By Zhixian Zhang*
As one of the student partners of the Center for Teaching and Learning, Duke Kunshan University, I interviewed Owen Flanagan, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy at Duke, in May 2022 about his teaching philosophy. When I went to Duke as an exchange student this spring, I was deeply inspired by his World Philosophy course. This course not only offers a gateway for students to critically engage with diverse philosophical traditions but also creates an inclusive, caring community where students could blossom and explore actively. Therefore, I am eager to share Prof. Flanagan’s teaching story from a student perspective.
Create an Inclusive Classroom
When reading the assigned book “Republic” during class (Plato, 2013), I was impressed by the scene: a group of students sitting under a big tree, asking many questions spontaneously, and their teacher Socrates answering their questions. This is not like teaching in a traditional setting; rather, it is a thought-provoking conversation among different souls. I was fortunate to experience a similar scene in Prof. Flanagan’s class with such an inclusive and engaging atmosphere. No matter how ignorant students’ questions appeared to be, Prof. Flanagan always managed to answer them patiently while keeping the conversation relevant. I wondered how he struck a balance between delivering meaningful lectures and maintaining adequate interactions.
To respond, Prof. Flanagan first pointed out that the foremost task in teaching is to stick to the syllabus and cover all the important content. That is to say, do not let a good conversation slow down the schedule. Apart from that, he regarded it essential to clarify questions for students. “Never in my life I’ve heard a dumb question.” He claimed, “Philosophy can be confusing, and things you take for granted can be difficult for others to understand.” Prof. Flanagan usually pauses at the end of a speech so that students will have more time to ponder the topic and raise questions. But it also brought out a problem: two students in our class were always in a competition of throwing quick questions and trying to be the smartest. To foster a culture of intellectual interaction where everyone has an opportunity to join, Prof. Flanagan sometimes chose to ignore them when he saw the two hands in the air. Still, he gave them chances to talk most of the time and welcomed further discussions with them after class.
Meanwhile, to keep the whole class engaged, he observes students’ faces, and he asks students questions directly if they seem to be deep in thought. If a student does not give a perfect answer, he won’t see it as a mistake and will simply complement more. A signal of invitation was the best encouragement for me to overcome shyness and speak up; as a result, it deepened my understanding of the class content. Researchers (Cashin, 2011) also support and explain the value of an open-ended discussion, which urges students to process information rather than simply receive it, as it gets students to practice thinking about the course material actively. Moreover, Prof. Flanagan sometimes asks students questions based on their interests and specialized fields, which is also a great way to stimulate students to think thoroughly as well as make them feel valued and supported.
Foster Diversity in Course Design
In addition to inclusiveness, Prof. Flanagan also paid great attention to ensuring diversity in the course. While treating all individuals fairly and respectfully, he further recognized students’ diversity in aspects of knowledge, cultural background, and so on. To accommodate it, he included the formation and decolonization of neglected philosophies like African philosophy in the syllabus. “The problem is, the world is too diverse to give all the traditions worth attending to attention.” He stated with regret. For instance, since lots of African philosophies are in oral form instead of in written texts, it is hard to deliver unified, clear representations of them. Still, he believed there is a lot of insight in every single world philosophy tradition, and they deserved to be discovered and learned.
By adopting diversifying course materials, Prof. Flanagan is able to bring more equal classroom dynamics and show perspectives from a wider range of backgrounds (n.d.). For instance, he allowed students to write and present any topic they liked for the final paper. In addition to giving students chances to pursue their passion, it also heartened them to explore overlooked branches and share those precious, unique cultures with others. For instance, I got to investigate Zhuangzi’s attitudes toward death for the final project, and I gained applause and discussions with classmates after my presentation in class. Therefore, I believe that diversity cultivates an open mind in students.
Encourage Students’ Autonomy
One thing about Prof. Flanagan’s syllabus has always intrigued me, which is that there is no length requirement or specific prompts for weekly posts on reading materials. In other words, as long as students hand in the homework on time, even if they only write one paragraph, they could get a full score on this section. Initially, I thought it only encouraged students to goof off, yet it had the opposite effect as everyone took the weekly posts seriously and submitted them in time. Prof. Flanagan explained his motives for designing homework in this way.
Though some teachers tend to shove information into students, Prof. Flanagan thought that students should learn actively, and the best way to keep them active is to make them act as if they were chatting with the author of the reading material in the same room. Through supporting, refuting, and offering reasons for their argument, students’ minds can be stimulated and promote their participation in the class. Furthermore, feedback provided by Prof. Flanagan and our teaching assistant on the weekly post can help us revise and modify mistakes. Setting a deadline with a penalty is to make sure that students spend time on the post and prepare for the class, while no word or content limit means that students can act according to their self-interests. In this case, students tend to have more intrinsic motivation and dare to deliver genuine, thought-provoking ideas. Prof. Flanagan shared that students might gather the courage to criticize authorities such as Confucius and Plato in such a freeform assignment. Sometimes, he asked if students were willing to share their posts with others before class since they were provocative and inspiring, but he also respected them if they wanted to keep their ideas to themselves.
Independent learning by students also works as a feedback loop to improve teaching. While students act with autonomy and present their ideas frankly, Prof. Flanagan also adjusted his teaching moves accordingly. He found it very helpful to read students’ comments before class to learn about the advantages and deficiencies in their thinking. If he noticed that students were siding the same view, he would provide an alternative. When students were confused about one concept, he offered a more detailed clarification in class. Research also indicated that the teaching strategy of high autonomy attends to students’ different learning needs and requires students to take responsibility for their workflow, enabling them to demonstrate their learning in various ways (n.d.).
Prof. Flanagan traveled to China and taught at DKU in 2018, so he is familiar with DKU’s liberal arts and global educational system. Hence, he emphasizes that inclusive and discussion-based teaching and learning are even more critical at DKU. He also suggests not assigning too many reading materials making courses focused and manageable, and giving students more time to think and ask questions.
Although there is a saying from Confucius “I am a transmitter, not an innovator,” Prof. Flanagan believes that teaching requires a teacher to take on both roles. Even being a teacher, keeping attaining knowledge and being curious are still indispensable for imparting wisdom to pupils. The old texts may come alive and be connected with new situations in real life.
Cashin, W. E. (2011). Effective classroom discussions. IDEA Paper number 49.
Plato. (2013). Republic. Harvard University Press. (Original work published 375 C.E.)
Active Learning. (n.d.). Bokcenter.harvard.edu.
About the Author
*Zhixian Zhang is a senior student from Fujian province, majoring in media and arts creative practice track. She plans to pursue media & communication, education, creative writing, and digital media in her graduate study. She is interested in using various learning technologies such as multimedia to facilitate teaching and learning.