Reblogged from: Wesconnect News. (Go to the original post…)
By Keren Alshanetsky ’17
Every year at Commencement, Wesleyan recognizes outstanding teaching with three Binswanger Prizes for Excellence in Teaching. These prizes, made possible by gifts from the family of the late Frank G. Binswanger Sr. Hon. ’85, underscore Wesleyan’s commitment to its scholar-teachers, who are responsible for the university’s distinctive approach to liberal arts education.
Recommendations are solicited from alumni of the last 10 graduating classes, as well as current juniors, seniors, and graduate students. Recipients are chosen by a selection committee of faculty and members of the Alumni Association Executive Committee.
Wesconnect caught up with former Binswanger Prize recipients to discuss their teaching careers and what it means to be recognized for their work.
WESCONNECT: Which professors have had an impact on you? How did that influence your teaching?
STEVE ANGLE: Two teachers from my undergraduate years at Yale stand out for the way they shaped me as a teacher. The first was Jonathan Spence, whose massively popular “Introduction to Modern Chinese History” course sparked my interest in China. It was not that course, though, that influenced my teaching: Wesleyan does not have 400-student history lectures! Rather, what I remember most was a seminar I took with Professor Spence during my sophomore year. His combination of warmth and intellectual seriousness was inspiring. Gone was the distant, semi-mythic figure performing each lecture up on a stage; now I could see that he cared about each one of us, challenging us to grow as students and as people. Although it is only as a result of this interview that I have fully realized it, Professor Spence long ago modeled for me what a teacher should be.
The teacher who really made an impact one me, I now see, was Yu Ying-shih, also an eminent historian. It was Professor Yu who first taught me about the fascinating world of Confucian philosophy. What was most important to me about his teaching was not its content nor his personality, though: it was the way that China and Chinese were present in our classroom. His lecture notes were in Chinese, despite the fact that he lectured in fluent English. Even when his topic was ancient history, the contested relevance of that history to modern-day China and Taiwan lurked in the background, peaking out here and there. Perhaps that is part of the reason that I ended up studying philosophy in graduate school, rather than history. It is certainly related to my own effort to make connections for my students between the abstract ideas we study together, and contemporary realities like the revival of Confucianism in contemporary China.
WC: What have been the pivotal moments of your teaching career at Wesleyan?
SA: I can think of several key developments, but what they all have in common is a desire to experiment with pedagogy and some willingness to take risks. One of the highlights of my “Classical Chinese Philosophy” course is the debate we hold half-way through the semester, with students representing three different schools of thought. The first time I did this, it was a last-minute decision made while walking to class. How could I effectively review what we’d been doing in an en engaging way, making sure every student in the room took an active part? And so was born the debate. (It does work even better, admittedly, when students have had time to prepare.)
A second innovation came as part of a First-Year Seminar, “Philosophy as a Way of Life.” All of the philosophers we read in that class clearly thought of their teachings as appropriately having effects on their readers, but how to honor that intention in a 21st-century classroom? The result was a final project in which each student chose one of our authors and endeavored to live his teachings for five days. The essays the students wrote we fascinating syntheses of personal and philosophical reflections, and in many cases, it seemed that the lessons learned went well beyond the class. I have since added similar exercises to several of my other classes.
Most recently, I have been able to make good on a long-standing desire and teach a class in Chinese, with Chinese readings and Chinese discussion, combining advanced learners and native speakers in the same classroom. This “Lab” class, loosely associated with my English-language “Classical Chinese Philosophy” class, has been a demanding but extremely rewarding experience. For many of the native speakers, it is an opportunity to express themselves with a depth and fluidity that is difficult in an English-language philosophy class; for the learners, it is a challenge like few others they have experienced—but also a terrific opportunity to learn philosophy and to stretch themselves as students of Chinese.
WC: How has your research evolved over the years? What are you working on right now?
SA: I am writing this from a high-speed train on my way back to Beijing, where I am spending a year’s sabbatical. Yesterday I had the remarkable experience of lecturing in Chinese, on the topic of “Confucian democracy,” at the ancient Songyang Academy, birthplace of Neo-Confucianism. A little less than 1000 years ago, great philosophers like Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi taught at this same academy, no doubt appreciating the shade of the same tree I sat beneath (I was told it is estimated to be 4500 years old!). I am excited about what I am learning from Chinese colleagues about the possibilities for Confucianism, and more broadly for Chinese culture, in the years ahead. I hope to continue to be able to break down boundaries between the U.S. and China and between Chinese-language philosophizing and English-language philosophizing. And I look forward to bringing this all back to Wesleyan starting in the fall of 2017.
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