Reflections on Pedagogy and Philosophy

by Julius Vaitkevicius, Nanjing University

The workshop on Philosophy and Pedagogy at Kunshan Duke University provided a valuable opportunity for educators around the world to discuss and share insights gained in teaching philosophies in cross-cultural environments. The theme of the workshop focused on the notion that philosophy could be taught not only as a bare conceptual discourse but as a way of life, a way that has therapeutic and psychological benefits on those who pursue philosophical studies. More specifically, teaching ancient Chinese Philosophies could help international students to adapt toliving in Chinese culture and facilitate in overcoming cross-cultural boundaries as well as learn how to deal with daily personal issues and challenges. But what pedagogical approaches could or should be taken to apply the philosophical pedagogy in practice? Participants had to admit that nobody would claim to have a ready-made answer to this question. There are certain theories, methods, strategies, and techniques, but it is up to the educator to decide which of the approaches would be the most appropriate and effective in a particular academic setting.

I have been teaching for several years Chinese PhilosophyatNanjing University. My experience teaching at the Institute for International Students offers me an excellentopportunity to acquire experience in cross-cultural competency and to commit philosophical experiments in humanities. In some courses of Chinese Philosophy students were native speakers from more than ten different languages (Chinese, French, German, Korean, Malay, Persian, Pashtu, Russian, Urdu, Lithuanian and more). I had also experienced this kind of cross-cultural setting from “inside,” because I spent five years in the same Institute when I was still a student, first studying Chinese language and later pursuing Chinese Philosophy MA degree.

Being a strong proponent of Pierre Hadot’s idea of reviving ancient philosophy as a way of life, I have been attempting to look for new ways how those elements of “life” could be brought into an academicsetting. I believe that the best philosophy class is to a large extent psychotherapeutic and Chinese Philosophy per seis rich in therapeutic resources. That does not mean that students could exchange philosophy classes for visits to a psychotherapist. Philosophy classes teach values, ways of thinking and provide meaning that psychotherapy alone may not necessarily contain. Here are some of the ideas and techniques that worked well in those cross-cultural settings and which helped classes to become more successful. These ideas were also useful in adding to conceptual discursive philosophy course so needed dimension of connectedness to “life.”

(1) An instructor can model classes after the Confucian way of teaching. There are many elements in Confucius (who is considered in China the “first teacher”) teaching that could be modernized and embedded into academic class. For example, Confucius teaching was based on community and was always student oriented. The first practical step in making the class more of community-like is to change the physical structure of the classroom. Ideally, I found classes could be even taken outside in the air, in a Chinese style park, a Suzhou’s garden, sitting inside of a pavilion. If in a regular classroom, instead of having desks aligned in rowsit is recommended to put chairs in a circle where a teacher would not stand on a platform in front of the audience can sit together with students as equal. The physical change usually would instantaneously save the class from becoming a teacher-centered monologue, and turn it into a Confucian or Socratic kind of dialogue between students and teacher, and the teacher as one of the interlocutors may also act as a guide or a moderator.

(2) At least half of the class time could be devoted to seminar type of teaching. An instructor can deliver the seminars in the form ofgroup discussions where hebecomes an active listener and students’ point of view matters in the overall formation of the class discourse. That gives an opportunity to the instructor, modeling after Confucius, to getto know everyone individually and later enables to transform the lecture’s narrative more in tune with students’ minds. Group discussions reinforce a stronger sense of community and havea therapeutic function by itself. It is also important that the teacher makes sure that groups are made of students from different regions and language groupsso that enough variety would allow them to have a chance to practice their cross-cultural competency.

(3) Traditionally Chinese people believed in heart thinking, which in modern psychological terms we can compare to emotional intelligence. Brain and behavioral scientist Daniel Goleman introduced the term in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ <(Bantam, 1995). The American philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum discusses the subject in her Upheavals of thought: the intelligence of emotions<(Cambridge 2003). Besides these two prominent scholars, it is worth of mentioning the Institute of HeartMath that has been researching  for almost 30 years on the role of the heart  and positive core emotions in human cognition, perception, and performance. They published some of their findings in The HeartMath Solution: The Institute of HeartMath’s Revolutionary Program for Engaging the Power of the Heart’s Intelligence (HarperCollins, 2011). These and other recent research into neuro-cardiology and emotions show that emotional intelligence plays an important role in cognition and probably is a determining factor in one’s success in life. Classics of Chinese Philosophy is abundant in accumulated knowledge on the emotional and the intuitional which an is essential in the configuration of human nature. Deep positive emotions also work as a strong connecting bridge among diverse cultures and have a n immediate appeal. An educator can introduce students into “emotional intelligence” and Chinese thinking through the heart, then train them how to apply this kind of intelligence when reading and discussing classics. Emotional intelligence becomes one more facilitating factor that makes academic philosophy class more of philosophy as a way of life.

(4) Among the lines of “emotional intelligence” and philosophy as a way of life (that includes ways of self-improvement or self-cultivation),it is important to let students become aware that not only their intellect and “smartness,”but their emotions, feelings, imagination as well as intuition are important. Students can be given assignments to commit experiments of the philosophy of life where certain ideas read in classics could be applied on a daily basis while making notes in observation diaries. In these experiments, it is important to pay attention not only to discursive rational thoughts but also to one’s inner feelings, images, and other perceptions. For instance, the opening line of Analects mentions one’s ability of not getting upset and annoyed at situations when other people do not understand us (Analects 1.1: 人不知而不愠不亦君子乎). A student could commit to a 1-2 week experiment where he would try to notice similar emotionally upsetting situations that would usually cause an automatic reaction and write down his observations. A hypothesis that we try to test here would be that gradually through observation and awareness based on Confucius teaching one would learn to respond differently in those situations. And eventually, through committing to the practice consistently for a certain period, this would bring into student’s life a new quality. Consequently, students through similar practice assignments would get deeper involved in the course and would gain a more profound understanding of the applicability of philosophy as a way of life.

(5) An instructor can implement a course with various activities that train integrating emotional intelligence into the curriculum. For example, I found “mood thermometer” especially useful type of activity. I introduce the idea of “mood thermometer” by comparing with subjective pain measurements in medicine. Patients who experience pain are recommended to self-measure the pain on the scale from one to ten where one means no pain at all, and ten is the maximum unbearable pain. When pain is self-measured, it is easier to control and bear it, besides the process of measuring brings awareness that pain is not constant but all the time fluctuates. Similarly, it is possible to measure one’s overall mood – how does one currently feel on the mental, emotional and physical levels. The students are asked to self-measure their overall mood at the beginning of the class and then in the end or after a certain activity. The change in mood might be an important indicator of the direction of our thought. This “mood thermometer” itself often serves as a source of new philosophical insights into life as well as helps students to get more engaged in the subject of the course.

(6) It is important consistently and systematically to demonstrate that many of the ideasof Chinese Philosophy are highly applicable in life. Even such seemingly simple opening sentence of Analectsmentioned earlier can have several ways of practical application. Intellectually trained students are especially used to approach all ideas in texts rather discursively and analytically without having any consciousness or skill in how to apply the idea found in text towards one’s life situations. In this way, a classcould be a laboratoryof humanities where one could practice applying philosophical ideas in life, first in a closed circle of a communityof classmates and later in other communities outside of the class.

(7) Confucius emphasized a lot the importance of music and poetry for the education. At times it seemed that for Confucius one’s ability to comprehend the classical poetry was an indication of high levels of self-cultivation. However, in an academic setting where intellectual discourse is a dominant way of communication, it is quite difficult to let students comprehend the significance of music and poetry in Confucianism. We can describe the difficulty in the formula: “yes, we get it, but we do not feel it.”The solution came through cooperation with the students in a new form of experiment in humanities. Every student through the course had to recite a piece of poetry in his nativetongue (for almost all of them English was second or third learned language) that most of the other students did not know. Then the whole class was trying to activate emotional intelligence by listening to the poetry recited in a languagethey did not comprehend. Surprisingly, almost every time, when a student is allowed to use his native tongue and when everyone is listening attentively, even though intellectually listeners do not understand a word from the poem, by focusing on the sound, rhythm, tone and other nonverbal clues they could enjoy the listening experience and achieve a deeper level connectedness among each other. More than that, the group, by sharing the images and emotions they experienced while listening to the recited poem, usually was able to recreate a narrative close to the meaning of the poem. That was a good example of emotional intelligence in action. It was also a good method not only to understandbut also experience why Confucius was giving so much importance to music and poetry in education.

Summary of Practical Recommendations

(1) Look for ways of transforming the class into a learning environment that would resemble Confucian community. Start from physically restructuring the auditoriuminto one or multiple circles of chairs or desks. When possible take the class outside in nature.

(2) Make group discussion and team-work an integral part of the course curriculum.

(3) Inspire students to use other types of intelligence than IQ. Emotional intelligence (EQ) could be a good start.

(4) Design course around the practical experiments of philosophy with observation diaries where observer’s subjective states (insights, feelings, senses, imagination, intuition, etc.) would be not less important than intellectualdiscourse.

(5) Use “mood thermometer” as an indicator and feedbackfor maintaining class dynamics and flow.

(6) Teach and learn ideas with an attitude of looking for an immediate application in life.

(7) Create opportunities for everyone to contribute and express their own particular culture through music or poetry (or other types of activities). Look for possibilities to integrate everyone’s unique features into the philosophy being studied.

These are some of the insights and strategies that were quite efficient in teaching Chinese Philosophy in a cross-cultural environment, particularly at Nanjing University. A lot of them I discovered through trial and error, not always specific tactics were successful, and often what worked successfully in one course for a particular group of students, may fail in another one for a different group of students. That’s why Confucius’s dynamic context-based and individually oriented way of teaching is an essential guide in these continually changing learning environments. Philosophy and Pedagogy WorkshopatKunshan Duke University was conducivefor me to gain more clarity in education and to consolidate my accumulated pedagogical experience. It also provided a broader theoretical framework that helped me to understand why and how specific educational tactics may be useful in teaching.

I want to express my gratitude to Professor James Miller for creating this opportunity, as well as to my discussion group members for sharing their insights and ideas as well as providing feedback: Andrew Irvine, Timothy Smith, and Emmanuelle Chiocca. Emmanuelle’s research in Transformative Learning (Mezirow 1978, 1991 and 2000), especially the theory of phases of Transformative Learning was a helpful theoretical framework where I could situate my practical experiments in teaching Chinese Philosophy. Andrew’s ability to listen and comprehend ideas of others by giving useful insights was high up to Confucian Junzi standards. Timothy’s efforts to synthesize and summarize all different points made the group work smooth and efficient. I believe that this workshop could be transformed into a longer-termproject of focused researches on teaching philosophy as a way of life in cross-cultural environments.