November 04, 2008

The beliefs that we have about the world determine the decisions that we make

HOME November I 2008: Number 545 College Links Q&A: Dr. Levi Bryant
Editor's Note: Over the next several issues, Cougar News will talk with the four nominees for Collin College's Professor of the Year award. The winner will be announced at the January All College Day.
Dr. Levi Bryant, Professor of Philosophy

What is your teaching philosophy?
My fundamental conviction is that it is categorically impossible for anyone to learn if they do not have a desire to learn. When we look at the development of young children, we discern that their learning always develops along the contours of desires borne of the unique world and circumstances they inhabit.

For example, one child might develop a spectacular capacity for language due to the desire to speak to others and improve their circumstances, while another might develop the capacity for building and engineering out of a desire to make what they do not have. Yet another might develop a terrific sense of humor out of a desire to amuse other people. In each instance, the region of the world that illuminates itself or is noticed by the infant is a function of desire, not the result of a simple transfer of information. Put otherwise, what counts as information for a child is already a function of interest or desire and where there is no interest or desire, there is only, for the child, noise or something that might as well not exist.

I believe this simple observation has profound pedagogical consequences. If it is true that learning is a function of desire, then the first principle of teaching cannot be the simple exchange of information between educator and student, but rather the production of desire or wonder on the part of the student. Just as a person who is not hungry will not eat, the person who lacks wonder or desire is incapable of learning.

Thought is not an ordinary capacity of human beings, but is rather something that only occurs when we face a problem, failed routine, or something extra-ordinary. For the most part, we relate to the world in terms of habit and familiarity. For example, we completely lose a sense of what we're doing while driving long distances, and only become aware of what we're doing when another car comes too close or when we have to get off at a particular exit. Prior to any exchange at information, effective pedagogy should thus aim at a problematization of the world, transforming what is familiar and "obvious" into something that is mysterious and worthy of questioning.

Through this defamiliarization a sense of wonder and desire is produced that renders the student open to learning. I strive to produce such a transformation in my students through drawing on a mixture of paradox, humor, anecdote, references to history, popular culture and science that seeks to shift what seems obvious and self-apparent into something that is mysterious and capable of producing thought.

What is most rewarding about your job?
For me the most rewarding moment of teaching occurs when a student moves from a state of apathy, lacking any interest in the world around them, to a state where they are lit up with curiosity, developing a ferocious appetite to know and understand, becoming filled with questions and beginning to engage in the happy labor of gathering material that might provide them with answers.

There is something about this bloom of curiosity that is infectious and like the very essence of life or vitality itself. Like all infections, the infection of curiosity is contagious and helps to spur my own passion for teaching and learning and that hopefully helps to spur a passion for learning among others the student relates encounters. I like to think that the world would be a better place if more people were curious and that most of the most horrible things that take place in the world are the result of a lack of curiosity or the belief that certain things are self-evident or obvious. I thus take great satisfaction and comfort that I might have played a role in catalyzing such curiosity.

What challenges do you face and how do you overcome them?
I suppose the biggest challenge I face is how to balance time. In addition to teaching, I do a great deal of research, publishing and presenting. I am also involved in the college in a variety of ways. It is difficult to find enough hours in the day to balance all of these activities. However, were I not to engage in these activities I fear that I would lose my freshness in the classroom and my sense of satisfaction with life. I consequently have to budget my time very carefully to ensure that I am able to fulfill all of my responsibilities.

Was there a moment during your own education that you revisit or maybe draw inspiration from?
I often think back to the first time I read (Rene) Descartes' Discourse on Method in high school. Prior to that, I did very poorly in mathematics. However, after reading this book I suddenly understood what mathematics is and why it is important. What Descartes explained that no textbook or teacher had before explained was why mathematics is unique and important. It led me to see how mathematics is the basic structure of time and space.

The lesson I draw from this is that where teaching is concerned it is not simply the "whats" that are important, but the "whys" as well. If a student doesn't understand that calculus is the language of things undergoing continuous variation and how this connects to the world, it's likely that the student will find it difficult to get much out of calculus.

Likewise, if the student doesn't understand what was going on historically, scientifically, and politically during the Enlightenment and how these issues persist today, it is difficult for the student to get very worked up by the questions of epistemology or knowledge that characterize the philosophies of this time period.

Philosophy is a discipline with many different areas of study interest. Which interests you more? Is there an area that maybe you aren't necessarily an "expert" in, but interests you more so than others?
I am primarily interested in questions of metaphysics, epistemology and social and political philosophy. As I understand it, there is a deep link between how we understand the world and what we do in the world. The beliefs that we have about the world determine the decisions that we make and consequently the way in which we will act. Our actions, of course, affect other people. Consequently, what we believe is an ethical issue as well insofar as our beliefs will impact others through our actions.

For example, if I believe global warming is a hoax or has nothing to do with humans, I will have no reservations about voting a particular way or buying particular types of cars, etc. While I might refer to this belief as my "private, personal opinion," it directly impacts those around me if it happens to be wrong.

I am interested in metaphysics because the manner in which we understand the fundamental nature of reality has a decisive impact on how we relate to the world and investigate the world. I am interested in epistemology because the manner in which we understand knowledge, how we arrive at knowledge, and the nature of truth has an impact on what claims we entertain, who we perceive as being credible, and how we go about investigating (or not investigating) the world. I am interested in questions of social and political philosophy because I desire a more just, free, and compassionate world and believe that it is possible to contribute to the production of such a world by becoming clear about the nature of the social, why people so often seem to desire their own oppression or desire things against their own interest (as Plato describes in his famous allegory of the cave), and by making alternative ways of living available to public discourse.

Often we see the social world as having to obviously exist in a particular way and various forms of social organization as being "natural." Social and political thought renders other alternatives available that might be more just, harmonious, and satisfying, as can be observed in the case of the Enlightenment thinkers who showed how something other than monarchy was possible in the form of democracy. I see the questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and social and political thought as being inter-related.

If you weren't a professor, what would you be doing right now?
I have wanted to be a professor since I was roughly 15 years old, so I haven't really considered other possibilities. However, I suppose that were I to pursue another career it would lie in the domain of non-governmental organizations. I would enjoy organizing people and contributing to making the world a better place. Whatever other career I pursued it would involve a life of service to others and not simply personal gain. Difference and Givenness by Levi Bryant: Eurospan Bookstore Feel Philosophy: Difference and Givenness by Levi R. Bryant Difference and Givenness: Deleuze's Transcendental ...


Grundlegung A philosophy blog “Oh no, I’ve become a human being.” November 3, 2008
Infinite Thought on an all-too-familiar experience as a philosophy teacher:

I think that what we think is teaching is not teaching at all but an intricate form of pointless crowd-control for crowds who don’t even need controlling, and that the resentment that students have is the general kind of resentment you get when you think that someone should know better than you but it turns out that they don’t and that they’re just as crap as you are, if not more crap, which is probably likely in the case of philosophy lecturers especially.

The rest of the post is here.