Shannon Dea: By All Means, Teach!
Shannon Dea, Department of Philosophy
Written by Fahd Munir, Special Projects (Teaching Stories), CTE.
For Dr. Shannon Dea, the essence of good teaching is giving students space to learn. In her philosophy courses, such as “Philosophy 202: Gender Issues,” Dea facilitates class discussions, believing that many aspects of philosophy can be learned through vigorous debate. Dea also hopes to design philosophy classes so that students whose first language is not English do not feel at a disadvantage. She elaborates, “Teachers should recognize the diversity of learners and design the course around it.” Dea uses transformative teaching moments to support student learning.
One of those transformative moments was her recent trip to Nanjing, China to teach Western philosophy to international students. In China, Dea rediscovered how effective in-class group work is, especially since most of her students found it difficult to find a time to discuss topics outside of class. Group work provided international students with an opportunity to openly debate topics within the discipline, while at the same time allowing them to speak in their first language. One of Dea’s former students, Ananya Chattoraj, affirmed this approach, saying, “She includes group activities to bring together a collaborative community of philosophers.”
Learning, according to Dea, is a form of labour and should feel to some extent like a struggle. In order to facilitate this struggle with her students in China, Dea assigned fewer and shorter readings, and designated class time to converse about short passages from the assigned readings. In her Gender Issues course she has incorporated an “à la carte” assessment method, where students determine the method of earning their grades and then work individually or in groups to complete creative tasks such as blogs, sculptures, and plays. Dea believes that this assessment method allows students to develop intellectual autonomy and study strategies.
Dea aims to reduce student stress about grades, and explains that the process of earning participation marks should be transparent to students. This is especially true when a language barrier is present, so Dea has incorporated participation grades in the form of “Phil Bucks.” The Phil Bucks are awarded to students for every constructive comment that they make in class. Students can earn one Phil Buck per class with a total of 10 Phil Bucks needed to achieve full participation credit in class. Fostering class participation via Phil Bucks, in conjunction with having students use name tags, has also helped the students get to know one another, which leverages social learning.
Traditionally, the concept of teaching philosophy has emphasized reading or writing, but Dea argues that philosophy extends to thinking critically and challenging social norms by asking good questions. Reading and writing are simply one of numerous ways to achieve the learning outcomes; there is no need to give international students arbitrary challenges that may be historical accidents of our Western educational systems.
In order to help achieve the learning outcomes, students are encouraged to share their personal experiences in dealing with different cultures. Students can then complete follow-up assignments to solidify their understanding, such as comparing Western and Eastern philosophers. For Ananya Chattoraj this approach "has encouraged me to take creative risks with topics that I would have otherwise felt uncomfortable with.”
Dea advises any instructor hoping to teach internationally to be well prepared. She emphasizes that “International teaching provides us with a real incentive and opportunity to focus on our intended learning outcomes, to make sure they are the appropriate learning outcomes for that course, and then to plan our courses around those learning outcomes.”
Graduate student Nathan Haydon believes that Dea’s international experiences allow her to foster a unique learning atmosphere, stating, “Shannon clearly wants students to succeed and makes a point to give students the freedom and responsibility necessary to develop the skills to do so: structuring courses so that students can pursue their own interests and research goals, even sometimes giving them a say in selecting the readings.” In short, Dea believes that teaching international students should take a teleological approach; that is, it should be focused on achieving learning outcomes, not on the traditional means of achieving those learning outcomes.
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CTE has developed more than 100 Teaching Tips. Each one is a succinct document that conveys useful ideas and practical methods for effective teaching. Some of the Teaching Tips that are relevant to the strategies mentioned in this Teaching Story include the following: