Last Wednesday I participated in a panel discussion on the subject of teaching large lecture courses sponsored by NYU’s Center for Teaching Excellence. My co-panelists were Jim Matthews, who teaches psychology, and Daniel Stein, who teaches physics. Jim set forth a series of generally applicable principles of good lecturing; Dan spoke about the special challenges facing the lecturer in science and, in particular, physics; and I spoke about my approach to lecturing in a humanities classroom.

As a way of preparing for the session, I dug out a “Statement of Teaching Philosophy” that I had occasion to write five years ago and then revise two years ago. I was pleased to see that I still agreed with most of what I wrote. Here’s how it began:

My goals as a teacher have always been to make my students understand why I feel passionate about literary study and scholarship, to help them explore the contours of the discipline and its modes of thinking, and to awaken within them a sense of the pleasures and rewards of intellectual life.

What I want my undergraduate students to take away from my courses is not so much the memory of any particular text or piece of analysis, but rather a fuller appreciation for the value and, indeed, the joys of the life of the mind. I want them to realize why reading and thinking about literature should become an abiding part of their lives, and I want to give them the tools that will make their future reading experiences rich and rewarding, in college and beyond.

In my graduate teaching, I have sought to instill a professional approach to literary study, while also making my students understand that their training should help them engage more fully with the world, rather than remove them from it. Above all, I want my graduate students to understand the power and responsibilities that they themselves will have as teachers.

[If you’re so inclined, you can download a PDF (98KB) of the entire statement here.] I realized, however, that one word that has become crucial both to my scholarship and my pedagogy was nowhere to be found in the statement: cosmopolitanism.

So I’m planning to update that statement in the near future. It’ll address the pedagogical implications of recent theories of cosmopolitanism. I’m interested in the ways that cosmopolitanism has emerged as an alternative not simply to nationalism but also to the kind of universalism that reduces all people to some common denominator in order make generalizations about humanity. As I keep saying to whatever audiences are willing to listen: for the universalist, difference is a problem to be overcome; for the cosmopolitan thinker, however, difference is an opportunity to be embraced. Cosmopolitan theory stresses the importance of being willing to engage in meaningful conversations across boundaries of identity and of disciplinary thinking. One concept from recent cosmopolitan theory has provento be particularly useful in a classroom setting: “fallibilism,” the idea that we need to listen to others and to be willing to have our minds changed because we are all fallible.

Announcing at the outset of the class that you subscribe to a doctrine of fallibilism at once establishes your authority and sets productive limits on it — and helps you save face if you happen to make a gaffe during lecture!