pragmatism and Neo-Pragmatism, together with an explanation as to why they matter in my classroom.